Momik: Noravank

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Noravank 7: St. Astvatsatsin (“Burtelashen”), Momik’s Memorial Stone.

St. Astvatsatsin (“Burtelashen”), Momik’s Memorial Stone

This impressive three story building is the first church you reach entering the complex from the main entry. St Astvatsatsin or Burtelashen (also spelled Burteghashen; “built for Burtel”) was built for prince Burtel (Burtegh) Orbelian as Orbelian family sepulcher.

The building is considered an architectural masterpiece among surviving Armenian sepulcher-churches, and was the last significant work by the 14th century artist, sculptor and architect Momikwhose simple memorial stonelies next to the church on its south side. Astvatsatsin follows the same layout as that of its contemporary in nearby Areni Village.

Momik's design, like others of its type, is similar to the Shepherd Church in Ani. The design was in three parts with a rectangular ground floor for the sepulchre, and a domed cross form for the next two floors.

The enclosed first floor was reserved for the family tombs, marked by elaborately carved khachkars (stone crosses) and votive plates. There are four small carvings representing the evangelists in the corners of the support system pendentives. Leaning against the western wall are two large khachkars; the one on the left is attributed to Momik, early 14th c.

Narrow cantilever stairs above the western entry lead to the second floor, the hall of which has a semicircular apse on the east end, above which is carved an effigy of Christ flanked by two angels and a symbol of the Holy Sprit just above the east window.

The structure with four annexes is crowned by the dome supported by an open air rotunda. Rotunda details include pairs of birds above each of the exterior capitals of the 12 support columns, and carvings of the donors on three columns on the western side, as well Prince Burtel with the church miniature in his hand .

The facade of the church has bas relief sculptures worked within the stone facing. Bas relief sculptures predominate on each wall, breaking up the wall mass with rounded moldings, arches and large crosses. The east wall has stepped framing over the top heraldic emblem of the Orbelian family, with three cross designs underneath, the central surrounding a sun disc ornament. The north and south walls frame windows with rounded moldings forming an arch over large crosses and bas relief columns that lighten the effect of the monolithic lower walls.

In the corners of the inner framing there are four sirens, birds with crowned human heads. Such heraldic symbols were widely used in medieval Armenian art, in carvings, miniatures, embroidery, jewelry, pottery and ceramic ware. The exact origin of the siren symbol is unknown, but examples have been uncovered in Urartian, Phrygian and Greek excavations, and they are mentioned in the Bible, Indian mythology and even in the Greek myth of the Golden Fleece. They are also widely used in heraldic emblems and on church carvings throughout medieval Europe and the Near East.

The tympanum bas relief sculptures were both done by Momik, at the same time as the church (1339). The lower relief depicts an enthroned Holy Virgin with the Christ child in her lap, flanked by the archangels Gabriel and Michael. The Armenian letters on either side of Mary's head are meant to read “Mair Astvatsatsin” or “Mother of God”. Akin to high gothic sculptures of the period, the scene combines iconic poses with lifelike folds in the garments and a beginning sense of perspective. The child's figure is especially expressive in the way his legs cross and in the movement of his arms.

The upper relief carving depicts Christ holding a tablet with his right index and middle finger extended in a sign of blessing. He is flanked by St. Petros and St. Poghos (Peter and Paul). The Armenian letters on either side of the Christ head stand for “Isus Kristos” (Jesus Christ). Like the lower carving, the figures in the lower scene stand out from their background in an almost three-dimensional way. Momik had so mastered his craft he was able to project his figures out from the stone, and may have been experimenting with a complete separation of statuary in these, his last carvings.

Above the doorway arch, in the top frame, an inscription reads “ԹՎ ՁՁԸ”, which means “In the year” (“ԹՎ”) “788” (“ՁՁԸ”); the date of the church's consecration using Mesrop Mashtots' method for counting, where each letter in the Armenian alphabet had a numerical value. The dating is in the old style calendar, which changed to the “new style” in 552. To fix the date in our calendar, add 551 (the last year of the old calendar) to medieval dates. Thus, St. Astvatsatsin was consecrated in the year (788 + 551) or 1339 of the new calendar.

The text was edited by Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin.