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Domed Basilica and Domed Single Nave Church (Floor planes)

The Armenian fondness for vaulting and the dome soon resulted in the transformation of both the single hall church and three-aisled basilica (a form considered alien to Armenia) to a domed building in which the cupola served as the focal point.  By the late fifth or early sixth century the basilica of Tekor was modified by the addition of a dome over the central bay of the nave; in the first quarter of the next century the basilican cathedral of Dvin was also changed in this manner. Coterminously, perhaps starting as early as the fifth century at Zovuni, single aisle churches with a central dome resting on massive piers jutting out from the north and south walls were constructed (Ptghni, sixth century; Talish or Aruch', seventh century; and after the ninth century, Marmashen, Amberd, 1026, St. Mariam at Bjni and the church of Tigran Honents' at Ani.  In the seventh century, basilicas were built similar to Tekor with domes resting on four central, free-standing pillars: Odzun, Bagavan, Mren, Gayané, Talin, and the famous cathedral of Ani (989-1001).  At this stage, however, the term basilica no longer entirely fits the last group, for if we remove the eastern end with apse and side chambers of the churches of Mren and Gayané, we are left with a nearly square interior of nine bays, the central one bearing the dome. 

Central Plan (Floor planes)

Truly centrally planned domed churches of varying models were built during the sixth and seventh centuries and perhaps even as early as the late fifth century during the reconstruction of Etchmiadzin itself. At Agarak there is a tetraconch or quatrefoil church composed of four salient apses, joined without intervening walls, supporting a dome. Another series of well-known cruciform chapels and churches of small dimensions has an exterior plan in the shape of a Greek cross with arms of equal length forming an outside tetraconch (Mankanots', St. Sarkis at Bjni, and Tarkmanch'ats'), or with the same exterior and only one apse at the east end (Karmravor  and Lmbatavank'), or with an extended western arm and three interior apses forming a trefoil (St. Anania at Alaman and St. Mariam at Talin). 

Niche-buttressed Square (Floor planes)

Another variant of the quatrefoil, what Josef Strzygowski called the niche-buttressed square, has four apses protruding from the middle of each of the four walls of a square; the weight of the centrally placed dome is absorbed by these four protruding niches that buttress the walls. All such churches have a pair of chambers added to the sanctuary; one type has a dome resting on four free-standing pillars with pendentives (masonry corners in the shape of spherical triangles) which form a circular base as a transitional element for a cylindrical drum. The most famous examples are Etchmiadzin and Bagaran.  Another type features a dome that covers the entire interior and rests on an octagonal base and drum formed by the walls and four corner squinches (arches): Mastara, Artik, Voskepar, and the church of the Holy Apostles at Kars. 

Hrip'simé Type (Floor planes)

The most developed central plan and the one considered most uniquely Armenian (or Caucasian, since early examples are also found in Georgia) is the radiating or Hrip'simé type, which takes its name from the most famous example, the church of St. Hrip'simé built in 618 at Etchmiadzin. The oldest dated monument with this form, however, is the church at Avan (591-609) near Erevan, though some Italian scholars suggest that the church at Soradir east of Lake Van may be an even earlier sixth century prototype.  The basic plan of the Hrip'simé type is an interior tetraconch, that is interior apses joined to form a four leaf clover shape. At the intersection of these apses in each of the corners are deep circular niches (three-quarter cylinders), which, with the four apses themselves, create an octagonal base as a support for a high cylindrical drum. This in turn is crowned by the usual dome. Leading off the corner niches are four chambers, either circular in shape (Avan) or more usually square (Hrip'simé and Sisian). This very symmetrical plan allows a proportionally large interior space to be created, unhindered by columns or piers. Since, however, this complex inner space is enclosed in massive stone walls, the exterior of the building in Armenian architecture, often does not reflect the contour of the interior. The high drum supporting the dome is pierced by windows to admit light into the large central space; windows on other walls are relatively small. Each of the façades of Hrip'simé and Sisian are indented by pairs of deep triangular slits, which place in relief the otherwise hidden inner tetraconch. Only the exterior of Soradir (and the tenth century church of Aght'amar, which copies the Soradir plan minus the corner chambers) to some degree has an exterior that reflects the interior articulation. 

Circular Plan (Floor planes)

The ultimate design in the centralized plan is of course the perfectly circular church. In the seventh century, the aisled tetraconch of Zvart'nots' perfected the circular plan. The church is really thirty-two sided. Its domed quatrefoil interior reached some forty meters in height. The inner ground space, according to the most recent reconstruction of S. Mnats'akanian, was surrounded by a single tiered ambulatory with open passages leading into the center through an arcade formed of six columns on each of the north, west and south lobes of the tetraconch. This impressive building erected by Catholicos Nersés III between 641 and 653 had an overall diameter equal to its height.  Other circular churches of the seventh century include the octafoils of Zoravar and Irind. The plan of Zvart'nots'  itself was later imitated in both Georgia and Armenia, the best known example being a near replica of it in the eleventh century church Gagikashen at Ani, which like Zvart'nots'  itself is now destroyed. Among later circular plans is the church of St. Sargis at Khtzkonk'  and the hexafoils of the Shepherd's church and St. Gregory Abughamrents' at Ani. 

The Gavit' or Jamatun (Floor planes)

By the mid-seventh century Armenian architecture developed most of its basic forms. During the various architectural renaissances of the medieval period, these forms were imitated and elaborated. One exception was the newly developed narthex, called a gavit' or jamatun in Armenian. These special square halls were usually attached to the western entrance of churches. They were very popular in monastic complexes where they served as meeting rooms and vestibules. The twelfth to the fourteenth centuries was a period of great expansion of monasteries (in Armenian vank'), which in times of danger also housed neighboring villagers. Pairs of large intersecting arches, held up by four sturdy and squat columns, supported the roofs of jamatuns. Their intersection in the upper region of the hall created an open lantern for light and air. The walls were massive and contained few and small windows. Excellently preserved examples are found at Haghbat, Sanahin, Geghart, Goshavank', Magaravank' and Hovhannavank'. 

Contemporary Church Architecture (Floor planes)

Modern Armenian architecture, especially in church design, is extremely dependent on the ancient tradition. Most new buildings either consciously imitate the most famous monuments of the fourth to the seventh centuries, substituting contemporary constructional advances like reinforced and poured concrete for the traditional Armenian methods, or they combine features -- either tectonic or decorative -- from several old churches with results that are often a hybrid amalgam. Unfortunately, despite the large number of  Armenian architects in Armenia and the diaspora and the many opportunities for new church design, innovation and inspiration seem lacking. The willingness of Armenian architects and masons of the past to constantly experiment with new forms has given way to conservative contemporary church boards and architects who seem afraid to deviate from the ancient and glorious tradition. 


Architectural Typologies  - Continue >

Courtesy of  Dr. Dickran Kouymjian
"The Arts of Armenia". Copyright  © Dr. Dickran Kouymjian
Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon 1992.
Web site: www.csufresno.edu/ArmenianStudies

Updated 30 August 1999 ..
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