most characteristically Armenian medium for sculpture was the khach'k'ar,
from the word for cross (khach') and stone (k'ar). These free standing,
rectangular shaped cross-stones are found everywhere in Armenia; there
are thousands of them in all sizes from forty centimeters to two meters
high and more.Without exception the central motif is a cross, elaborately
and elegantly carved. Smaller khach'k'ars are often found inserted into
the walls of churches, for example Hovhannavank', and placed at church
doorways. Like the stelae of the earlier centuries, which perhaps they
replaced starting in ninth century, they were used both as gravestones
and as commemorative markers.
Khach'k'ars were often inscribed
with a date, the name of the person remembered, and at times the name of
the artist. The earliest examples from the ninth, tenth and eleventh centuries
are usually sober in their design, though often elegant in execution. The
cross is always framed by an elaborately carved band and sometimes surmounted
by an arch. Small carved circles are placed at the corners of the concave
ends of each of the four arms of the cross; in later centuries these circles
are transformed into trilobed foliage.
Leaves sprout upwards from each side
of the base of the cross of a khach'k'ar towards its arms; they are usually
stylized and in the early period in the form of palmettos. This foliage
demonstrates that symbolically the khach'k'ar represented the living cross.
Its wood is not dead, but alive with new leaves. The cross of the Crucifixion
was thought to be made from the Tree of Life, and like the Crucifixion
itself, was not a mark of death, but of rebirth through Christ's Resurrection.
Without the Crucifixion the Resurrection was impossible; the living cross,
the flowering cross, symbolizes the hope of a new life. Because the cross
was the sign of the ultimate Christian message of salvation through the
Crucifixion and Resurrection, in Armenia it became the most powerful religious
image, more prevalent than the Virgin or even Christ Himself.
and fourteenth century khach'k'ars were highly ornate sculptural monuments
often surrounded by intricate lace-like geometric bands carved on several
levels. Many were of monumental size and some were supported by altar-like
structures. Often they were graced with figural representations. The best
known type of the latter variety was the so-called Amenap'rkich' or Savior
of All with a fully rendered Crucifixion scene in place of the bare cross.
The earliest example of this type, one of the most impressive of all khach'k'ars,
is dated 1273 and is preserved at the monastery of Haghpat. The best known
sculptor of khach'k'ars, Momik, lived at the end of this thirteenth century;
an artist of impressive skill he was also a noted architect and miniaturist.
Regional styles developed in the
carving of these crosses. Artists working in the merchant town of Julfa
on the Arax evolved one of the most characteristic types. Practically nothing
remains of that city destroyed by Shah Abbas in 1604 except its graveyard
with its thousands of khach'k'ars, many still standing after nearly four
centuries of abandon and neglect in the autonomous region of Nakhichevan
now part of Azerbaijan. In the last decade of the sixteenth century
Julfan sculptors produced an immense variety of stone crosses, extremely
precisely and regularly carved, almost machine made in appearance. The
type was graced with a decorative band, often of delicate eight-pointed
stars, around a complex cross recessed under an ogival niche. Below
the cross was an intricately carved rosette and underneath that, the deceased
was shown mounted next to an identifying inscription. In a horizontal band
at the top, Christ was seated in judgment flanked by angels. Another form
of burial stone was a ram carved in the round, popular in Julfa in the
sixteenth century; such ram-stones are also known in Iran and Azerbaijan.
Several of these late sixteenth century khach'k'ars are now preserved in
the precincts of Holy Etchmiadzin. A more robust style is used on khach'k'ars
from the largest extent group in Armenia proper in the cemetery of Noraduz
on the northeastern side of Lake Sevan.
carving of khach'k'ars has continued into our times, even though they have
been gradually transformed into the modern forms of gravestones we see
in cemeteries of western countries. The consistence with which these cross
monuments were employed is unique to Armenia; the only comparable tradition
is the much less developed and short lived one of medieval Ireland.
The khach'k'ars were erected on different
occasions to commemorate military victories, immortalize historically important
events, and to commemorate the completion of churches fountains, bridges
and other constructions.