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Iconography in the Armenian Church

"Tasdarag" - Mandalion

By V. Rev. Fr. Barouyr Shernezian, 2017

Numerous of sacred paintings decorate the internal part of the Armenian Church. Beyond their beauty, they have the role to connect the faithful with the heavenly realities. They are there to remind the believer of a biblical message, or a saint, who devoted himself/herself to the Absolute love and faith.

The human nature sometimes has a hard time to believe in invisible things. Faith is a spiritual element that believes in things cannot be seen or touched. Therefore, the picture or the paintings are developed in the church to help the faithful pray by an intimate feeling with God.

This paper will explore the concept of the sacred paintings in the Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Church. Do they take us to idolatry, or do they act as spiritual support elements in the church? This short research will briefly go through the history of sacred paintings in Armenia, reflect on the iconoclasm and the reaction of the church fathers. Eventually, it will provide the theological understanding of the icons in the Armenian Church.


In Armenian Su’rpankartjutyun (Սրբանկարչութիւն) or Badgerakrutyun (Պատկերագրութիւն)is the meaning of iconography. An icon is a painting or a picture that represents Jesus, St. Mary, saints, or any biblical scene. It can be painted or illustrated by any artist, and blessed or anointed by a special ceremony. They stand at the church not to decorate the walls, but to support the believers with a spiritual message or reminding them about a biblical scene or saint’s life. Sometimes, they stand in the church as frescos, or relief sculptures.

According to the Bible and as Jesus reminds us, “And you shall love the Lord with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength”(Mark 12:30).This means to love and to show your love through worship with all your essence and existence. Based on this concept, in the liturgical life, the church founding fathers came up with a solution so that the believers can live the presence of God with all their senses: sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch. These are the factors with which the human being communicates with the outside world. Therefore, having iconographies in the church helps the believers feel the presence of God and Heavenly kingdom through the sense of sight and touch.

One of the pioneers of iconography in the church, Vu’rtanes Kertoghwrites in his book of defense:

“In the church, the ears listen to Jesus’words and the eyes look at the sacred pictures and through them we understand God’s words and believe in Him”[1].

The theology and the concept of the iconography in Armenia started in the 8thcentury, when some church fathers defended with writings and preaching against the iconoclasm that was happening in Armenia. Those two remarkable church fathers were Vu’rtanes Kertogh andHovnan Otsnetsi the Catholicos, who with their defensive thesis formed the idea of the iconography and the rite of blessing the icons.

Their understanding about the role of the icons was very clear: we do not worship the picture or the painting, but through them we praise the life-giver, our God. Even our Lord Jesus Christ, with his incarnation, took the material, the body, and valued it with his sanctification, therefore, we cannot ignore the fact of using the material for God’s glory.

Here are the beautiful words of Hovhan Otsnetsithe catholicos, who states the following:

“When we see a picture, made by silver, or stone, or canvas, or by any material, we do not put our hope neither on the stone, nor the metal. In the icon of Jesus is represented his incomprehensive incarnation, who values and blesses all the creation[2]”.

The Logos took the image of man, to show His face, His compassion and love in his earthly mission. God’s earthly mission was not only spiritual or non-materialistic, but on the contrary, He became visible through the incarnation. Moreover, after He resurrected with glorified body. His holy body became the image of God’s presence as person among people.

Sometimes, every detail in icons has a theological meaning. That is why some church fathers rejected the assuagement of other churches’icons. In particular, in the aftermath of the split of the orthodox with the council of Chalcedon, because of Christological differences, some church leaders did not allow any Greek Orthodox icons. In the 9thcentury, in his letter to the Armenian bishop of Sepasdia, who did not recommend the veneration of Greek icons, the Chalcedonian influential priest Sahag Vanagan or Sahag the Monkwrote:

“Do not venerate the Greek icons…because we worship only God and the holy Sign (cross), which was the only given icon to us, and which is allowed to worship according to the teachings of our fathers[3]”.

The History of Sacred Paintings in Armenia

The first appearance of the icon in Christianity is believed miraculously drawn by our Lord Jesus Christ and known as an image “not made by hands” (antse’rakordz–անձեռագործ). As the story goes, when King Abgar of Edessa sent representatives to ask Jesus to come to Edessa to heal the king, Jesus wrote a message and sent it with his icon, which was a towel. It is believed that Jesus put the towel on His face and the trace of His face was “printed”on the towel. This story is written by an 4thcentury Assyrian historian, Adda and by Armenian 5thcentury historian, Moses Khorenatsi. St. Movses Khorentsi called this Turin Gentanakir (Կենդանագիր), which means image/writing[4]of the life giver or life bearer

St. Movses Khorenatsi recorded another sacred painting, namely the painting of St. Mary, mother of God that St. Bartholomeow[5], one of the disciples of Jesus Christ, brought with him. St. Bartholomeow was one of the followers who brought Christianity to Armenia and got martyred for the faith. The story tells us that St. Bartholomeow did not have the chance to see the Mother of God before Her asumption to heaven, so the apostles gave him a painting of Holy Mother as a gift, which he brought with him to Armenia. It is believed that St. Luke the Apostle had painted it for St. Bartholomeow. The story says that the monks of Hokyats Հոգեացpreserved it in a secret place, probably in a hidden wall of the church, because of their fear from persecution. It was never found it again.

These are the first iconographies recorded in the early Christianity and in Armenia, which are considered the basis for future iconography.

In the 4thcentury, historian Vu’rtanes Kertogh Վրթանէս Քերթող recorded that the king BabՊապ Թագաւոր(364-374) ordered all churches to decorate with sacred paintings.

The sacred paintings or sacred art in general was not only limited to paintings on woods or canvas. In the early centuries, the art of icon developed on the church walls as sculptures and as miniatures in manuscripts.

One of the oldest manuscripts that is preserved until today in the main library of the Republic of Armenia, Madenataran,dates back to the 7thcentury and is known as The Gospel of VehamayrՎեհամօր Աւետարան[6]. The Gospel is illustrated with beautiful miniatures, which are small iconographies. This is a testimony of how the biblical scenes or saints images expressed with lines and colors became cultural and sacred heritage.

On the door of the church of Otsun Օձունin Armenia, which dates from the 6th century, stands a sculpture of Theotokos, Virgin Mary, holding the Almighty Jesus in her hands. This is another example of the sacred art in the Armenian Church that reflects about the development of the concept of “images”in Christianity.

In the 8thand 9thcenturies, a strong movement called Iconoclasm[7]started in the Byzantine Empire which rejected and disrespected the icons and the images from churches. This movment was based on one of the words of God in the Ten Commandments:

“You shall not make for yourself a craved image- any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them”. (Ex 20:4-5, NKJV) or other biblical verses that God refers about idolarery: “Do not turn to idols or make yourselves molten gods; I am the Lord your God”. (Leviticus 19:4). Another verse from prophesies: “The idols are like scarecrows in a cucumber field, and they cannot speak, they have to be carried, for they cannot walk. Be not afraid of them for them for they cannot do evil, neither is it in them to do good”(Jeremiah 10:5).

Therefore, having images or sculptures in the church and worshiping them was considered idolatry and against God’s commandment. The iconoclasm ended around 842, with the emperor Theoplios’death.

During the 6thand 7thcenturies, the same movement started in Armenia as well. It was spreaded and organized by two sects: the Paulician Christian sect and the sect of Tondrakians.Several pro-icon and anti-icon literatures appeared, both groups were blaming each other as Chalcedonian influence and movement. The iconoclasm had more political concerns, than theological debate or disagreement. Moreover, it was threatening the faith of people and their trust in the Armenian Apostolic Church.

“Survival and preservation of faith were the prime concern of the Armenian people. Icons, the visible expression of the people’s faith, became the target through which the faith could be suppressed. Image persecution from outside Armenia added, to a degree, to the iconoclasm within the country, since iconoclasts could point to this persecution to justify their wholesale rejection of icons”[8].

But in the end of this argument or the “battle”, the church fathers assured and proved that this is not about heathenism, but a Christian piety that is necessary for faithful.

This was an “internal battle”about the icons and sacred art, which the Armenian Church faced and made the sacred art bloom. Many scholastic Armenian monasteries developed their own and unique art of sacred paintings. Having said that, we cannot ignore the fact that Byzantine and Latin influences had been part of the sacred art in Armenia.

The sacred painting became subject to extermination and insult during the Islamic persecutions and wars. They have been destroyed with the churches and other sacred belongings. Under the debt of taxes, the sacred heritage of the churches, including the icons, was sold or stolen.

Destroying the sacred arts in the church by Islamic persecutors was not only an act of violence, but also the Islamic way of thinking about icons. In the Book of Hadith, it is written:

“Ibn‘Umar reported Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) having said: Those who paint pictures would be punished on the Day of Resurrection and it would be said to the them: Breathe soul into what you have created”[9]. (N 5268)

The indirect persecution against the churches and the sacred paintings continued during the Ottoman Empire and later during the Armenian Genocide (1915).

Biblical Evidence

It is totally clear that God commanded Moses the prophet not to make idols (Ex 20:4-5). But let us also read what God did order Moses to do when the Temple was being built: “And you shall make two cherubim of gold; of hammered work you shall make them at the two ends of the mercy seat”. (Exodus 25:18, NVKJ) This was just after the delivering of the Ten Commandments. Is this a contradiction to God’s commandment? No. God finds it important to use an “image”to meet the people. When God called Moses the first time, He talked to him through a flamed bush and used this image to “appear”to Moses.

In Solomon’s Temple, there were images on the walls. Moreover, the Molten Sea, was made for ablution for the priests. It was supported by twelve bulls in bronze. According to scholars, they symbolize the twelve tribes of Israel. Again, we find the concept of the image.

There are many other examples that show how God reached people with a sign or an image. This made us feel confident to use the icons in the church as signs of His presence and bounding bridges.

The Cannon of Anointing Icons

It is believed that in the 8thcentury, the Armenian Church formed a cannon to bless the icons with holy Muron[10]. Most probably, Hovhan Otsnetsi the Catholicos[11]was the one who coordinated the cannon and the ceremony of the blessing of icons. The Armenian Church does not allow anything unsegmented at the church, that means not blessed or anointed.

The cannon says that the anointing of the painting or the icon should be done during the evening vigil, in front of the main holy altar, with chanting psalms and singing hymns. A priest or a deacon should clean the four areas that will be anointed: up in the middle, down in the middle, left in the middle and right in the middle. According to father Sdepanos Man’tinyants, the painting should be cleaned during the service with water and wine, as a symbol of sanctification through the water and blood that shed from the left flank of our Lord Jesus Christ. The presiding priest chants and anoints the painting in the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit. The hymn dedicated to the saint is sung and the priest pays his respect by incensing the sacred painting and kissing. In the end of the ceremony, all the faithful get the chance to kiss and pay their respect as well. I would like to present the English translation of some parts of the rites of the service, which reflect the concept and the theology of the icons.

If it is a saint icon:

“We acknowledge Your beneficence, O Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and we beg of You the forgiveness of our sins; You, who made the believers in Your name to be called and accounted as precious the death of those who have died for the sake of Your holy name, accept this image and sanctify it and manifest on it the power of Saints (name) as You manifested the power of the grace of Elijah on his mantle; that this image may be a commemoration of Your witness (name) and a cause and occasion for the worship of the consubstantial Holy Trinity…”[12].

If it is Jesus’icon:

“…You, O Lord, beneficent Father, who for our sake was pleased to send Your beloved Only-begotten Son to assume the form of a servant and to appear as man in all respects except sin, and through You, made us worthy to receive the honor of adoption (children of God), look upon on our worship and hear our supplications and bless and sanctify this image of (name or subject), so that (name or subject may be for a strong arm and a help unto us and unto all Your faithful who will, before this image, raise their arms up to You…”[13].

Usually, the blessing of an icon takes place on a feast day or on a commemoration of the current saint that it is painted.

Although, the blessing of the icon is not on the list of seven sacraments, but in its nature, is a sacrament. Anointing with the Holy Muron, which represents the grace of the Holy Spirit, the icon transforms from a material object into a spiritual one. It receives the grace to bless the faithful and become an object to glorify God. Its purpose and nature change into divine reality. That is why, we hear or witness many miracles that occurred through an icon.


The prayers are the expression of our faith and love towards God. They are words and feelings that reflect our inner mind and soul. The same applies to the icons. They are the reflection of our inner faith and vision. They are formed with line and colors and whatever we imagine. But it is stamped by the grace of Holy Spirit to be a tool and bridge between the weakened man and the Almighty God. This helps us through the visual art during our worship to pray deeply.

Do we worship the icons? No, we worship God. Would it be preferable to bow or kneel in front of a blank wall or in front of a consecrated image of God? If a faithful kisses an icon, or prays in front of it, it does not mean that he/she hopes for a miracle from the icon, but from God. St. Nerses the Gracious writes:

“God is invisible by His nature; in bowing down before the visible cross, we do so before the invisible God, according to the commandments we receive from the holy apostles. While with our bodily eyes, we see its material and true shape, with the eyes of the spirit and our faith, we perceive the invisible power of God united with us”[14].

[1]Vu’rtanes Kertogh, Apology For Images, accessed December 13, 2017,ՅԱՂԱԳՍ%2520ՊԱՏԿԵՐԱՄԱՐՏԻՑ

[2]Hovsep Vartabed Ashkarian. Handbook of the Armenian Iconographer (Antilias: Catholicossate Publications, 2010), p. 30.

[3]Ashkarian, 32.

[4]I will skip the historical debates or research about Turin, what happened, what historians or archeologists think about it, but it is worth mentioning St. Movses Khornetsi, who in his historical writings records that (during his times –5thcentury), “stands in the city of Edessa until present day”.


[6]The Gospel of Vehamayr has become a national symbolism. The elected president makes his oath, by putting his/her right hand on this Bible. This tradition started with the first president of the Republic of Armenia, Levon Der-Bedrossian, in 1992. Manuscript number N 2374.

[7]Encyclopedia Britannica, s.v. “Iconoclastic Controversy”, accessed December 13, 2017,

[8]Ashkarian, 19.

[9]SearchTruth, The Hadith Book, accessed December 13, 2017,

[10]Holy Muron is a holy oil prepared with more than 40 kinds of plants and flowers and blessed by the right hand of St. Gregory the Illuminator. It is used only for baptism, ordination and anointing of items, icons, and churches.

[11]Catholicos is the head of the Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Church.

[12]Father Garabed Kochakian, Art in the Armenian Church: Origins and Teaching,(New York: St. Vartan Press), 42.

[13]Kochakian, 43.

[14]Kochakian, 33.


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