Santa Croce degli Armeni or Holy Cross Armenian Church is the national church of the Armenian community in Venice situated in Calle degli Armeni. For the first time it houses a public exhibition in the framework of La Biennale di Venezia.
The documented presence of Armenians in Venice extends into the distant past, dating almost to the origins of the city. By the 12th century, this presence in Venice intensified, as the city became a key port for trade with Europe. The Armenians, mostly merchants, became one of the Venetian Republic’s wealthiest foreign communities.
In 1253 Venetian nobleman Marco Ziani bequeathed a house belonging to him in the district of San Zulian to be used as a hospice for the local Armenian community. He entrusted administration of the property to the Procurators of San Marco de Citra, thus ensuring that management of the property would be in the hands of one of Venice’s most important public bodies.
In 1496 the community was given the permission to erect an altar and chapel dedicated to the Holy Cross in the same building. As reported by the Armenian voyager Simeon Lehatsi, who toured the Mediterranean in the years 1608-18, the Armenian Hospice and the Church of Santa Croce remained the heart of the Armenian community in Venice throughout the centuries. In his description of the church, he recounts that the structure included also rooms for guests, a refectory and a number of cells for the monks.
In 1682 a wealthy merchant from the powerful Mirman family was granted permission to expand the chapel into a full-fledged church with the addition of a small belfry. The church was radically remodeled by the architect Antonio Pastori and was opened in 1688. In 1740 the administration of the property was entrusted to the Mekhitarist Congregation of Armenian monks, based on the Island of San Lazzaro in the Venetian lagoon.
The Church has three altars, all of them bearing paintings by Venetian baroque artists. The central one is dedicated to the Holy Cross (painting by Andrea Celesti), the altar to the right is dedicated to the founder of the Armenian Church, Saint Gregory the Illuminator (painting by Gregorio Lazzarini), meanwhile the altar to the left is dedicated to the Assumption (painting by Andrea Celesti). The pictorial cycle decorating the ceiling, depicting the evangelists and scenes from the life of Christ are attributed to Alberto Calvetti.
The Church also houses the tombs of many of its notable benefactors and parsons. “He lived as a Lion, died as a Swan, will rise as a Phoenix” recites the inscription of Mirman’s tombstone.