The fine arts in Armenia
The fine arts in Armenia
Soviet Armenia, on the north‐eastern part of the Armenian plateau, borders on two Transcaucasian Soviet republics — Georgia and Azerbaijan — and with Turkey and Iran to the south and west.
Sometimes Armenia has been called “an open‐air museum”, because in this quite small area one can, uniquely, see the whole development of masonry and the remarkably high level of building technique which shows particularly in the excellent state of preservation of old Armenian architecture.
The cultural and artistic legacy of those times gives us some idea of the power of the ancient kingdom Van (Urartu) — the Armenia of the 9th to the 6th century B.C. Citadels, temples, irrigation canals, stelae covered with cuneiform script, ritual sculpture, ceramics, varied both in technique and function, carved stone seals, glass and enamel jewellery, and, finally, arms create a vivid picture of a despotic Oriental state. The surviving objects of art, as well as remarkable archaeological finds are valuable, unique relics of Urartian times.
The achievements of builders and architects of the kingdom of Van were not lost upon their descendants. The continuity of building traditions is clearly seen in the remarkably skilful technique of masonry so characteristic of all Armenian architecture and sculpture. This cultural continuity extended to other arts and crafts: Armenian potters used traditional shapes, metal workers used the old, well‐established techniques, while armourers followed the ancient shapes of swords and daggers. The commonest memorial, a tall stone slab with a carved inscription
or figures set upright on a cubiform base, was also passed down from Urartu. Such memorials were erected to mark important events in the lives of Urartians and, later, Armenians.
The next period is associated with the Greek tradition: in the 4th century B.C. the country becomes part of the ancient world, and now the classical influence makes itself felt.
Armenia officially adopted Christianity in 301 – 303 AD. The new religion was imposed upon Armenian people from above in a way that hardly gave any opportunity to resist: the troops led by King Tiridates III and the founder of Armenian Christian church Gregory the Enlightener swept through the country destroying pagan temples and building Christian churches on the sites, erecting memorial crosses where the first Christian missionaries were
That period (4th – 9th century) saw some truly remarkable architecture, the tradition of decorative stone and sculpture was established and the first Armenian frescoes and first illuminated Gospels made their appearance.
The 7th century is often called the golden age of Armenian ecclesiastical architecture.
The cathedrals at Aruch and Thalin were unique in size. Aruch Cathedral built in the 680s is impressive both in overall size and in its spacious interior. It is a single lofty hall. There are still traces of a monumental 7th‐century mural on the altar apse, a seven‐meter Pantocrator.
As for Thalin basilica‐like Cathedral (mid‐7th century), its interior was also decorated with frescoes, vestiges of which still survive on the interior pillars. The church at Lmbat contains fragments of unique 7th‐century murals: the whole interior surface was covered with frescoes. Unfortunately, none have survived, except for several fragments of the Vision of Ezekiel.
The small church at Thalin is remarkable for the memorial sculptures in the churchyard. The tall rectangular stelae typical of the period are completely covered with rather deep reliefs. The subjects were apparently dictated by the early Christian iconographic tradition. The stelae rest on solid cubiform bases which, too, are covered with reliefs. Monuments of this kind obviously followed Urartian antecedents both in structure and appearance. From the 9th century on these gradually gave way to “cross‐stones”, or khatchkars.
On the whole, the carved stelae and the architectural sculpture of that time create a vivid picture that illustrates the development of a new expressive architectural language that was emerging from the newly adopted Christian ideology. Side by side with Rome and Constantinople, Armenia helped to form the traditions of Christian iconography.
The 7th‐century memorials at Odzun and Aghudi are among the most remarkable examples of the creative pursuits of the time. It reminds one of classical triumphal arches. Apparently these memorials owed their origin to the rotunda‐shaped memorials built in the 4th century to commemorate early Christian martyrs or the first Christian sermons.
The ruins of a truly remarkable 7th‐century monument, the Church of Vigilant Forces, are almost the quintessence of the whole sculptural repertoire of early ecclesiastical architecture. It is known as Zvartnotz (the Decorated) for its lavish decoration and the freedom and unrestrained ease with which it is handled. The three‐tiered cruciform cathedral was inscribed into a circular, not a square or rectangular plan. Its base was round and rested on a seven‐stepped polygonal stylobate.
Unfortunately, what survives of Zvartnotz is virtually a huge pile of disjointed pieces of stone. The remains of the sculptural decor — beautiful capitals with gently curving volutes, caned effigies of the founders presented as builders with instruments in their hands, with vines and branches of pomegranate trees — show the great range of the architect’s creative pursuits in reinterpreting traditional, generally known forms, and in finding new ones. Four enormous capitals, enriched with carved eagles are among the most striking of the sculptural fragments.
Several later churches (7th and 10th centuries) are obviously strongly influenced by the Zvartnotz.
The subsequent development of architectural sculpture and stone carving in Armenia resulted in considerable changes in stone reliefs. Thus, the 10th century reliefs on buildings such as, for example, the cathedrals and churches in Ani, then the capital of the kingdom, are noticeably flatter than their 7th‐century antecedents. Decorative forms became smaller in scale, and the ornamental designs more varied and elaborate.
The first Armenian monastery cathedrals were founded in the 10th century. Later these monasteries developed into architectural ensembles. The sculptural decor of the cathedrals displays a repertoire of motifs hitherto unknown in Armenian architectural sculpture. The 10th century saw the construction of a truly unique monument — the Church of the Holy Cross (915 – 912 AD) on the island Aghtamar on the lake Van (now on Turkish territory). The exterior
of the church is covered with reliefs on Biblical subjects. The complex message of the exterior sculpture was further elaborated and clarified in the frescoes that covered the interior walls. The 10th‐century mural painting is represented by a cycle of frescoes in the SS. Peter and Paul Church at Tatev monastery. These murals date from 930 AD and only fragments have survived. The only reasonably well‐preserved mural which enables us to judge of the artist’s skill is the dramatic Last Judgement on the west wall.
As time went on, the monasteries founded in the 10th‐century grew and expanded gradually as important educational and cultural centres, and indeed universities in the original sense of the word. Monastic scriptoria produced illuminated manuscripts and the first and most comprehensive collections of books were assembled in monastic libraries.
Many works of art owe their origin to Aghbat, Sanahin and Tatev, Bgheno‐Noravank, Goshavank, and other monasteries. Monasteries often gave a name to a particular school of miniature that had established itself there.
Khatchkars can still be found all over Armenia, within monastic walls or churchyards and even in many remote, deserted places, far from the dwellings of men. The study of their artistic peculiarities, their symbolism, and their regional distribution has greatly contributed to the study, evaluation and understanding of Armenian decorative and ornamental art.
The exuberant imagination of Armenian miniaturists, too, is realized in the luxuriant decor of the illuminated Gospels. But sculptors and miniature painters alike were far more reticent and restrained when it came to representing the human figure. By the 13th century certain changes occurred in the sculptural decor of monastic buildings. While earlier sculptural reliefs merely emphasized the crucial structural points, after the 13th
century they acquire a more important role. Often the sculpture becomes the focal point of the whole building, realizing its inner significance and revealing underlying ideas, while the building itself serves as a kind of background for the sculpture.
Armenia’s closest neighbour, Syria, already had a manuscript illumination tradition, and as soon as she had acquired an alphabet. Armenia made her contribution. Even the earliest dated miniatures, the old folios scattered all over the world and the 7th‐century miniatures in the Echmiadzin Gospels bear evidence of experience, and display a unique fusion of eastern and western trends.
Apart from the Cilician and Vaspurakan schools there are the Crimean school (large colonies of refugees from the fallen Cilicia settled in the Crimea), the Tatev school and several others. A close study of these schools would no doubt lead to further subdivisions.