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Armenian Art and Contested Lands

By Alice Isabella Sullivan

The virtual exhibition Ancient Faith: The Churches of Nagorno-Karabakh brings to the attention of international audiences the Armenian historic sites and cultural legacy of the contested region of Artsakh, known internationally as Nagorno-Karabakh. This territory has been at the heart of political and military conflicts between Armenia and Azerbaijan during the last century and in recent months. The war that erupted between September and November 2020 was the latest devastating clash. From these heated conflicts, the local population and the cultural heritage has suffered the most.

The virtual exhibition — organized and hosted by the Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC — features seven key religious sites and objects that offer insight into the diverse and exquisite Armenian art, architecture, and visual culture of the region of Nagorno-Karabakh, with roots in the fourth century. The opening page of the exhibition includes details about Armenia and its Christian history, a brief overview of the conflict in the region, and the devastating impact this has had on the local cultural heritage.

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Via the thumbnail images at the top of the opening page, visitors can delve into the seven case studies, which open on separate pages and include general views and details of the sites, their sculptural elements and mural decorations, as well as a few examples of manuscripts produced in local workshops. Each case study also features a video in which Armenian locals detail aspects of the historical and cultural significance of each site, as well as its religious life, meanings, and functions.

The first case study is the fortified Amaras Monastery, founded in the fourth century. It preserves remnants of early Christian sculpture around the reliquary chapel of Saint Grigoris. The site was also home to the first Armenian language school, established by Saint Mesrop Mashtots sometime in the early fifth century.

The monastic complex at Dadivank, one of the largest from medieval Armenia, displays exquisite wall paintings and sculpted decorations, as well as numerous inscriptions. The video details the 3D imaging project of this site undertaken by a group of students from Karabakh intended to document, study, and preserve in a digital format the monastic complex.

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Deemed the “crown jewel” of the region, the thirteenth-century Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist at Gandzasar Monastery features intricate figural and decorative sculptural motifs around its facades and the drum of the central dome, as well as a lengthy dedicatory inscription incised on the interior north wall.

The monumental Cathedral of Ghazanchetsots, built in 1887, has suffered greatly during the recent unrests in the region. Its architectural and decorative features have been partially destroyed or defaced. The video movingly details a wedding that took place at the cathedral, among the rubble, in October 2020.

The next example is a twelfth-century khachkar (commemorative stone cross) from Handaberd Monastery. In addition to the traditional sculptural motifs including the central cross and lateral undular decorations, this example displays in the lowest register a unique image of a mother nursing her child. Although the context of creation and display of this khachkar remains elusive, such carved stone slabs would have had liturgical, funerary, and social functions and meanings, among others.

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The school built in Tzar in the 1950s preserves remnants of the destruction of the local religious heritage while demonstrating its reuse in a secular context. Embedded in the fabric of this now-dilapidated building are hundreds of fragments of inscriptions and reliefs from local Christian churches and cemeteries that had been destroyed. This pastiche of the region’s Armenian history sits in disrepair, and the fragmented memory of the earlier monuments may soon be gone as well.

Tzitzernavank Monastery – photo by Vahag851 / Wikimedia Commons

The final case study, the church of Tzitzernavank, was built on the basilican plan between the fifth and seventh centuries. Interestingly, the church preserves an eastern gallery above the altar, which is very rare in medieval religious architecture.

With a focus on the religious heritage and cultural value of the Armenian sites in Artsakh, the interactive exhibition Ancient Faith: The Churches of Nagorno-Karabakh situates the buildings and objects in their respective contexts of creation, display, and use, while revealing their deep historical roots, meanings, and functions. The exhibition brings to the attention of broader audiences the history, art, and culture of medieval Armenia, as well as its current endangered state in the region of Nagorno-Karabakh due to ongoing conflicts on the ground. Much can be learned from such efforts, which aim to educate and ensure the preservation of these important monuments and sites now and into the future.

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Alice Isabella Sullivan is an art historian specializing in the medieval history, art, and culture of Eastern Europe and the Byzantine-Slavic cultural spheres. She has authored award-winning publications, is co-editor of Byzantium in Eastern European Visual Culture in the Late Middle Ages, and co-founder of North of Byzantium and Mapping Eastern Europe. Follow her on Twitter @AliceISullivan

Click here to go the exhibition website

Further Reading:

On the topic, see Christina Maranci’s recent and important contributions:

Preserve Artsakh: An Open Letter to the World Community,” November 12, 2020.

Cultural Heritage in the Crosshairs Once More: The Resolution to the Conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan Leaves Irreplaceable Treasures in Harm’s Way,” Wall Street Journal, November 18, 2020.

The Medieval Armenian Monuments in Nagorno-Karabakh Must be Protected,” Apollo: The International Art Magazine, December 9, 2020.

C. Maranci, The Art of Armenia: An Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018).

H. C. Evans, ed., Armenia: Art, Religion, and Trade in the Middle Ages (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018).

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