Geghard Monastery: Ancient Guardian of the Lance that Stabbed Jesus?
According to the Gospel of John, Jesus was stabbed in his side by a lance whilst hanging from the cross. As a result, this weapon is believed to possess supernatural powers and it became an important and much sought after Christian relic. Over the centuries, a number of churches have claimed to possess this sacred object. One such claimant is the Geghard Monastery, or Geghardavank (meaning ‘Monastery of the Spear’).
The Foundation of Geghard Monastery
The Geghard Monastery is located in Kotayk, a province in the center of Armenia. Situated at the head of the Azat Valley, the monastery is surrounded by towering cliffs. In fact, part of the monastery is carved out of the adjacent mountain. According to tradition, the Geghard Monastery was founded in the 4th century AD by St. Gregory the Illuminator. The site where St. Gregory chose to build the monastery was a spring arising in a cave that was regarded as sacred prior to the arrival of Christianity. Thus, the Geghard Monastery was known in earlier times as Ayvirank (meaning ‘Monastery of the Cave’)
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Detail of the famous cave inside the Geghard Monastery, Photo by Arabsalam. 2010, Armenia. ( Wikimedia Commons )
Rebuilding the Monastery
Nothing remains of this first monastery, as it was destroyed in the 9th century AD by the Arabs. At the end of Muslim rule in Armenia, however, the monastery was re-established. The most ancient part of the present monastery is the Chapel of St. Gregory the Illuminator. The earliest inscription on its external wall has been dated to 1177 AD. This small chapel is located to the east outside of the main monastery complex. Carved directly into the rock of the mountainside, this project was abandoned before it was completed. By the first half of the 13th century, another building project was underway, thanks to the patronage of the brothers Zakare and Ivane, who were generals of the Georgian Queen Tamar .
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"The Baptism of the Armenian People. Gregory the Illuminator" by Ivan Aivazovsky, 1892. ( Wikimedia Commons )
Under the two generals, the Kathoghikè (the main church) was built. According to an inscription, this church was built in 1215. Prior to 1250, the first cave church was also built.
Not long after, the monastery was bought by the princes of the Proshyan dynasty. Under the patronage of this Armenian noble family, the monastery was further developed. Over a short period of time, a second cave church, a hall for gathering and studies, as well as numerous monastic cells were also built. Furthermore, the family sepulchre of the Proshyan dynasty can also be found in the monastery. This is indicated by their coat of arms – two chained lions, between which is an eagle with half-spread wings, whose claws grasp a calf, carved in the rock.
Chapel at Khor Virap, Armenia. Inside there's a cave where Gregory the Illuminator was imprisoned for about 13 years, Photo by Heretiq, 2005. ( Wikimedia Commons )
It was also during the 13th century that the monastery gained its present name. When the monastery was re-established, it was first given the name ‘Monastery of the Seven Churches’. It was also known as the ‘Monastery of the Forty Altars’. In time, however, the name of the monastery was changed to Geghard Monastery. This was due to a legend, which claimed that the lance that pierced the side of Jesus was brought to Armenia by the St. Jude the Apostle, known also as Thaddeus, and was stored in the monastery.
Christian Relics Linked to the Unique Armenian Monastery
In addition to this lance, the monastery was said to have housed a number of other Christian relics, including relics of the Apostles Andrew and John. It was these relics, the Holy Lance above all, which drew pilgrims to the Geghard Monastery. In the following centuries, numerous grants of land, money, manuscripts and other valuables were donated to the monastery. The internal walls of the Kathoghikè provide many inscriptions recording the donations made by pilgrims.
Fresco by Fra Angelico, Dominican monastery at San Marco, Florence, showing the lance piercing the side of Jesus on the cross (c. 1440) ( en.wikipedia.org)
The lance currently in Echmiadzin, Armenia. It was discovered during the First Crusade in St. Peter's Cathedral in Antioch. Photo by Emanuele Iannone - Museum of Echmiadzin, Armenia. 2009. ( en.wikipedia.org)
As of today, the Holy Spear can no longer be seen in the Geghard Monastery, as it is now resides in the museum of the Echmiadzin Monastery in the spiritual capital of the country. It is held in a special case of gilded silver made in 1687. Nevertheless, Geghard Monastery is still a popular tourist destination for local and foreign visitors alike. The site was even inscribed as a World Heritage Site in 2000, a testament to its importance in the history of Armenia and the world.
And Now You Can Visit Geghard Monastery Virtually
Geghard Monastery also became accessible to worldwide pilgrims and others interested in the site in 2017. That’s when the monastery joined several other archaeological sites in the country in the 360GreatArmenia VR app and website. The project has the goal of “making virtual tours available from anywhere.”
A report on the project on Smithsonian.com explains what you can see if you check out the 360 degree virtual experience: “The resulting stitched images, taken both by drones and photographers on the ground, allow viewers to switch from aerial to street views, navigate through interiors and view relics and historical art.”
Featured image: Wide view of Geghard monastery from within the monastic walls. Photo by Serouj Ourishian. 2011. ( en.wikipedia.org)
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Available at: http://www.atb.am/en/armenia/sights/christ/geghard/
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Available at: http://www.atlasobscura.com/places/monastery-of-geghard
UNESCO, 2015. Monastery of Geghard and the Upper Azat Valley. [Online]
Available at: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/960
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Available at: http://www.armeniapedia.org/index.php?title=Geghard_Monastery
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Available at: http://www.lonelyplanet.com/armenia/geghard-monastery