Armenians have always cherished their artistic traditions, which reflect a unique culture and landscape. Through various art forms such as carving, needlework, sculpture and music, Armenian artists express aspects of everyday life.
Architecture, particularly religious architecture, is a fascinating art form in Armenia. Armenian Churches have a unique style developed over thousands of years of experimentation. Frescoes, carved motifs and decorations adorn church walls, many of them remarkably intact after hundreds of years. Frescoes and carvings from the 5th-9th centuries are particularly rich, as are the gavits, or narthexes (church entrance halls), of the 13th century.
Armenian religious manuscripts are a distinctive art form. They are carefully illuminated with detailed and colorfully painted miniatures and written in beautiful scripts that evolved from era to era. The Matenadaran, in Yerevan, houses an extraordinary collection of more than 17,500 complete manuscripts, fragments and miniature texts, some even dating to the pre-Christian era!
Painting blossomed as an important cultural art form for Armenians in the 19th and 20th centuries, continuing an artistic tradition that began with the 8th century frescoes. In the last two centuries, many internationally renowned and groundbreaking artists have emerged, such as Ivan Aivazovsky, Edgar Chahine, Hovsep Pushman, Arshile Gorky, Jean Carzou, Jean Jansem, Minas Avetisyan, and Martiros Saryan. Their works and the works of several other modern and contemporary Armenian painters are on display in the galleries of Yerevan.
Armenian music is unique in its fusion of folk, secular and ceremonial rhythms. Armenian folk music incorporates several unique instruments, the most distinctive of which is the duduk, a 2,000-year-old woodwind instrument made of apricot wood. It has a soulful, haunting sound. Recently, the duduk has become a star of Hollywood soundtracks. Its quasi-holy sound has made it a welcome guest in religious film epics such as “The Last Temptation of Christ” and Mel Gibson’s 2004 film “The Passion of the Christ.” When film composers use it right, they recreate the distant past and distant lands. The duduk was the central focus in the soundtracks of films such as “Gladiator,” “Alexander,” “Chronicles of Narnia,” “Syriana” and “Munich.” World-renowned Armenian duduk master, Jivan Gasparyan, has played a vital role in bringing this ancient, evocative instrument to the international spotlight.
Armenian ceremonial music includes sharakan chants, dating back to the 5th century. A lively, bardic tradition still thrives in Armenia, three-hundred years after its most famous minstrel, Sayat Nova, sang at the courts of the kings. Armenian folk music and the music of Sayat Nova directly influenced and inspired Aram Khachaturian, Armenia’s most beloved and world-renowned composer. Khachaturian composed a significant collection of classical pieces including the ballets Gayane (which includes the Saber Dance), and Spartacus. Contemporary Armenian musicians often combine traditional Armenian melodies with modern beats, creating a new genre while keeping the Armenian musical tradition alive in this new generation. The Armenian Diaspora has also produced several significant musical talents, such as Charles Aznavour, Cher, and acclaimed heavy metal band, System Of A Down.
Literature has always played a vital role in Armenia’s cultural identity. Before the Armenian alphabet was developed in the 5th century, Armenian tales were passed down orally or written in foreign languages. In 405 AD, Mesrop Mashtots, an Armenian scholar and clergyman, invented the modern Armenian alphabet. Immediately upon the introduction of the new alphabet, there was a surge of new literature, which would later be known as the Golden Age of Armenian Literature. After centuries of withstanding foreign domination, the Armenian alphabet has somehow, miraculously remained unchanged and Armenian literature still thrives.
One of the most prominent traditional and contemporary art forms in Armenia is rug and carpet weaving. Scholars have cited the Caucasus region, Armenia in particular, as the birthplace of carpet weaving. Armenians are proud of this heritage and keep the artistic tradition alive. Many shops and markets specialize in exquisitely woven carpets, both in traditional and modern patterns. The art of weaving is not exclusive to carpets. It is also applied to clothing, bags and home furnishings, in a process known as kilim weaving.
In street markets, such as the weekend Vernissage Market in Yerevan, there are many carved wooden miniature replicas of Armenia’s ancient khachkars (cross stone carvings). There are over 40,000 Armenian khachkars in Armenia and the surrounding region, and like snowflakes, no two are exactly alike. Ceramics and handcrafted pottery are also among Armenia’s finest crafts, and can be found in abundance at the Vernissage Market.