When King Gagik I Artsruni commissioned the magnificent Cathedral of the Holy Cross on the island of Akhtamar—today one of the most iconic of all Armenian Apostolic churches—he had it completely covered in bas-relief sculpture. Images of Adam and Eve, of Jonah being thrown overboard before being swallowed by the sea-beast, and other depictions from both the Old and the New Testament rise from the sides of the church. Theologically sophisticated, these sculptures lead the viewer through a Christian catechism. Both exterior relief sculptures and interior frescoes and paintings instruct and edify. Like all Christian art, Armenian architecture and art, is part of the holistic theological vision of the Armenian Apostolic Church, its rite. During processions outside and all church services inside, this program of art and architecture was also used as part of the liturgy of the Armenian Church. The artistic program and the architecture of all Armenian churches, whether as grand as the Cathedral of the Holy Cross or not, are integral to the spiritual expression, the liturgical life, and the Christian vision of the Armenian Church.
Yet King Gagik knew that he was not only creating a place to worship Jesus Christ, but also an imposing building that would anchor the Armenian Kingdom of Vaspurakan. Vaspurakan, the region centered near Lake Van, is one of the oldest parts of the Armenian homeland and one of the most important centers of Armenian Christianity. For much of its history, Vaspurkan was under control of the Artsruni family, one of the Armenian noble or nakharar families. In the ninth century, for the first time in almost five hundred years, the Bagratuni Family declared an Armenian kingdom, recognized by both the Caliphate and the Byzantine Empire. Over time, rival families created several “sub-kingdoms,” with the Artsruni Kingdom of Vaspurakan emerging as the most prominent. King Gagik I first received recognition as a king (rather than a prince or nobleman) in 908 AD, followed shortly thereafter by recognition from the Byzantine Empire. He was thus able to wrest control of the claim of being the “King of Armenia” from his Bagratuni rivals.
The Cathedral of the Holy Cross was part of the projection of his royal power. Not only did the bas-relief sculptures of the Cathedral of the Holy Cross depict Biblical tales and the economy of Christian salvation, but some of the sculptures also asserted the dominance and superiority of the Artsruni family, and the wealth and beneficence of King Gagik himself. The most three-dimensional of the reliefs depicts King Gagik presenting a model of the church to Jesus Christ. In addition to this depiction of the king, the bas-relief sculptures project the importance of the Artsruni family back in time. Carved higher up on the church is a relief of Sahak and Hamazasp Artsruni, two princes from the same family as King Gagik I who had been martyred on Christmas 786. The Armenian Apostolic Church commemorates these two martyrs this Thursday. Last year for their commemoration, Back to the Sources detailed the story of their martyrdom and introduced several sources that document the earliest encounters of Armenians with Islam. Today, the depiction of them in bas-relief on the Cathedral of the Holy Cross nearly two centuries after their death provides us with the chance to discuss the projection of kingly power through architecture.
All architecture is functional, in that buildings are built for some purpose. A church, from this perspective, functions as a place for worship. Of course, any building could be used for additional purposes, some of them “communicative,” and a functional approach to architecture only scratches the surface our understanding and engagement with a building. A church, for instance, is indeed a place for worship. Yet this tells us little about why one kind of church looks different from another or why we have an idea that an “Armenian church” has to look a certain way. Dr. Christina Maranci, Arthur H. Dadian and Ara Oztemel Professor of Armenian Art and Architecture at Tufts University, has written extensively about Armenian art and architecture. Her work has explored questions such as: how does the idea of an “Armenian” church emerge? How is such a distinctive architecture connected to concepts of race or nation? How are churches used and what do they communicate, beyond their immediate function as places of liturgy and worship?
Sahak and Hamazasp’s commemoration this Thursday offers a distinctly appropriate moment for considering these questions. While King Gagik’s inclusions of them in bas-relief alongside Old Testament prophets, New Testament apostles, and both Christ and himself is due to their status as martyrs, the decision to include them reflects much more than that. As our brief history above suggests, the Artstruni family, newly crowned as kings, needed to project wealth and power in the present (which a magnificent church does—already one thing a church building does beyond its immediate function for worship). King Gagik also needed to assert the authority of his family against rival families, most directly the Bagratunis. Not only did the Bagratuni family rule as kings before the Artsruni family, they continued to be a powerful family and kingdom. Commemorating his own ancestors as martyrs through the iconographic bas-relief sculptures on his cathedral church was a way to assert his devotion to Jesus Christ and his status as defender of the people and Armenian Church, and a way to project the power and importance of the Artsruni family back in time. King Gagik skillfully deployed art and architecture to assert his royal authority. This is what we mean by the “communicative” feature of architecture.
Dr. Maranci’s work explores similar dynamics at other churches and in different times throughout Armenian history. One of her most prominent examples is the Church of Mren, “situated in a militarized border zone of northeast Turkey on an uninhabited plain edged by ravines” (2015:23). Mren is an ancient church, with literary sources such as the earliest Armenian histories mentioning at least the town in the fifth century. The current foundation and an inscription dates to the seventh century. Most striking, perhaps, is the carved north portal lintel, pictured at the beginning of this article. Scholars agree that the scene depicts Emperor Heraclius and the Return of the True Cross from Persian captivity, an event that entranced all of Christendom in 630 AD and which is one of the inspirations for the Feast of Khatchverats (The Exaltation of the Holy Cross), which the Armenian Church celebrated less than three weeks ago. Yet the humble pose of the Emperor troubles easy identification of the scene. Dr. Maranci offers a sophisticated reading of this carved scene. It suggests the ways in which the art and architecture of the Church of Mren is caught up in similar desires to express relationships and exert authority that King Gagik made use of with the Cathedral of the Holy Cross. As she writes, “Mren encapsulates a network of interests and ideas: the imperial agenda of political and religious consolidation, local princely powers and opportunities for promotion, and shared concerns about the Holy Land and the arrival of the last days” (100).
Yet Dr. Maranci is also keen to emphasize that the portal and other carvings on the Church of Mren were most likely used in liturgical processions that took place outside. In other words, it is actually impossible to fully separate the “function” of the church as a place of worship, the specifics of liturgical life, and the ways in which architecture is caught up in questions of power and symbolism. For instance, the oldest plan of a building used specifically as a church (as opposed to, for example, the house church of Dura-Europos, famous as the first extant church), is a basilica, a large open building modeled on Roman civic buildings. The architectural form of the basilica went hand-in-hand with a liturgy that made extensive use of processions. While there are still liturgical processions in the Armenian Apostolic Church and other ancient churches, earlier liturgies made greater use of them. So, the form of the basilica church is related to the specifics of the liturgy at the time. While the specific features of what we consider an Armenian Apostolic Church are not always present (Mren, for instance, is a “domed basilica” and quite different from the specific architectural form of the Cathedral of the Holy Cross on Akhtamar, often seen as a paradigmatic “Armenian” church), some of the architectural elements are now in a symbiotic relationship with the particulars of the liturgy of the Armenian Apostolic Church: the increasingly raised sections as you approach the altar, the presence and location of a baptismal font, etc. All of these elements connect the architecture of a church to the liturgy. This, more than specific formal elements, makes a building “an Armenian Church.”
That said, certain characteristics and styles have come to be closely identified with a “traditional” Armenian Church architecture. None is more emblematic than a building type known as a “domed tetraconch.” St. Hripsime, the seventh century church still standing near the Cathedral of Holy Etchmiadzin in Armenia, is the most well known and one of the earliest extant of these styles of churches. In fact, the Cathedral of the Holy Cross on the island of Akhtamar is partially modeled after St. Hripsime. Closer to us, St. Vartan Armenian Cathedral in New York City, the Cathedral of the Eastern Diocese, is also modeled on St. Hripsime. The relief sculptures above the main entrance to the St. Vartan Cathedral, moreover, are inspired by bas-relief sculptures on the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, though the names of the figures depicted are different than their models on Akhtamar. It is through these kinds of borrowings and lineages that a specific style of architecture is identified with “Armenian churches.” Nonetheless, any church consecrated as an Armenian church that can fulfill the liturgical needs of the Armenian Apostolic Church is a completely “valid” Armenian church—no matter what the architectural style.
Architecture, as we have seen, is a pivotal aspect of the unique Christian expression of the Armenian Apostolic Church, part of its rite. Through just some of the sources in the collection of Zohrab Information Center, we have touched on many aspects of Armenian Church architecture. In the future, we will have the opportunity to explore some of these aspects in more detail. A church building fulfills its basic function as a place for worship, but it does and expresses much more than. It supports the liturgical life of the congregation and fits with the liturgical specificity of the Armenian Church. It can also express or “communicate” certain things, through its very presence, its form, or its details. It can be caught up in political maneuvers, assert authority, or articulate a Biblical or historical narrative. Many churches in historic Armenia also have inscriptions or epigraphs on them that serve as important historical sources. The buildings themselves, as we have seen, can also help us make sense of Armenian history, of the jockeying for power between noble families, and the relations between Armenian kingdoms and other kingdoms and empires in the area. In this way, Armenian churches are historical sources even as they are the physical space of Christian liturgy and typologically as ark and Body of Christ, the source of Christian salvation.
|Armenian Art||A beautiful “coffee table” book filled with color pictures, this book by Jean-Michel Thierry, Patrick Donabédian, and Nicole Thierry offers pictures and details of many historic Armenian churches. It introduces architectural details and provides floor plans of important churches.|
|Vigilant Powers: Three Churches of Early Medieval Armenia||One of several books by Dr. Christina Maranci about the architecture and art of Armenia in the collection of the Zohrab Information Center. It contains her analysis of the Church of Mren.|
|Documents of Armenian Architecture||This series of books on specific sites or churches is one of the most beautiful and invaluable sources for Armenian architecture. Specific volumes include studies of Akhtamar and Ani.|
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