Armenian Studies Program
Church of the Holy Cross (Soorp Khatch)
Type: Hrip'sime, modified radiating plan
Location: Located on the island of Aght'amar in Lake Van, Turkey, near the village of Gevash (Wostan) (coord. 39-19/43-00).
Date: 915-921 AD
Evidence For Date: Chronicle of Thomas Artzruni
Important Details: External bas reliefs, internal frescoes
History and commentary: The church of the Holy Cross (St. Xac') is located on the island of Aght'amar in
Lake Van, Turkey, near the village of Gevas (Wostan) (coord. 39-19/43-00). Aght'amar
was built by the architect Manuel between 915 and 921, based on information in a late
18th or early 19th c. text and on a n inscription on the west facade. The contemporary
10thc historian Thomas Artzruni gives some information about the church in his description
of the building activities of King Gagik. I.
Architecturally, the church of Aght'amar is a tetraconch with four wide axial exedrae. At the four corners of the square bay under the dome are cylindrical niches. Inside the east niches are the entrances of the vestries. Although the west niches have neither vestries nor entrances, the three-quarter circular areas enclosed within these niches are reminiscent of those found in the early medieval Awan-Hrip'sime type of church.
Aght'amar is an asymmetrical tetraconch whose east and west exedrae are deeper than
the north and south. Although the east and west exedrae are almost identical in depth,
their facades are not of the same width. The entire structure is designed as a centrally
planned and domed cruciform church based on buildings of the type of Hrip'sime. In
the ninth and tenth centuries they found some evidence of expanding the central bay
under the dome, this increased the diameter of the dome.
According to an inscription of the south facade, the original crown on the dome had collapsed, and was later constructed in the 13th century. The front staircase was demolished in the 19th century when the bell tower was constructed in front of the south portal.
Unique in the history of Armenian sculpture and medieval Armenian art is the decorative program on the church of Aght'amar. Because the friezes and bands that decorate the church lack immediate parallels in medieval art, scholars have long attempted to explain their symbolism. This unusually rich monument has fortunately survived as the only example of the art of the school of Vaspurakan.
The composition of King Gagik's relief in the center of the west facade demonstrates the piety of the Artsruni family. On the sides of the west exedra biblical stories are treated as allegories of that piety. On the south side of the west exedra is the story of Jonah, and on the north side that of Daniel in the lions' den and the three young men in the furnace. The reliefs of the main band project 8 to 10 cm. from the surface of the wall, a characteristic unique in the history of Armenian sculpture where figures were usually delineated by incised lines.
The symbolic reliefs, usually carved in groups, consist of figures of wild and sometimes domestic animals. Wild animals represented include the lion, bear, ram, deer, mountain lion, wild goat, rabbit and such birds as the eagle and pelican. Of the domestic animals depicted, the bull, camel, rooster and sheep are among their number. Fantastic mythical creatures, such as the griffin, siren and eagle with a ram's head, also appear alongside the more recognizable animals. Reliefs of these animals are not equally distributed on the facades and are completely absent on the west facade. Although a few decorate the east side, most are concentrated on the south facade, especially where the members fo the Artsruni princely family are depicted. The significance of early medieval architectural traditions and especially the design of the ancient Artsruni family mauloleum is crucially important when considering the architectural development of the church of Aght'amar.
Over a period of one thousand years various structures have been added to the church of Aght'amar. Oldest among these later structures is a small vaulted church built in 1298 by Catholicos Step'anos to the northeast of the Holy Cross church. At a later date a vaulted rectangular porch was attatched to it's west facade. In the cemetry to the east of the Holy Cross church are a number of khach'k'ars ("cross stones"), most of which are now broken. The khach'k'ars were built in the 14the and 15th centuries and are similar to those sculpted at the same time in different parts of Armenia.
Manoogian 1986, 11-15, 27, 28, 37, 43. Aghtamar 1986
Kouymjian 1970's, 71-72. Armenian Architecture