Artibus et Historiae no. 62 (XXXI)2010, ISSN 0391-9064
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JOANNA WOLAŃSKA - The Designs of Józef Mehoffer for the Armenian Cathedral in Lvov (1907–1913): Circumstances, Sources of Inspiration and Execution
During the episcopal rule of Archbishop Józef Teodorowicz, in the years 1902–1938, and on his initiative, the Armenian cathedral in Lvov, a church dating back to the fourteenth century, underwent a complex restoration and refurbishment. As an outcome, all previous historical layers that had accumulated in the building over the centuries had been thoroughly removed, so that its ‘original’ Armenian features could be revealed. Additionally, some arbitrary, new, allegedly Armenian elements had been introduced to the cathedral building, e.g. the blind arcading on the external walls of the apses, designed by Jan Bołoz Antoniewicz, modelled on a similar decoration on the façades of the cathedral in Ani, the former Armenian capital. This decoration was clearly meant to emphasise the Armenian pedigree of the building, and thus to underscore the ethnic uniqueness and singularity of the then already well-assimilated Armenian population of Lvov, present in the city for many centuries.
In the years 1908–1910 the building was extended to the west, according to the plans of Franciszek Mączyński, whereas still in 1907 Józef Mehoffer had prepared designs for its mural decoration, of which only mosaics in the dome were executed in 1912–1913. Mehoffer’s design was, however, a complex one, and encompassed the decoration of all surfaces of walls and vaults of the cathedral’s old part. The artist, according to the explicit wishes of the Archbishop, closely adhered to old-Armenian models — above all, the miniatures of the Skevra Gospels (also known as the ‘Gospels of Lvov’), a twelfth-century Armenian illuminated manuscript held at that time in the cathedral treasury. Additionally, again in agreement with the Archbishop, Mehoffer travelled to the library of the Mekhitharists (Armenian monks) in their monastery on the Venetian island of San Lazzaro to see and copy miniatures from their rich holdings of illuminated manuscripts, as well as to Venice and Ravenna to learn the art of the mosaics. The design of 1907 and the mosaics executed five years later were precisely the result of those experiences.
Other artists employed later at the decoration of the cathedral, whose projects had not been executed, also resorted to the old-Armenian miniatures. The preserved documents show that the Archbishop consciously wanted to revive the Armenian spirit in the cathedral by turning to old-Armenian art, and wished that modern artists created pieces of contemporary art using medieval miniatures as a source of inspiration.
A detailed examination of all three undertakings (apse decoration, architectural features of the extension, as well as Mehoffer’s design for the interior decoration) leave no doubts that, although the renovation of the cathedral was necessary because the building was in a poor state of repair, the renovation and decoration were aimed principally at its re-Armenisation, that is, at restoring the church’s original Armenian character that had been lost over the centuries of the influence of Western culture.