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Painting in Media: Frescoes, Mosaics, and Ceramics

By Dr.Dickran Kouymjian

Wall Paintings/Frescoes

he excavations of the Urartian fortress of Arin Berd-Erebuni, the first settlement of Yerevan and the site from which the capital of Armenia got its name, uncovered extensive fragments of wall painting. On the site, various reconstructed chambers have been repainted following the designs and colors of authentic vestiges. Thus, we have an idea of the figural and decorative art practiced in Armenia in the eighth and seventh centuries B.C. In the history of monumental painting in Armenia, there follows a hiatus of more than a thousand years. In the late sixth and early seventh centuries of the Christian era, some churches were decorated with frescoes in their apses. This tradition continued sporadically into modern times. The most important among the surviving wall paintings are in the churches of Lmbat (late sixth or early seventh century), Talin (seventh century), Aght'amar  (915-921), Tatev (tenth century), Haghbat (thirteenth century), Tigran Honents' at Ani (1215), and K'obayr (twelfth-thirteenth century) in Lori. Of these the most extensive and the best preserved are in the palatine church on the island of Aght'amar in Lake Van, The entire interior of this church from floor to dome was painted with an extensive New Testament cycle as a complement to the Old Testament one carved on the exterior façade of the church. In the dome there was once an Adam cycle. Unfortunately, the church has been totally neglected since 1915 and the little that survives is slowly disappearing. The paintings of the church of Tatev appear to have been executed by artists from western Europe. Those of Haghbat are stylistically Armenian; the extensive cycle, including a series on the life of St. Gregory the Illuminator, which covers the entire interior of the church of Tigran Honents' at Ani is of a mixed Armeno-Georgian tradition, as are those in the church at K'obayr to the north. Many other traces of wall painting have survived, but unlike the Byzantine, or even the neighboring Georgian practice, the walls of most Armenian churches were left undecorated. 

Mosaics

xcavations conducted during the renovation of the cathedral at Etchmiadzin in the late 1950s uncovered tesserae, the individual pieces of colored stone or glass used in the making of mosaics, under the dome of the church's reconstruction in 485 A.D. Unfortunately, we have no idea of the size of the mosaic nor its subject. One pre-Christian mosaic has survived on the floor of the Roman-styled bath, probably of the third century A.D., excavated in the precinct of the temple of Garni. The small mosaic, about two meters square, depicts a water scene with the goddess Thetis and other mythological figures. Inscriptions on the mosaic are Greek, but the figural types are oriental. Though artistically the mosaic is of inferior quality, historically it is important. The only other mosaics that can be regarded as Armenian is a group of some half dozen pavements of former Armenian churches and chapels in Jerusalem. Like the Garni mosaic, these were uncovered during the past century and remain in situ. Unlike the Garni mosaic, they bear Armenian inscriptions and can be stylistically dated to the Christian era -- the late fifth or sixth centuries. The inscriptions are of immense historical value because they represent the oldest examples of Armenian writing to have survived. Artistically they are of a very high quality and represent varieties of Garden of Paradise scenes with cornucopia and geometric section-patterns framing various birds and fish. Stylistically, they are similar to the mosaics of the period found in non-Armenian churches and synagogues in Jerusalem and its environs. 
 

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. Even though there was a large Armenian colony in the Holy Land at the time, it is not certain that the artists were all Armenian. Rather, many must have been executed by the same craftsmen responsible for mosaic production in a Jerusalem controlled by the East Roman and later Byzantine empires. Perhaps this explains why the tradition was not imported into Armenia proper. Motifs from these highly symbolic Christian mosaics have an echo in later Armenian manuscript decoration, probably because both the mosaics and the decorations used as a common source the artistic conventions of the paleo-Christian period.  

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Updated 30 August  1999 ..
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