Geghard Monastery

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XII-XII Century - Goght Village, Kotayk Marz

View of Geghard from entrance
Map geghard.gif
Geghard is another incredible ancient Armenian monastery, partly carved out of a mountain. Though the monastery has been around since before the 4th century, the main cathedral was built in 1215. The monastery is located literally at the end of the road. From here you walk up a path which has a few vendors of souvenirs and snacks. (try the sweet "sujukh", sweet lavash and gata if you have never tasted them before). You then reach the entrance to the compound which is surrounded by high walls on three sides and the mountain on the fourth. Inside, you can enter the churches which are interconnected.
Gata purchased from bakers at Geghard with the word "Geghard" written on it
There is some water in a small pond/stream in one chamber carved into the mountain, and the acoustics are great throughout. If you climb up stone stairs located on the left side of the church, you will pass some very finely carved khatchkars. From here you enter yet another chamber. This chamber, though not much to look at, had the greatest acoustics I ever saw demonstrated to me when the monk who was guiding us began to sing. His voice was beautiful to begin with, but when he began to sing in this chamber it was hard to believe a large choir was not singing praise at the top of their lungs... that it was only one man. Also in the corner of this chamber, if you look down you will see a hole that goes through which allows the lower churches interior to be seen. Outside of the monastery complex, before you enter the gates, you will notice some caves perhaps and ruins to the left of the entrance. If you are in shape, you should climb up in this area which has a bunch of little cave-rooms and is quite interesting.

Northeast of Garni, higher up the gorge of the Azat river, there is a magnificent monument of medieval Armenian architecture— Geghard monastery. The specific character of this monument reflects, no doubt, the peculiarities of the austere and majestic scenery around it. The picturesque gorge of Gegharda-dzor with its high and precipitous cliffs is extremely winding, and the monastery opens to view unexpectedly behind a turn of a steep path leading to it. In the 1950s a road sign was put up near this turn — a lioness on a high pedestal, with its head turned as if showing the way. Its figure is stylistically connected with the decoration of the monastery. The exact date of Geghard’s foundation is unknown. In one of the caves of Gegharda-dzor there still gushes a spring which was believed to be a sacred one in heathen times. Following a tradition, it continued to be worshipped even after Christianity had spread in Armenia. As a result, a monastery called Airivank, or a “cave monastery”, was founded there at the beginning of the fourth century. The present name can be traced back to the 13th century when, as a legend says, the legendary spear — geghard — [that pierced Christ] was brought there.

Nothing has remained of the structures of Airivank. According to Armenian historians of the 4th, 8th and 10th centuries the monastery comprised, apart from religious buildings, well-appointed residential and service installations. Airivank suffered greatly in 923 from Nasr, a vice-regent of an Arabian caliph in Armenia, who plundered its valuable property, including unique manuscripts, and burned down the magnificent structures of the monastery. Earthquakes also did it no small damage.

The existing ensemble dates back to the 12th—13th centuries, the time of the flourishing of national culture, especially architecture. Under the princes of Zakharia and Ivane the chapel of Grigory the Enlightener — the most ancient structure of the monastery — its main temple and its vestry, as well as the first cave church were built. In the second half of the 13th century the monastery was bought by princes Proshyan. Over a short period they built the cave structures which brought Geghard well-merited fame — the second cave church, the family sepulcher of zhamatun Papak and Ruzukan, a hall for gatherings and studies (collapsed in the middle of the 20th century) and numerous cells. In one of the cave cells there lived, in the 13th century, Mkhitar Airivanetsi, the well-known Armenian historian. The one- and two-storey residential and service structures, situated on the perimeter of the monastery’s yard, were repeatedly reconstructed, sometimes from their foundations as it happened in the 17th century and in 1968—1971.

The chapel of Gregory the Enlightener, built before 1177, stands high above the road, a hundred meters away from the entrance to the monastery. It is partly hewed in massive solid rock; its composition was, in all probability, largely influenced by the shape of the cave which existed there. The chapel, rectangular in the plan and having a horseshoe-shaped apse, is adjoined, from the east and from the northeast, by passages and annexes hewed at various levels and even one on top of another.

Traces of plaster with remnants of dark frescoes show that there were murals inside the chapel. Khachkars with various ornaments, inserted into the exterior walls and hewn on the adjacent rock surfaces, enliven the outward appearance of the chapel.

The main monuments of Geghard take up the middle of the monastery yard surrounded with walls and towers on three sides and blocked by a steep cliff on the fourth one. This gives the ensemble a unique appearance.

View of Geghard Monastery Complex from cliff.

Erected over a short period, the monuments make up a single architectural and artistic whole in which ground structures are compositionally and stylistically connected with the premises hewn in rock.

Built in 1215, the main cathedral (katoghike) belongs, in its spatial arrangement and layout, to a type of structure spread in Armenia in the 10th—14th centuries — rectangular in the plan, on the outside, and cross-winged domed interior with two-storey annexes in the corners of the central crossing. The architectural forms of the building are well-proportioned and harmonious. The pilasters and half-columns, crowned with pointed arches and spherical pendentives are fortunately coordinated with the cupola resting on a high drum. The stairs leading to the western annexes of the first floor are graceful, even minus the bottom steps. The altar apse is horseshoe-shaped, and its bottom is decorated with a light arcature which seems to echo the squat arcature of the front wall of the altar dais. The transition from the semi-dark bottom to the light-filled under-cupola space is extremely expressive.

The outward appearance of the temple is organically coordinated with its interior. The gentle divisions of the lower hulk are crowned with a graceful cupola which emphasizes the predomination of the vertical line in the structure’s composition. It is also reflected in the arrangement of the main decorative elements of the facades, especially of the southern one. The graceful areature, engirdling the cupola, and the slot-like windows are coordinated with the triangular niches of the facades.

The sculptural decoration of the temple is most interesting. The decorative elements are fortunately combined with the three-dimensional representation of the animals. The portals, the tromp tops of the facade niches, the cornices and the cupola are decorated not only with various floral and geometrical patterns, but also with the pictures of household articles, birds and animals. The sculptural group of the southern facade a lion attacking an ox, a symbol of the prince’s power — is executed in a rather realistic manner. The portal of the same facade, decorated with a fine ornamental carving, is of extraordinary interest. The excellently made tympan, original in its composition, is decorated with representation of trees with pomegranates hanging from their branches, and of leaves intertwining with grapes. The pictures of doves — a favorite detail of the portals of Armenia’s monumental 13th-century buildings are placed between the arch and the outside frame; the doves’ heads are turned to the axis of the portal.

The arched top of the arcature of the cupola’s drum is no less attractive. The thoroughly detailed reliefs, cut in its spandrels and tympans and showing birds, human masks, animals heads, various rosettes and jars, form, together with the arches, an unusual sculptural frieze. In the composition and elements of decoration, this frieze and a girdle of an intricate geometrical ornament above it are close to a similar decoration of the cupola of Gregory Church of Tigran Onents’s family in Ani built in the selfsame year of 1215. This suggests that both structures were created by the same architect.

West of the main temple there is a rock-attached vestry built between 1215 and 1225. Its squat shape with plain, undecorated and undivided walls sets off the subtle gracefulness of the temple. The western portal differs from other portals of those times by van-shaped door bands, arranged in perspective — lancet arched and stepped — decorated with a fine floral pattern. The ornamentation of the tympanum consists of large flowers with petals of various shapes in the interlaced branches and oblong leaves.

The vestry interior is of the square-plan, four-pillar center type. Thanks to the considerable height of the premise, the slenderness of the columns, their remoteness from the perimetric walls, the lancet shape of the bearing arches and the skillfully thought-out lighting, the interior gives the impression of unusual spaciousness, lightness and gracefulness.

The architect gave much attention to ceiling structure. The ceiling is divided into nine sections filled with roofings different in their shape and decoration. The central section, made as a stalactite tent, is the most eye-appealing of all. Composed of alternating standard brackets and small vaults, decorated with rich foil, the tent has a light opening at the top.

The closed vault of the middle eastern section is decorated with millings converging upon a tremendous drooping stone with stalactites carved on it. Of the greatest interest s the flat ceiling of the middle southern section made of large slabs resting on a complex cornice. It is made up of the usual profiled brace and pointed trefoil brackets similar to the brackets of the central section. Therefore the surface of the flat part of the ceiling is wavy and consists of consecutive halves of octagons corresponding to the ornament of stars cut on the slabs and emphasized by bright painting.

The capitals of columns and pilasters are also ornamented with stalactites varying in shape, and the arches of the central sections by carvings in the shape of rectangular and triangular jags. This imparts integrity to the decorative carving of the vestry interior. The architectural forms and the decoration of Geghard’s rock premises show that Armenian builders could not only create superb works of architecture out of stone, but also hew them in solid rock,

The first cave rock, Avazan (basin), situated north-west of the vestry, is hewn in place of an ancient cave with a spring in the forties of the 13th century by architect Galdzag. His name is inscribed at the base of the tent decorated with reliefs showing pomegranates. The main rectangular space of the church is crowned with a tent and complicated with an altar apse and two deep niches, which gave the interior an incomplete cross-cupola shape. Two pairs of intersecting pointed arches, forming the base of the tent, rest on the half-columns of the walls. Just as in the vestry, the inner surface of the tent is hewn in the graceful shape of stalactites which also decorate the capitals of the half-columns and the conch of the altar apse. Probably, the large niches of the northern and western walls were given trefoil heads in accordance with the contours of the stalactites. The decoration of the southern wall is most interesting compositionally. Carved on it are small triple arches with conchs of various shapes, connected at the top and at the bottom by a complicated and finely carved floral ornament.

The Proshyans’ sepulcher and the second cave church of Astvatsatsin situated east of Avazan, were hewn in 1283, presumably by Galdzag, too.

The former consists of two sections — the big one, which served as a vestry, and the small one, connected with it by two archways; in its floor there are burial vaults. In their proportions both sections are rather low, which is emphasized by a heavy column, the segmental shape of archways and a low through vault with a light opening at the top. All this is meant to convey the purpose of this premise as a burial place and as a passageway to the church which was probably a memorial one.

Geghard - ceiling detail
The poor lighting made for the sharp profiling of the reliefs that decorate the walls. Of interest is a rather primitive high relief on the northern wall, above the archways. In the center, there is the head of a lion with a chain in its jaws; the chain is wound around the necks of two lions with their heads turned to the onlooker. Instead of the tail tufts there are heads of upward looking dragons — symbolic images gong all the way back to heathen times. Between the lions and below the chain there is an eagle with half-spread wings and a lamb in its claws. This is presumably the coat-of-arms of the Princes Proshian.

The reliefs of the eastern wall are no less picturesque. The entrances to a small chapel and to Astvatsatsin church have rectangular plathands connected by two relief crosses. The lower one is framed, and the upper one, with its horizontal arms lying on the plathands, is surrounded with rosettes of a geometrical pattern, the same as cut on the facets of the trough vault of the interior. Cut on the portals of the chapel are sirins (fantastic harpy-like birds with women's crowned heads) and on the church walls there appear human figures with their elbows bent, wearing long attires and having nimbuses around their heads. These are probably members of the princely family who had these structures built.

The church of Astvatsatsin is a cross-winged domed one, with three small annexes adjacent to it. The small columns in the corners of the mid-cross section are crowned with arches and spherical pendentives. Higher up there is a round drum of the cupola with a hemisphere of the light opening cut at the top. The inside of the drum is decorated with an arcature with twin columns and blank windows between them, which makes this part akin to the exterior decoration of the main temple’s cupola. The areatures of the altar apses of these structures also have much in common.

Apart from stalactites in the shape of trefoils and quatrefoils, the decoration of Astvatsatsin church features ornaments of rosettes and various geometrical figures; the front wall of the altar dais is decorated with a pattern of squares and diamonds. A realistic representation of a goat at the butt of the altar stair catches the eye. Men’s figures on a khachkar left of the altar apse also merit attention. This is apparently a scene taken from real life. In our opinion, the man with a staff in his right hand and in the same attitude as that of the figures on the portal is Prince Prosh, a founder of the church. Another figure, holding a spear in the left hand, point down, and blowing an uplifted horn, is depicted almost in profile.

Carving of royal crest in chamber.

The jhamatun of Papak and Ruzukana was hewn in 1288 in the second tier, north of the Proshians’ burial-vault. One can get there by a steep outer flight of stairs and a narrow corridor cut through solid rock. On the southern side of the corridor numerous crosses are cut. The jhamatun is a centric four-pillar structure. The columns hewn in solid rock support rather low semicircular arches fitted into trapeziform frames which, forming a square in the plan, serve as a foundation for the spherical cupola above them with a light opening in its zenith.

More than twenty premises, varying in shape and size, were hewed, at different levels, in solid rock massifs which surrounded the main cave structures and limited the western side of the monastery grounds. Those situated in the western part of the complex are intended for service purposes, and the rest are small rectangular chapels with a semicircular apse and an altar. There are twin and triple chapels with one entrance, some of the entrances ornamented with carvings.

Numerous khachkars cut on rock surface and on the walls of the structures or put up on the territory of Geghard in memory of a deceased or in commemoration of someone’s donation to the monastery are richly ornamented with geometrical or floral motives. The composition of some khachkars’ decoration is unique. The arrangement of the khachkars emphasizes certain points of the ensemble.

No works of applied art have survived in Geghard, the only exception being the legendary spear, “geghard” — a shaft with a diamond-shaped plate attached to its end; a Greek cross with flared ends is cut through the plate. In 1687, a special case was made for it, now kept in the museum of Echmiadzin monastery. This gilded silver case is an ordinary handicraft article of the 17th century Armenia.

Sources: "Architectural Ensembles of Armenia" O. Khalpakhchian, published in Moscow by Iskusstvo Publishers in 1980.

View of Geghard Monastery Complex from cave.


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