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Zvartnots 5: The Cathedral Decoration. The Masters

The Cathedral Decoration

One of the outstanding features of Zvartnots is its decoration; frescoes covered the walls (especially at the altar) and highly decorative stone carvings were carved throughout the building, incorporating vegetal and floral designs on the portals, arcades, column capitals, and spandrels (with images of the builders in high relief). Mosaics covered the floors, of which a few fragments survived.

The surface of facets, edges, window casings and cornices featured pomegranate trees and bowers and grape vines bearing ripe fruit. The grape symbolized the blood of Christ and His resurrection, while the pomegranate is an ancient symbol of fertility in Armenia.

On reconstructed columns, you can see original capitals that combine Corinthian and early Armenian Khachkar (stone cross) geometric patterns. Among them are interior capitals combining cross hatching with volutes or a cross, each embellished with a letter standing for “Nerses” or “Catholicos”.

Other capitals represent the eagle, a common symbol in ancient and Medieval times of triumph, strength, and of the resurrection. In pre-Christian legend the eagle was able to rouse the dead to life. Similar carvings can be found at the 5th century basilica at Yereruik, in Shirak marz.

The Masters
The images of the builders are particularly interesting, as they are rare instances of depicting builders other than through their initials or marks. The half-sized figures show the builders holding tools, with initials or names nearby (one says “Ionn” or “John”). Some say these depict the founders instead, but paired with the marks used by each master to show his piece of the whole, it is widely accepted the figures on the 32 facets (nine survive) are of the builders themselves.

These bas relief figures are surprisingly realistic for the 7th century, showing individual faces, clothing and poses. Following the tradition of carving Khachkars so that no two are alike, the designs are each a unique creation of the master, combining characteristic poses, tools and idiosyncratic details.

The text was edited by ICOMOS/Armenia NGO.