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Sculpture

By Dr.Dickran Kouymjian

Stone Sculpture and Relief Carving

nevitably 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 architecture. 

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. 

Recessed 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. 

Carved Stelae

There 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. 
 

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. The iconography of these funerary or commemorative stelae is in keeping with early paleo-Christian models; in style and in the use of certain motifs an Oriental influence is apparent, both early Mesopotamian and Sasanian. Among the most notable of these carved blocks are a very small number that are very tall, reminiscent of obelisks, and mounted on stepped platforms. The most famous are a pair nearly four meters high and enshrined in protecting arches next to the church of Odzun. Two or three sides of their faces are carved and separated into ascending panels; pairs of saints, individual figures, and even a short narrative cycle, make up the catalogue of representations. 

 

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Updated 10 July, 2002 ..
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