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In March 2023, after years of planning amid the pandemic, Museum of the Bible will at last open a special exhibition on the rich place the Bible holds in Armenian culture and history. The exhibit, “Breath of God”: Armenia and the Bible, will focus on the Bible’s deep presence in Armenian culture, in their liturgy and literature, and in their art and architecture. In advance of the exhibit, Museum of the Bible was generously gifted two large, intricately carved stones, examples of an art form unique to Armenia: the khachkar

Pronounced “chotch-car,” the word literally means “cross stone.” Though the translation is simple enough, the emphasis thousands of khachkars across Armenia and its historical lands place on the cross is anything but. The best way to understand is to see for yourself.

The Noravank Khachkar

This khachkar is a replica of one commissioned by T‘amt‘a Khatun, a noblewoman, to “beseech the salvation”[1] of a noble and her two sons in 1308. The original khachkar’s carver, a polymath named Momik, was a master artist in his time. Museum of the Bible’s replica of his work was carved by a modern master of khachkars, Ruben Nalbandyan. The work of both masters is evident.

Figure 1: Replica of the Noravank khachkar by Momik, 1308.

Master Nalbandyan says the main principle behind carving khachkars is “finding and outlining the beauty of stone’s flatness.”[2] As you look at the khachkar, you see how each level of decoration, each level of flat surface carved deeper into the stone, exemplifies what he said. At the center of the stone, at the highest level, is the cross. Latin in form, the cross has no corners, no ends. It is infinite. Around the cross, within the scalloped frame, are leafy tendrils, showing the life-giving power that emanates from it.

Figure 2: Image of the Latin cross from an angle. Note the depth of the stone the cross is carved into, up to almost 1" deep.

The cross, in its frame, rests atop an intricately woven medallion at the bottom. Infinite geometric patterns appear in the different concentric circles of the medallion. The medallion’s meaning is varied. Some say it’s the world set under the power of the cross, others that its complexity evokes the mystery of Christ; eternity is bound up with both.

Figure 3: Detail of the medallion.

Figure 4: Close up of the medallion.

The central frame, with cross and medallion, is bordered by two sets of seven eight-pointed stars. All of them show more of the infinite pattern, often with crosses at their centers.

Figure 5: Cross, medallion, and seven eight-pointed stars.

Figure 6: Detail of a seven-pointed star.

At the top is a Deesis, with Christ Pantocrator — Christ All-Powerful — at center, flanked by two men. The character to the right is John the Baptist; the character to the left is unknown.

Figure 7: The Deesis scene on the Noravank khachkar.

Throughout, the intricate lacework carved at the deepest level connects every element of the composition, at times blending, at times distinguishing the decorations carved at other levels. The centrality of Christ and the cross unifies the khachkar.

Figure 8: The Noravank khachkar.

The Tatev Monastery Khachkar

The second khachkar gifted to the museum is quite different. Though the cross stands at the center, its power seen in the tendrils curling out from its base that point up and back to the cross itself, it rests not atop the traditional medallion but a charging knight.

Figure 9: The Tatev Monastery khachkar by Hambik, 15th or 16th century.

Indeed, the cross’s power both protects and empowers the knight as he charges his enemy. Scenes like this are rare and reflect times of struggle and conflict, often against Seljuk Turks or the menacing armies of Timur Lane. Braided ropes without beginning or end form a border for the scene, which is topped with a lintel showing another Deesis scene, though in this instance the two flanking characters have been replaced by crosses.

Figure 10: Deesis scene on the Tatev Monastery khachkar.

The khachkar is a replica of a stone dating to the fifteenth or sixteenth century carved by Master Hambik. It sits at Tatev Monastery.

Eternity and mystery lie at the heart of khachkars. The infinite geometric patterns of the lacework carved into the eternal surface of stone stress the interconnectedness of existence, while the pattern’s ubiquity throughout the carving signifies the pervasive power of its center — the cross. Often referred to in medieval Armenian texts as “the life-giving sign,” the khachkar’s decoration begins and ends at the cross, its eternity and mystery captured in the stone’s endless geometry. One scholar has even suggested that khachkars may be “viewed as a visual meditation on the nature of God,”[3] one that “express[es] the mystery of Christ in visual form.”[4]

Khachkars continue to be carved today. They are uniquely Armenian, and their layered surfaces invite us to explore the different levels of meaning Armenians find in the Bible. Both of these khachkars are currently on display at the museum, and our special exhibition on Armenia, “Breath of God”: Armenia and the Bible opens in February of next year. We hope you’ll come see them both.

By Jared Wolfe, editorial manager

[1] Christina Maranci,The Art of Armenia:An Introduction(Oxford, 2018), 149.

[2]God in Me: Khachtar-Ruben(Union of the World Armenian Painters: Yerevan, 2019), 12.

[3] Maranci, 76.

[4]Maranci, 146.

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