In Love with Khachkars

Khachkar main

A khachkar outside
Etschmiadzin Cathedral

I’ve been in Armenia for just a few days, but already I am in love with khachkars. These elaborate stone crosses – both ancient and modern ones – are found all over Armenia. Next to the ever-present pomegranate, which appears in everything from cheap key chains to medieval friezes, the winged Armenian cross is perhaps the most ubiquitous and cherished symbol of this nation so rich in historical and religious symbolism. Its most characteristic manifestation is the khachkar – a large, monolithic stone sculpture that often decorates the interior or exterior of a monastery, marks a grave site, watches over a country road, or adorns a public square.

That a cross should serve as the primary signifier of Armenian culture is not surprising. Christianity is at the very core of Armenian national identity. In 301, King Tiridates III, who had previously persecuted Christians and imprisoned St Gregory the Illuminator for twelve years, finally repented, was baptized by Gregory, and declared Christianity the new state religion. (He may have been encouraged to do so, legend says, when God punished him for his evil deeds by striking him with a horrible disease that caused him to sprout the head of a boar.) Thus Armenia became the world’s first Christian nation. In the early fifth century, the Armenian alphabet (itself much revered as a national icon) was created by a monk, St Mesrop Mashtots, with help from a divine vision, for the express purpose of making the Gospels available in Armenian. And Armenian history – a very troubled history that saw independence enjoyed only intermittently – is characterized especially by the struggle of its accomplished, creative people to preserve the integrity of their culture in the face of continual confrontations with pagan and Muslim enemies – Sassanid Persians, Arabs, Seljuk Turks, Ottoman Turks, various waves of Mongols, Safavid Persians, and, more recently, Azeri Turks.

Khachkar in Goshavank

A famous 13th-century khachkar at Goshavank monastery in northern Armenia, widely considered one of the finest examples of this art form

Stone sculptures clearly recognizable as khachkars appeared in the 9th century AD. They were often simple stelae with a winged cross in a recessed field, with a floral flourish below the cross, sometimes surrounded by decorative fruit or birds or abstract patterns. By the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the khachkar had reached the zenith of its artistic expression and consisted of such intricately carved geometric patters as to be compared to embroidery. In its most brilliant rendition, the medieval khachkar resembles a filigree pattern and surmounts a solar disc formed by a maze on intertwined ropes, the endless knots without beginning or end representing eternity. Khachkars from this period were topped by an upper band (often curved toward the viewer so as to shield the carving from the elements) that might contain more geometric or floral flourishes or even a vignette. Those produced in the area of Julfa (in the disputed Naxcivan exclave of Azerbaijan) are particularly interesting as they incorporate many elements of Arabic art, such as pointed arches and repetitive geometries.

While many khachkars of this period followed the same formula, there also several examples of extraordinary originality, carved by artists clearly capable of deviating from accepted forms in order to produce original works of the highest order. At Sevenavank monastery along Lake Sevan, for example, I saw a unique khachkar in which the anonymous artist, defying conventional composition and even symmetry, shows us a Christ figure with Mongol features – slanted eyes, a beard, and long braided hair.

Sevanavank detail

A charming detail from the Sevanavank khachkar

This was a deliberate ploy to protect the khachkar from the frequent incursions by Mongol invaders during this period: perhaps the next group of raiders would spare the sculpture if they saw their likeness in it. Christ’s long braids seem to support the very cross he is nailed to. In a lower panel, where the sun disc would normally be, the same Mongol Christ is resurrecting Adam and Eve after having cleansed the world of their sin; Eve rises out of the earth while modestly holding her hand over her genitals. In a side vignette, there’s a nativity scene, where the baby Jesus seems to sport a beard too. The ox and the donkey are seated next to each other, and appear to be discussing the latest developments in ungulate fashion. A work of extraordinary originality.

Modern khachkar

A modern khachkar
(with flower offering)
in a quiet park in Yerevan

The interplay between traditional design and artistic innovation is also in evidence in modern khachkars. Yes, khachkars, as I found out, are very much a living art form. Today there are some 40 or 50 master stone carvers producing khachkars with a contemporary twist. These elaborate and monumental stone works are displayed in parks and avenues, in government buildings and galleries; often they are gifted to foreign countries or commissioned by diaspora communities. I wondered, fancifully, if I could get my hands on one, so I visited the workshop of a modern khachkar master in Yerevan and watched him and his apprentices work on massive blocks of reddish tufa stone. After outlining a shape, the apprentices carve out the basic form using power saws. The master or his senior apprentice then set about carving the intricately detailed surface of the khachkar by hand using a small arsenal of metal chisels. Of course, a genuine khachkar is a large, freestanding sculpture weighing several hundred kilograms and costing thousands of dollars. So there was little chance of being able to purchase one and ship it to Nisha in Bangalore, though I would dearly have loved to see her expression when a half-ton slab of carved rock was dumped on her doorstep.

Stone mason at work

A modern-day khachkar master at work in Yerevan

All the miniature versions (up to about one foot in height) that I had seen in markets and souvenir shops were vastly inferior works, not only because they failed to express the powerful stage presence of a typical khachkar, but especially because they were carved quite crudely. So, how could I bring this art form to India without having to resort to cranes and forklifts?

The answer lies in wooden khachkars. Besides stone masonry, Armenia also has a long and rich tradition of wood carving, on many types of wood, including walnut, apricot, beech and pear. At Yerevan’s famous Vernissage market, I hunted down a few fine examples of wooden khachkars, up to two feet in height.

Wood khachkars for sale

Wooden khachkars for sale
at Yerevan’s Vernissage market

At several stalls I was able to meet the artisans themselves, who work during the week and exhibit their wares at this handicrafts market on week-ends. The softness and greater workability of wood in small specimens ensure that the wood carvers are able to replicate successfully the highly detailed designs of traditional stone crosses. Like the stone carvers, they both copy the designs of medieval khachkars and also develop their own, contemporary designs inspired by traditional motifs.

I bought a few of these fabulous wooden khachkar replicas and shipped them to Bangalore, in hopes that Arastan’s customers may be able to view them and appreciate both the high level of skill that went into making them, and also the ancient and ongoing devotion to an iconic art form that has epitomised Armenian craftsmanship for well over a millennium.

Wooden khachkar

An elegant new khachkar
made of walnut…

Julfa khachkar

…and the Julfa khachkar
on which it could be based

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