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Khach'k'ars (Stone Cross)

he 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. 

Thirteenth 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. 

The 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.

Their practical significance

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. 
 

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. It is possible to date the khatchkar with the help of the inscriptions of the donors, the "varpet" (masters), and reasons for their erection. For instance, in order to remember the liberation of Amberd from the Turks, Zakare built a khatchkar on the spot. For the same reason, the minor clerk Peter placed a second khatchkar along the road leading to the village Kosh near Ashtarak. In 1119, to the memory of the dead king Abas, his wife Vaneni built the bridge of Sanahin and a khatchkar with a long inscription. Near Yegheknadzor in 1282 the "varpet" Schnorhavor built a khatchkar to celebrate the construction of the village Martiros. Others were built to commemorate the works for a restored or new church. To remember the name of the donor and with a votive aim, some khatchkars were embedded, sculpted, and at last freely placed on the walls of the churches.  

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Updated 30 August  1999 ..
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