Gandzasar Monastery

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1216-1238 AD - Near Vank Village, Mardakert Region

Interior of monastery after wedding ceremony.
If Dadivank is the most magical monastery of Karabakh, and G'tichavank the best kept secret, then Gandzasar (Գանձասար) is the most exquisite. Located in the north, atop the green hill which climbs above the village of Vank, it has been restored and is a fully functioning monastery.

Gandzasar has some of the nicest carvings, and detail of any Armenian monastery. Each stone is well thought out, and the decorations are a pleasure to discover throughout the complex. Being a functioning monastery means there are priests and monks there who were happy to give us a tour and history of the monastery, as well as discuss church issues in general. (I do not remember if any languages were spoken aside from Armenian/Russian)

The monastery is surrounded by walls which have monks quarters and should soon be able to accommodate some male guests as well. Women cannot sleep in the monastery due to the monks, but there should be no problem camping out here in the summer, or heading back to Stepanakert, or on to Dadivank. Outside of the monastery there is a cemetery and lots of green hills all around.

As with most trips in Karabakh, I highly recommend an early start and a lunch and snacks packed for the trip. The roads are bad, and the scenery great, so getting there will take some time, and once there you will want to enjoy it.

"This is one of the monasteries in the historic province of Artsakh, in mountainous Gharabagh [Karabakh]. The monastery consists of a church, a gavit on the west side of the church, and other offices; it is surrounded by high walls. This church was built between 1232 and 1238, under the patronage and through the generosity of Melik Jalal-Dola and his wife Mamkan. The jhamatun was built in 1261. The architecture of this monastery, installed at the summit of a mountain, blends harmoniously with the magnificent countryside." [Paragraph Source: Monuments of Armenia]

The following information is from a Soviet brochure.

In the heart of the ancient Armenian region of Artsakh, in present Nagorny Karabakh, following the disintegration of the neighboring Syunik kingdom there emerged in the late 12th century the feudal principality of Khachen.

Detail of portal
Apparently it had reached its heyday in the first half of the 13th century. That is when outstanding works of art were created here that were to make up the treasure-trove of Armenian art heritage. The works had been concentrated in Gandzasar monastery, which served as the family tomb of the Khacen rulers, and up till the 19th century - as the seat of the Catholicos of Agvank. For many centuries Gandzasar was the country's cultural center. It has preserved the gems of Armenian architecture, the church and gavit (annex), outstanding monuments of medieval architecture and monumental plastics.

The foundations of Gandzasar church were laid by the Khachen Prince Asan Dzalal in 1216 and completed in 1238, it was sanctified in 1240. The gavit, according to an Armenian historian Kirakos Gandzaketsi, was built by Mamkan, Asan's wife (the inscription on the masonry runs: Mamkan, Asan and their son Atabeg). The year, however, is unknown, although one can say that the building work was completed in Asan's lifetime, i.e. before 1261.

The church's architecture is based on a cross-cupola composition developed in the 10th century and represented in the temples at Haghpat (967-991), Sanahin (967-972, continued in 1084) and Kecharuk (1033). The religious architecture of the 12-13th centuries adhered fully to this composition, as testified by such typical examples as the temple Harich (1201), Hovhannavank (1216), Geghard Monastery (1215). The development of this form of architecture led to the narrowing of the transverse axis and their elevation, which enhanced still more the spaciousness of the dome which dominated the entire edifice. These features are fully applicable to Gandzasar church. The corners of the buildings (formed by the intersection of the cross) have built-in elongated two-storey galleries. The upper level is reached by steeply inclined console stairways.

The exclusively rich architectural and decorative pattern of the interior and exterior renders a particular uniqueness to the church. In keeping with the old classic Armenian tradition long rays of vertical supports - simple and monumental - emphasize the corners of the spacious structure, serving as a framework for its central part. They are crowned by a cornice that is just as simple in design, consisting of two convex bands of the cymatium and a corona (abaka). The semi-circular tops of the narrow windows (one apiece on the northern, southern and western sides) is ornamented with deep flutes culminating in a fan-shaped decor. The slightly lancet arches rising over the cross-beam layout have a three-stepped profile.

The drum of Gandzasar church with its rotund interior is divided by eight pairs of thin spiralled semi-columns extending into arched bands, every other resting on round or elongated windows with semi-circular gables.

Of exclusive richness is the face of the raised altar which is girdled from every side by broad deeply moulded lesenes (the one on top bears an inscription). The strip inside the frame incorporates eight rhombuses slightly depressed towards their centers (thereby creating a play of light) and slightly concave triangles in between. All the rhombuses and triangles are filled in densely with an ornamental double braidwork, each comprising utterly different elements of decor, as typical of Armenian decorative compositions of those times. The carved work has been slightly destroyed over time.

Exterior of church.
The exterior proportions of the temple follow a definite pattern, reinstating the cross-cupola composition of the interior. The arms of the cross are emphasized with gables of larger-than-usual size, the corner parts have been slightly depressed. Besides, the arms of the cross are flanked, as usual, by shallow bays with triangular cross-sections which lighten the weight of the entire structure while the sharply delineated shadows they give off serve to bring out the basic parts of the facade in all their contrast.

The building rests on a high five-stepped foundation (the height of the steps from the bottom up being 36, 46, 37 and 32 cm). The facades of the temple are divided by flat blind arches, the remaining arches being twice narrower and somewhat lower; two of such arches embrace the bays of each facade. This arcade is executed along a flat plane and do not encroach upon the monolithic nature of the walls.

The northern and southern facades feature identical arches, five on each side. Over the middle arch there is a deeply-fluted image of the cross, with a narrow wide-gabled window above. The four side arches have identical distinctions: they all have three wedges similiar to those on the facades of Hovhannavank Monastery (1217).

The magnificent stone carving work, strikingly diverse in ornamental motives and displaying virtuoso mastery, serves as a kind of 'setting' for architectural form: enriching it without obliverating or distorting the architectural lines. This is in general a remarkable feature of Armenian architecture of that time and one that has found its fullest expression in this structure.

However, the drum of Gandzasar Monastery is not only an outstanding work of art - its decor incorporates a meaningful content imparted by the sculptural images. This refers first and foremost to the two sculptural images of churchwardens symmetrically stationed in the two western bays. The two male figures are almost identical. Both church-wardens have been depicted en face, sitting in oriental postures, with their feet tucked under them. They are dressed in loose robes and wear beards and long moustaches.

The second group of images is stationed in three southern bays. The side recesses contain kneeling figures facing each other with arms outstretched, halos around their heads. Angels have spread their wings over them in blessing, their shape following the contours of the semi-circular bays. The upper triangular slab in the gabled tympanum contains a relief of the Virgin with child. And, lastly, two of the dome's facets repeat the images of bulls' heads (identical to those on the drum's interior), on another one sees the bas-relief of an eagle with widespread wings: the widely spread image of guardian-protector.

The annexe on the western side of the temple obscures another sculptural composition - a crucifix under the gable of the Western facade. The composition is made up of a broad-beamed cross with the figure of Christ in its lower half ( starting from the horizontal beam). Seraphs have been depicted overhead. On both sides of Christ one sees two kneeling figures, that of the Mother of God (left) and John the Baptist (right), their faces modelled en face, klobuks on their heads, their hands outstretched to Christ. The delineation and general features of those figures have much in common with those of the churchwardens on the temple's drum.

The nothern facade of Gandzasar church commands one's attention by the image of a bird in the western corner of its gable. The archaic representation preserves the features of early medieval plastic art typical of the Sasanid reign. The hips of the rood are crowned with small models of the church's polyhedral drum. The central part of the southern facade shows a fluted image of galopping horses.

The church of Gandzasar monastery is a model of clear and well-developed architectural forms. Here monumental plastic forms, fused with the architectural tradition of its time, come together to form a highly expressive uniqueness - the result of the inimitable talent of its architects.

No less remarkable is the annexe which adjoins the church from the west and represents a large (11.62x11.8x13.15x13.25 m) hall free of all supports with two pairs of intersecting arches with a stalactite vault at the point of intersection topped by a light octahedral rotunda.

This peculiar architectural construction, known only in Armenia, which emerged apparently as in the late 12th century is presented in a series of monuments (19 have been discovered to date). The most remarkable of annexes are found in Haghpat (early 13th century), Mshkavank (first half of 13th century), Khorakert (1251) and Arates (1265), the refectories in the same Haghpat (middle of 13th century) and another of the same kind in Haghartsin (1248). All these structures, bold as they are in terms of construction and logical in composition, belong to the more expressive models of the Armenian artistic genius.

The composition of the Gandzasar annexe is close and even identical to that of the first two- Haghpat and Mshkavank. The entrance from the annexe into the temple is framed by a simply-designed portal with a semicircular arch, its casing ornamented with a fine woven design, the tympanum filled in with implanted stars with figured spacing (in the form of rhombuses). Such inset stars were characteristic of the 12th-13th century Armenian monumental art.

A broad cross in relief has been fitted into the eastern ends of the arches. The crown of the arch over the entrance is ornamented with a staggered design of rosettes and elements of the 'Seljuk chain' in the form of two elongated intersecting hexagons. Two rows of such figures ornament the arch in the narrow space on the western side of the buildign. Its other arch (in the south-western corner compartment) is embellished with relief cross-forming rhombuses. The monumental order of the arches sorresponds to the massiveness of the two stunted columns closing off the western part of the building along with their no less monumental bases and capitals. The stunted nature of these columns enhances the impression of excessive height at the intersection point of the arches.


The rectangular exterior mass of the annexe with its clearly defined simple forms culminates in a high four-faceted roof coated with stone tiles and is crowned in its central part (rising over the stalactite vault at the intersectino of the cross) by a light octahedral rotunda in tracerywork.

The exterior boasts a severe style with smooth walls springing from a high three-stepped basement ending in a massive cyma. On the northern facade the cyma develops into the casing of a low entrance, its upper corners flanking two inset reliefs with dynamic images of panthers or ounces facing each other with tails upraised.

Against the modest decor of the annexe's facades the western portal forms a striking contrast by its rich decor which must have had a special meaning for the architect: the portal dominates the decor of the entire structure and can be said to be its ornamental focus.

Such are the Gandzasar Monastery and annexe - two remarkable works of architecture embodying the best achievements of 13th century Armenian architects. In these monumental edifices they have expressed the huge centuries-old experience employing the entire arsenal of technological and artistic means, both architectural and decorative, which they had fully mastered. They have transformed these means into what we can rightfully call an encyclopedia of 13th century Armenian architecture.

A. Jacobson

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