The Holy Savior Cathedral Vank (Armenian: Սուրբ Ամենափրկիչ Վանք – Surb Amenaprkich Vank; ), also known the Church of the Saintly Sisters, is a cathedral located in the New Julfa district of Isfahan, Iran. It is commonly referred to as the Vank (Վանք; وانک), which means “monastery” or “convent” in the Armenian language.
The most memorable church in Julfa, the vank (in Armenian, the general word monastery Church Vank is also referred to as the Cathedral of All Saviors. It is the most important architectural and artistic treasure of the Armenian Christians in Isfahan. The construction of the cathedral Vank began during the reign of Shah Abbas II. However, only several years after its completion, Vank was rebuilt, and this time the process lasted for nine years.
A tilework plaque inscribed in Armenian can be seen by the entrance to the cathedral Vank. Inside is nicely decorated showing a mixture of Islamic and Christian style. Inside the courtyard, there is the belfry and can see the dome of the cathedral which the interior is painted in Persian style with very elegant blue and gold. The walls are painted of European inspirations showing scenes of martyrdom, notably of Saint Gregory. The construction is believed to have begun in 1606 by the first arrivals and completed with major alterations to design between 1655 and 1664 under the supervision of Archbishop David. The cathedral consists of a domed sanctuary, much like an Iranian mosque, but with the significant addition of a semi-octagonal apse and raised chancel usually seen in western churches. The cathedral’s exteriors are in relatively modern brickwork and are exceptionally plain compared to its elaborately decorated interior.
The Armenian community provided the building expenses, while the interior paintings were accomplished with the financial assistance of Khajeh Avadich Stepanusian. All of the paintings are the work of Armenian craftsmen, who learnt their craft in Europe and were obviously influenced by Dutch and Italian masters. The dados of the church’s inner walls are covered with rich ceramics dating from 1710-1716. Inside and outside the church, there are also many inscriptions that invite the readers to pray for the constructor of the church and his descendants. The portal inscription is in Armenian and contains the name of Shah Abbas II and the dates of 1104 and 1113 of the Armenian calendar (1692 and 1701 A.D.) as the dates of the commencement and completion of the church.
The interior is covered with fine frescos and gilded carvings and includes a wainscot of rich tile work. The delicately blue and gold painted central dome depicts the Biblical story of the creation of the world and man’s expulsion from Eden. Pendentives throughout the church are painted with a distinctly Armenian motif of a cherub’s head surrounded by folded wings. The ceiling above the entrance is painted with delicate floral motifs in the style of Persian miniature. Two sections, or bands, of murals run around the interior walls: the top section depicts events from the life of Jesus, while the bottom section depicts tortures inflicted upon Armenian martyrs by the Ottoman Empire.
The freestanding square belfry is located in front of the entrance to the building. There is also a graveyard occupying a part of the church’s courtyard. Among the most important persons buried here are Archbishop Khachatur Gesaratsi, the founder of the first Iranian printing-house, and Archbishop David, the founder of the present structure of the Yank Church. There are also the graves of Sir George Malcolm, an English colonel, Alexander Decover, Russian consul and director of the Imperial Russian Bank in Iran, and Andrew Jukes, English doctor and a representative of the East Indian Company in 1804. The grounds surrounding the Vank Church also comprise a museum, a library, and an administrative section.
The museum of Armenian culture is the building next to the cathedral. The museum displays 700 handwritten books, the first book printed in Iran, a variety of objects related to the Armenian community in Isfahan such as Safavid costumes, tapestries, European paintings brought back by Armenian merchants, embroidery, and other ethnological displays related to Armenian culture and religion. There are several carved stones showing scenes from the Bible outside the museum.
The two-story building of the museum houses antiquities, relating mainly to the history and religion of the Armenians in Julfa. The museum’s collection contains more than 700 richly illuminated manuscripts, among them ancient Gospels (the earliest dating from the 9th century) and Korans, as well as the first book that was printed in Iran. Other objects include wooden crosses, tabernacles, monstrances and other sacred receptacles, and paintings bought in Europe by Armenian merchants. Just behind the entrance to the hall, the visitor can read under a microscope a passage from the Proverbs that is written on a hair. To the right of the entrance is an interesting collection of royal orders issued by the Safavid kings.