AGHTAMAR CHURCH OF THE HOLY CROSS
Type: Hrip'sime, radiating plan
Location: Located on the island of Aght'amar in Lake Van,
Turkey, near the village of Gevash (Wostan) (coord. 39-19/43-00).
Evidence For Date: Chronicle of Thomas Artzruni
Important Details: External bas reliefs, internal frescoes
History and commentary: The church of the Holy Cross (St.
Xac') is located on the island of Aght'amar in Lake Van, Turkey,
near the village of Gevas (Wostan) (coord. 39-19/43-00). Aght'amar
was built by the architect Manuel between 915 and 921.
Architecturally, the church of Aght'amar is a tetraconch with four
wide axial exedrae. At the four corners of the square bay under
the dome are cylindrical niches. Inside the east niches are the
entrances of the vestries. Although the west niches have neither
vestries nor entrances, the three-quarter circular areas enclosed
within these niches are reminiscent of those found in the early
medieval Awan-Hrip'sime type of church. Aght'amar is an asymmetrical
tetraconch whose east and west exedrae are deeper than the north
and south. Although the east and west exedrae are almost identical
in depth, their facades are not of the same width. The entire structure
is designed as a centrally planned and domed cruciform church based
on buildings of the type of Hrip'sime. In the ninth and tenth centuries
they found some evidence of expanding the central bay under the
dome, this increased the diameter of the dome.
According to an inscription of the south facade, the original crown
on the dome had collapsed, and was later constructed in the 13th
century. The front staircase was demolished in the 19th century
when the bell tower was constructed in front of the south portal.
Unique in the history of Armenian sculpture and medieval Armenian
art is the decorative program on the church of Aght'amar. Because
the friezes and bands that decorate the church lack immediate parallels
in medieval art, scholars have long attempted to explain their symbolism.
This unusually rich monument has fortunately survived as the only
example of the art of the school of Vaspurakan.
The composition of King Gagik's relief in the center of the west
facade demonstrates the piety of the Artsruni family. On the sides
of the west exedra biblical stories are treated as allegories of
that piety. On the south side of the west exedra is the story of
Jonah, and on the north side that of Daniel in the lions' den and
the three young men in the furnace. The reliefs of the main band
project 8 to 10 cm. from the surface of the wall, a characteristic
unique in the history of Armenian sculpture where figures were usually
delineated by incised lines.
The symbolic reliefs, usually carved in groups, consist of figures
of wild and sometimes domestic animals. Wild animals represented
include the lion, bear, ram, deer, mountain lion, wild goat, rabbit
and such birds as the eagle and pelican. Of the domestic animals
depicted, the bull, camel, rooster and sheep are among their number.
Fantastic mythical creatures, such as the griffin, siren and eagle
with a ram's head, also appear alongside the more recognizable animals.
Reliefs of these animals are not equally distributed on the facades
and are completely absent on the west facade. Although a few decorate
the east side, most are concentrated on the south facade, especially
where the members fo the Artsruni princely family are depicted.
The significance of early medieval architectural traditions and
especially the design of the ancient Artsruni family mauloleum is
crucially important when considering the architectural development
of the church of Aght'amar.
Over a period of one thousand years various structures have been
added to the church of Aght'amar. Oldest among these later structures
is a small vaulted church built in 1298 by Catholicos Step'anos
to the northeast of the Holy Cross church. At a later date a vaulted
rectangular porch was attatched to it's west facade. In the cemetry
to the east of the Holy Cross church are a number of khach'k'ars
("cross stones"), most of which are now broken. The khach'k'ars
were built in the 14the and 15th centuries and are similar to those
sculpted at the same time in different parts of Armenia.
Manoogian 1986, 11-15, 27, 28, 37, 43. Aghtamar 1986
Kouymjian 1970's, 71-72. Armenian Architecture