Khachkar (Cross-stone) is a unique Christian art heritage which has become the signature of Armenia. You can see them in other countries as well, but be sure, they have been carved and installed by Armenians for a special reason.
Khachkar is one of Armenian symbols, which is very famous around the world. If you have ever seen such symbols on stones and wondered what they are and what they mean, then keep on reading to find out everything about these Armenian crosses carved on stone.
Armenian Khachkar: What you shouldn’t miss!
All symbols carved on Khachkars are typical Armenian ornaments. They are not just decoratoins. Each of them carries a meaning that is much, much deeper. Let’s see what Armenian cross-stone really is and what meaning it usually caries.
What is Armenian khachkar (cross-stone)
The name “Khachkar” is made of Armenian words ՛՛խաչ ՛՛ [khach] – “cross” and ՛՛քար՛՛ [kar] – “stone”. So, sometimes the word “cross-stone” may also be used in English.
Armenians started making monument-crosses after the adoption of Christianity (in 301 AD). They were s symbol of their true faith. First crosses were made of wood and were often erected beside sanctuaries as a symbol of Christianity.
It was in 4th century that Armenians started using stone as the material for crosses. In 8th century the structure and design of khachkars developed considerably.
Not only crosses but also ornamental symbols were included in compositions, which have become one of the bases for the further development. The khachkar carving art has reached its peak between the 12th and the 14th centuries. It is said that the most refined khachkars were made in 13th century.
The art reversed during the Mongol violations at the end of the 14th century and revived in the 16th and 17th centuries, but the artistic triumphs of the 14th century were never obtained again.
Apart from the main figure, a cross representing the tree of life, khachkars are often opulently decorated with knot-like ornaments forming geometrical shapes. They usually fill the whole surface of the monument with a sophisticated and intricate tracery. These ornaments seem to have no beginning and no end. In fact, it is done deliberately, as it symbolizes eternity.
Along with abstract imagery, khachkars also happen to be decorated with vegetative motives of grapes or pomegranates, animals and on rare occasion people, particularly Saints. “Winged Crosses” are also common for traditional khachkars. The two wings rise like flames from the circular shape called rosette and carved below the cross.
The Symbolism of Khachkars: Why Armenians Create and Erect Cross-Stones?
Most Khachkars are placed in or around churches and monasteries, but you can also see them in cemeteries. In graveyards Khachkars often served as tombstones. One could erect a khachkar on any occasion that was appropriate according to Christian beliefs and the morals of the time. Although researchers avoid linking khachkars and the idea of death, it was undoubtedly an adequate reason for erecting a khachkar.
However, Armenian gravestones can have many other forms, and only a few are khachkars.
A good example of a khachkar cemetery is located at the Noratus, near Sevan Lake in Armenia. The graveyard gathers the largest collection of khachkars in Armenia with around 900 left as a legacy. The site was used as a cemetery for hundreds of years.
Another famous Khachkar field is in Julfa (Jugha), Nakhichevan, which is currently part of Azerbaijan. During the times of Russian Empire most of khachkars were destroyed by Azerbaijani authorities, who planned to clear all signs of Armenian cultural heritage off the newly obtained lands. Despite their attempts Armenians managed to save some khachkars or at least make copies of destroyed originals.
Why Armenians Make Khachkars
To come back to the motives of Khachkar placement – over 50 reasons of erecting a Khachkar are documented and grouped into categories. Some of them are given below.
As it was mentioned above, first and foremost “Cross-stones” were an expression of religious feelings. So, they became an inseparable part of Armenian spiritual architecture. Khachkars were placed not only around churches, chapels, monasteries and even gardens.
Many other constructions were accompanied by khachkars, including fortresses, towers, bridges and water reservoirs. Furthermore, khachkars could be placed at land borders to serve the purpose of their demarcation and confirmation.
Sometimes, they were intended to commemorate a military victory, losses, tragedies and religious-mystic events such as vision. Because of this multifunctionality, khachkars cannot be synonymous to gravestones.
Early Christian propaganda in Armenia was of a great importance. The word of Christianity was spread through the oral and written language, whereas khachkars transmitted the ideology through images, which was especially significant for those who were illiterate. The compositions of khachkars represent God’s history and narrate it through different carving themes and symbols.
Khachkars brought the acknowledgement of Christianity and on the other hand served as objects of art and decoration.
Most Famous and Popular Types of Armenian Khachkars
The main idea of Khachkars is always associated with the Christianity. Yet, all the decorations are related to the nature, as an expression of revival and eternity. In the 15th century the masters of Khachkars tried to hide their names in between the ornaments. This is why the letters of the names are hardly distinguished from the knots.
In 17th centuries, on the contrary, the names of the masters were carved in the central section of the composition. If the master was famous or very skilled the client was also interested in showing the name on the khachkar, as an illustration of his status. This allowed masters to gain fame for their works throughout Armenia.
The level of difficulty and the creativity of the composition were playing a big role in the master’s reputation and the price for his craftsmanship, since hiring a famous master actually costed a lot of money. If you visit the cemetery of Noratus, you can easily guess the status of the family by looking at their khachkar.
There are many types of Khachkars, but let’s talk about the most famous ones. We distinguish ”Saviour”, ”Deesis” or ”Intercession”, ”Resurrection”, ”Birth” and other khachkars, which have a religious purpose.
There are also such Khachkars as ” St. Sargis” that is erected to protect loving couples and ”The Mercy Crosses” – to provide protection from natural disasters.
One of the most interesting “Cross-stones” types is the ”Saviour” – ՛՛Ամենափրկիչ՛՛ [Amenaprkich] in Armenian. In Armenia this type is placed in Haghpat monastery, in Sevanavank near Sevan Lake, and another one is in History Museum of Armenia in Yerevan.
The main difference from other khachkars is the portrayal of crucified Jesus Christ in the centre of the composition, along with other smaller figures, again of Jesus Christ. The name ”Saviour” emphasizes that Jesus sacrificed himself for the salvation of our souls.
Although this meaning seems straightforward, these Khachkars are somewhat mysterious as they were interpreted in different ways by different researchers. The most interesting example of this khachkar is located in Sevanavank.
It is important to mention that the crucified Christ in khachkars is very uncommon as it shows death. Other khachkars, in contrast, represent vitality, infinity and immortality. As it was mentioned above, in most of khachkars the cross represents the tree of life, with the circular rosette below, that indicates the sun, which, in its turn, symbolizes God.
Some of the decorations such as pomegranate and grapes have changed after centuries beyond recognition. But they still hold the meaning of sacrificed blood of the Christ.
Curious facts about Khachkars
- In 2010 UNESCO registered Khachkars in its Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
- Although Khachkars look very symmetric from the distance, you can still notice how different two sides of one Kachkar are.
- It is said that Khacharks, wherever they are placed or erected, are always facing the west. You will not get lost if there is a Khachkar nearby.
- There are no two completely identical Khachkars in the world, except those that were copied for conservation purposes.
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