Armenian Cross-stones (Khach-qar) and their similarities with Irish Cross-stones
Each culture possesses a certain original element which becomes a symbol of the entire national culture. In Armenia such symbol is “khachkar”, the so-called cross-stones, the monuments of Armenia. The word “khachkar” is formed by two Armenian words: “khach” (cross) and “kar” (stone).
Khachkars are an art – decorative-architectural sculptures based on the ancient national traditions and made in a variety of shapes
Armenian cross-stones (Khachkars) are outdoor steles carved from stone by craftspeople in Armenia and communities in the Armenian diaspora. They act as a focal point for worship, as memorial stones and as relics facilitating communication between the secular and divine. Khachkars reach 1.5 metres in height, and have an ornamentally carved cross in the middle, resting on the symbol of a sun or wheel of eternity, accompanied by vegetative-geometric motifs, carvings of saints and animals.
Once finished, the Khachkar is erected during a small religious ceremony. After being blessed and anointed, the Khachkar is believed to possess holy powers and can provide help, protection, victory, long life, remembrance and mediation towards salvation of the soul. Among more than 50,000 Khachkars in Armenia, each has its own pattern, and no two are alike. Khachkar craftsmanship is transmitted through families or from master to apprentice, teaching the traditional methods and patterns, while encouraging regional distinctiveness and individual improvisation.
A typical cross-stone is made out of slate of volcanic bazalt or tuff . The central symbol of any khachkar was a new-born, growing like a tree or a flower, cross – the symbol of new eternal life. Under the cross they cut a circle: the circle with the cross on it symbolized celebration of birth of life, they are also called sun crosses. Above the cross they usually placed common Armenian faiths symbols – an eagle, a lion, a bull and an angel. For Armenians they were four beginnings of the universe – fire, water, earth and air.
The winged Armenian Cross has a busy design where the lower shaft is usually just slightly longer than the arms and top, and each member is always seen with the distinctive double tips. An alternative name is the Siroun Cross. Siroun (pronounced “see-roon”) is a girl’s name in Armenian and means lovely. On the original stone crosses (Khachkar) we invariably see intricate carving, like the interlacing pattern seen in Celtic knots. Apart from the distinctive ‘wings’, Armenian Cross designs are quite individual.
This cross is sometimes confused with the Snowflake Cross and simpler versions of the Armenian Cross can be confused with the fishtail St. John’s Cross. There are a similar forked heraldic crosses, like the Croix Fourche, or crescents, as in the Croix Croissant (known in witchcraft as the Lunate Cross), which in turn are similar to the Teutonic Cross. But on the Armenian Cross we see no forks or crescents. In fact, rather than moons, we can often see Suns.
The cross is usually shown without a corpus. At the end of each arm is usually a small disc (sometimes more than one, as seen in the example above) and each of these are suns, which represent the light of Christ. In the Armenian Church this symbol is emphasised during morning services. The intersection of the bars signifies the four corners of the world meeting at life’s centre.
Whether the Khachkar is used by the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Armenian Catholic Church or the Armenian Evangelical Church, the cross always features the double-tipped arms. These eight points, as with the St. John’s Cross, represent the eight beatitudes. Multiples of eight are significant in Armenian church architecture. The churches are built on sixteen pillars, consecrated to the twelve apostles and four evangelists, and the churches are often topped with an octagonal dome.
But all these interpretations of the cross design are relatively recent. The cross is truly ancient and was used by Armenian Pagans long before Christians adopted the cross in the 9th century.
Old Pagan fertility dragon stones (vishapakar) can be seen in Armenia near lakes, rivers and springs, where they represent the Tree of Life and the biblical Garden of Eden. These fish-shaped vishapakars were carved and erected thousands of years before the Christian khachkar stones.
Although the vishapakars evolved into khachkars, the fish tail was retained along with its Tree of Life and Wisdom interpretation. An addition was the equilateral geometry which symbolizes harmony, Sacred Geometry.
The stone-cutters who made khachkars were and are called varpets (master in Armenian). Their art is alive and is in demand even now. Khachkars keep the spirit of Armenian people. It is quite natural that the art of Armenian khachkar is compared only with another magnificent phenomenon of the Armenian medieval art, that of Armenian miniature.
The biggest cemetery with ancient khachkars in Armenia is near the settlement of Noraduz. A millennium of Armenian history is embodied in the khachkars there.
Since the publication of F. Henry’s milestone work on the Irish
Specifically, she looked at the famous khachkar of the Harants monastery that dates back to 1639 where the cross of this khachkar is encircled on its eastern side (illus. 2).Archaeological research and excavations carried out in recent years have uncovered new similarities between Irish high crosses and the early Christian Armenian monuments.
These consist of a base or a foundation, a vertical column or poleand an encircled or a semi-encircled cross.
In Kasakh, two figures are carved on the two sides of a cross on a pole, one of the mis haloed and the other one is carrying a long sword. The left figureis touching the border of the circle. Possibly, this represents a scene of worship (illus. 4).
The numerous instances of carvings of ringed crosses on poles provide us with evidence to suppose that these kinds of crosses may have also been used. However, it is only three years ago that we discovered the first examples of these kinds of crosses, and it is important that all of them were discovered in the Tigranakert of Artsakh and its surroundings.
It is significant to note that an early Christian cave sanctuary located not far from Tigranakert contains a lot of carvings of encircled crosses (illus. 5, 6, 7). Carved into the rock, the cross compositions accompany the pilgrims along the road, as if symbolizing via crucis.
This can be seen in different areas of Armenia, specifically in the Hrazdan, Azat and Akhuryan river valleys, organized by means of the khachkars (Petrosyan 2006: 251-260, 290-292). Some encircledor semi- circled crosses in Tigranakert’s cave sanctuary have Armenian inscriptions, and instances of flower and bird design. During the excavations of
Tigranakert, some interesting examples of the encircled cross were revealed in an early Christian basilica excavated there. In the first instance, we have a stone disc wherethe cross was depicted with lilies (illus. 8). In the second instance, a clay disc was excavated (discussed below), and in the third instance, they discovered the capitals on either side of the portal that were presented as if enclosing a vineyard (illus. 9) or among somecelestial beings.
To turn to the encircled stone crosses: the first example wasdiscovered two years ago in the village of Kolatak in the valley of the river Khachen (illus. 10).
The widening sections of the wings andthe crossing points each are underlined by a plaque. The circle in itsturn was based on a volumetric-engraved palmette, which waspossibly based on a special construction for a cross supported bythe bottom tenon.The excavations of Tigranakert have yielded at least fourfragments of encircled crosses. The frames of two are decoratedwith triangular sections. One of the examples discovered during theexcavations of the basilica is a fragment of a circle, whichpreserved parts of the component that supported the wings of thecross (illus. 11).
At a later stage, a hole had been made in this fragment. A tentative explanation for this is that the fragment was hung from a wall. The second fragment which is smaller in size was found with a part of the cross itself (illus. 12). A third fragment of the circle, as well as a fragment of the cross were also found (illus. 13).
Thus, the latest discoveries testify that in the early Middle Ages these monuments with encircled crosses were fairly wide-spread in Armenia. As far as the figurative carvings of the early Armenian monuments with ringed crosses are concerned, we can only refer to several examples of such fragments that come from Loriand Tavush. In the first instance, it is an image of a saint on a winged cross (illus. 15), in the second, it is a disc inserted in to the crossing point of the wings with the scene of the Resurrection (illus. 16).
Later on, starting from the ninth century when the khachkars became extensively widespread, the creation of early Christian column-like stelae gradually declined. We can only mention two examples that perhaps have some connection to the encircled
crosses. The first example comes from a famous column in Tatev. It is possible that the framed cross on the column originates from an earlier prototype. Although the column was erected in the tenth century, the cross with its braided design and almond-shaped wings cannot be dated earlier than the eighteenth century (illus. 18). Aniconographically similar khachkar comes from Oshakan (illus. 19).
As far as the later winged crosses,the earliest example of which can be dated to the twelfth century(illus. 20), one can venture a hypothesis that they originated from the earlier cross bearing monuments. It may well be that one of them,the already mentioned khachkar of Harants monastery, possibly hadan encircled winged cross as its prototype.
In 2010 Armenian cross-stone art was included in UNESCO intangible cultural heritage list.In every culture there is a distinctive element which is not found anywhere else, and which becmes a symbol of the entire national culture.
PS. I visited Garni and some other Armenian sites and noticed some inscriptions close to Celtic ones on many stones. This cannot be coincidence, as recently done DNA research shows very high degree of R1b in Armenia. Moreover, in Irish psalms they ask prosperity for Armenia as well. Surprised? Armenia is also in an epic on Irish Mythology…