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Armenian Cross-stones (Khach-qar) and their similarities with Irish Cross-stones

December 6, 2013

Armenian Khachqars

Armenian Khachqars

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

An Armenian Khachkar

An Armenian Khachkar

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.


An Armenian Khachkar

An Armenian Khachkar

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.

602990_417342355008991_1118109232_nThis 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.

397511_417342461675647_1133910403_n150979_417343115008915_1203894075_nWhether 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.

Khachkars also appear in large numbers, such as in Noratus cemetery.

Khachkars also appear in large numbers, such as in Noratus cemetery.

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.

401px-Khatchkar_at_Goshavank_Monastery_in_ArmeniaSadly, in the past few years, invaders have looted and vandalized many khachkars, destroying thousands of these stone treasures.

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.

 Illus. 1

Illus. 1

Since the publication of F. Henry’s milestone work on the Irish

high crosses (Croix Sculptées Irlandaises), scholarly attention hasbeen paid to the search for similarities between the Armeniankhachkars and the Irish high crosses (Henry 1964: 14-5).
The latter, dating back mainly to the 9th-12th centuries and being the most famous Irish Christian monuments (illus. 1), as a rule consist of several parts: a massive base,a column that ends with a ringedcross, a finial, which sometimes looks like a dome, or sometimesis fashioned as a small house with a gabled roof. These partsare connected to each other with a mortise and tenon system.
4044345556_a6baf74769_b-600x299The most interesting feature of these monuments is the ringed cross, the wings of which often extend beyond the circle. The circle has a dual explanation: certain researchers think that it is atechnical detail and is used 4043600247_922e0d0783_o-600x393as afoundation for the two horizontal wings or branches of the cross. Others think that the circle is a symbol of victory that originates in Roman or early Christian art. Among other important features of these monuments are the figurative carvings that are located on the burrow, on the cross, and in some cases on the base.
The columns as a rule are covered with scenes on four sides, thecompositions are grouped into squares. The main themes are takenfrom the Old and the New Testaments, as well as the apocryphalgospels, and usually portray the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, the entrance to Jerusalem, scenes of Jesus with his disciples, etc. andare revealed in a certain order (Harbison 1994: 11-14).
428591_10151471442728043_1623791014_nDespite previous attempts to compare these monuments to the Armenian khachkars, it is not difficult to see that khachkars with their architectural composition a high base, a flat stone, a vegetative and geometrical composition placed on the western side are notcompletely similar to these monuments. Instead, closer similaritie smay be found if the comparison is made to the early Christian Armenian monuments from the fourth to the seventh centuries AD.
The latter monuments as a rule consist of a base, a column, a capital, and a cross with free standing wings; they are more extended than the khachkars. However, early Armenian stelae that were previously discovered omit one of the most important details a cross encircledin a ring. Dr. Hillary Richardson who previously compared the high crosses with the khachkars, discussed the so-called ‘winged khachkars’ as the closest parallel to the high crosses.
illus. 2

illus. 2

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.

Several years ago, Hamlet Petrosyan stressed the importance of the so-called ‘crosses on poles’ (processional crosses) of the fifth-seventh centuries engraved on the stelae and church walls as objects for further comparison with Irish high crosses (Petrosyan 2008: 52).
illus. 3

illus. 3

These consist of a base or a foundation, a vertical column or poleand an encircled or a semi-encircled cross.

Looking at various examples, these crosses can be divided into static and mobile types. In the first case, they have a massive foundation, a short pole, sometimes a capital under the cross, and in some cases the circle in the bottom of the cross is set on two columns, for example, the crosses on a pole in Lernakert, Yereruyk and Tsitserna-vank.In some cases, the pole instead of the cross is decorated withdetails characteristic of flagsand standards.
These characteristics include square patterns (Talin,Vank Kharaba) ribbons, leaves of acanthus and palmetto, wings, birds (Akori, Yereruyq,Tsitsernavank, Moughni, Odzun; e.g. illus. 3).
Illus. 4

Illus. 4

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).

According to Babken Araqelyan (1949: 43), it is possible that Gregory the Illuminator and King Trdat are depicted here. It is intriguing that in the Byzantine tradition, Constantine the Great and his mother St Helena were also depicted as worshipping on the two sides of a cross (Araqelyan 1949: 43).
Illus. 5 (up)    Illus. 6 (down)

Illus. 5 (up) Illus. 6 (down)

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.

Illus. 7

Illus. 7

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.

These crosses are also depicted on the walls of the sanctuary church, the narthex and the graveyard. The walls of the canal that is cut through the foot of the hill also reveal some carved crosses.The location of these cross compositionsprovides convincing evidence concerning the “crossification” of the area, which takes on a certain form of landscape “sacralisation”.
Illus. 8

Illus. 8

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.

Illus. 10

Illus. 10

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).

Most probably, it originates from the St. Hakob Metsaranits monastery, which is one of the most famous early monastery complexes in Artsakh.
It is worth mentioning that it is unique to Armenian culture, as the crosses discovered earlier belong to the Latin type and have free standing wings, while this one displays an equal winged cross and is encircled. As we have seen, the encircled crosses are the most widespread among the types of the early cross compositions. Moreover, certain features of these compositions show that the primary prototypes of these crosses were the encircled crosses on poles. The cross is carved on both sides and one side is carved in a more elaborate manner (usually the western part).
Illus. 11

Illus. 11

Illus. 12     Illus. 13

Illus. 12 Illus. 13

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).

Illus. 14

Illus. 14

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).

The fourth fragment was found during the excavations of Tigranakert’s Citadel and the fact that this particular cross was encircled is only a hypothesis (illus. 14). Carvings of palmetteswere found with the latter fragment. Another fragment was foundin Gyavurkala, located four kilometers from Tigranakert (Vahidov , 1965: Table, fig. 6).
The cross and the triangular carvings make it almost identical to the second fragment found in the basilica. If we take into consideration that Tigranakert is located on a massive limestone mountain, then we should not exclude the possibility that it was due to the close proximity of sizeable stone quarries that Tigranakert (and its surroundings) became one of the main production centers of such monuments.
Illus. 15      Illus.  16

Illus. 15 Illus. 16

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).

The clay disc (illus. 17) that was found in Tigranakert is similar to this in terms of technique. On the front, it has an image of a face of a man with a fur hat and an inscription in Armenian, on the back, there is an encircled cross and another inscription in Armenian (Petrosyan & Zhamkochyan 2009). This discovery allows us to conclude that the carving of figurative reliefs on early Armenian crosses, independent of the material they were made of, was widespread to a certain degree.
Illus.  17

Illus. 17

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

Illus. 18

Illus. 18

Illus. 19

Illus. 19

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).

The upper part of this cross is a carved circle in the form of an archthat incorporates the upper wing of the central cross, and the crossing point is underlined with double holes. The fragments of this monument kept in Echmiadzin were published earlier by J.Strzygovski (1918: 257) who dated it to the seventh-eighthcenturies. Petrosyan proposed the eleventh century, a date that can be seen in the carving of a horizontal palmette under the cross, as well as the triple ends of the wings of the cross and the skilful presentation of geometrical and floral carvings.
Illus. 20

Illus. 20

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.

The present examination makes it quite possible to consider that at least from the fifth century onwards monuments with encircled crosses existed in Armenia, some examples of which were covered with figurative reliefs. The similarities of these monuments to the Irish high crosses are obvious. However, it remains yet to be determined whether these monuments played any role as a prototype for the Irish high crosses, and if they did, to what degree.
We hope that it would be possible to pursue this task in the light of new discoveries and a comprehensive examination and analysis of both traditions.
On the contrary, the total absence of intact examples of such monuments in Armenia as opposed to the Irish high crosses has a very credible explanation. It is the intolerance of the Arab invaders towards the cross in plain view that is widely attested invarious written sources (Petrosyan 2008: 88-9). Following this, it is not accidental that the khachkar tradition that was formed in parallel to the weakening of Arab domination not only stepped back from the portrayal of winged crosses, but also did not revisitthe use of figurative reliefs widely spread before the Arab invasions for almost two centuries.
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…


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