Noravank Monastery

Noravank front side

Christina Maranci 

The “New Monastery” or “Amaghu Noravank” is located 3 km to the northeast of Amaghu village. It is built on a rocky ledge on the south slopes of a wild valley, overlooking the plain of Egheknadzor. The site of the monastery is a place with obvious protective features but also an aesthetically harmonious blend of natural and built forms.

There are an unusual number of discrepancies to be found in the secondary literature regarding the foundation date, the architects involved, and the identification of individual churches in the main complex, despite the fact that this is a famous monastery but also richly attested by primary sources and inscriptions. The History of Siwnik‘ by Stepanos Orbelian (1250-1305) states that Noravank‘ Monastery was founded in 1105 by Hovhannes, bishop of Kapan, who built there the “strong and marvelous church” of Surb Karapet (John the Baptist). To which surviving church this dedication should be attributed, if any, is not confirmed. In any event, the monastery was further built up in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, became the episcopal see of Siwnik‘, and functioned as the princely seat of the Orbelians. It is important to note that the region of Siwnik‘ enjoyed under Georgian and Mongol rule some autonomy under the patronage of princely families.

Noravank‘ was an important center of artistic production during the Middle Ages, including the sculptural and painterly traditions which emanate from this Vayots-Dzor region and spread across Siwnik‘. Noravank‘ is also possibly where the Gladzor Gospels manuscript was begun. Inscriptions attest to the activity here of the architect Siranēs and the celebrated artist and sculptor Momik (born around 1260). Among Momik’s famous works at Noravank‘ are the 1308 khatchkar with the Deesis scene and a khatchkar for Tamta Khatun (now at Echmiadzin). The monastery also preserves a range of inscriptions, recorded by Barkhudaryan, and with additions by Michael Stone and Theo Van Lint.

The monastery consists of a main complex with a gavit, additional chapels to the north and south, a mausoleum/church to the southeast, additional monastic buildings, enclosure walls thought to date from the seventeenth-eighteenth centuries, and, outside, two small burial chapels.

Complex of Surb Karapet

The main complex of the monastery includes the main church dated to 1216-23 and commissioned by the prince Liparit Orbelian and the bishop Sarkis. It is traditionally associated with Surb Karapet but also with Stepanos the Protomartyr. It is a typical late medieval monastic church plan: an inscribed cross-domed space with two-story chapels at both east and west. The dome of the church collapsed in an earthquake of 1340 and was reconstructed by the architect Siranēs in 1361. Based on a church model found at the site, it appears that the original cupola was umbrella-shaped. A 1931 earthquake damaged the dome once more. In 1949, the roof and the walls of the church were repaired; more renovations were undertaken in 1982-3, and then in the 1990s and early 2000s.

To the south of the main church is what is believed to be the original church of Surb Karapet, perhaps the identical foundation of Bishop Hovhannes, now in ruins. Its archaizing features include the barrel vault, thick walls, and horseshoe apse. To the north is a funerary chapel built in 1275, attributed to Siranes and commissioned by Tarsayich Orbelian, brother of Smbat. The chapel contains more Orbelian family tombs, including a splendid carved lion/human tombstone dated to 1300, covering the grave of Elikum Orbelian.

The Gavit and its Tympana

The church is preceded by a gavit attributed to Smbat Orbelian, and given the completion date of 1261, although the chronology is complicated. We can see this for example in the way the upper tympanum breaks the roofline and attached columns that rise only to mid height on the interior. The basically square plan is topped with a cloister vault with an open muqarnas vault at its zenith. Careful lighting using embrasures allows illumination of inscriptions, khatchkars, and other sculpture.

There are two sculpted tympana on the façade of the gavit. The date of these is debated but generally placed within the late thirteenth or early fourteenth century. They include a sophisticated program of imagery and texts. Above the portal are depicted the Virgin and Child seated on an elaborately patterned textile, shared across Islamic world, with tassels of alternating pomegranates and floral motifs. Around them is a field of intricate vegetation in which two prophets can be identified: on the right is Isaiah who holds a twisted scroll with his name but also with the backwards word KOYS or “Virgin.” On the left is another prophet (scholars suggest perhaps Mica or St. John the Baptist), also in profile; an inscription close to this figure has been tentatively read as zayn (voice) and paṙ (word). Around this text is yet another inscription which Ioanna Rapti reads as: “This is in my stead: blessed is the fearful name of god who from the ends to the ends is without seed and without compensation.” We can note the highly kufesque character of the relief inscription and ponder its potential relations to other uses of kufesque in the eastern Mediterranean. The inscriptions’ emphasis on reading, the reading process, and on words such as zayn and paṙ invite us to meditate on the concept of the logos or “word”, the revelatory character of the holy scripture, and the formative role of the alphabet in the establishment of Armenian Christianity.

Above, in the window, is a more complex scene, showing what is called the Ancient of Days, an image derived from the vision of Daniel in which God is shown holding an image of Adam animated by the divine breath of the Holy Spirit. On his right is the Crucifixion with the Virgin, John the Evangelist, and the prophet Daniel. Der Nersessian has discussed the theology inherent in this pairing: the sins of Adam, the first man, are redeemed by the sacrifice of Christ. The composition and inscriptions are difficult, but Rapti suggests this stresses the inherent complexity and mystery of salvation.


To the south and east is the church of Surb Astvatsatsin (Holy Mother of God), also called Burteghashen (Burtegh’s construction) for its sponsor Prince Burtegh Orbelian. It was completed in 1339, and is attributed to Momik. Near the church there is his tomb khatchkar, small and modestly decorated, dated to the same year. In 1997 the open canopy roof was rebuilt, with the form based on the anastylosis method using existing fragments. It is a two-story structure with three visible tiers on the outside: quadrangular, cruciform, and round. The ground floor is a mausoleum containing the tombs of Burtegh and his family. Cantilevered steps projecting from the west façade lead to the entrance into the church.

This striking two-story structure brings to mind many precedents and parallels both inside and outside of Armenia. Within Armenia, some have traced the concept of the multi-story funerary structure back to early Christian examples (e.g. Aghtsk’) but closer and better preserved parallels exist in the churches of Eghvard and Kaputan, and the bell towers of Haghbat, Kaputan, and Goshavank. The monument should also be seen within the context of a much broader Anatolian and South Caucasian tradition, including the Seljuk- and Mongol-era turbe in Kayseri, Van, Erzurum, Tercan, and Ahlat; the mosque of Sultan Han of 1232; and St. Nicholas church at Gelati monastery in Georgia; many of these monuments also have the cantilevered steps.

There is abundant decoration on the exterior of the church recalling thirteenth and fourteenth century facades across Anatolia and the South Caucasus; note the continuous channeled moulding, here used to form crosses and surround windows, and the multi-level surfaces (for which there are good parallels in Georgia as well as Armenia). Some figurative reliefs, including doves and sirens with women’s crowned heads, recalling manuscript illumination also adorn the exterior. The entrance tympana also bear bas-reliefs; the lower shows the Virgin and Child with Gabriel and Michael, on the upper tympanum, the bust of Christ with Peter and Paul.

A group of the founders of Burtelashen is depicted on three columns of the western part of its rotunda. The picture consisted of relief figures of the Holy Virgin with the Child, sitting on a throne, and two standing men in rich attire, one of them holding a model of the temple.

Interactive Plan


Image Gallery