Zvart’nots and the Origins of Christian Architecture in Armenia

Zvart’nots and the Origins of Christian Architecture in Armenia

By W. Eugene Kleinbauer

The Art Bulletin, Vol. 54, No. 3, (1972)

Introduction: Occupying a central position in the problem of the origins of Armenian ecclesiastical architecture is the church of Zvart’nots, even in ruins an impressive site. Like a ziggurat towering up mountainously from the flat plain of the Ararat plateau between Etchmiadzin and Erevan, the capital of the Soviet republic of Armenia, Zvart’nots stood not in a Hellenized urban center but evidently in a rather isolated, thinly populated place that was studded with the churches of Saint Hrip’sime (618), Saint Gayane (630-36), and, at Etchmaidzin itself, the cathedral and present residence of the Armenian katholikos. In layout the church was an aisled tetraconch: four massive, W-shaped piers connected by three curved columnar exedrae and (to the east) a solid continuous wall (supporting an order of columns ?) marked off an inner quatrefoil or tetraconch that was circled by spacious ambulatories enclosed by thirty-two-sided walls ornamented with lush carvings. Though of considerable height and tall proportions, and vaulted in masonry throughout, the building lacked galleries. It was constructed on a large terrace that was surrounded by a fortified wall laid out in the shape of an irregular pentagon, the south side of which was occupied by an ensemble of chambers that served as a palace.

While much ink has been spilled over the problems posed by the church of Zvart’nots in particular and the origins and development of Armenian church architecture in general, Zvart’nots as a member of a group of buildings in the Mediterranean world that were erected from late antiquity to the early Middle Ages has received only scant attention. This paper hopes to redress the balance by focusing both on Zvart’nots and the buildings that derived from it and on the problem of the origins of the aisled tetraconch in Armenia. In tackling these issues I have assumed that a proper understanding of Early Christian and medieval buildings, whether they are secular or ecclesiastical, should take into account function as well as form. An identification of the sources of such buildings requires an identification of both the purposes to which they were put and the salient formal characteristics that they share.

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