Frescoes, Mosaics, and Ceramics

A. Wall Paintings/Frescoes

The excavations of the Urartian fortress of Arin Berd-Erebuni [1], the first settlement of Erevan and the site from which the capital of Armenia got its name, uncovered extensive fragments of wall painting. On the site, various reconstructed chambers have been repainted following the designs and colors of authentic vestiges. Thus, we have an idea of the figural and decorative art practiced in Armenia in the eighth and seventh centuries B.C. In the history of monumental painting in Armenia, there follows a hiatus of more than a thousand years. In the late sixth and early seventh centuries of the Christian era, some churches were decorated with frescoes in their apses. This tradition continued sporadically into modern times. The most important among the surviving wall paintings are in the churches of Lmbat (late sixth or early seventh century), Talin [19] (seventh century), Aght'amar [26, 130, 131, 161] (915-921), Tatev [39, 162] (tenth century), Haghbat [40, 41, 132] (thirteenth century), Tigran Honents' [36, 163] at Ani (1215), and K'obayr (twelfth-thirteenth century) in Lori.

Of these the most extensive and the best preserved are in the palatine church on the island of Aght'amar [161] in Lake Van, The entire interior of this church from floor to dome was painted with an extensive New Testament cycle [161] as a complement to the Old Testament one [130, 131] carved on the exterior façade of the church. In the dome there was once an Adam cycle. Unfortunately, the church has been totally neglected since 1915 and the little that survives is slowly disappearing.

The paintings of the church of Tatev [162] appear to have been executed by artists from western Europe. Those of Haghbat are stylistically Armenian; the extensive cycle, including a series on the life of St. Gregory the Illuminator, which covers the entire interior of the church of Tigran Honents' [36, 163] at Ani is of a mixed Armeno-Georgian tradition, as are those in the church at K'obayr to the north. Many other traces of wall painting have survived, but unlike the Byzantine, or even the neighboring Georgian practice, the walls of most Armenian churches were left undecorated.

B. Mosaics

Excavations conducted during the renovation of the cathedral at Etchmiadzin [3, 4] in the late 1950s uncovered tesserae, the individual pieces of colored stone or glass used in the making of mosaics, under the dome of the church's reconstruction in 485 A.D. Unfortunately, we have no idea of the size of the mosaic nor its subject. One pre-Christian mosaic has survived on the floor of the Roman-styled bath [164], probably of the third century A.D., excavated in the precinct of the temple of Garni [2, 164]. The small mosaic, about two meters square, depicts a water scene with the goddess Thetis [164] and other mythological figures. Inscriptions on the mosaic are Greek, but the figural types are oriental. Though artistically the mosaic is of inferior quality, historically it is important.

The only other mosaics that can be regarded as Armenian is a group of some half dozen pavements of former Armenian churches and chapels in Jerusalem [165]. Like the Garni mosaic, these were uncovered during the past century and remain in situ. Unlike the Garni mosaic, they bear Armenian inscriptions [165] and can be stylistically dated to the Christian era -- the late fifth or sixth centuries. The inscriptions are of immense historical value because they represent the oldest examples of Armenian writing to have survived. Artistically they are of a very high quality and represent varieties of Garden of Paradise scenes with cornucopia and geometric section-patterns framing various birds and fish [165]. Stylistically, they are similar to the mosaics of the period found in non-Armenian churches and synagogues in Jerusalem and its environs.

Even though there was a large Armenian colony in the Holy Land at the time, it is not certain that the artists were all Armenian. Rather, many must have been executed by the same craftsmen responsible for mosaic production in a Jerusalem controlled by the East Roman and later Byzantine empires. Perhaps this explains why the tradition was not imported into Armenia proper. Motifs from these highly symbolic Christian mosaics have an echo in later Armenian manuscript decoration, probably because both the mosaics and the decorations used as a common source the artistic conventions of the paleo-Christian period.

C. Ceramics

Pottery may appear not to belong under painting; indeed, one could place it in a separate category. Nonetheless, most pottery, especially Armenian pottery in the Christian centuries, is decorated with painting. High quality burnished red ware was manufactured in Armenia already in the second millennium B.C.; some believe this type, known throughout the Near East, may have originated there. Excavations uncovered bowls and pots of various shapes. In the Urartian period, the quality and diversity of ceramics is notable [166, 167]. Skilled potters cleverly imitated metal vessels such as the famous shoe-shaped rhyton or drinking cup [166] from Erebuni [1].

Archaeology has failed to turn up any convincing examples of locally produced pottery for a period extending from the fall of the Urartian kingdom in the sixth century B.C. to the Middle Ages. The excavations at Dvin and Ani [32, 33, 34, 35, 36], Armenian capitals for long periods from the fifth to the eleventh centuries and inhabited even later, brought to light much very interesting pottery [168, 169, 170], some of which followed fashions prevalent in the region. For example, the yellow and green splash ware [169] or the turquoise blue faience [170] was produced in great quantity in neighboring Islamic countries as well as eastern Iran. Ceramics with figures of birds painted in light green on a white or light yellow ground copy a common Byzantine type found throughout the Middle East. Many pots have, however, painted human, animal and hybrid [170] motifs typically Armenian in style, and some even bear Armenian inscriptions. There is no doubt that from the eleventh to the thirteenth century the ceramics industry in Armenia, especially at Ani [32, 33, 34, 35, 36], was important and of high quality.

1. Kütahya Ceramics

In the post-medieval period the Armenian ceramics industry flourished at one major center: Kütahya, a city in western Asia Minor 125 miles southeast of Constantinople. An Armenian colony is already noted there in the thirteenth century and in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries there was an active scriptorium too. Armenian manufactured ceramics [172, 173, 174, 175, 176, 177, 178, 179] came to dominate the craft industry of the city. Certainly by the fifteenth century, Armenians were deeply engaged in ceramics. The earliest dated pieces, inscribed on the bottom in Armenian, are from the early sixteenth century. They are decorated in the characteristic blue and white of early Kütahya ware [175, 176]. By the seventeenth century a highly polychrome [173, 174, 177, 178, 179] faience was fabricated with yellow, green and the famous Armenian tomato red. The potters produced vessels in a large variety of shapes for diverse use.

The town became renowned as an Armenian ceramic center in the Ottoman Empire, and was the major competitor of Iznik, the famous source of most "Islamic" tiles and vessels of the Ottomans. The Kütahya potters also produced square tiles for wall decorations [172]. These were used in a number of mosques, mostly in Constantinople, as well as in churches. The most spectacular display of Kütahya tiles is in Armenian Cathedral of St. James in Jerusalem [172]. Among the thousands decorating various parts of the monastic complex there is a special series of pictorial tiles with polychrome scenes of the Old and New Testament accompanied by an inscriptional band in Armenian [172]. These were specially commissioned in the early eighteenth century for the renovation and decoration of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, but due to a dispute between the various religion authorities that enjoyed custody over this holy shrine, the work was never carried out. Thus, these Kütahya tiles were used to embellish the Armenian Patriarchate.

One of the most popular forms originating from the kilns at Kütahya was the egg-shaped ornaments [178] hung on the chains from which oil lamps were suspended in churches and mosques. They may have had more than just an ornamental use; some experts considered them as barriers against mice who, attracted by the animal fat used in these lamps, would slide off the slick surface of the egg as they made their way down the chain to the vessel bearing the oil. 

Kütahya eggs are variously decorated, but the most common type displays seraphim, the famous six-winged guardian angels.

Other popular shapes of these ceramics are the demi-tasse cups without handles, saucers, monogrammed plates [176], rose-water flasks [175], and lemon squeezers. Armenian inscriptions abound on Kütahya vessels [173, 174, 175, 176], whether eggs or water jugs, flasks or incense burners. The Armenian ceramic industry in Kütahya flourished until the Armenians were forced to leave the city during the persecutions of World War I. Several families settled in Jerusalem, where they continue to produce the polychrome Kütahya style ceramics as souvenirs of the Holy Land.

New Julfa [57, 171], the Armenian suburb of Isfahan, founded in the first years of the seventeenth century, also was a center of Armenian tile production. Large pictorial panels made of square tiles painted in yellow and blue are found in situ in various Armenian churches of the city. The scene of the Presentation Magi in the Church of St. Gevorg dated by an Armenian inscription to 1719 is a fine example [171].

Functional pottery continued to be made in Greater Armenian right up into the twentieth century. The ceramic craft is still practiced in Armenia with much skill [180]. During these modern centuries, many shapes known from the excavated pottery of Dvin and Ani continued to be fashioned in villages throughout the land, confirming the consistent tradition ceramic fabrication has always had