In all of Christendom the Holy Cross has been the central sign and symbol of salvation since the 4th c.
In a literary work called The Teachings of St. Gregory: An Early Armenian Catechism which is part of the History of the Armenians attributed to Agat’angelos, St. Gregory, clearly explains how THE PRIME and FIRST Icon of faith should be venerated and honored. He writes:
The sacred sign of the Lord’s cross, you will bow down before this life-giving sign of the Lord your Creator…so that anyone coming to that place should kneel and prostrate himself before God.
Instead of wooden idols, Christ raised His Cross in the midst of the universe, so that those who were accustomed to bow down before the wood should from habit also bow down before the wood of the cross and before Him the incarnate God who was on it in the likeness of man.
Armenian historians tell us that crosses were first carved on wood and then on stone, as an Icon to identify the people of Ararat. This image in Christian iconography, eventually carved on stone, became a mark of Armenian Christian identity and it was called the Khach Kar Խաչքար or Cross on Stone.
They were commissioned and donated by Church leaders, royalty and people of great wealth and crafted by clergymen. For the most part they were set on a stele [a stone base] and commemorated victories over non-Christian attackers, served as grave memorials, were like prayers of thanks to Christ for good fortune and health. And they often carried inscriptions explaining why they were carved. Many are found outside and inside Church buildings, and even incised upon the city walls – as palladia – or protective signs and in city squares all dotting the landscape and terrain of Armenia, the first nation to a proclaim Christianity as the official faith.
This icon of the Holy Cross came to be a sign of one’s destiny and salvation. This was true for all Christian cultures. But for the Armenian style Cross it was first carved on wood and called a Khachpayd /խաջբայտ. But the medium changed to stone in the IV century, onward making stone the standard medium. Why stone? This medium symbolized the strength, firmness of one’s faith, durability and power…being immovable as a mountain, strong and permanent as a foundation.
To use the words of a well known Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan, in a book called”The Medium is the Message”, McLuhan says:
The medium embedded itself in the image and created a symbiotic relationship by which the medium itself influenced how the message in the image was to be perceived…
Our Lord in speaking to Saint Peter used an allegory of stone comparing it with faith , saying , On this rock I will build my Church [Matthew 16:18] In Armenia the Cross was carved on the native tufa stone, on granite and on obsidian stone The Khachkar/Stone Cross became a carved icon that planted the very presence of Christ into the hearts of the Armenian people.
With no two alike; and all different in style, design, shape and size, an estimated 40,000 have survive today in historic and present day Armenia and Turkish occupied Armenia.
The sacred art and skill of carving, the Khachkar continues and has become an act of piety – by men of deep faith, who through their works become a part of the Icon . They create a spiritual interaction between the medium of stone and its relationship of the image on it that becomes absorbed and embedded in ourselves thus creating a symbiotic relationship by which the Icon and us.
As the Hittites, the predecessor native people to Armenia, have left their history with their cuneiform alphabet carved on stone tablets and rocks, it is no wonder that as an inheritance from them we Armenians, from the dawn of the Christian era, until today carve our identity in this way.
And so, the Khachkar is a visual statement of the Christian faith always providing spiritual strength, capturing our eyes and telling us Jesus Christ saves. The Lord said, pick up your cross and follow me. And, as we pray before it, we hear what Jesus said to the the penitent thief Dismas crucified next to him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.” The Icon of the Cross on stone is Life, Hope of Resurrection, and victory. And we sing of this on the Feast of the Exaltation:
Before Your Holy Cross O Christ, We bow down in worship Your Resurrection.