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Noravank Noravank

They say whatever the human hand touches, it eventually destroys it. But considering the fact that the man was created in the image of God, then he surely inherited things that can make him appear God-like. One such thing is his ability to create. The general truth is, the human imagination recognizes no limits and boundaries, but even knowing that very often when you see the reflection of it right in front, you are still being unable not to question that general truth because sometimes those creations appear too unreal to be true.

Such creations, particularly in regard to monasteries and churches, can be found scattered all around the world, among them the church of Sagrada Familia in Spain or the Chapel of Saint Michel d'Aiguilhe in France. In Armenia, it’s the outstanding monastery of Noravank, which can also be referred to as a masterpiece with its unique architectural solutions and design.

Noravank Monastery: General

Noravank is a medieval Armenian monastery standing out not only with its appearance but also the surrounding marvelous scenery. It is believed that in the place of the monastery there used to be a sacred site. The monastery was built in the 12th century in the territory of two earlier churches.

Noravanak Monastery: History

Noravank monastery was founded by bishop Hovhannes, the father superior of Vahanavank (a monastery in the vicinity of city of Kapan). Bishop Hovhannes came to establish himself in the monastery in 1105 and then gathered together priests, expanded the territory of the monastery as well as got decrees from the Seljuks regarding the monastery’s receiving the pontifical status. In the next two centuries the monastery was expanded due to the church-favorable policy of the princely family of Orbelyans residing in Syunik. As a result, it turned into a religious, educational and cultural center and later the sepulcher of the Orbelyans.

The monastery was plundered in 1238 by the Mongols but after a peace treaty was signed, the monastery was rebuilt. Noravank kept on flourishing until Lenk Timur’s invasions that started at the end of the 14th century.

Noravank Monastery: Momik

Whenever there is some talk regarding Noravank Monastery it is in some sense kind of disrespect not to mention the name of architect and sculptor Momik. Momik started to work as a scribe in Cilicia where he got acquainted with the late Gothic art brought forth by the crusaders. In all likelihood, during his visit to Cilicia (1286) he was invited by Bishop Stepanos Orbelyan to Vayots Dzor where he was soon recognized as sculptor-khatchkar (cross-stone) carver.

Khatchkars by Momik can be noted in the territory of the monastery. Up to this day the khatchkars appear to be unique. Momik’s last works are believed to be the two-story Church-Sepulcher of Saint Astvatsatsin (Holy Mother), the simple and small khatchkar erected in the memory of Momik, and so on.

Noravank Monastery: Complex

The complex of Noravank Monastery includes Saint Astvatsatsin Sepulcher-Church, Saint Stepanos Nakhavka Church and a gavit on its western side, Saint Grigor Church (the Sepulcher of Stepanos Orbelyan), remainders of medieval chapels and buildings and the newly built rectory.

Noravank Monastery: Saint Astvatsatsin Church

The Church of Saint Astvatsatsin (Holy Mother) was built in 1339 by Prince Burtel, and therefore it’s also known as Burtelashen, meaning “built by Burtel.” The church was built as a family sepulcher for the Orbelyans. The architect of the church was Momik, and to the north of the church Momik’s modest khatchkar-tombstone made by the architect himself can be seen.

On the first floor of the church there is the sepulcher with khatchkars and small carvings of the evangelists. Also, on the western wall there are two khatchkars out of which the one on the left is attributed to Momik. Narrow and small stairs found at the western entrance take to the second floor, where the prayer hall is. To the east of the prayer hall there is the semicircular sanctuary above which the carving of Jesus Christ with angels around Him can be seen, while right above the window to the east of it there is the carving of a dove, the symbol of the Holy Spirit.

The church’s dome is supported by a rotunda. The latter comprises 12 columns on which there are bird carvings as well as the portrait of Prince Burtel with the church’s miniature in his hand.

The facades of the church feature bas relief sculptures.

Saint Karapet Church

Saint Karapet Church, which currently lies in ruins, is the oldest church of the complex, which was possibly built in the place of a pre-Christian sacred site. Traces of three arches, a three-story platform and a southern front room have been preserved. It’s also probable that the walls of the church came with frescoes, which, however, have not been preserved.

The arches are made of multi-color tufa stone. The use of arches was firstly typical of secular buildings. Gradually, the style was adopted into the church architecture of the Middle East and Byzantine. Later on Armenian churches also included the arches.

There was so little room inside the church that it could accommodate only very few people. It is supposed that the church was meant only for the clergy and used to serve as a pilgrimage site.

Noravank Monastery: Khatchkars

Khatchkars (cross-stones) are but an important part of the Armenian history that have been worshipped by pilgrims. They come with a special iconography in which the central cross is combined with the tree of life and geometric carvings. Sometimes the cross can be found on the ornamented symbol of the sun, which is the oldest symbol of worship among Armenians. On some of the khatchkars the Ascension of Jesus Christ is depicted or his Second Advent accompanied by the saints or the martyrs. Among such khatchkars are the ones dedicated to the Holy Mother, Saint Sargis, Saint Gevorg, Saint Poghos, Saint Petros, Saint Stepanos, Saint Hovhannes, Saint Grigor and so on. On some of them it is inscribed “Jesus Christ.”

Traditionally, the khatchkars depicting Holy Mother were believed to protect the families and mothers, those depicting Saint Grigor were thought to give strength and courage to the warriors, and the stones with the image of the All-Savior were considered to cure of diseases.

Noravank Monastery: Saint Stepanos Nakhavka Church

Being the main church of the complex, cruciform Saint Stepanos Nakhavka Church was built in 1216-1223 by Prince Liparit Orbelyan. It represents a domed building with two-story annexes in the four corners. Note that the dome was destroyed during the 1840 earthquake and is currently restored. The church has only one entrance and it is in the western side. Priests used to reside on the second floors of the annexes. It’s where they used to pray and create manuscripts. In contrast, the first floors were meant for candle lighting.

Noravank Monastery: Gavit

The gavit can be found adjacent to the Church of Saint Nakhavka, to the west of it. It was built as a sepulcher for the Orbelyan family and the leaders of the monastery and was probably built after the church construction was completed. Upon the initiative of Smbat Orbelyan the gavit was re-built in 1261 by architect Siranes. That was, however, not the only time the gavit was rebuilt. A reconstruction was launched in 1321 with the goal to renovate it after an earthquake. Most likely, then the architect was Momik.

Noravank Monastery: Saint Grigor Chapel-Sepulcher

The chapel-sepulcher of Saint Grigor built in 1275 for the family of Orbelyans is sometimes called Smbat’s Sepulcher because the latter’s buried there. The architect was Siranes. Notably, ten members of the Orbelyan family are buried in the sepulcher. Of interest is the tombstone of Elikum Orbelyan (one of the most popular political figures) on which he is depicted as a sleeping lion.

The chapel has a rectangular layout with a small semi-circular sanctuary to the east and a vaulted roof.

Lastly, the small and narrow stairs of Saint Astvatsatsin Church seem to be easy to climb, while as you start going up you realize that they are a real challenge. So think twice before you take the risk. One option of going down is dragging the butt across the stairs.