Metalwork: Silver and
By Dr.Dickran Kouymjian
and silver objects were by definition luxury items destined for royalty,
the church, and the rich. The earliest examples are rhytons or drinking
vessels in silver found at the Urartian site of Arin Berd-Erebuni; they
date, however, from the post-Urartian period. Armenia was one of the first
and most important wine producing regions in the world, explaining in part
the popularity of such vessels in metal and in ceramic. One of the rhytons
from Arin Berd is in the form of a rider with a Persian costume mounted
on his horse. The other from the third century B.C. is in the form of an
animal head decorated with a series of figures: one seated while another
offers a cup of wine and a third plays a flute. At Armavir, the ancient
Armenian capital, medallions in gold from the Artaxiad period, second to
first century B.C., were found with a woman's head and a child held on
her bust with her right hand. From this period there are also the silver
and bronze coins already discussed.
Virtually nothing survives of precious
metalwork or jewelry in the centuries after Christ until the Cilician period.
It is only from the thirteenth century on that we have a nearly continuous
series of objects in silver, often washed with gold, and a few pure gold
items. They are almost exclusively objects related to the cult: bindings
of Gospels and other religious manuscripts, reliquaries, chalices, patens,
and other vessels. The greatest repositories of this church plate are in
the treasuries of the Catholicossate at Etchmiadzin and the Armenian Patriarchate
earliest times the Gospel-book was always treated with enormous respect
and reverence. The famous Etchmiadzin Gospel of 989 is bound with ivory
plaques discussed earlier. Few bindings in silver survive from ancient
times. One of the oldest and most finely crafted is dated 1254 and
covers a Cilician Gospel of 1248, which is now in the collection of the
Catholicossate of Cilicia in Antelias. The central motif of the upper cover
is the Crucifixion accompanied by busts of the Virgin, John the Evangelist
and the Apostles, with angels and the Evangelists full-length; on the lower
cover Christ is enthroned. Another silver binding dated 1255 on a Cilician
manuscript in the Matenadaran shows a Deesis (Christ flanked by the Virgin
and John the Baptist) on the upper cover and the four Evangelists standing
together on the lower.
Among surviving reliquaries, there
are the triptych in silver from Skevra dated 1293 in the Hermitage Museum
in Leningrad and the most splendid example of the period, the silver triptych
known as Holy Cross of Khotakerats' made in 1300 for the prince Each'i
Proshian now in the Treasury of Holy Etchmiadzin. In the center of the
latter is a large jeweled cross; above, Christ is shown enthroned on the
four beasts of the Apocalypse. Next to Christ are two angels inclined toward
him while two other larger elegant angels are portrayed on the inside of
the two leaves. In the lower band is the half portrait of Eatchi with hands
raised in prayer and in the corners Saints Peter and Paul. On the other
side of the leaves are St. Gregory and John the Baptist.
The most popular theme of the upper
cover of these manuscript bindings is the Crucifixion or the cross. Other
scenes, however, are also known: for instance the Presentation of the Magi
on a binding of 1475 surrounded with delicate grape bunches studded with
jewels in the Walters Art Gallery or a detailed and monumental Ascension
on a binding dated 1496 in the Matenadaran. Scores of silver covers survive
from the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries. They display a great diversity
of style and decoration varying from finely crafted works in a naturalistic,
classic style to robust and naive works in a purely Armenian mode.
is impossible to discuss the large number of surviving chalices and other
liturgical vessels. The gold pyx in the Gulbenkian Collection of 1687 made
in Caesarea, however, deserves to be mentioned for the elegance of its
workmanship. One of the central panels depicts the Last Supper while another
has pairs of Apostles. Most gold objects have disappeared, but the Treasury
of Jerusalem has a fine bejeweled gold chalice made in Constantinople in
1749. The best of this orfèvrerie was already being crafted by Armenians
in the Ottoman capital; the more luxurious chalices also used sophisticated
enameling and filigree work.
In the eighteenth and especially
nineteenth century large quantities of silver belts and buckles, earrings,
purses in filigree work, and communion boxes were manufactured in such
centers as Van, where the black and silver niello technique was popular,
but also Constantinople and other cities. The metalworking tradition continues
to thrive in Armenia. Liturgical objects continued to be made, especially
in the early part of our century, but after 1920 craftsmanship was directed
toward domestic objects like silverware and trays.
and Tinned Copper
first major artistic use of metals was during the Urartian Kingdom (nine
to sixth century B.C.). The excavations of sites such as Toprakkale/Van,
Arin Berd (Erebuni-Erevan) , and Karmir Blur have yield a vast quantity
of weapons, domestic objects and votive statues. Urartian bronzes were
coveted throughout the Mediterranean world, thus explaining their appearance
in excavations in many parts of the Middle East and Europe, especially
Etruscan Italy. Embossed shields and helmets, large caldrons, and statues
are now in the major museum collections from Leningrad and Erevan to London
and New York. These dark bronzes are beautifully crafted; the shields have
elaborate processional designs in repoussé work. Lighter colored
metal, probably brass, was also used to make items such as the drinking
bowls found at Karmir Blur.
An important object, associated with
Armenia because it was found at Satala near Erzinjan, is a magnificent
bronze head of Aphrodite from the Hellenistic period. It was probably imported
into Armenia by the royal court. The original is in the British Museum,
but a faithful copy can be seen in the State Historical Museum in Erevan.
The high quality of the engraving of the silver tetradrachmas of Tigran
the Great and the bronze ware from the earlier Urartian period reveals
a developed taste among Armenians for refined metalwork.
excavations at Dvin and Ani are the source for almost all the bronze metalwork
from the early medieval period. A large number of utilitarian objects --
knives, scissors, jugs -- are known as well as a number of candle holders
in the form of animal sculptures, large cauldrons, a chandelier for oil
lamps, and a number of small incense burners with attached chains. The
latter are of very dark bronze, with molded scenes from the life of Christ.
They were made in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, but copied almost
perfectly Byzantine models of the early paleo-Christian period.
Later Armenian bronze, copper, and
occasionally pewter vessels have received little scholarly attention. The
great majority of these dates from the seventeenth century and after. The
cities of Tokat and Caesarea/Kayseri were major centers of this Armenian
metalwork. Hundreds of plates, bowls, jugs, trays, and other vessels in
tinned copper with Armenian inscriptions have been preserved in various
museums and private collections; many of these are dated, thus allowing
for a chronological study of style and motifs. The largest group thus far
published belong to the State Historical Museum in Erevan; the oldest item
is a table tray dated 1477 from Julfa on the Arax.
these hammered copper dishes, massive cast bronzes from the later period
exist, some in traditional Iranian shapes, others with characteristic Armenian
or early Christian forms. Such a type is a small, molded seventeenth century
incense burner in the Museum of the Armenian Prelacy in New Julfa, Iran,
which bears a narrative cycle of the life of Christ similar to and no doubted
inspired by pieces similar to the thirteenth century incense burner found
Another category of popular metal
objects is the pilgrim flask in pewter. Generally, they bear the
figure of a warrior saint killing a dragon and sometimes are inscribed.
Some of these were mass produced with pre-stamped plates suggesting an
active industry in eastern Anatolia.