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Saghmosavank Monastery

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XIII AD - Aragatsotn Marz

Saghmosavank Monastery - photo taken from canyon.
Approach from road

The monastery complexes of Hovhannavank and Saghmosavank are five kilometers apart and situated in the villages of the same names of the Ashtarak district. Both monuments perch on the edge of the precipitous gorge of the Kasakh river. Their silhouettes dominate the adjacent villages and rise sharp against the background of the mountains crowned by Mt. Aragats.

The main temples of the monasteries erected by Prince Vache Vachutyan — the Church of Zion in Saghmosavank (1215) and the Church of Karapet in Hovhannavank (1216— 1221) belong to the same type of cross-winged domed structure with two-floor annexes in all the corners of the building. Subcupola space predominates in the interiors of both churches, which is reflected in the exterior shapes of these structures.

The book repository of Saghmosavank, built in 1255 under Prince Kurd Vachutyan is among Armenia’s buildings rare in their purpose and original in their composition. Added to three buildings erected earlier it is L-shaped in plan. There is an altar apse on its eastern side, and its southeastern corner has two-floor annexes attached to it — a unique phenomenon in the structures of such purpose.

The book repository communicates, through doors, with the vestry and church of Astvatsatsin (1235) to which one can get only through the book depository. This circumstance, as well as the existence of the altar apse, suggest that the building was intended for depositing not only manuscripts, but precious church-plate as well.

The unusual shape of the roof is influenced by the plan. Most of the space is spanned by two pairs of intersecting arches the abutments of which are placed at different levels In connection with different sizes of the sides of the premise and with the asymmetrical arrangement of the lighting aperture. The central section is crowned with an octahedral cloister-vaulted tent with an octahedral rotunda on top of it. The base of the tent rests on an intricately profiled cornice. The transition to the octahedron is by means of cantilevers decorated with various trefoils which form original conchs and small vaults. Higher up, there is a cove and a band of small arches and trefoils over the angles of the octahedron which provide a transition to the round dome. An inscription in large characters above the small arches completes the decoration of the tent.

The tent is shifted west of the axis of symmetry of the longitudinal arches, thus bringing the transversal western arch closer to the wall. Thanks to this it rests not on special abutments, but on the selfsame longitudinal arches. The rooflngs of the side sections consist of small arches, arranged at different levels, cloister and trussed vaults and flat ceilings.

The flat surfaces of the side sections are decorated with a geometrical pattern, with an ornament consisting of vari-shaped stars, triangles and octagons. On the wall, above the altar conch, there is a picture of the rising star with rays, and on the top of the arch adjacent to it there is an angel and a prince’s coat of arms an eagle with half-spread wings and with a lamb in its claws.

The decoration of the book depository, for all its variety of form and detail, probably did not satisfy the architect. Therefore he resorted to color decoration as well. Individual parts of the interior are not only composed of red and black stones, but coated with white, yellow and red paint, which added much to the beauty of the interior.

The exterior of the book depository is also quite unusual. The building is as high as the church of Zion and its vestry. The facades are plain and topped with gables. The asymmetrically placed slender eight-column rotunda, crowning the building, is in perfect harmony with the church dome and with the rotunda of the annex. The rotunda’s columns are round, with identical bases and capitals. Their square plinthuses and abaci are beveled in the corners by trefoils which create a smooth transition to the round shape of the fillets. The archways are enriched on the facades with twin fillets, on top of which there runs a girder—the place of transition from the round shape of the drum to the octahedron crowned with a tent-like roof.

The eastern and western facades are distinguished by modest decoration. The western one is decorated with large crosses in relief one of top of the other. Especially eye-catching is the lower cross which frames a cross-shaped window opening. Around it there are relief representations of a lion, doves and geometrical rosettes. Khachkars are inserted into masonry in various parts of the facade, some into the arched niches. Numerous memorial crosses are cut on it.

On the territory of the monasteries, on the cemeteries adjacent to them and also in the interiors of architectural structures there are many tombstones, some of them in the shape of richly ornamented khachkars. Of interest is a group of khachkars on postaments in Saghmosavank and a monument of 1311 in Hovhannavank. The latter is an original work in the shape of a four-shaft column on a stepped base with an intricately profiled square capital. There is also a more recent khachkar dedicated to Patrick Tateosian, one of the early repatriates after Armenia gained independence from the USSR.

The architectural ensembles of Hovhannavank and Saghmosavank are distinguished by a compact arrangement of the monuments around the main building. The clever use of the terrain (the eastern walls of the churches verge on the edge of the precipice and seem to be an extension of it) adds to the picturesqueness of the complexes which are especially expressive when viewed from the opposite side of the Kasakh river canyon. The decoration of the monuments is well thought-out. The southern and western facades, facing the approachways and well illuminated by the sun are decorated more lavishly than the eastern and, especially, northern ones, which look very modest in comparison.


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