We approach the church that Gagik built. Except Gagik didn’t really build it. He commissioned an architect-monk named Manuel to do the hard work. Of the 10th century complex erected on the island of Aghtamar, the only structure that survives is the Church of the Holy Cross. We are fortunate. Manuel’s labor is a triumph of medieval Armenian architecture.
From above, the building resembles the shape of a four-leafed clover. Experts call this shape, cruciform, or "cross-shaped." Later additions cling to the original structure like barnacles. If one could remove them, the original structure would appear more elegant. The building is taller than it is wide, rising high into the sky and topped by a steeple and cross.
Specialists suggest that Manuel drew inspiration for his work from nearby Soradir (or Dzoradir), a site resting along the Iranian-Turkish border. The monastic complex at Soradir is senior to Aghtamar by at least a century and a half. Manuel improved upon the design of his church though, increasing the size of the central dome as well as the number of exterior faces capable of carrying ornate decoration. No improvement of the name could be imagined, so structures at both Soradir and Aghtamar are remembered simply as “The Church of the Holy Cross.” These buildings were functional places of worship for Armenian Christians until the genocide of 1915. Today, they are museums.
We climb the stairs from the dock, circle the church’s exterior, admire the lines. I reach out and feel the stone. Its texture and color are different than the chunky basalt of the island. Beneath my fingers is a warm pinkish tuff, imported from somewhere on the mainland. The work that this suggests is enormous; tons of stone were cut, hauled overland, loaded on boats, and floated to the island. I wonder how far it is to the quarry? I applaud the effort and appreciate the result. However difficult the transport, the soft tuff simplified the craft of carving the low reliefs.
These stand out above my head. Figures of people and animals dance in a garden of delight. Some of the scenes capture moments in the biblical narrative. Adam and Eve snack on fruit from a tree. David prepares his sling as the towering Goliath advances with drawn sword. Abraham, prepared to kill Isaac, is frozen. He looks over his shoulder with eyes wide as if startled a voice. Nearby a ram hangs in a thicket.
Other exterior reliefs depict daily life and characters from bible times up to the 10th century. Thaddeus and Gregory, saints honored by the Armenian Apostolic Church, are pictured. Their role in evangelizing the region and baptizing the royal family is famous. It initiated the claim that Armenia was the first nation on earth to convert to Christianity.
Gagik himself makes a grandiose appearance. Larger in size than the nearby figure of Christ, he holds in his hands a model of the church. He presents it to God and to his brethren as an act of faith. It is classic donor imagery. He is pictured as the triumph of a great legacy.
Manuel’s labor is stunning. From the reliefs, we appreciate the stories we know. We imagine the stories we don’t. Animals race round and round under the drip edge of the roof. Workers harvest grapes. Roosters prepare for battle. Rams butt heads. An archer shoots a bear. The stone walls offer windows to life from another time.