Standing amidst precipitous cliffs, the Noravank Monastery was built in place of an ancient cloister and grew in the reign of Orbelian Princes of Syunik, becoming a major religious and cultural centre of Armenia in 13th-14th centuries. The monastery was founded in 1205 by Bishop Hovhannes, former abbot of Vahanavank (near the present-day city of Kapan in Syunik region of Armenia), who moved his bishopric to Noravank. Mongols looted the monastery in 1238, but a truce between the Agha Khan and Prince Elikum Orbelian brought peace to the region and after rebuilding the monastery a new golden age was established that lasted until the Timurid invasions in the late 14th century.
The architectural dominant of Noravank is the St. Astvatsatsin (Holy Mother of God) church – a highly artistic monument, truly a masterpiece of architecture, completed in 1339. The church is said to be the last work of the famous Armenian medieval architect Momik, who designed it. Noravank’s St. Astvatsatsin reproduces the type of the “Shepherd’s” Church in Ani reminiscent of the tower-like burial structures of the first years of Christianity in Armenia. It is a memorial church; the ground storey was a family burial vault, the first storey was a memorial temple crowned with a many-column rotunda. A narrow cantilever stairs leading to the first storey play an important role in the decoration of the western portal. The door tympanums here are decorated with reliefs showing, in the ground storey, the Holy Virgin with the Child and Archangels Gabriel and Michael at her sides, in the upper storey, a half-length representation of Christ and figures of the Apostles Peter and Paul.
The dome is supported by an open air rotunda, which both brightens the hall inside while its relatively light weight allowed the builders to top the church with an extremely tall feature. Rotunda details include pairs of birds above each of the exterior capitals of the 12 support columns, and carving of the donors of three columns on the western side.
The facade of the church has bas-relief sculptures. Bas relief sculptures predominate on each wall, breaking up the wall mass with rounded moldings, arches and large crosses. The east wall has stepped framing over the top heraldic emblem of the Orbelian family, with three cross designs underneath, the central surrounding a sun disk ornament. The north and south walls frame windows with rounded moldings forming an arch over large crosses and bas-relief columns that lighten the effect of the monolithic lower walls.
Next to St. Astvatsatsin are the St. Karapet church, the Gavit and the St. Stepanos church. St. Karapet, the oldest structure of Noravanak complex, is a small basilica church built in 9th century. It came to us in ruins; remains included a three-step platform, traces of three arches that supported a vaulted roof, and a southern antechamber. The St. Stepanos church, the main church of the monastery, was built for Prince Liparit Orbelian (1216-1221). Its original dome was destroyed by an earthquake and the building was rebuilt at least twice. Along the northern wall is the grave for Prince Smbat Orbelian, built by the medieval architect Siranes in 1275. The gavit lies to the west of the main church of St. Stepanos and was its formal entrance. The first gavit was built immediately after the church, and rebuilt in 1261 by architect Siranes for Prince Smbat Orbelian. Following the 1321 earthquake, the gavit was rebuilt, possibly by Momik, adding a vaulted roof and two of Momik’s most outstanding carvings on the tympanum for the door and the upper window arch, of which one depicts a seated Madonna and the Child with two saints. The second one is a unique creation of God, Adam, Christ, a dove and other biblical figures.
Of special interest are the khachkars (stone crosses) at Noravank including masterpiece works by Momik and his students, which are considered to be one of the best Armenian carvings of the medieval era. Momik introduced a plasticity and life to his carvings, infusing his works with extraordinary details and patterns borrowed from the Near East. Khachkars hold a special place in history of Armenia, worshipped by pilgrims from the very beginning of their tradition. Their iconography is specific, combining the central Cross with a Tree of Life and geometric patterning.
Noravank Monastery was a major cultural center of its time and had close connections with such religious and educational centers as the universities at Gladzor and Tatev Monastery, among others. The April 1931 Syunik Earthquake, that left 80% of the region’s villages, destroyed much of the site, including the dome of St. Stepanos church. The roof and the upper walls of the sepulchre-church were repaired in 1948-1949, but the complete renovation of the Noravank complex begun in the 1980s and was finished in 2001. On the photographs below you can compare the present-day look of the monastery with what it looked like before the 1980s-2001 renovations.
-Armenia Monuments Awareness Project
-O. Khalpakhchian, “Architectural ensembles of Armenia” – Moscow, 1980.
-Inessa Hovsepyan, archeologist