Saghmosavank Monastery

Saghmosavank front view

Elif Demirtekin

Saghmosavank (“monastery of the Psalms”) is located in the village of Saghmosan, on the right bank of the Kasagh river. The landscape in the Aragatsotn district offers a scenic view of the gorge carved by the Kasagh river and the mountains crowned by Mount Aragats. The monastic complex was built by the Vachutyans, a noble family emerging during the Zakarid period in the first half of the thirteenth century. It went through two substantial restorations in the middle of the seventeenth century under katholikos Yovhannes and in 1890 under Khrimean Hayrik.

The monastic complex consists of four groups of buildings: a main church (Church of Surb Sion/Saint Zion), a jamatoun, a single-nave chapel, and a library. The main church lies to the north of the building complex, a larger square forms the jamatoun to the west of the church. The chapel is located to the south of the church, though it does not have a direct connection to the church; it can be reached through a low door between the south-east corner of the jamatoun and the library. The library is situated to the south, and it partially shares the walls of the jamatoun and the church on its northern side and of the chapel to the north. As a whole, the architectural planning of the complex poses some intriguing questions.

An inscription indicates that Prince of Princes (ishkanats ishkan) Vache Vachutyan and his wife Mamakhatun commissioned the main church in 1215. The same prince also constructed the church of Surb Karapet at Hovhannavank Monastery, located approximately five kilometres south of Saghmosavank. Most probably the jamatoun was added to the complex immediately after the construction of the church.

The church of Saint Zion (Surb Sion) is a cross-winged domed structure, inscribed with two blind niches on the eastern and northern façades and one on the southern façade of the exterior. In keeping with the rest of the complex, a grey volcanic tufa stone with some orange shades was used as the primary construction material. The high cylindrical drum with four narrow windows and a conical roof rests on pendants. Pipe-like elements form part of the stone-built roofing, quite common in domical construction in the region. The interior has a nave and a tri-partite apse. The chambers on four corners of the church are two-storied, paralleling tenth-century Byzantine church construction (e.g. Constantine Lips in Constantinople) and Georgian church architecture. The second floors of the western corners are reached by two staircases.

The jamatoun (13 x 13.5 m inside) is wider yet shorter than the church. With its four columns dividing the ceiling into nine bays and its dodecagonal pyramid that rests on a square base, inviting light inside, the jamatoun gives a sense of a spacious gathering area. The central piece is decorated with four leave floral moldings on its eleven sides, and a cross surrounded by floral motifs inscribed on its twelfth side. The remaining eight bays are variously covered with vaults. The entrance gate of the jamatoun has a large portal with three doorframes. The outer rectangular frame encloses a pointed blind arch, and the space in between is carved with thirteen small khachkars. The pointed arch, which is decorated with four-pointed simple stars, in return, encloses a tympanum. The tympanum is carved with stars, pentagons, diamonds and still shows traces of red paint. When the southern portal of the jamatoun was rebuilt in 1890, the south arcades were transformed into windows. There is another entrance to the jamatoun on its southern side.

An inscription testifies that K’urd Vachutyan, son of Vache and Mamakhatun, built the library in 1253. “I, K’urd, and my wife Khorisah built this library and established a chapel in the name of our daughter Mamakhatun.” (The couple seems to have named their daughter after K’urd’s mother Mamakhatun). A third inscription records a restoration of 1669: “This [church of] Blessed Mother of God [Astvatzatzin] was restored by the vardapet Gabriel.”

A high podium of five steps leads to the apse, on the triumphal arch of which an angel and eagle (or a winged creature with a human head and bird claws) are carved and painted above a painted decorative fan (or a frontal depiction of a peacock). Geometric decorations appear on the arches. The mural paintings, which decorate the piers and the panels flanking the apse, include portraits of saints and scenes from the passion cycle. The architectural composition of the library is complex. It is a rectangular structure, in which the available space to the north-east distorts the rectangle and becomes an entrance between the jamatoun and the library. Here, the library shares the western half of the southern wall of the main church, but the two are not connected. Similarly, the southern end of the jamatoun’s eastern wall and the eastern end of the jamatoun’s southern wall are incorporated into the library structure. In the rest of the hall, three arches of the main area rest on six semi-columns and two longitudinal arches are crossed by two transverse arches, one of which rests on the western part. The square compartments are covered with red and white paint (stars and octagons), a vault and a ceiling with a large painted star. The limited light in the library is intriguing; unlike the jamatoun, it is not well-illuminated with natural light. On the exterior of the library, the west window is encircled in a cruciform, which contains a lion and two birds. The south window is framed by two narrow arcades, above which an arc is placed and the space in between the arc and the windows is sculpted with a bust of a saint with his right hand raised. The west gate was rebuilt in 1890.

Finally, a small single-nave chapel is attached to the northern side of the east facade of the library and is probably contemporary with it. Several khachkars stand to the north of the monastery. One was erected in 1309 near the main church; another, a little further, dates from 1421. Further still, there is a group of khachkars (one of which dates from 1255).

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  • Jean-Claude Bessac, “Observations sur la construction monumentale dans le nord-ouest de la républic d’arménie,” Syria 88 (2011): 379-415
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