Location, structure and history: Sevanvank monastery is located to the north-east from Sevan town on the Sevan peninsula on the western side of Lake Sevan. It can be accessed by taking the right turn from the Sevan-Dilijan highway along the asphalt road, which leads to Sevan peninsula (the distance from the Sevan-Gavar cross-roads to the isle is 7km and from the isle cross-roads to the monastery 1.3km).
Due to its uniqueness and beauty Sevan peninsula has been a pilgrimage place since time immemorial. The isle was mentioned in the oldest sources of Armenian chronicles. In accordance with tradition, there used to be a pagan
temple on the same place which was destroyed by Grigor Lusavorich in 305 who made an order to put up a wooden stone symbolising the new faith. The Sevan isle was also noted as one of the most famous castles of medieval Armenia where the Armenian king Ashot II Bagratuni or Erkat (914-921) (Ashot the Iron) held his battle against the Arab invaders in 921. Today, the ruins of the old castle can be seen from the western side which protected the isle on its most vulnerable place possibly since II-Ist millennium BC. The strategic importance of the isle was vividly demonstrated during the liberation wars led against the Arab invaders.
Thus, memorizing the incursions of the Arab commander Mrvan the Armenian historian Hovhannes Draskhanakertsi writes in the 10th century: “after him, Armenia was under the reign of Smbat Bagratuni, Smbat’s son. At this time, a commander named Mrvan came to Armenia and started a war against the Armenian castles. He destroyed, lay waste and ruined everything he had taken over. Sevan Isle which is situated in the Geghama Sea had not been seized from the first time, although it was surrendered two years later. He captured everyone who lived in the castle, lay waste to the castle by ruining and robbing it.” The fact that the mobile and strong Arab army could not seize the isle for nearly two years points to the strength of this fortress whose defenders were forced to give up only after a long-term siege. Thus, it was a deliberate choice of Ashot the Iron to fortify here and to start his victorious war to finally liberate Armenia from the Arab invaders. Sevan obviously had a number of strategic advantages. First of all, the consolidation of fishing and transportation boats in the isle limited the chances of the enemy to attack, moreover in this mountainous and wood-scarce area it was hardly possible to find sufficient quantities of timber to build rafts. Another no less important factor was that Armenian Artsakh and Gardman regions were situated on the other side of the mountain chains lying to the northeast and south-east from the far lakeside. Many times, seiged hostages on the isle used this road to escape, for example, the princess Mariam, the patroness of the Sevan area monasteries who ran away with her two children when she was chased by the soldiers of Husuf. In the second half of the 9th century (860), the well-known theologian Mashtots isolated himself here from the Makenyats monastery. By gaining significant prominence, he later became the Armenian Catholicos (Mashtots Eghvardetsi or Sevantsi who wrote a historical work and studies, one of them written by the order of the Catholicos Gevorg Garnetsi, whose successor Mashtots became in 897. Buried in Garni). The Sevanavank churches were built in 874 during the leadership of Mashtots by princess Mariam, the daughter of Ashot Bagratuni, the sister of King Smbat Bagratuni and the Commander in the Armenian Army. She was also connected with the construction of Shoghagavank and Vanevank monasteries. Stepanos Orbelyan writes the following: “At this period, Mashtots, the son of a priest called Grigor, was gaining prominence on Sevan isle by the mission that he had declared. While being secular, Grigor moved to the Sodk region and lived there as a pilgrim. His son Mashtots was sent to the priest of Makenots monastery father Stepanos for his education. By developing here, he was ordained by the archbishop of Ter-Davit. He then went to the Artavazdi Aparank cell, from where he moved to Sevan isle. After many hardships he was told to build a church in his dream named by 12 disciples and affirm the unity. In his dream, the 12 apostles came to him and showed him the place for the church. Inspired by this vision and divine intent, the princess Mariam, the wife of Vasak of Syunik, went to father Mashtots, convinces him and commits to build beautiful churches one named by the holy apostles and the other by the Blessed Virgin. The church and the home for priests was built and decorated with various utensils in 323 (by the Armenian calendar). Mashots set the borders of the monastery and blessed it with the divine rules. Knowing its fame, the king of kings Ashot joins the divine pilgrimage and visits the holy priest and brings the saving sign of the holy cross: the villages of Varser, Tsamakaberd, Gomadzor, Berdk and Uryats Tap – and the orchards in Garni, Yerevan and other places were transferred to the church for inheritance confirming it with severe perditions.” Soon, the monastery in Sevan became one of the most important worshipping centers in the country and grows economically. Indeed, the majority of the lakeside villages were put under its authority including the control over fishing in the lake. It also had numerous orchards and domains in remote places. The smallest of the three churches built there was called Arakelots (later also S. Karapet), the large one S. Astvatsatsin and the third church (now halfruined) S. Harutyun which is located on the south-west slope of the isle including the residential and the household buildings. The first two churches are in relatively good shape. In their architectural design, they replicate triple-conch small churches with a central cupola developed in the early medieval period. Both from outside and inside, the two churches have a cruciform shape. Both were built from the semi-worked stone, while the ashlars were mainly used in the most important structural places (arches, the cupola, drum, angles of embrasures, and so on).
a) Arakelots church is the smallest church of Sevanavank monastery. The record about its construction is carved on the eastern face of the church drum, the content of which almost repeats the description made by Stepanos Orbelyan. In addition to this record, there is another note made by white paint on the southern and south-eastern faces of the drum which read: “In 1651, S. Karapet was reconstructed.” The divergence in the name of the church in both records can be explained by the fact that after its reconstruction in 1651 the church was dedicated to another saint – Saint Karapet. As a result of its layout composition, the church is a three-conch construction with a vestry on the north-east. The entire building stands on a double-staged foundation which is well observed from the southern part of the monument. The walls of the monument up to the dividing zone between the domes are constructed from rough basalt while both vertical and horizontal joints are mortared together. On the other hand, the vaulted arches, drum and the dome are built of relatively well-worked grey tuff stones. Just as in Hayravank, here, too, the domicile arches are not double but mono-layered. The same is true for the dome passages, which are made of seven wedge-shaped stones in analogy with the Hayravank domed passages. However, the most interesting thing is the absence of the second row of dome passages and the direct transition of the octagon to the circular base of the dome by means of huge dome passages. The floor is made of a layer of lime mortar 6-8cm thick which was put onto a flattened and rammed ground floor. The exterior processing of the church construction in general corresponds to its interior composition. Here we can also note the contrast between the walls and the upper parts of the building, particularly the drum and the dome, due to the use of different materials during construction. Here too, the walls are made of roughly worked basalt, while the entire drum and the cornices are flagged with well-worked tuff stone. In the southern face of the monument, attention is drawn to the arching
which envelops the entrance.
Studies prove that it was done later to reinforce the western wing of the cruciform construction. As it comes to the vestry, it was not added later but existed in the initial structure of the church. In the external decoration – quite modest here – attention is caught by the covering of the windows in pediment and especially the drum. The lintel of the eastern conch is a whole stone with a semicircular hollow which corresponds to the width of the window. At some distance from the vignette edges there are three holes, ½ cm in width and depth, which surround the upper semicircular edge of the window and indeed form its cover. Slightly above here one can notice the octagonal rosette with the equilateral cross in the centre. Traces of white colour can be still seen inside the rosette. The coverings of the drum windows are worked almost alike although without rosettes, while the semicircular cavities are wider and deeper.
b) S. Astvatsatsin Church is located 10 meters to the north-east from the Arakelots church. By its design and layout it is almost a replica of Arakelots church. There is also a vestry made in the south-east corner of the church. By its size, this monument is noticeably larger than the Arakelots church, that is why the domical vaults are more reinforced and double-layered reflecting other relatively larger Armenian architectural constructions. An interesting phenomenon is the existence of pendentive transitions. Due to their construction techniques, the masters of the Syunik architectural school mostly used dome passage transitions rather than pendentive arches. The thing is that pendentive laying requires increased accuracy in the cutting of stone and availability of high quality raw material which was scarce in Sunik. On the other hand, dome passage transitions allowed one to have reliable and strong angular transitions by utilising the available stone material. The church is entirely plastered inside. Therefore, the decoration elements of the interior design which might have existed there are all covered. The premise adjoining the north-west corner of the church is evidently a later construction. Meanwhile, the latter merges with the church interior through a mediumsized embrasure located at a much higher level than the church floor. By tradition, princess Mariam used to attend and listen to the church service right from this place. Just as in Arakelots church, here the primary wall of the stage underwent complete renovation. The church floor was re-flagged in the later period with regular basalt plates. The exterior design of Astvatsatsin church is characterised by its simplicity and the clarity of forms. The face walls of the monument are almost lacking any decorative design. The exception is the cross with the horn-shaped offshoots on edges which is carved on the northern face of the drum.
c) S. Harutyun church is situated a couple of meters to the west from the previous one. Here one can notice the ruins of a church built from basalt ashlars. In terms of its size, this church is much greater than that of S. Astvatsatsin. The eastern part of the church is in better condition, and even now one can notice the front walls of the vestries located in the conch and both sides. The traces of the northern and western walls are also observable. This church is supposedly a construction from a later period than the first two monuments. It’s not excluded that it might have been constructed during the period of either the Catholicos Stepanos Sevantsi (969-972) or the Catholicos Sargis Sevantsi (992-1019). The construction of the monument is most likely to be ascribed to the Catholicos Sargis Sevantsi who by records paid special attention to the Syunik episcopasy and even settled in his native Sevan isle after he had withdrawn from office at an old age. By its design, the church represents a slightly altered option of domical halls. The church had only one pair of in-wall columns, while the relevant corners of the conch served as other in-wall columns. In this case, however, judging by its relatively stretched proportions, the western part of the monument would have been 6-7 meters in length – a phenomenon very uncommon for these constructions. The second pair of entrances might have existed there and the dome was constructed on these four pairs of in-wall columns.
d) Gavit – To the west from the churches built by the princess Mariam, there are remnants of other constructions, most of which were built in later periods. To the west from the S. Astvatsatsin church, there is a parvis which was still standing in the 1930s. It is known due to its two wonderful capitals of wooden pillars, which have a high value and are being kept in the historical museum of Armenia. The size of the capitals and wonderful carvings enable us to argue that they had been brought there from some palace, which had been most likely completely ruined by that time. From the architectural point of view, they have similarities with the capitals made for Dvin and Aruch palaces. Even today, traditional Armenian architecture has many examples of capitals which resemble those in Sevan in terms of their overall composition. Both capitals have similar compositional solution: olive-branches are carved on both sides of the centrally placed tree with two large birds (pigeons) carved to the left and to the right from these branches. Beneath these pictures, there are carvings of equilateral crosses in one case, and hexagonal stars in the other. Compositionally, they bear resemblance with the more ancient monuments dating back to the 9-10th centuries.
The art of wood carvings in Sevan is not limited to these two capitals. There are well known single-leafed doors belonging to the same monastery all covered with beautiful carvings. Having been made in later periods (12-15th
centuries) they are undoubtedly one of the best examples of applied art which bear the immediate influence of woodworking traditions of this region. Inside the S. Astvatsatsin church against its northern wall, one can see the famous khachkar created by Trdat. There was no information about the location of this khachkar before. It might have been made on the isle, in is now the only remaining work created by this master. The stone depicts the scene of the crucifixion in a narrow-angle niche: Jesus with a beard and moustache, his hands raised upwards and two apostles beneath. Below, taken into a circle is the view of paradise: bunches of grapes are hanging down from a leafless bush, then there is Jesus with a cross in his left hand and his right hand is stretched out to Adam and
Eve. Two coiling snakes approach Adam and Eve. On the khachkar forehead there are carvings of apostles in their animal images. The circles are wide and divided into squares. The upper square of the northern circle shows the scales of justice which hang low on one of the sides with a devil like animal sitting on the scale. On the second square, there are three bearded, bare footed and naked people. The remaining three squares are just decorated. The upper square of the southern circle depicts the Holy Virgin with the baby Jesus in her arms. The second square shows two goats sitting in a human manner, with their front legs lowered down and chins drawn to one another. In the third square, there are three crowned people, possibly women, in long and plicate gowns. The remaining two squares are simply decorated with patterns. The wider cornice of the khachkar is lined in the middle and recorded: “The holy cross put for Rebecca. Remember the Christ (1653). Trdat.” The letters of the inscription lack some skill, while other carvings and patterns are beautiful and well done. Due to its contextual diversity and artistic value this khachkar is one of the most unique samples of the Armenian khachkar art.
Summarizing the brief presentation of Sevanavank monuments it is impossible not to mention the disposition of these monuments. In fact, both churches are simple without carvings and other decorations. Despite this, the churches erected on the isle have highly impressive profiles, which are clearly outlined in the background of the blue sky and the mirror of the lake. The churches were built on these abrupt slopes not randomly but in accordance with their overall size. The third most visible monument was also located based on the same principles. Being located on the highest spot and having the largest size, this church seems to complete the ensemble. On the other hand, the architectural ensemble was thought to make it visible both from the main western direction as well as from the south and south-west. Moreover, in both cases the location of the third monument was selected so that from each perspective it stands as the dominating figure of the entire ensemble. Thus, on the western view, the major third monument rises up between the other two relatively low-lying churches. The picture changes drastically when viewed from the south. In this case, there is an impression that the churches are standing along a single line and classified in an ascending way based on their absolute sizes. The location of the churches, and the difference in their absolute sizes consciously pursued one overarching goal: to attain the harmony of the architectural constructions with nature. Indeed, this principle is best embodied in the architectural composition of the Sevanavank monument.

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