Arts of Armenia-Metalwork and Engraving

The Armenian plateau, rich in ores, was one of the first places to practice metallurgy and was ahead of neighboring regions in the use of copper and iron. Throughout history Armenians have been master metalworkers and jewelers. There is a near continuous tradition of metal objects from the first millennium B.C. to the present. Armenian metal craft can be divided conveniently, if arbitrarily, into three categories: 1) silver and bronze coins; 2) gold and silver works of art; and 3) bronze and other non-precious metal objects. Under the Orontid (Ervandian, fourth to second century B.C.) [181, 182, 183] and Artaxiad (Artashesian, second to first century B.C.) [184, 185, 186, 187, 189, 190, 191, 192] Armenian dynasties, the minting of coins provided the art of engraving a natural outlet. During the first ten Christian centuries, however, Armenians did not strike coins. It is only under Cilician Armenian dynasties of the twelfth to the fourteenth centuries that the numismatic tradition [194, 195, 196, 197, 198, 199, 200] of the Artaxiads is renewed.

A. Coins

Khachatur Musheghian

The extraordinary phenomenon of marking pieces of precious metal for use as money was a Greek invention of the seventh century before our era, first in the cities of Asia Minor and then on the islands and mainland of Greece itself. This greatly improved the development of international trade. In Armenia metal money only appeared much later. Until the fourth century B.C., commerce was carried out in the form of barter or by payment in gold and silver ingots according to weight. Only after this date was Armenian trade facilitated through the acceptance of coined money as a form of payment. 

Archaeological excavations carried out in the Erebuni (Erevan) fortress [1] have led to the discovery of Greek silver coins of the sixth-fifth centuries B.C. minted at Miletus (two specimens), as well as silver coins dating from the same period minted in Athens (several examples), others were discovered in the Sisian (Zangezur) region.

The use of metal coins with weight and purity guaranteed by the state began to appear in Armenian circles just before and under Alexander the Great (died 323 B.C.) and his successors. Numerous coins bearing the effigies of Alexander and those who followed him have been discovered. The presence of this money proves that there were economic links between Armenia and the neighboring countries of Asia Minor and Mesopotamia. During this period, the Greek drachma, a silver coin of 4.36 grams, was the most commonly circulated money of international trade.

The Greek monetary unit was used as principle value in international exchanges.

Armenian markets traded with gold coins called "Alexander the Macedonian," which weighed 8.60 grams and were stamped with the effigy of Athena and a Victory. In Armenia this coin was called a "sater," from the Greek word "stater." A gold stater could be exchanged for twenty silver drachmas or five tetradrachmas (tetra meaning four). Gold coins were seldom used in exchange, leaving silver coins as the medium for trade. After the dispersion of the immense empire created by Alexander of Macedonia, coupled with an increasing demand for money in local markets in the third century B.C., the first coins [182, 183] were minted by the Armenian rulers of Sophene (Dzopk'). International trading links were made through the established connections of the realm of Sophene located in the southwest of the Armenian plateau.

Sophenian coins bear the effigy of the king of Armenia on one side and on the other the sovereign's name and title in Greek characters and signs related to the cult: the goddess of victory, Athena, an eagle, a horse, etc. Only a few examples of these first Armenian coins have survived; they are in bronze and bear the portraits of the sovereigns Arsham, Abdissaris [182], and Xerxes (Shavarsh) [183].

Further economic development created appropriate conditions for the minting of a greater number of Armenian coins [184, 185, 186, 187, 188, 189, 190, 191, 192] by the Artashesian (Artaxiad) dynasty, which, during the second and first centuries B.C., was able to form a centralized state that spread over the Armenian plateau. The Artashesian kings ended foreign domination over the country and put its money, which was of the same weight and size as the Attic Greek unit, into circulation on the international market. On all these coins a standard effigy of the Artashesian sovereigns dressed with the Armenian tiara or crown was stamped on the front, and on the back there was the name and title of the ruler inscribed in Greek and accompanied by symbols related to the religious cult of Armenia. In chronological order, and according to the metal used, the following coins minted by the Armenian sovereigns are known to us:

Tigran I (123-96)......................

Tigran II (95-55)......................

Artavazd II (56-34)...................

Artashes II (34-20)....................

Tigran III (20-8).......................

Tigran IV (8-5).........................

Artavazd III (5-2)......................

Tigran IV and Queen Erato (2-1)....

Artavazd IV (4-6 A.D.)................

Tigran V (circa 6 A.D.)...............

bronze coins [184]

silver [185, 186, 187, 188] and bronze coins

silver [189, 190] and bronze coins

bronze coins [191]

silver and bronze coins

bronze coins

bronze coins

bronze coins

silver [192] and bronze coins

bronze coins

The most abundant of the coins minted by these sovereigns were those of Tigran II, the Great [185, 186, 187, 188], and some issues of his immediate successor Artavazd II [189, 190]. The coins bearing the effigy of Tigran II were minted in Armenia as well as in Syria after that country was brought under the control of Armenia. The coins of Tigran minted in Armenia show the portrait of the king with the imperial title "King of Kings" in Greek [186]. On the reverse side of Artashesian coins were allegoric and mythological figures [186] dedicated to the supreme goddess of the country, the water cult, fertility, victory as well as objects of veneration.

On the occasion of military victories, coins were minted with the face of the sovereign on the obverse and the goddess of victory or the legendary figure of Vahakn on the reverse.

The evolution of the images struck on these coins shows the development of the skills of the master engravers. With the fall of the Artashesian dynasty, Armenia ceased minting coins for centuries. Neither the rulers of the Arshakuni (Arsacid) dynasty of Armenia, nor those of the Bagratuni (Bagratid) minted coins. Nevertheless, as an exceptional phenomenon, mention should be made of the curopalate Kiurike, king of the Armenian province of Lori, one of three branches of the Bagratuni dynasty, who minted bronze coins [193] in the eleventh century depicting a bust of Christ accompanied by an inscription in Armenian.

The main center for the issuing of coins with Armenian legends [194, 195, 196, 197, 198, 199, 200] was Cilician Armenia. In the eleventh century, large numbers of Armenians fled west and southwest before the conquest and persecution of the Seljuk Turks and settled in Cilicia, where, by the end of the twelfth century, a kingdom was established. For more than three centuries this state issued its own currency, bearing Armenian inscriptions and the symbols of the Christian faith. Millions of such Armenian coins from Cilicia have been preserved.

A great number of them were minted by the first ruler to bear the title king, Levon I of the Rupenian dynasty [194, 195, 196, 197, 198]. During the reign of Levon and his successors, the coins were of silver [194, 195] and bronze [198], with a few rare gold pieces dating from the reigns of Levon I (1198-1219) [196, 197], Het'um I (1221-1270) and Constantine I (1298-1299). In the early thirteenth century, large quantities of Cilician silver coins were minted and circulated widely in the world market. Afterwards, a shortage of silver caused a reduction in production. During the reign of the last Armenian king of Cilicia, Levon V (1374-1375), copper or nickel replaced silver for coinage.

Coins minted by thirteenth [199, 200] and fourteenth century Cilician Armenian rulers of the Rupenid dynasty and their successors the Het'umids, display a very rich and varied iconography of interest to both historians and art historians.

At several moments in the thirteenth century bilingual coins in Arabic and Armenian were issued, underlining the Cilician kingdom's relations with its Muslim neighbors to the north and south. In the post-Cilician period, though there was no Armenian currency until the first Armenian Republic (1918-1920), numerous commemorative medals were struck by private individuals and the church.

B. Metalwork: Sliver and Gold

Dickran Kouymjian

Gold and silver objects were by definition luxury items destined for royalty, the church, and the rich. The earliest examples are rhytons [201] or drinking vessels in silver found at the Urartian site of Arin Berd-Erebuni [1]; they date, however, from the post-Urartian period. Armenia was one of the first and most important wine producing regions in the world, explaining in part the popularity of such vessels in metal and in ceramic [166]. One of the rhytons from Arin Berd is in the form of a rider with a Persian costume mounted on his horse [201].

The other from the third century B.C. is in the form of an animal head decorated with a series of figures: one seated while another offers a cup of wine and a third plays a flute. At Armavir, the ancient Armenian capital, medallions in gold from the Artaxiad period, second to first century B.C., were found with a woman's head and a child held on her bust with her right hand. From this period there are also the silver and bronze coins already discussed [184, 185, 186, 187, 188, 189, 190, 191, 192].

 Virtually nothing survives of precious metalwork or jewelry in the centuries after Christ until the Cilician period. It is only from the thirteenth century on that we have a nearly continuous series of objects in silver [202], often washed with gold [203, 204, 210], and a few pure gold items [209]. They are almost exclusively objects related to the cult: bindings of Gospels and other religious manuscripts [202, 203, 205, 206, 207, 208, 211], reliquaries [204, 210], chalices, patens, and other vessels [209, 215].

The greatest repositories of this church plate are in the treasuries of the Catholicossate at Etchmiadzin and the Armenian Patriarchate in Jerusalem.

From earliest times the Gospel-book was always treated with enormous respect and reverence. The famous Etchmiadzin Gospel of 989 is bound with ivory plaques [157] discussed earlier. Few bindings in silver survive from ancient times. One of the oldest and most finely crafted is dated 1254 [202] and covers a Cilician Gospel of 1248, which is now in the collection of the Catholicossate of Cilicia in Antelias. The central motif of the upper cover is the Crucifixion accompanied by busts of the Virgin, John the Evangelist and the Apostles, with angels and the Evangelists full-length; on the lower cover Christ is enthroned. Another silver binding dated 1255 on a Cilician manuscript in the Matenadaran shows a Deesis (Christ flanked by the Virgin and John the Baptist) [203] on the upper cover and the four Evangelists standing together on the lower.

Among surviving reliquaries, there are the triptych in silver from Skevra dated 1293 in the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad and the most splendid example of the period, the silver triptych known as Holy Cross of Khotakerats' [204] made in 1300 for the prince Each'i Proshian now in the Treasury of Holy Etchmiadzin. In the center of the latter is a large jeweled cross; above, Christ is shown enthroned on the four beasts of the Apocalypse. Next to Christ are two angels inclined toward him while two other larger elegant angels are portrayed on the inside of the two leaves. In the lower band is the half portrait of Eatchi with hands raised in prayer and in the corners Saints Peter and Paul. On the other side of the leaves are St. Gregory and John the Baptist.

The most popular theme of the upper cover of these manuscript bindings is the Crucifixion or the cross [202, 205, 208, and in leather 298, 300]. Other scenes, however, are also known: for instance the Presentation of the Magi [206] on a binding of 1475 surrounded with delicate grape bunches studded with jewels in the Walters Art Gallery or a detailed and monumental Ascension on a binding dated 1496 in the Matenadaran [207]. Scores of silver covers survive from the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries [207, 208, 211].

They display a great diversity of style and decoration varying from finely crafted works in a naturalistic, classic style to robust and naive works in a purely Armenian mode.

It is impossible to discuss the large number of surviving chalices and other liturgical vessels. The gold pyx in the Gulbenkian Collection [209] of 1687 made in Caesarea, however, deserves to be mentioned for the elegance of its workmanship. One of the central panels depicts the Last Supper while another has pairs of Apostles. Most gold objects have disappeared, but the Treasury of Jerusalem has a fine bejeweled gold chalice made in Constantinople in 1749. The best of this orfèvrerie was already being crafted by Armenians in the Ottoman capital; the more luxurious chalices also used sophisticated enameling and filigree work.

In the eighteenth and especially nineteenth century large quantities of silver belts and buckles [212, 213], earrings [213], purses in filigree work [214], and communion boxes were manufactured in such centers as Van, where the black and silver niello technique was popular, but also Constantinople and other cities.

The metalworking tradition continues to thrive in Armenia. Liturgical objects continued to be made, especially in the early part of our century [215], but after 1920 craftsmanship was directed toward domestic objects like silverware and trays.

C. Metalwork: Bronze and Tinned Copper

Dickran Kouymjian

The first major artistic use of metals was during the Urartian Kingdom (nine to sixth century B.C.). The excavations of sites such as Toprakkale/Van, Arin Berd (Erebuni-Erevan) [1], and Karmir Blur have yield a vast quantity of weapons, domestic objects and votive statues. Urartian bronzes were coveted throughout the Mediterranean world, thus explaining their appearance in excavations in many parts of the Middle East and Europe, especially Etruscan Italy. Embossed shields and helmets, large caldrons, and statues are now in the major museum collections from Leningrad and Erevan to London and New York. These dark bronzes are beautifully crafted; the shields have elaborate processional designs in repoussé work. Lighter colored metal, probably brass, was also used to make items such as the drinking bowls found at Karmir Blur.

An important object, associated with Armenia because it was found at Satala near Erzinjan, is a magnificent bronze head of Aphrodite [216] from the Hellenistic period. It was probably imported into Armenia by the royal court. The original is in the British Museum, but a faithful copy can be seen in the State Historical Museum in Erevan. The high quality of the engraving of the silver tetradrachmas of Tigran the Great [185, 186, 187, 188] and the bronze ware from the earlier Urartian period reveals a developed taste among Armenians for refined metalwork.

The excavations at Dvin and Ani [32, 33, 34] are the source for almost all the bronze metalwork from the early medieval period. A large number of utilitarian objects -- knives, scissors, jugs -- are known as well as a number of candle holders in the form of animal sculptures, large cauldrons, a chandelier for oil lamps, and a number of small incense burners [217] with attached chains. The latter are of very dark bronze, with molded scenes from the life of Christ. They were made in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, but copied almost perfectly Byzantine models of the early paleo-Christian period.

Later Armenian bronze, copper, and occasionally pewter vessels have received little scholarly attention.

The great majority of these dates from the seventeenth century and after. The cities of Tokat and Caesarea/Kayseri were major centers of this Armenian metalwork. Hundreds of plates [220], bowls, jugs, trays, and other vessels in tinned copper with Armenian inscriptions have been preserved in various museums and private collections; many of these are dated, thus allowing for a chronological study of style and motifs. The largest group thus far published belong to the State Historical Museum in Erevan; the oldest item is a table tray [218] dated 1477 from Julfa on the Arax [154].

Beside these hammered copper dishes, massive cast bronzes from the later period exist, some in traditional Iranian shapes, others with characteristic Armenian or early Christian forms. Such a type is a small, molded seventeenth century incense burner in the Museum of the Armenian Prelacy in New Julfa, Iran, which bears a narrative cycle of the life of Christ similar to and no doubted inspired by pieces similar to the thirteenth century incense burner found at Ani [217].

Another category of popular metal objects is the pilgrim flask in pewter [219]. Generally, they bear the figure of a warrior saint killing a dragon and sometimes are inscribed. Some of these were mass produced with pre-stamped plates suggesting an active industry in eastern Anatolia.