About Armenia

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Symbolic Forms


The Cross in Armenian Churches

The church is combination of cross forms, which was a very important image in the Eastern church. The importance of the cross in the development of Eastern Christian architecture and especially that of Armenia is illustrated by a number of facts. Eastern Christianity inherited, both from the Old Testament and from the earlier pagan cultures, the tradition of the cosmic symbolism of the cross and the number four. The worship of the dead was practiced in its form, using central-plan edifices (cruciform or square), whose axes of symmetry form a cross (oriented, a feature which originated in pagan cults and was maintained by the new religion), defining, at ground level, or even under ground, the four cardinal points of the compass, above which vertical structures (steles, ciboria shapes, additional levels with halls for worship and conical or pyramidal roofing) were placed.


The Khachkar was unique to the Armenian church, inherited from the Vishap (Dragon Stone) tradition beginning in the 5th millennium BCE, and became related to the worship of Astghik, the goddess of water. These monuments continued to be used during the pre-Christian period, some have survived to the early Christian period (4th-5th cc.) and were models for column-like monuments bearing the sign of the cross.

Khachkars were used for a variety of reasons. As well as gravestones, they were erected to mark military victories, to commemorate an event of historical significance, to dedicate the conclusion of the construction of churches, bridges, and other structures, as well as on the occasion of renovating churches or making donations to monasteries. Many were affixed to the walls of churches.

The stones are made of either basalt or tuff, and intricate patterns were carved in the form of the cross, with embellishing patterns covering the spaces between. The overriding design was a cross, with the ends of its points always end in three (for the Holy trinity), the lines in the patterns never have a beginning or an end, and numerous sacred number combinations can be found in each one. The master carvers in Armenia were so adept that they turned solid stone into delicate pieces of lace. A special technique was used to carve the intricate patterns, including using needles to inject water in the stone before carving it.


Churches were living books for the local population, they have a specific meaning in how they are placed, and what they describe, and the simplest peasant could "read" them.

Like the beautiful stained glass windows in Gothic Europe, which were storybooks of the scriptures for the illiterate class, Armenian churches and stone carvings were deliberately created so that even the most illiterate would understand their "story" and recount the holy scriptures. Sacred architecture in Armenia was indeed books in stone.

You will often see on Armenian churches repeated patterns of the grapevine, pomegranates, and specific animals and cherubs. These have an additional meaning that Christians understood. Coming from pagan traditions, they were transformed by the power of Christ to represent the power and majesty of the one God in Christ.

You can see the roots by looking at the pagan temples: bulls, lions and eagles always represent power over the vanquished.

Animal imagery became advanced after the Arab invasions beginning in 640 CE. Abassid and Seljuk brought a distinctly oriental culture into the Armenian country, which gave rise to ever more increasing use of animal and nature in covering the exteriors of Armenian churches, especially from the 11th to the 13th cc.

The animals are distinct in celestial and demonic symbols, and have their roots in Mesopotamian and Urartian origin of guard animals near openings (especially windows). Depictions are often of winged creatures (symbolizing redemption), fighting animals symbolizing the fight of good over evil, numerous quadrupeds, which are not always identifiable. In some churches protruding heads of wild boars, stags, rams and especially bulls form series along the top of the drum, the capitals of columns, and along the walls themselves.

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