The past and present of the Armenian woodcraft (interview)

The past and present of the Armenian woodcraft (interview)

The Armenian Highland provided rich material for craftsmen to create wooden art objects,  architectural details, and decorative items, such as distinguished pulpit-lecterns (a 10th-century and 13th-century church lecterns from the medieval Armenian capital Ani), carved capitals, utilitarian dinnerware, solid entrance doors for monasteries and churches, often covered with geometrical, avian, and zoomorphic motifs, human forms, biblical scenes, inscriptions, conveying not only symbols of personal and national identity, but also echoing the pre-Christian belief system later merged with the visualizations of Christian faith. In addition, the ornamental design of the woodcraft parallels the cross-stone art, manuscript illumination art, metalwork, and textile of the time, reflecting tendencies, popular iconographic schemes, and the patterns of the period.

Woodcraft in Armenia has also been represented in the form of cradle-cribs, dandgha-amulets (դանդղա), gatanakhsh-tools (a tool for patterning Armenian gata, a pastry with similarities to both croissants and rugelach), employed not only on a daily basis but in special ceremonies and festivals, mainly bearing auspicious meaning and apotropaic function. As for the secular architectural details, the administrative center of Shirak Province in the northwestern part of the country- Gyumri (Kumayri), has been and still is widely known for its meticulous and masterfully-fulfilled woodcraft objectified in the form of doorways, staircases, gates, balconies, and distinctive furniture.

The wood as a material, in essence, is a short-lived medium; a few Armenian woodcraft masterpieces reached our days. Nevertheless, numerous historical and ethnographic records unfold the cases when Armenians highly valued this art form; during various invasions and particularly the years of the Armenian Genocide of 1915, our devoted compatriots saved the woodcraft gems from demolition. 

The history of Armenians, the monuments of visual art displayed both in Armenian museums and abroad showcase that Armenian churches, monastic complexes, and even residential buildings were adorned with ornamented, aesthetically valuable wood doors; unfortunately, a small quantity survived to us. Among those artifacts worthy of mentioning is the door of the Msho Arakelots Monastery (1134) with figurative reliefs, the 15th-century walnut wood door of the monastery of Sevan, the Church of the Holy Apostles (9th-century complex) that entered the History Museum of Armenia in 1926, and the 13th-century walnut door of the Saint Karapet church of Mush, acquired by a private collector from Christie’s London in 1996. 

ChinArmArt aims to draw special attention to the Armenian pedagog and artist,  professor Melqon Avetisyan. Promoting and evolving the craftsmanship of the forebears through his creative force, his methods and practices of teaching generations for more than three decades, being the author of dozens of church wood doors and hundreds of applied art highly estimated wooden objects, respectable Professor Avetisyan shared his story and legacy of breathing a new life into the centuries-old Armenian woodcraft. 


Do you remember the very first wood door you created for the Armenian church?

Professor Avetisyan

I did my very first work in the sphere of wooden doors in the year 1991 as an undergraduate. I graduated from the Armenian State Pedagogical University, Fine Arts Department. As the graduation work, I presented the new, wood-carved door for the Surp Arakelots or “Holy Apostles” church of Sevan Monastery Complex. My supervisors were the celebrated sculptor Ara Shiraz and the notable figure in the Armenian fine arts sphere Zakhar Khachatryan. The outstanding artist Grigor Khanjyan furthermore provided valuable guidance and insights into the whole process. 

At the end of the 19th century, our ancestors, who belonged to the clerical class, immigrated to the Gegharkunik province of Armenia, settling down in nowadays  Lchashen village and being considered one of the founders of that community. Creating the door for the church was my way of paying tribute to my ancestors and their deeds. 

The door is decorated with geometrical, floral motifs and human figures: Armenia was Christianised by the apostles Bartholomew and Thaddeus, therefore, their figures are implemented in the composition. The iconographic theme common in the Christian world- Christ in Majesty in a mandorla, surrounded by emblems of the evangelists is the central focal relief of the door. 

Another aim of mine for selecting the path of woodcraft artisan was my passion for revitalizing the woodcraft in Armenia as a whole; my countless encounters of our modern religious buildings having very poor-looked, randomly-done doors that often do not match and do not respond at all to the style and spirit of the architectural complex they belong to, played the crucial role. Woodcraft once peaked in Armenia, mainly within religious architecture and applied arts. The church was the main patron for the doors, altar elements, and pulpits. There is an exquisite wooden altar in Surp Arakelots brought from Western Armenia around 1915; my first wood door is in harmony with its elements’ manner, visual appearance, and symbolism. 


What are the essential stages of the wood door-making process? 

Professor Avetisyan

Our first step is exploring the historiography of the architecture, then its formal and visual qualities, only afterward following the phase of composition-creating and eventually the actual work itself, which may last months. Our work starts with the survey regarding the period of the church, the overall ornamental system of the building, then the style of that era in applied arts, manuscript illuminations, murals, and woodcraft to create our own vision of the door encompassing the tendencies of its time and modern understanding of those processes. For instance, on one of the doors, I used the eagle motif with the ram in its claws: the Orbelian family was the building commissioner, and the eagle with the ram is associated with their coat of arms. The Armenian ornamental heritage is my primary source of inspiration. However, I am, on all occasions, accurate and picky when it comes to the selection of the decorations, as first and foremost, the form, shape, and symbolism of the ornaments ought to be matched with the style, history, and perception of the current church or monastery, even suit the former patron’s identity, initials, emblems, name a few. 

When you approach the church, the first thing you see and touch is a door, so the links between the structure and the form of the door must be signified, and the door ought to be inviting and harmonious. The door can have a particular impact on the worshippers and the visitors, so it is expected to be intrinsically Armenian, not evoking any debates and misunderstandings, serving to some extent as the embodiment of the Armenian church and its doctrine. 

I want to emphasize that we mainly use hands and traditional tools, as we value handcraft; we have a wide range of 3D programs and solutions, and we are willing to embrace all the new technologies and techniques, but I believe when it comes to the church door as an artwork, artistic and aesthetic production, the mechanized work and industrialized methods cannot reflect the spirit of ancestors and the individual approach of the artist-artisan. We don’t want the craft- the true art, to vanish in our times of machinery and technological boom.  


Do you have students and apprentices involved in your work?

Professor Avetisyan

I realize that woodcraft is a specific art form, maybe not as demanded and profitable as modern art movements. It’s undoubtedly long-lasting work and requires steel nerves, work responsibility, and pure dedication; not every young man is willing to undergo that experience. When I made a decision around a decade ago to involve my students in the actual process of wooden door creation, it turned out to be a challenge for me as well; whether I was capable of working with the young generation to revive the ancient form of art. I was fortunate to have very skillful, devoted, and clever students. Together with joint efforts, we executed the central wood door for the Saint Gayane Church ( 7th century) in Etchmiadzin, the religious center of Armenia, and the door for the Saint Astvatsatsin church in Dimitrov village, Ararat province. I want to add that my students and I have undertaken the reconstruction and restoration work of the ancient doors and wood artifacts.

Our society often shapes the misconception that woodcraft is solely a man’s work: heavy, sharp tools, dusty surroundings, physical strength…But my professional experience testimonies that Armenian girls are quite apt to accomplish the job. My female students and apprentices demonstrate exceptional enthusiasm; they have taken part in creating lecterns and applied art objects, expressing their fresh and intriguing glimpse into woodcraft. 


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