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Chapter 43
This webpage reproduces a chapter of
A History of Armenia

by Vahan M. Kurkjian

published by the
Armenian General Benevolent Union of America

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 45

 p435  Chapter XLIV
Armenian Sculpture and Painting

[image ALT: An engraving of missingALT.]
Reliquary at Etchmiadzin

Thayer's Note: In addition to the 3 woodcuts in this chapter, Kurkjian's History includes a folio of about 30 black-and‑white photographs, bound between pp432 and 433 (in another chapter), some of which directly illustrate material in this chapter, and others not referred to anywhere in the work. To avoid burdening this webpage, I've made them accessible from a page of their own; those that illustrate passages of this chapter are additionally linked below as appropriate.

Foreign element

Ruins of pagan temples in Armenia remind us of Roman monuments, with traces of foreign influence, Syrian or Byzantine. An example is Zwartnots, with its capital, and the eagles with spread-wings. The capitals of the Ani Cathedral display variants. Figures testify to Western and Eastern elements.

Attention has been attracted by cross-stones, called "khatchkar", some of them as old as the fifth century. Most common are geometric motifs, with figures of Christ, Mary, and biblical events, such as Daniel in the lion's den and legends of Gilgamesh the hero. One khatchkar bears the figure of Anahit. Church façades or windows areº decorated with the figures of angels. In one of them is seen the mounted knight Manuel Amatuni, fighting a lion. A sculpture in Mren portrays the founder of the church, David Saharuni and his wife, introduced to Jesus and disciples.

[image ALT: An engraving of a square stone slab looking much like a two-leaved door, each leaf very intricately decorated with a cross and filigree-like patterns. It is an example of a khachkar, a characteristic type of Armenian tombstone.]

Aghtamar Church

Another precious example is the church of Aghtamar, built in 920. Here is a frieze of animals and scenes of hunting and of grape-gathering, with King Gagik plucking grapes. On another façade, is portrayed Christ holding the Gospel, with an inscription of the sentence — "I am the light of the world." On a window, we see an inscription that reads — "And Adam gave them names of all the animals and wild beasts." The artist meant the Garden of Eden, but did not forget the later saints — the Illuminator, Thaddeus, Bartholomew, etc., and the main biblical events.  p437 

King's statue

A notable fact is the Egyptian influence as evidenced on the Gospel of Queen Mlkeh of Van, dated 856. Sassanid influence was expected logically. Hence, numerous signs of Sassanian art. Returning to Ani, mention should be made of the statue of King Gagik, discovered in the ruins of that city. The precious relic was destroyed by the Turks in 1920. The king was clothed in a tunic with a turban on the head, and held the model of St. Gregory Church, constructed by him. Queen Khosrovanush, the founder of the Church of Haghpat in 991, placed the statues of her two sons showing to them the model of the church. Other dignitaries followed the example.  p438 

On metals

Metal sculpture became the fashion in Cilicia, during the thirteenth century. The silver-gilt Gospel cover, dedicated to Katholikos Constantine I in 1249, is a remarkable specimen. Ivory plates, portraying Christ and Mary with the Baptist, is another type. Reliquaries bearing biblical pictures were in vogue. On several specimens, the Eastern and Byzantine elements are intermixed. On certain relics Moslem art can be easily indicated. As to ornamental designs cut by Armenian artisans, their skill has been acknowledged by authorities. According to archaeologists, sculptural geometric ornaments were known in Armenia long before the Armens settled in the country.

In foreign lands

The influence of Byzantium has been traced to Greece and Thessaly, particularly from the ninth century and the period of the emperors of Armenian origin, some of them on khatchkars. The one, in Mistra, Greece, reads — "Joseph, an Armenian, from the Greater Armenia."

Armenian Painting

Pictures and Mosaics

The interior of churches in Armenia were adorned with figures, even some mosaics. Specimens remain in ruins of Zwartnots and in Douin pavements. A fine example of such mosaic is in the beauti­ful pavement that came to light at the end of the 19th century in Jerusalem. Further still, in Germigny-des-Prés, France, Armenian art came in evidence. In Armenia proper, many of the paintings have been destroyed, but their existence is obvious. Vrtanes Kertogh (the Poet) mentions representations of the Virgin with the Child, St. Gregory as tortured, Ste. Gayaneh, and Ste. Hripsimeh, etc. The Iconoclast movement has had its effect temporarily, also the Paulikianº denunciations. The church of Aghtamar was rich in pictures of Gospel miracles, some of them illuminated. Byzantine examples are noticeable in them. A specimen of Syrian and Persian influence is provided by the Gospel (996) of the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore.​a


[image ALT: An engraving of a two-part scene in an elaborate frame. On the left, an old man with a halo, and in the clouds above him, a hand issuing from a cloud, blessing. On the right, a young woman, seated. It is a 14th‑century Armenian manuscript miniature painting depicting the Annunciation.]
Miniature Painting of a Sissouan ms. dated 1330.º
At certain periods, Byzantine touch is seen more than the oriental, especially in miniature decorations. Painting received impetus under Armenian rule in Cilicia. The Hetoumian family, royal or princely, patronized illustrated manuscripts. They are of Eastern Armenian style. The works of Narek, Shnorhali and Lambronatsi became popular.

Roslin and Pidzak

Among the artists of Cilicia, Thoros Roslin is the most prominent. There are other miniatures whose authors are unknown. An exquisite example is the Gospel ornamented for Prince Vassak, now in the Freer Gallery in Washington. Artists draw attention to the originality of painters of Cilicia, who deal with detail in Gospel episodes, unnoticed until then, Passion week, for instance, and the betrayal by Judas. The most prolific painter of Cilicia was Sarkis Pidzak of the fourteenth century. Among notable artists are Mkrtich Nakashr, Ignatios and Thoros of Taron.

Armenian role

Concluding the treatise, an authority finds that "in painting, as  p440 well as in sculpture, these Eastern elements were introduced by Armenian craftsmen."1

From Viscountº James Bryce, again:—

"The finest examples of ancient Armenian architecture are to be seen in the ruins of Ani . . . while the famous church of the monastery of Etchmiadzin is, though more modern, a perfect and beauti­ful existing representative of the old type. Etchmiadzin . . . is the seat of the Katholikos, or ecclesiastic head of the whole Armenian church."

"Armenian Legends and Poems" by Zabelle C. Boyajian, 1916, London.)

The Author's Note:

1 Sirarpie Der Nersessian, "Armenia and the Byzantine Empire," Harvard University Press, 1945.

Thayer's Note:

a Gospel in the Walters Gallery: At least one of the illustrations is online at CSU Fresno, where it is dated not 996, but 966.

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Page updated: 28 Oct 17