The Akhtamar Palace – which has not survived to our times – was surrounded by many other buildings, of which only the Church of the Holy Cross built by architect Manuel between 915 and 921 is now standing.
The church is a somewhat modified structure of the cross-in-square type. Inside, the church was ornamented with frescoes, but it is especially famous for its reliefs made on the outer walls and on the drum of the dome. The reliefs are distinguished by their originality and the wide array of topics.
The architecture and the sculptural-decorative aspect of the Akhtamar Church were based on a relatively new artistic principle, which made it noticeably different from the buildings of the 6th-7th centuries. Although part of the reliefs is traditionally located along the eaves and on the edges of the niches and windows, their majority was made directly on the wall plane.
The silhouette of the church and its mass have retained their expressiveness. But at the same time, imparting a picturesque touch to the architectural image of the church, the reliefs have acquired notable significance both as part of the church’s image and as standalone works of art.
“In the very interpretation of these reliefs with clear graphic contours, a striving for ornamentation and a departure from the former plastic clarity becomes noticeable.
In the bottom row of the reliefs, there are various biblical scenes, as well as images of prophets and apostles. On the western façade, there is a figure of the church’s ktetor, Vaspurakan king Gagik Artsruni with a model of the church in his hands.”
In the upper part of the church, there is a wide band of so-called “grape frieze” depicting the harvest in a vineyard and orchard, as well as figures of people, various animals, and birds.
The reliefs of the Church of the Holy Cross are heterogeneous – the figures of the lower row are flat, static, and bound by conventional schemes and religious canons. At the same time, there is more freedom and lively spontaneity in the “grape frieze”. The stylistic features characteristic of the Akhtamar reliefs later affected the miniatures of the “Van” school.