Old time religion.

22 Apr

No matter how many churches you’ve visited, when you get to Armenia the realization settles: so this is what a church is supposed to be.

No side chapels, no side altars. No signs of private patronage. No parcelling. This is no Catholic church.

Katoghike Church, Yerevan

No frescoes or tapestries; the walls are bare. No iconostasis, no mosaics. This is no Orthodox church.


There is an image, but it is on the one altar. The reduction of image-stimulation is directly compensated for by long and incense-laden ritual. Masses last 2 hours. Forget reading, you sing. But this doesn’t mean it is more “rigorous.” The atmosphere is porous, accepting. People come in and out continually during mass.

St. Hripsime

The chancel is a stage. It really is. It is raised, and it is reached by steps on either side. The curtain is drawn back and mass is sung. If there is no curtain, it is not a functioning church.


The churches are often on a centralized plan, meaning that they are about as long as they are wide. This is something one sees rarely in the Christian west but often in Byzantine lands. (They were doing it earlier and more consistently in Armenia, however.) But here there are no quincunx plans, with central dome and subsidiary domes, and in general the effect is less rounded and low than in Byzantine churches.

St. Hripsime

Armenian churches are fortresses, with high walls and high, pointed cupolas. Byzantine churches are glowing and sumptuous castles. Armenian churches are flinty, as if chiseled out of living stone. Their beauty is their solidity. They are made to withstand marauders, and earthquakes.

St. Hripsime

Marmashen is near the town of Gyumri, which was completely leveled by an earthquake in 1988. Here, some stones were nudged out of position, as you can see in the photo below. (You will notice that inside two of the arches the walls actually bevel inwards. Apparently that is a critical stabilizer against earthquake. You can see those features in St. Hripsime in the photo above as well. What look like niches are in fact negative wedges.)


The churches are very consistent and yet full of individual architectural ingenuity. Noravank puts the narthex underneath, rather than in front, of the main church. The stairs are scary to climb up (and especially to climb down!), but for the time you are up there you are in a perfect church, aloft amidst mountains and sky.



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