Architecture and sculpture

The inventiveness of Armenian architecture is apparent in its use of stone cutting, mostly in tufa. Building traditions were derived from the pre-Christian era, as in the kingdom of Urartu, known through excavations. More recently the site of Garni, near modern Erevan, with its Greco-Roman temple and other monuments of the first or second century ce, also provided precedents for monumental building in stone. The late sixth to early seventh centuries ce saw the first phase of Christian architecture. An example of an early basilica is that of the ruined church known as Dsiranavor of Ashtarak, dated to 548-57 near Erevan, and probably founded by Catholicos Nerses II (548-57). It had three aisles - functioning as the nave and two side aisles - and four bays, as well as the apse, which was approached through a horseshoe-shaped arch, with two flanking side rooms, all contained within the rectangular outer walls. The surviving arch-springing bears witness to the fact that the nave and side aisles were vaulted. Stone was used for the vaulting, in place of the wood used for the flat roofing in Syria, and the brick used in Byzantium. Entry was gained to the church from its south façade. The carefully cut tufa stone slabs, put into place without mortar, were strengthened and consolidated with the use of a concrete-like core. Resistance to earthquakes was maintained by the balancing of the size of slabs, with larger slabs generally being reserved for cornering. Decorative effect was achieved by using various coloured stone as well as by sculptured friezes around windows and doors. The stone facing gives buildings a sheer, compact, aesthetic, which often belies the complexity of the interior.

Another inventive feature is the development of the dome. By the fifth century Armenian architects were applying themselves to the task of building a dome over a rectangular space. The church at Ptghni in the sixth century shows how this was achieved: with the use of massive piers, linked by arches on which the cupola was raised using pendentives, one of which is still preserved. Elsewhere, such as at the cathedral at Mren in the first half of the seventh century, the solution was to place the octagonal drum, ribbed internally and with four windows, over the central part of the nave with the weight spreading through the arches to four barrel vaults.

Much architectural experimentation took place during the sixth and seventh centuries, during which churches were built according to myriad plans. The Church of St Hrip'sime at Vagharshapat, built in 618 on the site of the original martyrium dedicated to her by Catholicos Komitas, is a good example of a centrally planned church with domes. Its plan shows that internally it is formed as a quatrefoil, with three-quarter circle niches at the four corners where the apses intersect. These in turn link with four rectangular rooms at the outer edges so as to form a rectangle. But the main walls of the building do not appear straightforwardly rectangular on the exterior. Instead, the walls are interrupted by two niches on each side marking the four interior apses. The church is completed by the cylindrical dome which is supported by squinches and strengthened with ribs and decorated with circles. This church was influential in Armenia and early imitations of it are found in Georgia.

A related church is that of the cathedral of Zvart'nots, built by Catholicos Nerses III between 641 and 653 and dedicated to the Angels of Heaven. While only the lower courses of the walls are preserved today, the church can be reconstructed. It was a quatrefoil in plan, contained within a circular ambulatory. It can be envisaged as having a solid, eastern, main apse and an ambo in the central space. A rectangular chancel was appended to the circle on the east side. The cupola was supported by pen-dentives on arches linking four massive piers between the arms of the quatrefoils. Its sculptural remains points to an originally highly decorated form. The find of fragments of mosaic cubes inside the building shows that it was decorated with mosaic work. This church in its turn provided the prototype for other buildings in Armenia, including the Church of St Gregory at Ani built by Gagik I in the eleventh century, and elsewhere in the Caucasus, in both Armenia and Georgia.

Later Armenian architecture develops the themes of the experimental period of the sixth to seventh centuries. However, one feature that appeared later was the porch (gavit), which was often attached to the longitudinal side of a church. Appearing particularly in monasteries during the twelfth to fourteenth centuries, the gavit was used as a meeting hall and the burial site of abbots and feudal lords who had made large gifts to the monastery. An example is the Church of the Redeemer at the Monastery of Sanahin on to which the square structure of the gavit was added in 1181, comprising four columns joined by semicircular arches supporting a dome. It is linked to the main church through a door on the east side, although it is itself entered through the north side. Another was built at the same monastery in 1211 in front of the Church of the Virgin. Another architectural development was the addition of the free-standing bell tower in the thirteenth century. An example is the three-storied bell tower at the Monastery of Haghbat, built in 1245.

Several of these and other churches were decorated with sculpture, its position dictated by the architecture; it often framed windows or portals, or rested on capitals, or formed friezes, or was put in particular places on exterior walls. Sculpture also appears in funerary and commemorative contexts. A tradition of stone carving had already existed in the pagan monuments in pre-Christian Armenia and the extensive architectural use of stone lent itself to carving. The designs used in Armenian sculpture range widely from figurative capitals to ornamental motifs including vines, palmettes, rosettes and interwoven circles. Architectural examples include those at the sixth century church at Ptgni where, preserved on the south façade, there are panels of Christ, with the Apostles and donors. At the top of the arch over the window is a medallion containing Christ, supported by flying angels, with busts of Apostles on either side. Beyond, at the arch return on either side, figures are carved. On the west side is a horseman named by inscription as Manual, lord of the Amatuni who shoots at a lioness. Opposite, on the east side, is a hunting scene showing a man approaching a lion with a spear. These reflect the royal hunting iconography of the former Sasanian Empire and are common in mortuary chapels. The lion motif is continued on the west side of the façade, just below the arch where with the scene of Daniel in the lion's den, that familiar image of early Christian art, was inset. The hunting image is returned to at the church of the White Virgin (Spitakovar) built in 1321 near Areni on the estate of the powerful Proshian family. Here Amir Hasan, the son of the founder, is shown on horseback turning behind him to shoot at a doe in panels removed from the north façade of the church and now in the Historical Museum at Erevan. The emir is shown again, this time under the gable of the façade standing next to his father, Eatchi Proshian, the founder of the church, who appears seated. But here the garments he wears are characteristic of Islamic art and he has Mongol facial features.

A particularly well preserved example of the lively use of architectural sculpture is that preserved at the Church of the Holy Cross on the island of Aght'amar, in the southern part of Lake Van. A portrait of the donor, King Gagik Ardsruni, Prince of

Vaspurakan, appears on the west façade of the church carrying a model of his church which he dedicates to Christ (Figure 19.4). Built by the architect Manuel between 915 and 921, alongside a palace, gardens and orchards, its plan is similar to that of the Church of St Hrip'sime already mentioned, but it has only two rectangular chapels at the east end. Under the conical roof of the dome and of the hemicycles and niches are friezes with animals, with human heads interspersed. On each of the façades under the gables is a standing Evangelist. On the upper part of the walls are vine-scrolls containing humans and animals. Below are animals and birds with, below them, rows of figurative scenes completed at the base with a palmette scroll. On the east façade saints and prophets are carved. On the north and south façades are Old Testament scenes including David and Goliath, with Saul added to the scene, with figures of Christ and the Virgin and Child enthroned. The windows of the church are also articulated with sculpture.

Typical of Armenian art are the stone crosses, or khatchk'ars, dating to between the ninth and eighteenth centuries, whose purpose is to commemorate the person whose name is often inscribed on the stone in the form of a prayer for the salvation of their soul. The khatchk'ar represents the Tree of Life, a meaning that is literally depicted in the sprouting foliage and fruit of the crosses. An example of a khatchk'ar is that of Aputayli (Figure 19.5) dating to 1225 from the Noraduz cemetery at Sewan; it was donated to the British Museum by His Holness Vazgen I, Catholicos of All Armenians in 1978. The inscription on the left edge seeks God's mercy for Aputayli. The front face of the rectangular slab has a leaved-cross with two smaller crosses below. The crosses are framed with a trefoil above from which bunches of grapes project on either side, and is banded with interlace panels. A band of interlocking circles with palmettes above complete the decoration at the top. Later khatchk'ars reflect the stylistic features of their times. That carved in 1308 by Momik, the architect and sculptor of the church at Areni, is lace-like in its delicacy, showing at the top the trio of the Deesis group, with Christ in the centre flanked by the intercessionary figures of the Virgin on his right and St John on the left, with a large cross below, above an ornamented circle and ornament in quatrefoils down both sides. A final point to be made is that the stepped cross which is found on some khatchk'ars is the same as that tooled on Armenian, as well as Syriac, book bindings.

Also commemorative are the stelae or stone slabs which were set up in memory of abbots and members of the feudal families. They are found in necropolises or near to churches. Some, obelisk in shape, are raised on a cubic base. They are often carved with figurative scenes in panels on two or three of their sides. At Odzun a pair of these seventh-century standing stones are set under arches on a platform reached by seven steps. Among the figures shown are the Virgin and Child at the top of the north stele and the Apostles, in pairs, on the west face of the southern stele. Other scenes include the Hebrews in the fiery furnace. There are taller stele, now mostly incomplete, which are cubic, flaring slightly at the top, and usually decorated on all four faces. Their square bases are decorated with figures or crosses. The stele at Haridj, for example, shows Christ blessing and the Virgin and Child on different faces, and Daniel in the lion's den at the base.

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