It so happened that in the history of the Armenian Church, khachkars (cross-stones) and relics of saints were generally considered holy and miraculous. The Armenians have also had a special place for texts of illuminated manuscripts decorated by famous miniaturists.
Armenians rarely worship icons. But there is an exception to the rule – the “Seven Sorrows” icon of the Mother of God from the Holy Mother of God Cathedral in Gyumri.
This Gyumri icon is one of the most unique relics of the Armenian Church. It reflects one of the main ideas of medieval theology – the motif of the spiritual sorrows of the Mother of God due to the past and impending sufferings of Jesus. The spiritual fathers of the Apostolic Church united these sorrows into the sacred number seven – hence the name of the icon “Seven Sorrows”.
Most scholars associate the seven sorrows with the emotional experiences of the Virgin Mary, ranging from the prophecy of Simeon to the burial of Jesus, although some theologians tend to believe that they are connected with the seven words (the English translation has more words) uttered by Jesus on the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
According to a popular tradition, the author of the icon is Jesus’s disciple Apostle Luke. Even if this is what really happened, the icon is merely a copy. This was confirmed by a group of art historians led by Professor M. Ghazaryan.
With a thorough study of the canonical composition, its drawing technique, and color scheme characteristic of a particular art school, scientists concluded that the image was created in the 18th century in an art workshop in New Jugha (Persia) or Armenia by an unknown author. The image, most likely, was copied from the icon of the Mother of God “Seven Sorrows” owned by Archimandrite Isaiah.
Initially, the genuine icon was kept in the Mother of God Church in the Khasankal fortress, Basen district, Ayrarat province. According to a legend, the icon was delivered by Grigor Magistros himself – an Armenian philosopher of the Christian-Hellenistic direction.
In 1832, after the conclusion of the Turkmenchay and Adrianople treaties when the first wave of migration from Western Armenia to Eastern began, the head of Basen’s Mother of God Church Archimandrite Poghos Dzhanlatyan with a large group of immigrants settled in the village of Marmashen, Shirak Province. He had church utensils with him, including the icon “Seven Sorrows.”
The reason for the establishment of a shrine in Marmashen could be the fact that at that time, there were no large, comfortable churches in Gyumri.
Meanwhile, Archbishop Stepan along with refugees from Kars had settled in another large spiritual center of Shirak, the Harich Church, back in 1830. They quickly restored the church and centered the spiritual life of the whole Shirak province around it.
Using his role of a hegemon and arguing that Marmashen was located too close to the border and was inhabited by socially vulnerable migrants (who made up a significant part of the local congregation), Archbishop Stepan ensured the transfer of the “Seven Sorrows” icon from Marmashen to Harich. This happened despite the mass unrest and the three-day resistance of the people of Marmashen and Gyumri.
The Harich bishop was guided, of course, not by spiritual impulses but only material gain – he perfectly realized that the miraculous icon would draw thousands of pilgrims from all over Shirak along with generous donations.
According to some sources, with the appearance of the icon in the Harich Church, the role of the temple would increase significantly. Notably, the icon was revered as a shrine and visited by Yezidis, Kurds, Turks, and Caucasian Tatars (Azerbaijanis) every Sunday with generous donations. These peoples called the shrine “Maryam-Ana” (Maryam is the name of Virgin Mary in Islam).
The miraculous relic would remain in Harich until November 1851. The Holy Synod of Etchmiadzin sent a letter to the rectors of Harich with an order to temporarily transfer the icon to the primate of the Armenian Church, as the seriously ill Catholicos Nerses V wished to touch it. According to another version, the relic was taken to Etchmiadzin to accompany prayer for the salvation of nearby areas from drought.
However, both of these versions most likely served to conceal the true goal pursued by the Apostolic Church.
In the 1850s, five Russian Orthodox, one Greek Orthodox, and one Catholic churches and communities were active in Alexandropol (now Gyumri), the administrative center of Shirak Province. Due to political circumstances, the role of these churches could increase.
In order to emphasize and assert the leading role of the Armenian Apostolic Church, it was necessary to move the spiritual center of Shirak from Harich to Alexandropol. This was to be accompanied by the building of new churches with holy relics, which would bring believers from all over the province together. “Seven Sorrows” was one of the relics intended for this.
However, the Synod was worried that the unexpected transfer of the icon from Harich might cause a new wave of protests and discontent among the population – similar to what happened after the icon was removed from Marmashen. It was necessary to find a plausible reason for its “temporary” transfer to Etchmiadzin and then, when the passions subside, transport it to the Alexandropol Church.
The Catholicos’s illness and drought in Etchmiadzin served as a weighty and justified reason for the icon’s transfer to Etchmiadzin. The intentions of the Catholicos were already foreseen in the part of the Synod’s letter which states that after the icon is returned from Etchmiadzin, it should be “temporarily” kept in the Holy Mother of God Church of Alexandropol.
The icon remained in Etchmiadzin for about a year. When the people of Alexandropol noticed that Etchmiadzin was in no hurry to return the icon, they gathered an impressive delegation, arrived at the throne of the Armenian Church, took the relic, and brought it back to Shirak.
According to some sources, the icon was initially kept in a church built in 1859–1864 with the funds of the Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary bequeathed by Kagraman Argutyan. And although this was the only well-equipped stone Armenian church at that time, both the townspeople and church representatives who did not favor the Argutyan family disliked this arrangement.
Therefore, in 1870, the church was renamed the Church of the Holy Sign. Nearby, on the site of an old 17th-century wooden chapel, the construction of a new Holy Mother of God Church was launched specifically to store the icon.
In 1881, even before the completion of the construction of the new church, “Seven Sorrows” found its final refuge in it. The relic from that moment would serve not only spiritual but also educational and medical purposes.
The donations collected thanks to the relic allowed for the maintenance of the Alexandropol Theological School since 1858, the Harich Theological Seminary since 1860, the Argutyan Women’s School at the Holy Mother of God Church since 1913, and the Khrimyan School at the Church of St. Gregory the Illuminator since 1906.
In 1910, funds raised during a procession with the icon were used to combat the outbreak of cholera in the vicinity of Alexandropol.
Throughout its “life”, the icon has changed six monasteries, each of which would be renamed the Church of Holy Mother of God in its honor. Although the icon is most likely an example of folk art, does not meet the canonical criteria of icon painting, and does not have great artistic value, it has been and to this day remains a miraculous relic for the nation, a symbol of faith, and the main shrine of Gyumri.
Historian Naira Hakobyan