The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
— Colossians 1:15-17
Near one of the largest Alpine lakes in Eurasia sits a clearing scattered with ancient stone monuments, standing like weary sentinels guarding a land shrouded in silence. The Noratus Cemetery lies about a mile from the main road leading to Armenia’s Lake Sevan. The vast sky bathes this holy field, which gazes towards rolling green hills and distant mountains drizzled with snow. Over centuries, these stones have breathed the deep blue peace of the lake, their lichen-covered surfaces sealing them in time like a second skin.
Noratus is the largest collection of khachkars (literally cross-stones) in the Republic of Armenia. After the ruthless destruction of thousands of khachkars in the Armenian cemetery of Julfa (a prosperous medieval city) by the government of Azerbaijan in 2005, Noratus became the largest surviving assembly of khachkars in the world. Dating from the tenth through seventeenth centuries, nearly a thousand sit in an unkempt field of wild grass, their sacred power undiminished by time. Ground down by the elements, they bravely resist extinction. Scarred by decay, some manage to balance on their platforms while others lean precariously, the earth patiently waiting to swallow them up. Gathered in lines or grouped like an assembly in worship, the arrangement of the stones suggests a hidden plan in what at first appears haphazard. This mix of order and chaos is indicative of the mysterious beauty found in all the medieval stone monuments of Armenia. Here one senses the God in elemental form. Not bread and wine, but stone.
The Flourishing of the Cross
The khachkar was derived from free-standing stele topped by a cross—widespread in Armenia after its adoption of Christianity in 301 AD. Khachkars appeared in the ninth century, after the religious intolerance of Arab domination had passed, and Armenians could resume building open-air monuments. Early legends state that holy relics, after performing heroic deeds, would find refuge in a rock, and tales began to be told of crosses similarly merging with the older steles. Khachkars were produced continuously until the late eighteenth century, reaching their aesthetic peak in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, during a period of cultural flourishing in Armenia.
Once constructed and erected during a religious ceremony, khachkars were blessed and anointed. Now imbued with holy power, they could function in numerous ways: mediating for the salvation of both the living and deceased, serving as a focal point of worship, grave marker, or as protection from misfortune or natural disasters. Khachkars were also erected to commemorate personal achievements, military victories and building projects. Like the Orthodox icon, they had divine presence. They were sometimes considered united to the power of the saints with unique properties: the “Saint Gevorg” khachkar protected warriors in battle and the “Saint Sargis” khachkar secured happiness for lovers. The “Cross of Fury” served as an intermediary to calm divine anger. In the khachkar, matter and spirit coincide with supernatural power, reflecting the mystery of Christ.
Despite standardized iconography, no two khachkars are identical. They typically feature a large central cross surmounting a solar disc in the form of an elaborate rosette. Situated within arched or rectangular niches, these motifs are surrounded by ornate vegetal and interlaced geometric patterns. The khachkar’s tripartite composition links the kingdom of God (the stone’s crown) through the Cross to the earth below. The Cross will occasionally balance on a triangle (sometimes stepped) representing the hill of Calvary. At the center of creation, the Cross mediates between sacred and profane space as a tree of life bearing pomegranates and bunches of grapes as it shelters the earth. Carved from local stone, usually the local volcanic tufa , they would range from five to ten feet in height. The khachkar’s design relates to the multiple dimensions of the Crucifixion: the victory of life over death, Jesus as Savior, and the incarnation of Christ through all of creation.
Christ in the Vineyard
In the early years of Christianity, the Armenian Church struggled with the question of how to present a crucified yet almighty God. Figurative elements were minimized, and the sign of the Cross was presented allegorically, in a way that was intelligible to an agricultural society. The Cross became an all-bearing tree growing in a vineyard, its grapes producing an immortal liquid in imitation of Jesus’s blood poured out for humanity. In some khachkars, stylized creatures that play in the vineyard symbolize the joys of heaven enjoyed by true believers, and vines represent Jesus’s teaching (John 15). The cosmic tree’s bounty streams forth in ornamental palmettes, rising from the Cross’s base and extending upwards to its wings, often designed as palm branches. Tri-lobed buds at the ends of the wings are another reference to the life-energy of nature.
The Church attempted to re-introduce the image of the Crucifixion, but it never gained much popularity. Figures of various kinds were incorporated, but designs remained largely abstract and expressive. The khachkar’s signs and symbols maintained an emphasis on the personal incarnation of Christ in Jesus coexisting with the Cosmic Christ animating all creation. Blooming lilies, ornamental grains, delicate leaves, and rosette bouquets all signified the universal source of life.
The khachkar presents an expansive view of God, whose kingdom is everywhere present. It’s an emblem of Christ that fits both the cosmic and personal dimension: God the Son as divine force manifesting in the natural world—blossoming, evolving, and interconnecting. And Jesus as the incarnation of the Son. The khachkar’s decorative program, enfolding the universal and the particular in a seamless mesh, signifies the nondual core of the Christian message. In its inclusive vision of the natural world as part of the divine mystery, it emphasizes that the Son is materialized always and everywhere, in all creatures and in the rhythm of life itself.
God the Son didn’t appear for the first time in the historical Jesus, but was the unitive force from the beginning, as stated in John 1: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” Choosing to exclude the figure of Jesus from khachkar design to evangelize their people more effectively, the Armenian Church fathers prompted the invention of a sign system that visualizes the risen Christ as regeneration and renewal. The universal pattern of creation itself.
A Cosmological Map
Taking direction from Duns Scotus and the Franciscans, we can understand the death of Jesus as God’s way of reaching out—suffering with us by taking human form. Perspective shifts to the relational, and the interconnection is something we can know in the here and now. The khachkar’s lace-like patterns overflow with abundant life as they fuse with the monument’s central Cross. Like a cosmological map, each design traces the divine energy that’s always been: “Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters” (Genesis 1:2).
The complex and finely wrought geometric patterns blanketing the surface of the khachkar suggest the hidden mathematical order of the universe and the harmony of God’s creation. The horizontal and vertical dimensions of the Cross signify Jesus’s mission. The horizontal beam relates to his work of reconciliation: self-sacrifice and the joining of all people in Christ consciousness. The vertical post joins earth and heaven, matter and spirit. This is an all-inclusive message of a generous and loving God embracing all life forms. In addition, every khachkar has five sacred points: the intersection, or “source” being most important. The stone’s right side was at times associated with the distribution of graces and its left with the forgiveness of sins. Each part of the khachkar can elaborate a different aspect of Christ’s work.
Jesus’s death on the cross signifies God’s love, no longer distant but intimate and relational, descended in human form to live through us. Despite the countless variations in form and content, and the multiple interpretations of khachkar symbology, this relational element of Christ consciousness is present in every khachkar through intertwining motifs. Christ overcomes death, regenerating through new life. Abundant and life-giving, the love of God flows through the cross and touches everything else.
We are an intimate part of this totality. St. Francis de Sales, the seventeenth century Bishop of Geneva, evokes this onement when he states:
The everlasting God has in His wisdom foreseen from eternity the cross that He now presents to you as a gift from His inmost heart. This cross He now sends you He has considered with His all-knowing eyes, understood with His divine mind, tested with His wise justice, warmed with loving arms and weighed with His own hands to see that it be not one inch too large and not one ounce too heavy for you. He has blessed it with His holy Name, anointed it with His consolation, taken one last glance at you and your courage, and then sent it to you from heaven, a special greeting from God to you, an alms of the all-merciful love of God.
Sitting squarely in the nondual heart of the Christian message, its bas-relief facing west in mimicry of the rising sun, the khachkar is a union of opposites. It’s at once personal and universal, ornamental and monumental, delicate and sturdy. Its intricate carvings seem like they’re attached to the stone yet are one with it. Material and image stretching upwards, Armenia’s khachkars unify earth and heaven in a sweeping vision of redemption.
This essay was first published in Saint Austin Review, May/June 2022
Image: Khachkar by master Poghos at Goshavank Monastery, 1291. Tavush Province, Armenia (detail)
Image source: https://search.creativecommons.org/photos/b11e9e1b-7e21-48ef-8a50-05dba813e6a0
There is so much about this article I appreciate – it is a beautiful piece: artistic, cultural, educational, and theologically profound. Thank you!
Thanks for reading Adrienne. I’m so glad you enjoyed the piece. I appreciate your kind words.