After a long journey, including a stop at the Monastery of St. Gregory the Illuminator at the foot of Mt. Sebuh, an eminent scholar and his young protegee arrived in Jerusalem around 1373. Having already ordained him a deacon and giving him the new name of Krikor—Gregory—during the stop at the monastery dedicated to his namesake, the teacher, much to his student’s surprise, ordained the young Krikor a celibate priest in the Holy City of Jerusalem. Having taken the momentous pilgrimage together, the teacher and student remained together most of their lives. Indeed, the student refused to strike out on his own and establish his own monastic school until after his teacher’s death. Such was the devotion of the student to teacher.
Many of us probably know the name of the student, Gregory of Datev/Tatev, or Krikor Datevatsti. Until the canonization of those massacred during the Armenian Genocide of 1915 as holy martyrs in 2015, he was the most recently accepted saint of the Armenian Apostolic Church. His Book of Questions has had a resurgence of popularity, and he is rightly regarded as one of the foremost priests and theologians of the Armenian Apostolic Church. We may, however, be unfamiliar with his eminent teacher, Hovhannes Vorodnetsi—a clear shame given Krikor Datevatsi’s devotion to him. Teacher and student are often depicted together in the art of the Armenian Church, as above. They are remembered near each other in the litanies of remembrance sung by the deacons each Sunday, and they are commemorated together this Saturday, along with other exemplary Armenian vartabeds. Individually, the two priest-scholars are formidable sources for the Armenian Christian tradition and for Armenian thought more broadly. They give us the opportunity to delve further into a foundational source of the Armenian Church, the vartabed. Together, though, vartabed and student exemplify the remarkable source of inspiration and knowledge a teacher can be.
As we have described previously, the vartabed, sometimes called a “doctor of the church,” is a specific scholarly rank attainable by a celibate priest. Armenian Christianity ordains both married and unmarried priests. The unmarried priests who take a vow of celibacy were traditionally associated with a specific monastery and brotherhood. These apeghas (the first rank of a celibate priest) were monks of the highly developed Armenian monastic system. After ordination to the priesthood as an apegha, the celibate priest, through rigorous theological and scholarly training, could attain the rank of vartabed, which qualified him to teach. A higher rank of tsayrakuyn vartabed permitted one not only to teach, but to compose original pieces of theology, often commentaries on the books of the Bible. Vartabeds, as teachers and preachers, are one of the most venerable and important sources of spiritual nourishment. Indeed, the great vartabed Krikor Naregatsi describes the vartabed as the jaw in the body of Christ—responsible for making the Bible and the theological tradition of the Church digestible for the rest of the church, the body of Christ. Vartabeds, through their writings, have left lasting sources for Armenian thinking. And, as teachers in the monastic schools, vartabeds were sources of other vartabeds, creating a transmission of learning through the generations, exemplified by Hovhannes Vorodnetsi and Krikor Datevatsi.
Both teacher and student belong to a long line of notable vartabeds. Such a “lineage” is one of the most striking features of the monk-scholar of the Armenian Apostolic Church. In his Lawcode, a collection and explanation of Armenian canon law, the earlier Armenian vartabed Mkhitar Gosh insisted that a vartabed must be confirmed by two or preferably three other vartabeds. In other words, before a priest is trusted to teach (or later, to compose original theology), he must be examined by other vartabeds, even if his main teacher is as eminent a scholar as Hovhannes Vorodnetsi was. Indeed, the lineage of Gregory of Datev is as illustrious as they come: Hovhannes Vorodnetsi was one of the last students of Esayi Nchetsi at the monastery of Gladzor, so renowned for its learning and its sophisticated curriculum that it was called a “second Athens”—though the use of the term “university” to describe it is perhaps misleading. Nchetsi’s teacher, the abbot of Gladzor before him, was Nerses Mshetsi, who had studied in the famous monastery of Khor Virap with the polymath Vartan Areveltsi. Combined, this lineage of vartabeds produced some of the most sophisticated and influential sources in medieval Armenian thought!
|The Armenians in Jerusalem and the Holy Land||A collection of essays about Armenians in the Holy Land, including an essay by Dr. Sergio La Porta describing the pilgrimage to Jerusalem taken by Hovhannes Vorodnetsi and Krikor Datevatsi.|
|The lawcode [Datastanagirk’] of Mxit’ar Goš||Mkhitar Gosh’s definitive text on canon law, translated by Robert Thomson. It includes rules for vartabeds.|
|Armenian gospel iconography : the tradition of the Glajor Gospel||A beautiful book, dedicated entirely to the study of a single manuscript, the so-called “Gladzor Gospel” now at UCLA. The introduction describes the Gladzor Monastery where Hovhannes Vorodnetsi studied under Esayi Nchetsi.|
While other such lineages exist, including another remarkable set of scholars in the “academic genealogy” of Mkhitar Gosh, the relationship between Vorodnetsi and Datevatsi was clearly special. Krikor Datevatsi, born as Khutlushah in 1344 in the Vayots Dzor region, was raised further north in an area under the control of the Kingdom of Georgia. His mother was visited by St. Gregory the Illuminator in a vision, and had her young son dedicated to the Church. Most likely, he studied in Tblisi (Tiflis), a major center of Armenian learning at the time. There, he demonstrated an early brilliance and when the prominent scholar Hovhannes Vorodnetsi was in the city he sought him out to learn from him. As with many vartabeds of the time, it was the teacher, more than a specific monastery, that attracted the young student. Certain monasteries, such as Gladzor, attained an exalted status in their own right, but even Gladzor’s reputation rested largely on the two exceptional vartabeds mentioned above. Often, a vartabed would remain for a time at one monastery, perhaps the monastery of his education, but would later move, either establishing a new monastery or establishing a school at an existing one. Vorodnetsi left Gladzor after the death of Esayi Nchetsi and established his school at the already existing monastery of Datev.
In addition to the complicated political situation of the time—Vayots Dzor and Siunik were relatively independent Armenian principalities under Mongol domination, though during Vorodnetsi’s lifetime the Ilkhanid Mongol Empire would deteriorate and the area experienced increasing Timurid invasions—the Catholic Church had recently sent Dominican friars to Greater Armenia and won converts, known as the Unitor Brothers. The defense of traditional Armenian Christianity against Latin theology was a major factor in the lives of both Vorodnetsi and Datevatsi. It was most likely his work against Latin Christian incursions that had brought the elder vartabed to Tiflis where he met the promising young student Khutlushah around 1358.
From that point on, the future St. Gregory of Datev was a devoted student of Hovhannes Vorodnetsi. Around 1371 the vartabed asked the young student to accompany him on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Along the way, Khutlushah was ordained a deacon and given the name Krikor at Mt. Sebuh, where they likely stayed together at the monastery there for some time. Then, at the completion of their pilgrimage, Krikor Datevatsi was ordained an apegha in Jerusalem on Holy Thursday by his spiritual father. On their return, probably again near the monastery at Mt. Sebuh, Hovhannes Vorodnetsi elevated Krikor Datevatsi to the rank of vartabed, allowing him to teach but not yet to write his own compositions. Sometime thereafter, Vorodnetsi gathered a group of students at a monastery in Abrakunis, underwritten by another student of his, Maghakia Ghrimetsi. Located near a monastery of Catholic Unitor Armenians, teacher and student, now both vartabeds, led the monastery in the struggle against Latin Christian incursions. In 1385, Krikor Datevatsi obtained the rank of tsayrakuyn vartabed, allowing him not only to compose original works, but also to strike out on his own and establish his own school. Yet he did not do this until after his beloved teacher’s death in 1386. First, Datevatsi stayed in Abrakunis where he took over as head of the school, but eventually he went to the Monastery of Datev to run the school that had also been founded by his teacher.
Krikor Datevatsi authored some of the most famous sources in the Armenian Christian tradition. Perhaps his best-known in the Գիրք Հարցմանց/Kirk Hartsmants or Book of Questions. More than his other works, this text mirrors in form and style the Catholic Christian intellectual tradition that he and his teacher both debated and appropriated. It bears, in its form, some similarities to Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, though the genre of questions and answers has an Armenian antecedent in Vanagan Vartabed and in the works of his own teacher. Intended as an introductory text, it is neither as complete or as definitive as some contemporary readers would have it. Nonetheless, it is a brilliant and valuable theological primer that makes use of his opponents’ tools to prepare students better equipped to counter them. After the Book of Questions, his two-volumes of sermons—or perhaps better, prompts for sermons—divided in a Summer and a Winter volume are his next most well-known texts. Additionally, in the tradition of Gladzor where his teacher Hovhannes Vorodnetsi was educated, Datevatsi authored commentaries on philosophical texts, the first of which was completed in 1383. After these philosophical commentaries, he authored many Biblical commentaries, the first a commentary on the Book of Isaiah completed in 1384. All of the famous students’ texts bear the marks of his teacher and the style of education Hovhannes Vorodnetsi first learned at Gladzor and then further developed in his own monasteries. Vordonetsi’s works are not as well-known or as accessible at Krikor Datevatsi’s, but they include influential philosophical commentaries on Aristotle, Porphyry, and Philo of Alexandria as well as important exegetical works, such as commentaries on the Gospels of Matthew, of John, and on the Epistles of Paul.
Taken together, these two great vartabeds of the Armenian Church offer us a source of insight and inspiration beyond the already immense value of their individual texts. Individually, Hovhannes Vorodnetsi and Krikor Datevatsi provided some of the most influential sources of Armenian philosophy and theology. They developed the tradition of the monastery of Gladzor, and set additional parameters for the education of a vartabed, with Krikor Datevatsi codifying the fourteen “ranks” of vartabed that could be attained. Together, however, they demonstrate the love of a student for teacher and they offer us an image—an icon, as the depictions of them together make clear—of how, though a loving relationship with a mentor, not only texts or places, but people, are sources of both learning and inspiration. Whether we desire to attain deep philosophical knowledge or to live as moral, God-fearing Christians, we would to do well to meditate on the example of loving mentorship provided by Hovhannes Vorodnetsi and his student Krikor Datevatsi.
|Girk Hartsmants||Gregory of Datev’s justly famous Book of Questions, an introductory textbook of sorts. In Armenian at St. Nersess.|
|Amaran Hador||The Summer volume of Gregory of Datev’s so-called “Book of Sermons,” which provides sermon ideas for advanced students based on the liturgical calendar of the Armenian Apostolic Church. In Armenian, at St. Nersess.|
|Hovhan Orotnetsʿu pʿilisopʿayakan usmunkʿě||By G.H. Grigoryan, a study of the philosophical teachings of Hovhannes Vorotnetsi. In Armenian.|
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