By Artsvi Bakhchinyan, Yerevan. 1 December 2023
Many authors, from numerous countries, have written about the Armenian island of Venice – San Lazzaro (Saint Lazare) in their writings. The case of Lord Byron is well-know. Yet many few people know that famous French novelist George Sand (1804-1876) also visited San Lazzaro in 1834 and wrote about the Mékhitaristes in her “Letters of a Traveler.”
“…..We arrived at the island of Saint Lazare, where we had a visit to make to the Armenian monks. Brother Hiéronyme [Harutiun Avgerian (1774-1854) – A. B.] with his long white beard topped by a black moustache, and his figure so beautiful and gentle at first glance, came to receive us, and his indefatigable indulgence of monastic vanity took us from the printing house to the library, and from the physics room to the garden. He showed us his mummies, his Arabic manuscripts, the book printed in twenty-four languages under his Egyptian papyri and Chinese paintings. He spoke Spanish with Beppa, Italian with the doctor, German and English with the abbot, French with me, and whenever we complimented him on his immense knowledge, his eyes, full of that mixture of hypocrisy and ingenuity which is peculiar to oriental physiognomies, seemed to say to us: If it were not to be humble, I’d show you that I know a lot more.
“You’re French,” he said, “do you know the Abbot de La Mennais? I’d love to meet someone who does. – Certainly, I know him very well,” I replied cheekily, curious to know what people thought of the Abbot de La Mennais in Armenia. – Well, when you see him,” said the monk, “tell him that his book…. He paused, casting a wary glance at the abbot, and finished his sentence, begun perhaps for another purpose: tell him that his last book caused us a great deal of grief. – Ah!” said the abbot, who, though only Venetian, nonetheless had the penetration of a Greek, “do you know, my brother, that M. de La Mennais is a man of immense pride, and who imagines he owes an account of his opinions to the whole of Europe? do you know that he is quite capable of regarding your convent as an imperceptible fraction of his audience?” (George Sand, Lettre d’un voyageur. III. Le Couvent des Arméniens à Venise, l’Ennemi du Pape, l’île de Torcello, Revue des Deux Mondes – 1834 – tome 3, pp. 716-717).
This passage refers to the writer and philosopher Félicité La Mennais (1782-1854). What is most interesting here is George Sand’s expression that St. Lazare was like Armenia (“curious to know what people thought of Abbot de La Mennais in Armenia”).
After George Sand addresses her wishes to the Mekhitarists:
“Stay at peace, my brothers, and let the Pope settle his quarrels himself. The thunderbolts of Rome are extinguished, and the fire of anger burns in vain in the bowels of the men of God. Their anathema is no more than a sound that the wind plays with like the foam of roaring waves. The heresiarch is no longer forced to take refuge in the mountains, and wear out the soles of his feet fleeing the vengeance of the church. Faith has become what Jesus wanted it to be: a hope offered to free souls, not a yoke imposed by the powerful and rich of the earth. Remain at peace, my brothers; God does not espouse papal quarrels.
You fools, who want to reconcile them, you don’t know the harm you’d do to the Church if you were to stifle this rebellious voice! You don’t know that the Pope is very happy and proud to have an enemy; what he wouldn’t give to have two! to have another Luther lead the crowd towards his footsteps! But the world is now indifferent to theological debates; it reads the heretic’s pleas, because they are sublime; it does not read the Pope’s judgments, because they are Catholic and nothing more. Read them, my brothers, since the pope imposes them on you; but pray softly for the pope’s enemy.
You’ve worked hard enough, you’ve suffered enough in this world, old remnants of the oldest people on earth! Your white beards are still stained with the blood of your brothers, and the snow of Mount Ararat has been reddened to the very summit where the holy ark stopped. The Turkish scimitar has shaved your heads to the bone, and the infidel has bathed his ankle in the tears of Japhet’s last children. The mistrust that sometimes creases your serene brows is the stamp left by persecution. But rest assured, my brothers, that there is a long way to go from the power of a Roman pope to that of the smallest Turkish cadi in an Armenian village. Rest in peace, and be sure that the Pope prays for his enemy, lest God take him away.
The deluge of blood has ceased, your ark has touched these fertile shores, do not leave your happy island. Cultivate your flowers and gather your fruit. See! your grapes are already blushing, and the grapevines laden with bunches are bending over the waves like a tip on a weary day. Everything here is the color of roses, the laurels, the marble, the sky and the waves. Every morning you greet the sun as it emerges from the mountains of your homeland, and drink in its rays the dew of your native peaks. What do you want to worry your peaceful souls about? Teach the orphans of your brothers the language spoken by the first men, and above all tell them the story of your slavery, so that they may keep the freedom you have so dearly paid for. But don’t tell them about the Pope’s enemy – it’s useless, alas! When they grow up, the church will be pacified.
Rest in peace, my brothers, for God has put his bow back into the clouds. From the unknown world beyond your island, a messenger has come to you. You took him for the dove, so beautiful was his voice and so candid his appearance. But the Pope tells you that the dove is a crow. Say as he does, O son of Noah the prudent! But if the pope’s enemy, battered by some storm, returns someday to sit in the shelter of your fig trees, pass very gently behind the foliage, O good fathers! and bend towards him the beautiful fruit with the torn mantle. The swallows of the Adriatic won’t tell Rome. If he enters your chapel, let him bend his vast brow before your Madonna. It was a Turk who painted it, and yet it is quite beautiful and quite Christian. Perhaps she will hear the heresiarch’s prayer. But if she converts him to the Roman Church, be careful not to boast of the miracle performed by you, Brother Hieronymus, who commissioned the Muslim brush to paint the holy image, and who would like to suppress the terrible word of the believer; it is you who, on pain of excommunication, would be forced to declare yourself the enemy of the Pope” (George Sand, Ibid, pp. 722-723).
Thus, another valuable reference of an eminent European writer about the Armenians…
Photo: Eugene Delacroix, Portrait of George Sand, 1834 (the year when she visited San Lazzaro)