An Unusual Mother and Child Sculpture in Handaberd

A late 12th- or early 13th-century khachkar in the province of Karvajar is part of a larger history of nursing images in Christian imagery, but is it threatened?

The war in Nagorno-Karabagh (Armenian Artsakh) recently halted with the Russian-brokered peace deal of November 9, which mandated the surrender to Azerbaijan of several provinces with millennia of Armenian heritage. A humanitarian crisis is now underway, with the forced migration of indigenous Armenians from their homeland and reports of brutal violence against those who remain. As heritage organizations including UNESCO increasingly realize, and as the Azerbaijani state-sponsored destruction of the Armenian cemetery and thousands of monuments in Julfa (Nakhchevan) from 1996 to 2007 has shown, the medieval Armenian monuments in occupied regions are now at risk. Along with churches, monasteries, and other structures, khachkars (Armenian cross-stones) are also vulnerable. Inscribed in 2010 as UNESCO intangible heritage for Armenia, khachkars are plentiful in Artsakh, as two beautiful 13th-century examples from the monastery of Dadivank illustrate.

Khachkars are important not only as symbols of Armenian religion, identity, and craftsmanship. For art historians like me, they are highways into the deep past. Their imagery and texts are first-person witnesses to the pre-modern era. Yet, as with Armenian art of Artsakh more generally, the khachkars of the region have not received the kind of sustained and interdisciplinary attention they deserve.

A striking case in point is the “Mother and Child” khachkar of the monastery of Handaberd. As part of the province of Karvajar, Handaberd was surrendered to Azerbaijan on November 25, 2020. The khachkar is affixed to the north wall of a small chapel lying north of the monastery’s main church. Based on physical context, style, and iconography, Hamlet Petrosyan, the preeminent scholar of khachkars, dates the Handaberd example to the late 12th or early 13th century.

Upon first glance, this khachkar seems characteristic of the genre. A carved stone slab befitting its name (literally khach‘: cross; k‘ar: stone), it features a large Latin cross with looped, pointed terminals at the corners of each arm. From the central arm spring bunches of grapes which hang from either side. Framing the cross are waves of thick-cut foliage, tendrils curling in arabesques, and stems caught up at intervals by bands. This style of khachkar carving, more organic than geometric, more exuberant than meditative, appears across greater Armenian territories in the 12th and 13th centuries.

But the Handaberd khachkar bears an unusual scene: a woman breastfeeding a child. The pair stand below the cross, in a kind of clearing within the vegetation. The figures have big heads and thick, broad bodies, with small feet protruding from below their garments. The woman leans towards the child, gesturing with her right hand and drawing the child close with the left. The child holds the breast to its mouth, the head tilted backward at a right angle. Each figure wears a hood or cowl that surrounds the head and frames the face, and plain, long-sleeved gowns; the mother’s has an opening to reveal her breast. On the child’s hood, across the forehead, is a small star.

This is a striking scene in the context of medieval art. For art historians, the most familiar image of breastfeeding is the Nursing Virgin. Known as the Virgo lactans in Latin, and Galaktotrophousa in Greek, the pictorial theme of the Nursing Virgin occurs in broad, if thin, distribution across medieval art. The earliest examples are known from wall paintings in late antique Egypt. The image reappears in ivory statuettes, book covers, Gothic manuscripts, Catalonian altar frontals, Byzantine wall paintings, and Cretan and Russian icons, with further developments of the imagery in early Renaissance Italy and France, as in the startling Melun Diptych by Jean Fouquet.

The imagery is also attested to in medieval Armenian manuscripts. Three Armenian Gospel books, all by the painter T‘oros Taronets‘i, show the Nursing Virgin: a manuscript from the Hartford Theological Seminary of 1307 (HTS n. 3); one from the British Library of 1321 (Add. 15411), and one from 1323 in Yerevan at the Matenadaran (MS 6289). This last was copied in 1475 by the scribe Abraham. In all these cases, the Virgin is shown enthroned, wearing a crown, veil, and flowing mantle, with the Christ child on her knee. The pair are haloed and attended by archangels holding scepters and chalices. This representation of the crowned Virgin, shown as Queen of Heaven, persuaded the art historian Sirarpie Der Nersessian that T‘oros derived his ideas from European sources, and more specifically from French illuminated manuscripts.

Despite the common theme of breastfeeding, the Handaberd khachkar is strikingly different from these images. The nursing woman is not an elegant queen. She wears no crown or rich regalia; she and the child are not enthroned, but standing alone in the dense thicket of foliage. Who are this woman and child? The position of the imagery below the cross, and the existence of similar images showing mothers and children in other khachkars from Artsakh, as well as the presence of many inscriptions memorializing family members, suggested to Petrosyan that it shows the deceased child with his mother. Supporting this identification, too, is the facial expression of the woman: while her features are fairly simply rendered, the carver has taken pains to turn down the corners of her mouth, suggesting what Petrosyan has called her “inconsolable mourning.”

Why did the sponsors of this image wish specifically to show the act of breastfeeding? Why was it important to commemorate the biological nourishment of the child? What can this khachkar tell us about medieval attitudes towards lactating women, towards children, and towards the nude female body? Elizabeth Bolman has argued, with regard to late antique Egypt, that we must be careful about imposing on the deep past our modern associations of breast-feeding with maternal devotion, and our own belief in the supreme value of young life. In the early Christian era, for example, wet-nursing was a common practice, and infant abandonment rates in urban areas are estimated to have been between 20 to 40 percent. What was the reality in 12th- and 13th-century Artsakh? Perhaps contemporary texts, combined with the testimony of the imagery, might allow us to explore this question. As a rare medieval Armenian image of breastfeeding, the Handaberd khachkar is an irreplaceable witness.

The location of the khachkar in a monastic chapel also invites us to consider its theological and liturgical, as well as its social and funerary meanings. For the community of monks who viewed it, the image of a woman breastfeeding would surely have brought to mind the breastfeeder par excellence: the Virgin Mary. Hymns, or sharakans, sung during the Feast of Theophany, exalt the Virgin, who provided her “virginal holy milk to drink, ” and Christ, who was “fed like a babe from the breasts of the virgin out of [His] love for mankind. In his Book of Lamentations, the celebrated Armenian mystic Grigor Narekats‘i (c. 945–951) glorified the Virgin who “alone shall be on the pure lips of happy tongues. Indeed if but a drop of your virgin milk were to rain on me, it would give me life, Mother of our exalted Lord Jesus […].”  In his Discourse, Narekats‘i likened the Church to a lactating mother: “I was dropped in the womb of the church; and being nursed with milk [Armenian: կաթնաբուծ եղեալ, literally “was milk-nourished”] from her spiritual breasts, I was honored as a priest in her great house […]”.

Early church fathers, including Clement and Cyril, both of Alexandria, whose works were known in medieval Armenia, associated the Virgin’s milk with the blood of Christ. These connotations are made clear in T‘oros Taronetsi’s images, in which the angels guarding the breastfeeding pair hold out liturgical chalices, as if to catch the wine of the eucharist. The Handaberd Virgin is more directly connected to Christ’s passion: her “life-giving milk,” as Narekats‘i described it, surrounded by wavy, luxuriant foliage, recalling the Tree of Life from which the Cross was cut. The furrowed brows and frown of the woman might have signaled to its viewers not only a grieving mother, but the grieving Mary, standing at the foot of the Cross. Visible to all who entered the chapel, the khachkar would have thus provided, as much as the sermons and prayers of the clergy, a kind of theological teaching of its own, communicated through carved stone as opposed to words.

Who will view the remarkable Handaberd khachkar now? Will it be available for those faithful who wish to view and pray before it? Will its imagery receive the close first-hand examination crucial to art-historical study? The Handaberd khachkar still has much to teach us. Its destruction would not just do violence to precious cultural heritage, to human rights, and to a living faith; it would mean the destruction of knowledge and the erasure of history. Perhaps the best answer is given by the Armenian monuments themselves. To a paraphrase a standard closing for medieval donation inscriptions: “May God judge those who destroy this,” words as relevant now, unfortunately, as they ever were.

by Christina Maranci

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