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Carved Wood and Ivory

here is a relative paucity of wooden and ivory sculpture perhaps because these materials were precious commodities in Armenia in historical times; furthermore, stone, especially the easily carved tufa, was very plentiful. The most important piece of ivory carving preserved in Armenia is the binding, with upper and lower plaques, each in five fitted sections, of the Etchmiadzin Gospels. These were probably carved in the sixth century in a Byzantine workshop and later imported into Armenia. The upper cover shows shows the Virgin with Christ with scenes from her life, including the Presentation of the Magi at the bottom. The lower cover has a beardless Christ in the central panel with scenes from His life. There are also a number of finely carved ivory bishop's crosiers often with twin dragon heads. 

Wood was a much more fragile medium than stone or metal and much of what must have been produced has been burned or otherwise destroyed. We know, however, that wood carving was as favored a craft in ancient times as it is today in modern Armenia. 

What remains of sculpted or carved wood from medieval Armenia are church doors, capitals used on the columns of a ninth century church, an important carved plaque of the Crucifixion, and a few miscellaneous items including lecterns. The most important carved wooden doors are dated by inscriptions: 1) 1134, double paneled door, Monastery of the Holy Apostles, Mush, now in Erevan, Armenian Historical Museum; 2) 1176, single panel door, Monastery of the Holy Apostles, Sevan, Erevan, Armenian Historical Museum; 3) 1253, single panel door, Monastery of Tat'ev; 4) 1327, double paneled door, Church of the Nativity, Jerusalem; 5) 1355/6, double paneled door, entrance to Chapel of St. Paul, Armenian Patriarchate, Jerusalem; 6) 1371, double-paneled door, from Armenian church in Crimea, now in the Hermitage, Leningrad; 7) 1486, single panel door, Church of the Holy Apostles, Sevan, now in Erevan, Armenian Historical Museum. The borders or frames of all of these are covered with geometric bands or vine scrolls. Those of Mush show mounted warriors at the top either fighting or hunting exotic animals; on the sides there are rows of animals, too. The fields of the doors are varied: The Mush door has an all over geometric design of radiating eight-pointed stars; the Jerusalem door of 1355/6 and that from the Crimea of 1371 have equal-armed crosses alternating with eight-pointed stars similar to the arrangement of Kashan tiles; those in Bethlehem, Sevan (the one of 1176), and Tat'ev have large crosses carved on them imitating contemporary khach'k'ar designs. The Sevan door of 1486 is in a very separate category. A monumental and magnificently carved scene of Pentecost covers the greater part of it; below there is a large rosette similar to those found on contemporary khach'k'ars and on the upper panel, Christ in Glory. The iconography of this panel is perfectly Armenian; its model was no doubt a manuscript miniature. 

The oldest examples of sculpted wood are the carved capitals from the Holy Apostles Monastery on the island of Sevan; they may be contemporary with the building of the church in 874 or slightly later. They are richly and deeply carved with floral scrolls, birds, six pointed stars, and crosses.  Several folding wooden lecterns, undoubtedly from churches, are preserved in the Armenian Historical Museum. They date from the eleventh to the thirteenth century and are elaborately carved with geometric designs, birds, and in one case a lion rampant. 

The single non-functional wooden sculpture that has survived from the early period is the wooden panel offered by Gregory Magistros in 1031 to the church of Havuts' T'ar. The panel, now in the Treasury at Etchmiadzin, shows Christ being removed from the cross by Nicodemus and Joseph of Armathea. The simple but delicate carving and the unusually expressive quality of Christ being removed from the cross help to create one of the masterpieces of Armenian sculpture. The iconography is unique in Christian art, because it incorporates the elements of the Trinity: the hand of God, the dove of the Holy Spirit, and Christ. The panel, regarded by some as a wooden icon, was much admired in the thirteenth century and may have had an influence on khach'k'ars of the period. 

The craft of wood craving continues to flourish in Armenia.  In villages utilitarian items for the household, especially kitchen utensils, are still delicately fashioned. The Folk Arts Museum in Erevan has an impressive collection of nineteenth and twentieth century wood carving. Hand carved gifts of very high quality are also readily available in shops in Erevan. 
 

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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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