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Metalwork: Silver and Gold

By Dr.Dickran Kouymjian

old 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 in Jerusalem. 

From 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. 

It 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. 

Metalwork: Bronze and Tinned Copper 

he 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) [1], 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. 

The 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. 

Beside 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 at Ani. 

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. 

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

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Updated 30 August  1999 ..
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