A Nation Carved in Stone: The Armenian Khachkar as a Visual Rhetoric of Identity
A khachkar is a cross hand-carved onto a stone slab, typically three feet (1m) wide by eight feet (2.5m) high. Indigenous to the Armenian people, the first khachkars date to the time of the Armenian conversion to Christianity in 301 AD (CE). Today khachkars are used predominantly as gravestones. But they also are used to commemorate military victories or historical events and have been presented at the dedication or rededication ceremonies of churches and other structures. Armenian state laws protect khachkars since they are part of the Armenian heritage. Recently, however, khachkars have been targeted for destruction in foreign lands where Armenians are or have been significant cultural agents precisely because of the khachkars’ value as a symbol and an identity.
Although Armenian authors treat the khachkar as a contribution to world art, this paper argues that the khachkar functions not as art, but as rhetoric. Khachkars have appeared in a number of popular paintings. Vendors make a living from selling miniature khachkars to tourists. Churches associated with the Armenian diaspora likewise have begun dedicating khachkars on their respective properties. These facts suggest that the khachkar has achieved the kind of iconicity in Armenian life indicative of a functioning visual rhetoric.
Using photographs of khachkars taken throughout Armenia by the author, this paper analyzes the Armenian khachkar, asking the question, “What identity space does the khachkar authorize and legitimate for Armenians?” The paper will provide a brief history of the Armenian khachkar and advance a theory of visual rhetoric to guide the analysis. After exploring the iconicity of the khachkar in Armenian cultural life, the paper concludes that Armenians mobilize the khachkar to produce ideological subjects capable of action in both the cultural and political realms.
Keywords: Visual Rhetoric, Identity, Armenia, Khachkar
Dr. Alfred G. Mueller II
Associate Professor, Department of Communication Arts and Sciences, Penn State University