Iconographic Mural Painting in Armenia

Although the history of mural painting in Armenia dates to the 7th century before Christ, as can be seen in the palace of Erebuni, this brief introduction will focus on the Christian period of Armenian sacred mural painting history.

Art historical research has disclosed that sacred mural painting in churches began in Armenia around the fourth century, wherein the walls were often abundantly covered with religious images and Biblical themes. Mural painting, specifically painted Christian images, icons, frescoes, (including mosaics) and particularly murals executed in Armenian churches and monasteries, reached a peak during the Middle Ages.  Although not as prominent and wide-spread as the art of manuscript illumination, the large number of preserved works of mural painting throughout Armenia attests to a high level of development.


This was the genesis of a uniquely Armenian style that emerged as Armenian iconography by the seventh century. Concurrently, an equally unique technique emerged - the application of colored pigments to carved stone surfaces in order to give added dimension. Many examples have survived the centuries to the present.

Imagine entering the sanctuary of a 10th century church in Armenia during an evening worship service. Dimly lit with few windows, massive stone walls echo the sounds of melodic chanting. The air-filled scent of burning incense mingles with sacred images in resplendent colors. The images are seen everywhere as the nave is surrounded by Biblical scenes and representations of the saints of the Armenian and Universal Church.  Hanging vigil lamps illuminate these icons of faith, with Gospel stories sprinkled among visions of saintly individuals – they often cover entire walls of a church. Sight, sound and scent come to offer a wave of inspiration, carrying the worshipper to a divine and heavenly dimension of spirituality.

This is hardly a coincidence of sensations.

Holy Apostles mural iconography at Holy Cross Church, Akhatamar - A.D. 921.

Saints Peter & Paul mural icon at the Tatev Monastery - A.D. 930.





Arouj Cathedral - view of the great apse with
deteriorating mural icons  - A.D. 675.

Detail of Christ Enthroned mural icon in the
apse of the Arouj Cathedral.

The famous Vertanes Kertogh Vartabed Sharsalar , a Catholical Locum Tenens of the Patriarchal seat at Dvin  (6th-7th centuries), in his tract Against the Iconoclasts speaks at length of murals in the churches having biblical themes and describes holy images as having an educational and inspirational purpose, serving as kind of visual theology. Kertogh’s treatise is the oldest defense of icon veneration preserved in any language.

In the eighth century, St. John of Odzoon (Catholicos at Dvin, 717-728) developed an even deeper mystical theology of icons in the Armenian Church tradition. He explained that it is possible to represent the image of God because of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. Since God took human material form in the person of Jesus Christ, when bowing down before an icon of Christ, we are actually bowing before Christ enthroned; while looking at the visible, we recall to our mind the invisible. St. John of Damascus, an 8th century Byzantine apologist of sacred icons and images, and a contemporary of John of Odzoon, echoes a similar perspective in his writings.  Even the fourth canon of the Council of Sis (A.D. 1204) clearly encourages the use of pictorial representations.

Perhaps it was the genius of Church hierarchs to provide, if not promote, pictoral representation to the words of scripture. Literacy among the faithful was often known mostly to segments of royalty and clerics of the Church. Listening to the readings from the Gospels was an important moment of worship to the many who could not read, or had little if any access to sacred and rare books. But listening to a Biblical story and seeing an icon illustrating the words, or hearing about the ministry of an Apostle and seeing the Apostle's image on the wall, adds another dimension to both learning and worship.

Christ Pantocrator - great apse - Haghpat Monastery - 10th century.


Sample of Armenian Artistic Influence

Cappadocia, a center of early Christianity located in historic Armenia/modern-day Turkey, attracted many great thinkers and developed a school of orthodox theology which came to influence the Church at large. The famous Cappadocian Fathers, also traditionally known as the Three Cappadocians, are Basil the Great (330–379), who was bishop of Caesarea; Basil's younger brother Gregory of Nyssa (c.332–395), who was bishop of Nyssa; and a close friend, Gregory of Nazianzus (329–389), who became Patriarch of Constantinople.All thesesaints are recognized by the universal Church.



Detail of Christ Pantocrator* in the great apse of the KarabasKilise/Black Head Church.

Sts. Constantine and Helena holding the true cross. Fresco at the Yilani/Snake Church - Cappadocia - A.D. 1050.


Christ Pantocrator*, seated and surrounded by the symbols of the Four Gospels, with the 12 Holy Apostles in the
great apse - KarabasKilise/Black Head Church - Cappadocia - 12th Century.

is of Greek origin meaning "ruler of all".

Christ Pantocrator is an icon of Christ represented full
or half-length and full-faced. He holds the book of the
Gospels in his left hand and blesses with his right hand.


The famous ancient churches of Cappadocia are replete in Christian iconography appearing on sanctuary walls adorned with painted frescoes. These churches and caves offer a repository of Christian art and form. Art historical research has revealed significant similarities between Armenian miniatures (manuscript illuminations) painted in Vaspurakan and the monumental Church paintings of Cappadocia.

This time frame is very important. From the 9th to the 14th centuries, the Armenians held a major role and influencing in the cultural and political life of Cappadocia. As a result of the Byzantine military campaigns and the Seljuk invasion of Armenia, Armenians vastly populated Cappadocia. The 10 century Arab historian Abu Al Faraj asserts the following about Armenian settlers in Sivas[Sebastia]: "Sivas, in Cappadocia, was dominated by the Armenians and their numbers became so many that they became vital members of the imperial armies.” A little later during the time of the crusaders, Cappadocia was"terra Hermeniorum,"the land of the Armenians, due to the large number of Armenians settled there.


Crucifixion in the apse-ceiling of the Tokali/Buckle Church - Cappadocia 10th century.


Thus, it is important to note the similarity between the Cappadocian Church frescoes** and Armenian miniature painting. Attesting to the influence of the Vaspurakan stylistic peculiarities in the Cappadocian frescos, especially with the development of the figures, and their delineation, development of the pleats in the clothing, placement of colorless figures in the depth of the image, development of wide-opened eyes on the faces, among others.

This influence in Cappadocia, a widely accepted center and traditional authority of Church Theology and tradition, promoted iconographic embellishment as foundational in the art of the Church and its architecture – particularly mural art. While not the origin or beginnings of such large-scale iconography, certainly a catalyst for its spread in Armenian and other Orthodox Churches.



  Holy Transfiguration mural icon - Cappadocia - 11th century.

Painted arch with saints in the Apple Church - Cappadocia - 10th century.







**Fresco - a painting done rapidly in watercolor on wet plaster on a wall or ceiling, so that the colors penetrate the plaster and become fixed as it dries.



The most productive periods of Christian iconographic mural painting in Armenia were coincidental to the politically stable periods of Armenia's history, for example:

7th century: Churches at Arouj, Talin, L'mpad, Kosh

10th century: Churches at Datev, Aghtamar, Haghbat

13th century: Churches at Baghtaghek, Dadivank, Aghtala


Religious themes and programs of iconography which were painted in these churches and others have come down to us in various states of preservation. The more decorative geometrical, animal and features of nature appearing in various painted Armenian manuscripts also appeared in royal palaces, but have not survived very well if at all.

Mural painting in Armenia enjoyed a revival during the 17th century. Especially significant was the Hovnatanian school of artists who, with their unique style of iconography, embellished the Cathedral of Holy Etchmiadzin and other churches. Thereafter, the bulk of Armenian Church painting during the time that followed regretfully became unsuccessfully characteristic of styles that were a tragically uninspired mix of poorly executed renaissance style and a conglomeration of oriental suggested motifs. Later, mural painting, as well as other religious art forms and expressions, including exterior bas relief in stone, as well as outdoor or public religious festivities, were stifled by the oppressiveness of Islamic Law and the short curved blade of Turkish scimitar persecutions subsequent to the 13th century.

Since the recent massive persecutions and genocidal acts between 1895 and 1918, wherein the Turkish Government attempted to annihilate Christians and largely the Armenian population; and, with the displacement of Armenians throughout the world due to continuous political upheavals, little activity has been conducted to advance and resurrect any ArmenianChurch art tradition or expression, except in architecture.





View of the Great Altar with iconography in the
apse - Haghbat Monastery - 10th century.


Revival of an Ancient Armenian Art Form

At Saints Vartanantz Armenian Church in Chelmsford, Massachusetts, USA, a revival of orthodox iconography in hybred Armenian form once again greets the faithful. This sanctuary, consecrated in 1978, provides today's visitor a vision of the style and form of ancient Armenian Orthodox sanctuaries of 1,000 years ago. 

In 1985-87, after much research, the Very Rev. Father Ghevont Samoorian, long a student of Armenian art and architecture, arrived at a formula which he felt best expresses an Armenian Ecclesiastical "Art Style" for mural iconography. Through the talents of artist Daniel Varoujan Hejinian, this style was fully comprehended and expressed on canvas in the iconography of Saints Vartanantz Church.

The style, patterned after the manuscript Gospel illumination school of Erzinga, is typified by classic motifs, Armeno-Byzantine compositions, and a freedom of movement with delightful animation. This is unique to the style of the early Armenian Christians. The iconography in Chelmsford includes over 40 different icons painted as murals, most in life-size form featuring over 80 individual figures.

"Just as one's faith is continually growing, searching, and reflecting in its attempt to glorify God throughout one's lifetime," said Fr. Ghevont Samoorian, the Pastor in Chelmsford from 1968-1994, "so does the Church. The embellishment of the sanctuary through art and iconography, architecture, and liturgical vestments and vessels is a never ending attempt to glorify our Lord."

The Saints Vartanantz Church, originally nick-named “Little Ani” at the time of its consecration because of its similitude to the 10th century Cathedral of Ani - a sanctuary that was profusely decorated with murals - is the first Armenian Church in the Western Hemisphere to revive the longstanding tradition of painting the entire interior of the church with religious imagery. “It’s hoped,” Fr. Ghevont said at the time, “that this will open a new era for Armenian ecclesiastical art, and serve to identify its unique spiritual nature, as has the revival of iconography in the Greek churches.”

The heavenly dimension of spirituality that greeted the faithful in historic Armenia during the 10th century is, once again, inspiring worshippers with similar sound, scent, and sight in the 21st century. Now, at Saints Vartanantz in Chelmsford - half a world away from Ani - it may be the needful reawakening of a tradition, once gone dormant, enlivened with the Christian artistic canon in the Armenian Church.

This revival may be the very special touch needed as the faithful seek out the Christian nuance of the Armenian ordo.


Detail of symbol of St. Matthew the Evangelist - winged man.
Saints Vartanantz Church, Chelmsford, MA - 20th century.


View looking east to the Great Altar.
Saints Vartanantz Church, Chelmsford, MA - 20th century.


View of the Northeast wall.
Saints Vartanantz Church, Chelmsford, MA - 20th century.

St. Matthew the Evangelist with symbol in the southeast pendentive.
Saints Vartanantz Church, Chelmsford, MA - 20th century.


Iconographic Mural Painting in Armenia
Compiled and written by Deacon James Magarian from the information, writings and references gathered from:


  • Samoorian, Very Rev. Father Ghevont (1934-2013) - Pastor at Saints Vartanantz Armenian Church, Chelmsford, Mass., during the construction of its new church building. The Principal Investigator of ecclesiastical research, interpretation, and execution of architectural style, layout, and iconography of the Church in Chelmsford in the years 1976-1989.
  • Kochakian, Rev. Father Garabed, M.Div., MA-Art History. Chair of the Ecclesiastical Arts and Architecture Committee - Diocese of the Armenian Church of America. (Eastern)

  • Hejinian, Daniel Varoujan, MFA, Fine Arts and Drama Institute, Yerevan. Primary artist for most of the iconography at Saints Vartanantz Armenian Church, Chelmsford, Mass. Founder of 'Peace of Art' - a global humanitarian project to promote peace awareness through art.


  • Armenian Art Web site - http://www.armenianart.org/
  • Armenian Studies Program, California State University, Fresno – College of Arts & Humanities Web site - http://www.fresnostate.edu/artshum/armenianstudies/
  • Abu Al Faraj / Abu-l-Faraj or, in the West, as Abulfaraj (897–967) was an historian of Arab origin who wrote poetry, also an anthology of verses on the monasteries of Mesopotamia and Egypt, and a genealogical work, his fame rests upon his Book of Songs (Kitab al-Aghani).
  • Diocese of the Armenian Church (Eastern) Web site - https://www.armenianchurch-ed.net
  • Joulfayan-Yeghyayan Delefevre, Lucy - Armenian Studies, Co-Founder / English Editor in Chief
  • MacEvitt, Christopher, PhD – History, Professor of Religion at Dartmouth College.
  • Manukian, Seda, Yerevan State University, Chair of History and Theory of Armenian Art.
  • Matevosyan, Karen, PhD Historical Sciences - 2016 Head of Department, study of art history and writing centers – Mesrob Mashtots Institute – Matenadaran.