Sanahin Monastery

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X AD, Lori Marz

Sanahin Monastery - General view

The architectural complexes of Sanahin and Haghpat are among the outstanding works of medieval Armenian architecture. In their artistic merits they transcend the limits of national culture.

The monasteries are situated in the north of Armenia, in the Tumanian district. Sanahin is now within the limits of Alaverdi city, and Haghpat is to the north-east of it, in the village of the same name. Standing on a high plateau, amidst low structures, they rise sharp against the background of steep forest-grown slopes of Bazum ridge. The ensembles are complemented by small churches built near them.

The exact date of the foundation of Sanahin and Haghpat is unknown. Documentary evidence and monuments of material culture suggest that these structures date back to the middle of the 10th century. The formation of Tashir-Dzoraget kingdom of the Kyurikids in 979 and the great attention paid to Sanahin and Haghpat by various rulers of Armenia and their vassals favored the construction of many religious and civil structures there. In these monasteries, especially in Sanahin, humanitarian sciences and medicine were studied, scientific treatises written and paintings, most miniatures, created.

Built in the monasteries over three centuries were more than 20 various churches and chapels, four annexes, sepulchers, bell-towers, the building of the Academy, book depositories, refectories, galleries, bridges and other monumental structures, to say nothing of numerous dwelling and service premises.

The main monastery buildings are grouped around their chief temples, forming integral architectural organisms. They are asymmetrical relative to their main axes, which lends them picturesqueness. Compactness and harmonious balancing of the complexes are achieved owing to the fact that each subsequent architect proceeded from the state of the ensemble that already existed and coordinated the shape and layout of his own buildings with it.

What Sanahin and Haghpat complexes have in common is not only the compositional features of various structures. The architectural details and decoration of the monuments, which belong to the same epoch, have much in common and are even exactly alike in some cases, which gives us ground to presume that they were created by craftsmen of the same school.

Most of the religious structures are of the cross-winged dome type and have annexes in four corners, or of the cupola hall type. The structures of the fist type are: in Haghpat, St. Grigory church (1005), which lost its dome during the reconstruction in 1211; in Sanahin. St. Hakob church (the 9th century), St. Astvatsatsin church, built some time between 928 and 944. and Amenaprkich church, completed in 966.

Sanahin Monastery - taken from belltower

Standing out among these churches is Amenaprkich built by Khosrovanuish, the wife of Ashot III Bagratuni. This majestic structure with a transversally-oriented interior crowned with a huge dome in the center, has two-tier annexes. The altar apse and the dome drum were decorated with graceful arcatures which went well with the patchily ornamented window and door platbands accentuating the smooth spaces of the facades. The severe and majestic eastern facade is crowned in its gable with a monumental sculptural group of Kings Kyurike and Smbat. Chronologically, this is the first high-relief representation of human figures with a model of a church, which gives it great importance in Armenian art.

After the institution of the bishops throne in Sanahin in 979, the eastern, facade of Amenaprkich church, and the parts of the southern and northern facades adjacent to it were decorated with arcatures which enriched the outward appearance of the building. The triple and twin semi-columns with variously ornamented flat capitals and representations of fantastic creatures at the bases, imparted plasticity to the arcature and added to its artistic expressiveness. As a result of earthquakes. reconstructions and numerous repairs, the high dome was replaced by a low one. The internal abutments, reinforced by pilasters and wall arches, became heavier. The arcature of the altar apse was destroyed. The building lost some of its former grandeur. Nevertheless, its size and decoration are still quite impressive.

The most important of the cupola-hall type buildings is Nshana church in Haghpat, founded by Khosrovanuish in 976 and completed in 991. It is distinguished by its compactness and harmoniously balanced shapes crowned with a tremendous dome. In the interior, the fancy shape of the high cupola abutments, protruding to the center, is smoothly combined with high arches, resting on them and changing over from the semicircular to the pointed shape. The decoration, particularly ornamental carving, is very modest. A sculptural group of Smbat and Kyurike kings with a model of the temple in hands, a replica of that in Sanahin, is in a higher relief, which brings it closer to a three-dimensional sculpture fitted into a wall niche. This method of using sculpture also occurs in later monuments, for instance in the main temple of Harich monastery (1201).

The interiors of Astvatsatsin and Amenaprkich churches in Sanahin and Nshana in Haghpat, just as those of some other churches, were decorated with frescoes which are almost totally lost by now. The altar apse of Nshana church was decorated with frescoes twice, the last time in the second half of the 13th century. Probably the whole of the interior was covered with frescoes, of which only the representation of Paron Khurlu-bugi on the southern wall is relatively well preserved. In its stylistic features — color tone soft multi-layer treatment of the picture, etc. the technique of portraiture and of the murals of Kobayr and Haghtala monasteries is close to that of Georgian mural painting which was highly developed in the 12th century.

The infiltration of secular themes shows n the miniatures created by the artist Markare for the Haghpat Gospel of 1211. These miniatures are interesting not only for their artistic features, such as the intense and somewhat darkish color scheme, but also for the artists new attitude to the world. The miniature "The Entry into Jerusalem" shows a fragment of the city, a rich house and its owner. The khorans are decorated with men’s figures in secular costumes of those times. Of interest are the representations of standing men in expensive costumes, one with a jar and the other with a fish on a stick, and of a “gusan’’ musician sitting in the shade of a fruit tree.

The church of Harutyun in Sanahin, dating back to the early 13th century, is interesting from the point of view of its composition. Its interior is distinguished by two identical altar apses.

Grigory chapel, of the same church is a miniature concentric domed structure of the late 10th century. Its plan is circular on the outside, and four-petal inside, with horseshoe-shaped apses which impart plasticity to the interior. A high three-step stylobate imparts a certain amount of grandeur to the small chapel. Previously the chapel was engirdled with a graceful arcature with eight arches and unusual capitals and archivolts; the triangular niches and the framings of the openings were subordinated to its rhythm. The fine ornamental carving of the door tympan is of interest.

The small churches and chapels of Haghpat and Sanahin are ordinary vaulted or domed structures differing from each other in size, details of composition and decorative features. Haghpat’s Astvatsatsin church of 1025, for instance, has quiet proportions and a low dome, while Kusanats anapat (nunnery) of the early 13th century has more dynamic proportions — the fractional bulk and a higher octahedral cupola decorated with an arcature composed of trefoil arches.

Annex are the largest structures of Sanahin and Haghpat, interesting monuments of medieval Armenian architecture. They were intended for morning and evening services. Parishioners for whom there was no room left in the temple stood there. The annex also served as sepulchers for outstanding figures and for the aristocracy. The annex (jhamatuns) were added to churches, hut there were also jhamatuns of the same type which stood separately from the church, sometimes next to it. In this case the jhamatuns did not only discharge their regular functions as annex but also served as places of meetings and councils of secular and church notables of the appropriate principality.

The annex of Amenaprkich church in Sanahin belongs to the four-pillar type. It was built in 1181 by the architect Jhamhair at the expense of Father Superior Ovanes and the prince’s family. This is an early example of the widespread buildings of this type based on the composition of the Armenian peasant home with four internal pillars. The artistically expressive columns which harmoniously divide the interior into separate parts predominate in the strictly centric interior. The bases and capitals of the columns are decorated with carvings and relief representations of the heads of the animals, which are of symbolic significance of stylized fruit and jars. The rectangular portal of the northern entrance is emphasized by a geometrical ornament.

The vestry of Astvatsatsin church in Sanahin, erected by Prince Vache Vachutian in 1211, is of a different type. It is a three-nave hall covered with vaults and steep two-slope roofs. The arrangement of the naves emphasizes the lateral axis of the complex. The columns of the interior are similar, differing only in the shape of the bases, shafts, capitals and in their ornamentation. The grandeur and monumentality of heavy arcades, of the low arches and of the high vaults which seem to draw the walls apart give the interior an integral and expressive character. The western facade with its six high archways is extremely picturesque.

Vestries and galleries, as well as special structures, served as sepulchers for members of aristocracy. There are several such structures in Sanahin and Haghpat. They differed from each other in their architectural composition, which is evidence of the great creative ingenuity of their architects. The most ancient of them is the sepulcher of Kyurike and David Kyurikids in Sanahin which consisted of two vaulted cells, isolated from each other, one built at the end of the 10th century, and the other in the middle of the 11th century.

The sepulcher of Zakharid princes in Sanahin is more complicated, its eastern part of the end of the 10th century and the beginning of the 11th century is a basement crypt with a vault on wall arches and with chapels rising above it, of which the middle one is rectangular in the plan, and the side ones are round and double-storeyed. The latter are of a type stylistically close to St. Grigory chapel from which they differ by their miniature size and by the gracefulness of their architecture. Built in 1189, the western part is simpler — it is a premise rectangular in the plan with an original large ornamented portal.

The bell-towers of Sanahin and Haghpat are the earliest examples of structures serving this purpose. These are tall three-floor towers with small annexes at various levels and a many-column rotund belfry on top. Sanahin’s bell-tower, built between 1211 and 1235, is of severe and laconic appearance. The bell-tower is crowned with a light rotunda, which became a characteristic feature of later separate bell-towers of Armenia. The smart western facade is singled out by a large ornamented cross of dark-red stone in a heavily shaped frame. The asymmetrically shaped windows, khachkars and carved spheres of yellow sandstone give the facade a picturesque and appealing look.

Sanahin Academy is an original work of civil architecture built in two stages at the end of the 10th century and at the beginning of the 11th century. This structure, rectangular in the plan, is roofed over numerous closely spaced arches resting on pillars attached to the church walls. The spaces between pillars are decorated with deep arched niches, presumable intended for the audience. The harmonious coordination between the heavy abutments and the arches gives the small premise a monumental appearance. Numerous and closely spaced divisions and the darkened niches make the interior look longer.

The book depositories of Haghpat and Sanahin are unique buildings illustrating the high level of development of civil architecture in the 11th—13th-century Armenia. Such buildings were erected, as a rule, away from the main churches of the monastery. They were square-shaped in plan and had a niche for keeping manuscripts in. Special attention was paid to the design of the roof which gave the book depositories a distinctive appearance.

Interior view.

The interior of Sanahin’s book depository, built in 1063, looks different. Its distinguishing feature is a huge octahedral tent roof resting on diagonally-arranged arches resting on intricate abutments in the middle of the walls. The facets of the tent-roof are made as overlapping bands, which makes it look like the tent-roofs of Armenian peasant homes. The wall niches and the wall-attached abutments vary in their shapes, sizes and ornamentation. Thanks to the curvilinear shape of their cross-sections, the abutments fit in snugly with the walls. The abutments are decorated with openwork and graceful carvings. Their decoration is complemented by that of the niches, the overall impression being that of a harmonious artistic whole. The composition of the interior makes Sanahin’s hook depository a unique work of medieval Armenian architecture. Its influence shows in various architectural forms of Armenia’s civil buildings.

Small structure over water springs, which are still in use, are of special interest among the monastery buildings. Their architectural composition, based on the principle of symmetry, is simple and laconic. These are vaulted premises. rectangular in the plan, with arched openings or the main, longitudinal, facade. The 1831 structure over a water spring in the yard of Sanahin monastery is a single-arched one: a village structure of this kind in Sanahin, dating back to the end of the 12th and the beginning of the 13th century, is twin-arched, and the 1258 structure in Haghpat is triple-arched, with the middle arch larger than the side ones and emphasizing the central axis of the structure. There are stone troughs stretching along the back wall of the structure for watering the village cattle, and also a water reservoir used by local residents. The vaulted composition was prompted by the climate of the country. The cool and damp air inside is a good protection against the scorching midsummer sun. The inner spaces, almost totally open in front, enrich the outer appearance of these purely utilitarian structures.

Sanahin bridge across the Debet river (1192) stands out among all the bridges found within the confines of the monasteries. This engineering structure of high artistic merits, integrity and perfect harmony is in a class by itself among the numerous bridges of the Transcaucasus. A single-span bridge, it has an original composition prompted by the local terrain: its right side is horizontal, and its left side terraces down to the bank. The parapets of the bridge are decorated with tiny spiked helmets at the edges and with the roughly hewn figures of lying wild cats in the central part.

Sanahin and Haghpat complexes are especially rich in khachkars (more than 8o of them have survived), which were intended not only as memorials. Some of them were installed to mark various events: in Sanahin, one was put up on the occasion of building a bridge in 1192, another one, of building an inn in 1205, and others are Tepagir (1011), Tsiranavor (1222), etc. In Haghpat, khachkars were built to perpetuate philanthropic activities of the persons whose names are inscribed on them (Amenaprkich, 1273). Some of the khachkars are quite sizeable. and their pedestals are high and fancy-shaped.

Most of the khachkar have the traditional shape of a cross which germinated out of a grain, with branches on its sides. In the khachkars of the 10th—11th century the framing of the cross was simpler than that of the 12th—13th century khachkars which developed new stylistic features. Ornamentation, which imparts picturesqueness to the general appearance of the khachkar and which covers the whole of the slab is mainly geometrical, consisting of stylized floral motives, squares which never repeat each other in their delineation and rosettes — some in the forefront, other in the background, and still others sometimes in between. The lacy patterns and their intricate interweavings on Sanahin’s Grigor Tudevordi khachkar (1184) or Sarkis khachkar (1215) are truly amazing for the ultimate skill of their execution. As distinct from them, Amenaprkich khachkar in Haghpat (1273) stands out for a great number of realistically depicted human figures fitted into the unique composition of the decor. Sophisticated ornamental compositions and their very high artistic level put the khachkars of Sanahin and Haghpat among outstanding works of Armenian art.

The ensembles of Sanahin and Haghpat stand out not only for the original architecture of religious and especially civil buildings. They are also most instructive as samples of town building art which show high skill of Armenian architects. Marked by the unity and compactness of their asymmetrical layout, they had a tremendous influence on the development of medieval Armenian architecture.


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