A New Life for Seventh-Century Armenian Wall-Painting Art

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YEREVAN – The Armenian and English-language book The Restoration of Wall Paintings in Several Armenian Churches of First Christian Ages is the result of an eight-year research, study and restoration campaign of frescoed cycles, carried out in various early Christian churches located on the slopes of the mythical Aragatz Mountain. The authors have repeatedly traveled to Armenia, engaging passion, devotion, means and professionalism to recover, preserve and restore wall paintings of extraordinary beauty and historical-cultural value. Their goal is to maintain and transmit the immense load of messages, not always very clear, coming from the depths of the centuries, never studied in depth and systematic so far.

This 330-page work recently published by Tigran Metz Publishing House in Yerevan contains 703 color photos and pays homage to the pioneer of the field, the Russian scientist Lidia Dournovo, who in the 1950s and 1960s had made reproductions of many frescoes now deposited in the National Art Gallery of Armenia. For more information or to order the book, email arazarian@gmail.com.

The following is a slightly abridged version of Patrick Donabédian’s foreword to this book.

In the history of medieval Armenian art, wall painting is one of the least studied and most problematic spheres. Here are some reasons for this situation: the small number of surviving fragments and their poor condition, the complexity of the historical-religious basis, the almost complete destruction of the heritage in the historical western part of the country, and, in the case of miraculously preserved fragments, their inaccessibility to field work. This is why there is still no more-or-less comprehensive view and research about early Christian and medieval Armenian wall painting art. Our knowledge is especially limited in the field of artistic decorations of seventh-century monuments, although some information is available from N. Kotanjyan’s book Monumental Painting of Early Medieval Armenia (Yerevan, 2017). Meanwhile, in that era, there were very favourable conditions for the spread of wall-painting art. Here are the main two ones:

  1. Beginning in the late sixth century, and particularly during the period between the late 620s and the early 690s, Armenian architecture saw its first ‘Golden Age’. During that brilliant time, dozens of high-quality, original, and innovative religious structures were built in Armenia. These domed buildings, with their complex and thoroughly planned compositions, had fine and unique sculptural ornamentation. After the construction of Zvartnots, beginning from the mid-seventh century, architectural sculpture acquired a uniqueness unusual for Armenia and even some luxury. Within the same period, the type of monuments with column or cross-crowned quadrilateral carved memorials was also developed. Moreover, that rapid upsurge of Armenian architecture and sculpture occurred in the period when the other major Christian centres of the East, such as Byzantium and Syria, were experiencing deep crisis, and almost no significant structures were created there.
  2. In the sixth and seventh centuries, the Armenian Church had a clear favorable position in regard to wall painting and struggled against iconoclasm. In Armenia, one of the standard bearers in defence of iconography was the chronicler Vrtanes Kertogh. In his work About Iconoclasts, to contradict the opponents of iconography, he brings forward the following argument: ‘it is not because of the colours that one prostrates, but because of Christ, for whom they are painted. . . . We recognize the invisible through the appearance of God, and the colours and images are the memories of the Lord and his servants’. As an additional argument, Vrtanes Kertogh presents a rather long list of subjects painted on the walls of Armenian churches, opposing them to the idols erected in pagan temples.

Under such circumstances, it is natural that monument painting received a

powerful impetus. And actually, there are many traces of the paintings preserved on the internal walls of some seventh-century Armenian churches. However, until recently, the number of fragments of visible images was too small. Only four monuments with remnants of ‘readable’ wall paintings were mentioned by the scientific community. Those are the churches of Mren, Lmbat, Arutch, and Talin, with the fragments of paintings preserved in the altar apse and on its conch as well as some minor leftovers of images preserved on other walls. Unfortunately, the Mren church, which lost its southern wall nearly twenty years ago, today stands on the verge of collapse, and, being situated on the Turkish side of the Armenian border, is almost inaccessible.

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However, since 2013, the situation has begun to improve. Two individuals with particular dedication and great professionalism were determined to focus attention on the early-Christian sanctuaries located in the Shirak and Aragatsotn provinces of Armenia. One of them is Christine Lamoureux, a Belgian living in Italy and a professional restorer of wall paintings, and the other the restoring architect Arà Zarian, the offspring of a famous Armenian family, also living in Italy.

Their activities in Armenia started in 2012 from Vorotnavank. Next they moved to Shirak where, from 2014 through 2017, they accomplished a large project in Lmbatavank. Being greatly impressed by the results achieved in Lmbat, the officials of Artsakh invited the two restorers to ‘take care’ of the thirteenth-century wall paintings of the Katoghike Church of Dadivank. That work was implemented in 2014 through 2017, and upon its very successful completion, a remarkable book was published: K. Matevosyan, A. Avetisyan, A. Zaryan, Ch. Lamoureux, Dadivank: The Revived Wonder (Yerevan, 2018). At the same time, conceiving that the number of wall paintings available in some seventh-century monuments of the Shirak and Aragatsotn areas exceeds the number of those already known or assumed, and realising the extraordinary importance of that phenomenon for Armenian culture, they decided to continue and expand their activities within this territory.

The members of this wonderful ‘tandem’ perfectly complement each other. Christine seems to be a real magician with various kinds of brushes, tools, and materials. Working extremely cautiously and meticulously, and carefully following the rules of her art, she is capable of elaborately returning the magnificent charm of the decayed frescoes by only cleaning, strengthening, and partially completing them. The cleaning and strengthening are carried out with great care, and completions are made to a minimum degree—only in necessary cases, with the conditions before and after the intervention and permanently documented. The second figure of the team is a real ‘one-man band’, performing all the countless administrative, organisational, and supply responsibilities along with participating in all the above-mentioned important and complex technical actions.

It is noteworthy that Arà Zarian considers it necessary to describe all those actions for each monument in the book, just as meticulously as they were performed, and to elaborately document every step with photos. One important clarification should be taken into account in evaluating this painstaking, long-term, and resolute exercise: all this has been done and is still being done largely at the expense of these two dedicated individuals.

An eloquent example of the accomplished work is the wall paintings in the previously mentioned Katoghike Church of Dadivank, which, after being cleaned of a thick layer of dirt, dust, and soot, then strengthened by Christine Lamoureux and Arà Zarian, regained their original brightness. Moreover, due to their cleaning, an inscription was discovered revealing the date the wall paintings were executed: 1297.

In this very way, the following churches were studied and then partially or completely underwent the above actions between 2013 and 2017: St Stephen in Lmbat, Karmravor in Ashtarak, St John in Mastara, St Mary and St George/St Sargis in Artik, and, to a smaller degree, the large and small churches of Talin, St George in Garnahovit, St Theodore the Commander in Yeghvard, the six-apse church in Aragats, St Stephen in Kosh, and St Gregory the Illuminator in Nor Kyanq. As a result, Armenology and art history were enriched by a number of very important discoveries.

  1. It turned out that the inside of all the studied monuments had been fully plastered. They had been plastered not only where wall paintings had to be executed (primarily the altar apse and its conch, the adjacent walls and some other places as the sides of the western door in Ashtarak), but also on all other surfaces which were not to be painted. That is, in the opinion of the authors, there were a few (perhaps many) monuments in the seventh century whose inner surfaces were mainly white or solid coloured, and probably only Mastara’s church was entirely wall-painted inside. It was an amazing and unexpected discovery. Before that, I was convinced that the monuments of the seventh century (Arutch, Bagaran, Yeghvard, Talin, Lmbat, Mren) in which some fragments of plaster (and sometimes of paintings) are or were available in different parts outside the altar apse would have been entirely wall-painted, including the hemisphere of the dome (Patrick Donabédian, L’âge d’or de l’architecture arménienne: VIIe siècle (Marseille: 2008), 221).
  2. After having been cleaned and strengthened through the efforts of the authors, the wall paintings of Lmbat gained a new life, with expansive surfaces and refreshed colours. The activity of the restorers was not limited to only the wall paintings, but also touched the sculptures. The cross decorating the vault of the western cross-arm of the Lmbat church was also freed from the age-old layer of dirt and soot, revealing its original look. Finally, new inscriptions were opened up. Meanwhile, the works carried out in the Karmravor Church of Ashtarak became a watershed in the history of the monument. In the altar apse, the triple image of Deisis was revealed, and below it, the theory of saints of the Church Fathers was discovered. The images of the rider saints, St Sargis and St George, on both sides of the entrance were significantly refreshed and defined, and the inscriptions of their names were revealed. The cleaning and examination of the walls showed that the interior of Ashtarak’s Karmravor Church had undergone a three-stage painting. The first stage was implemented initially, right on the stones, which we will speak about later. The second one was a decorative layer, without images, painted on the plaster. And finally, in the third stage, the main wall painting was laid on the previous layer.

Topics: Armenian art

The results of the study of Mastara’s St John Church are more modest but no less important. In the southwestern corner and the southern apse, some fragments of saints’ images, including, perhaps the rider St George’s image, were discovered, and an inscription ‘Archangel Gabriel’ was revealed. It also turned out that the entire inner surface of the building had been painted. We would remind the reader that nothing was known about Mastara’s wall paintings before. A number of important observations were also made in the large and small churches of Artik. In the first one, it was confirmed that the altar apse had had a large decorative composition, probably with the image of Christ in the centre and a theory of saints below it.

Among the new valuable materials acquired, one revelation deserves a special mention. Lidia Durnovo has touched upon that matter only very casually, perhaps not fully perceiving its meaning. It concerns the existence of an initial non-painted layer beneath the main wall painting, whose traces our authors noticed in most of the examined monuments. Their studies have shown that the initial layer was painted right on the stones of the wall without plastering. Noteworthy is the fact that the initial decoration contained two types of decorations. The first type comprised two- or three-color (white, red and green-blue) geometric or stylized plant patterns—for example, encircled ‘daisy’ and rays—which most probably were painted in some important places only, such as the squinches and the centre of the conchs. The other type comprised a mysterious two-colour (white and red) ‘net’ composed often, although not always, of rows of white stripes and red dots marking the joints of the wall masonry, which are available in different parts of the building and even on the vertical walls.

This strange phenomenon still cannot be explained. To highlight it, Christine Lamoureux and Arà Zarian offer several hypotheses: we deal either with primary ornaments, which were later refused and covered with a new layer of decoration, or, as the authors tend to think, with a symbolic or even esoteric system having a special purpose and a certain sense. Actually, their observations seem to show that these figures and the rows of stripes and spots were almost immediately covered by the plaster of the main layer. In other words, if these observations are true, the initial ‘decoration’ was performed with a secret intention to conceal it.

The fact that the same phenomenon can be observed in several monuments of the same age refutes the idea that these were initial mistakes and demonstrates that we are dealing with an accepted and probably regulated action. Although the canons presenting the foundation, naming, and consecration of the churches do not mention it, let us make the following assumption: at the initial stage of the ritual, some geometric, radiating and striped dot ‘decoration’ was made, containing, perhaps, a mystical meaning and bearing a protective function. And shortly after that, the second phase of the ritual—the main illustration—was executed on the plaster. (Ashtarak’s church seems to have an additional intermediate stage as well.)

Remember that comparable phenomena are observed in other places, too. Some carved, painted, and radiating decorations made of two-colour stones are quite often found on the small and large squinches of the seventh-century churches (Ashtarak, Aragats, St Gayane and St Hripsime of Vagharshapat, Pemzashen, Artsvaberd).

On the internal walls of the Aten Church in Georgia, constructed by the Armenian architect Todosak, first a modest geometric ornament was painted; almost four centuries later, it was followed by a spacious pictorial scene.

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