By Dr.Dickran Kouymjian
and Relief Carving
in a country with an architectural tradition in stone dating back to Urartian
times, the craftsmen who so carefully carved blocks of stones for walls,
fortresses, and sanctuaries had acquired the skill to sculpt stone as relief
decorations for buildings or as independent works of art. Little
sculpture has survived, however, from the pre-Christian period because
of the excessive zeal of St. Gregory and the newly convert royal court
of Armenia in destroying all vestiges associated with earlier pagan religions.
The major exception is a series of extremely large carved monolithic stones
found in various parts of Armenia and often associated with water sources.
They resemble large tailless whales. On them are fish-like designs, but
they are know as vishap-k'ar, dragon stones. They date from the second
and first millennia B.C.
Excavations have uncovered a miscellany
of sculptures from the Artaxiad and the Arsacid periods, roughly the second
century B.C. to the fourth century A.D. The famous bronze head of Aphrodite,
found at Satala near Erzinjan, now in the British Museum, or the small
female torso in white marble dug up at Armavir, testify to the popularity
of Hellenistic sculpture in Armenia. Other stone heads, anonymous but no
doubt of Armenian nobility, display a static pose far removed from the
classical style. Nearly a dozen boundary markers of king Artaxias I (Artashes)
from the early second century B.C. have also been uncovered in various
areas of Armenia, but these are more important for their Aramaic inscriptions
than for their art. The temple of Garni from the first century A.D. offers
an enormous repertory of sculpted lion heads, acanthus friezes and geometric
and floral reliefs associated with the Ionic order of Hellenistic temple
In Christian times relief sculpture
on the façades of churches is very abundant. Almost all sixth and
seventh century churches have carved decorative bands, but some like Ptghni,
Mren, Zvart'nots' and Odzun have figural reliefs around windows and in
the tympana of doorways. The capitals of Zvart'nots' , uncovered during
the excavations of this seventh century monument, are especially elaborate,
some carved in a basket style with monograms, while the capitals of the
four supporting pillars have enormous heraldic eagles whose wings are wrapped
around the sides.
in a niche to the north of the altar at Odzun is a finely sculpted Virgin
and Child in the Byzantine pose known as the "Guide" (Hodegetria). Christ
is on Mary's left knee with her cloak wrapped around Him. Her right hand
is pointing at Christ. Though this impressive work is attached to the niche,
it is carved nearly in three-quarters round, rare for the early Christian
period where authorities harbored strong feelings against idols.
Relief sculpture, however, was tolerated because it stopped short of recreating
the full human form, so important to classical pagan sculpture, and so
distasteful to Christian clerics.
The most famous series of relief
carvings in Armenian art are those which cover the entire facade of the
tenth century church of the Holy Cross on the island of Aght'amar. The
church with its external carvings and internal frescoes was built as a
palace church between 915 and 921 for king Gagik Artsruni. The unusually
deep carving combined with the monumental character of Christ and other
figures make this collection of sculpture unique in both Armenian and world
art. The sculptures at Aght'amar are of a mixed style, with only slight
interest in classical forms. The art is very Eastern, very Armenian, peopled
with biblical figures in rigid frontal poses. This remarkable façade
combines an Old Testament cycle on the major band with a continuous peopled
vine scroll above and, still higher, the large individual sculptures of
the four Evangelists, one in each of the four roof pediments.
Elaborate sculpted scenes on tympana
above church entrances and on the drums supporting the domes are popular
in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The monasteries of Tatev, Geghart,
Hovhannavank', Haghbat, Sanahin, Saghmosavank', Makaravank', Noravank'
at Amaghu, Haghartsin, Kech'aris, Ts'akhats'k'ar , and Spitakavor are among
the most famous. In both quantity and quality, these sculptures represent
a very important chapter in Armenian art, one that deserves more attention.
is also a large body of free-standing stone monuments in the form of either
four-sided stelae or the famous and ubiquitous khach'k'ars. The stelae
are found on the grounds of churches; the most famous group still in part
in situ is at Talin. Some seventy stelae have been recorded. They date
from the fifth to seventh centuries; the medium was abandoned as a sculptural
form after the Arab invasions. These monolithic stones, often two meters
high, are fitted into a carved socle. The tops of some of them are recessed
suggesting they were surmounted by a cross. The motifs most frequently
represented are standing saints. St. Gregory and King Trdat appear often,
Trdat shown metamorphosed with the head of a boar following the story of
his conversion to Christianity as known through the History of Agat'angeghos.
The Virgin is also frequently depicted as is Christ; crosses or decorative
designs are sometimes found on one or more of the four sides. Narrative
scenes from the Old Testament -- Sacrifice of Abraham, Daniel in the lions'
den, the three Hebrews in the fiery furnace -- are more common than those
from the Gospels -- Baptism and the Crucifixion.