THE ICONOGRAPHY OF THE SCENES OF THE STORY OF JONAH AT THE CHURCH OF THE HOLY CROSS OF AGHTAMAR – 2018-3

Summary

Lilit Sh. Mikaelyan

Key words – Aghtamar; Church of Holy Cross; Kingdom of Artsruni; Armenian medieval sculpture; Early Christian art; Iconography; Prophet Jonah; Jewish sources; Kētos; Sea monster; Vishap; Senmurv; Sasanian culture.

The Church of the Holy Cross (915-921) on the island of Aghtamar is famous for its rich sculptural decoration of facades and for the wideness of the stories, in particular on the Old Testament. There are many studies on this monument, nevertheless the interpretations of several compositions and the iconographic origins of some images of it are still in dispute. Among them the story of Prophet Jonah (Jonah 1-4) is notable, which occupies the entire south-western part of the main sculptural band and is the most extensive narrative composition of Aghtamar. On the left side of the large composition there is the scene of the swallowing of Jonah by the whale and then there is the episode of the release of the prophet from the belly of the sea monster,and his rest under the shadow of the gourd bush, and above it is depicted the scene of preaching in Nineveh. The iconography of scenes and images of the Jonah’s story in Aghtamar has early Christian prototypes: the fragment of a sailboat with the figures,the representation of the prophet’s naked figure, as well as,the image of the sea monster date back to the ancient ketos. The baldness of the prophet in the recreation scene comes from the Jewish sources, according to which he had lost his hair being in the fiery belly of the whale. At the church of Aghtamar we have one of the earliest samples of this type of Jonah’s iconography in Christian art. The scene of preaching in Nineveh is also a very early and unique interpretation of the episode, not known in early Christian art indicating a certain creative approach of the artist. At Aghtamar both sea monsters are done with the head of a dog and the body of a fish, but the whale ejecting the prophet has also wings and paws of the predator. The representation of the whale in two different guises in the church of the Holy Cross is unique for the Christian art. The iconography of the second monster and details of its depiction reveal obvious parallels with the image of the so-called «senmurv» in Sasanian art. According to the latest studies, it was the embodiment of Farn – the deity of fortune, glory and heavenly patronage of Zoroastrian mythology. The use of the iconography of the «senmurv» in the image of the whale on Aghtamar bears out its interpretation in a positive way against the orthodox Christian tradition, but is accordant to the symbol of the whale in Jewish exegesis as the savior and patron of the prophet (Midrash, Haggadah, Philo of Alexandria). In the Sogdian culture, close to Sasanian Iran, sea monsters were the patrons of kings and heroes, as we can see in VIII century frescoes in Panjakent. The influence of Iranian art is quite significant for Aghtamar from the perspective of the cultural contacts of the Kingdom of Artsruni with the Arab Caliphate, which resulted in the revival of Sasanian art. We can find the images of the whale as a sea monster in X century monuments of Transcaucasia, too. The bald Jonah in the mouth of a sea monster is known in the décor of Khakhu Cathedral in Tayk, on the relief of the church in KvaisaJvari in South Ossetia, on the fragment of the templon from the church in Dranda in Abkhazia (all dated to the X century). The latter confirms the existence of a common tradition of the depiction of the story in Armenia and throughout Transcaucasia in this period. Later, in XIII century Cilician miniature, as well as on the relief of the high apse in the Church of the Mother of God (1205) of Makaravank, this story is interpreted according to the Western iconography, where the whale has already the appearance of a real fish.

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