Sculptures and Cross-works (Khachkar)
Churches built of stone, obviously, lend themselves quite easily to carved and sculpted ornamentation, and for this reason Armenian churches have much more sculpture than Byzantine churches, built for the most part from brick. Form the sixth century on; Armenian churches were decorated with various kinds of sculpture. No doubt there was a great deal of that art practiced before Christianity came to the country but, as we have noted, Gregory the Illuminator's destruction of all pagan vestiges was deliberate and thorough.
The themes of the sculpture which adorns the facades of the churches often recall those used for mosaics or wall paintings inside the churches. Often there is a quarter-length figure of Christ, or the Virgin and Child. One of the things which differentiate Armenian Church sculpture from that of Egypt and Syria is the greater use in Armenia of figure sculpture, rather than stylized floral and geometric designs. These figures often include the donors of the churches, who apparently liked to have themselves and their contribution immortalized on the face of the building. On the church at Men, for example, the church's founder and another man who was probably the feudal lord of the province are depicted turning, with their hands extended in prayer, toward a central group of Christ and various saints. Zvatnots is unusual in that the figures on its façade are not those of the donor. Instead, there are figures of men holding spades, hammers, and other tools in all likelihood the workmen who completed the church's construction. Another figure, bearded and holding a measuring device, is apparently the church's architect.
Many of the themes are obviously form Hellenistics and Sasanian artistic styles, and the Armenians share with other sculptors of the Near East a horror of empty space which often results in figures whose proportions are distorted so as to fill every available inch. During the early period, around the seventh century, ornamental sculpture is simple and limited. There are palmetto scrolls, vine scrolls with leaves and bunches of grapes among the winding vines, and sometimes pomegranate branches laden with fruit. Most characteristic are small horseshoe arches often with a bird perched under each arch. But the sculpture is simple, in keeping with the architecture itself, and is subordinated to it.
The Church of the Holy Cross at Aghtamar, built early in the tenth century, is a good example of the kind of creative activity that was resumed in this period, having earlier been halted by the Arab invasions. The exterior is almost entirely decorated. Under the roof to the dome is a frieze of running animals, and a second such frieze appears under the eaves. An elaborate vine scroll covers the wall over the windows, with scenes of hunting and rural life and groups of animals clustered among the leaves. On the walls is a Biblical cycle which contains other elements as well: Jonah and Isaac are depicted, Moses receiving the Law, Christ surrounded by angels, the Virgin Mary flanked by the archangels Gabriel and Michael. There are figures of two brothers, Saints Hamazasp and Sahak who were martyred by the Arabs in the seventh century, and of David and Goliath, Samson, Adam and Eve, the three young Hebrew men in the fiery furnace, and Daniel in the lions' den. The influence here is evidently Egyptian, for such a cycle is seen in Egyptian Coptic art of fifth century, but not elsewhere. Aghtamar also reflects Persian influence in its stone portraits, many of which are reminiscent of those found on Persian tombs built of rock in earlier centuries. But Aghtamar, while interesting in itself, is not really characteristic because it this more ornate than the churches which were decorated in the centuries preceding and following its construction.
By the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, ornamentation in the churches becomes more an end in itself and is less strictly related to the architecture of the building. Linear interlaces, always very simple in the early centuries, now become more complicated, with interlocking strands forming geometric figures -circles, rectangles, lozenges, triangles. Often seen are bands of stars, a common type of ornamentation in Seljuk art, and ornamental stalactites. The earlier vine scroll is in this period replaced by rigid vine stocks, and animals are more often depicted, either standing, fighting, or running through the carved foliage, It would seem that as the centuries wore on, the decoration of churches became progressively more intricate and florid, probably influenced by the styles of the Arabs and Easter Christians.
All through Armenia. Carved out in the rock, on the faces of churches, or as freestanding pieces are the steles known as cross-stones, or Khachkars Either funerary or votive stones, the examples of these from the fifth century are carved with individual figures of Christ, saints and angels; the Virgin with the child or standing between 2 angels; crosses, frequently framed by leaves; various kinds of geometric or floral patterns. Some have scenes typical of Early Christian funerary art, taken from the Bible - Daniel in the lions' den, the sacrifice of Isaac, the three youths in the furnace. One favorite theme is purely Armenian - King Trdat, converted to Christianity by Gregory the Illuminator, is portrayed with the head of a pig (obviously, as he was before the conversion). In later centuries these Khachkars, like the exteriors of the churches, become more ornate and are filled with the delicate lace-like carving typical of Islamic art. Khachkars are rectangular pillars mounted on cubic bases, and many scholars have noted the similarity between them and the Celtic or Northumbrian paneled crosses, which are a product of a civilization so far removed from and independent of Armenia. The connection between these has not been determined, and may be incidental. An interesting development of the Khachkars came with the building and sculpture of memorial springs:
"Carving stone springs is an ancient Armenian custom. At first, they were the simple steles of Urartu and later the famous stone Khachkars, the stone lace which captured the imagination of so many medieval sculptors."
"Then they developed into memorials of great events, popular uprisings, historic battles. When people moved from one place to another, they erected memorial springs almost before they did anything else."
"When the Armenian (Soviet) Republic celebrated its twentieth, thirtietsh and fortieth anniversaries, hundreds of springs were unveiled. A magnificent memorial spring was erected in honor of Sayat-nova, Armenian-Estonian friendship Week was commemorated by a spring in Kanaker, the town Khatchatur Abovyan left many years ago to study at Tartu University. Yerevan and the city of Carrara pledged their friendship, and the Armenians sent the Italians a memorial as a gift."
Today a train passenger arriving in Yerevan is greeted by the monument to David of Sasson, the hero of a folk epic. Brandishing a sword, he stands forty feet high on his legendary horse, Jalali, and symbolically protects the country's freedom. This monument is the work of Ervand Kochar, who with Chubaryan and Chakmajian is considered one of the leading sculptors in the Soviet Union. From earliest times to the present, the Armenians have used the stone which is so abundant in their country to represent the things which most basically affected their lives.