Against Gravity

Anahit Ter Stepanian

Visigothic Spain and Armenia: Masonry Considerations

Visigothic monuments display architectural and sculptural features which are hard to explain in seventh-century Western Europe. Opinions are divided whether Visigothic architecture displays Roman, Byzantine, Syrian, or Islamic influences. Each of these theories faces numerous challenges and is unable to fully explain the presence of all features of Visigothic art.  The paper attempts to explain the emergence of seventh-century Visigothic stone architecture and decorative relief sculpture in the light of Armenian cultural appropriation and influences. It suggests that large block stone masonry technique was introduced to Iberian Peninsula by guilds of Armenian migrant masons who left Armenia after its fall to Arab invaders.

Visigothic architecture displays a sharp departure from the modes of building of the preceding period. Structures are built of finely dressed and properly coursed large stone masonry. Measurements of stone blocks are comparable to seventh-century Armenian churches. In both masonry traditions the course height is treated freely and can change from one course to the next, individual stone blocks also range in length. Although stone blocks are laid mainly without mortar, occasionally stone blocks face rubble and mortar core. While in highly seismic Armenia this was the only masonry type used, in Visigothic churches it was used for critical areas, such as domes and vaults.
In addition to masonry techniques, similarities with Armenian churches include cruciform compositions, vaulted spaces, side chambers flanking the apses, domes, relieving arches above entrances, horseshoe arches, and horseshoe apses. Measurements of Visigothic churches are comparable with most seventh-century Armenian churches.

Fenestration of Visigothic churches doesn’t have prototypes in Western architecture. Window openings are narrow and tall with semicircular crowing often carved from a single stone. Proportions of window openings are almost identical with seventh-century Armenian examples. The sprayed form of window openings presents another similarity. Sprayed windows have been used in Armenia since the fifth century, and, to our knowledge, they are unique to Armenian architecture.

Similarities are seen in relief sculpture as well. Visigothic buildings display a new style of decoration that contains intricate ornamentation and a wide variety of motifs, including vine scrolls, geometric forms, animal and human figures. In many cases these motifs are identical to Armenian examples.

Political conditions in Armenia explain the reasons for migration of highly skilled Armenian masons to Iberian Peninsula. The Arab conquest of Armenia began in 645 AD, halting almost all construction. 652 AD marks the beginning of construction of the San Juan de Baños church and the rapid development of stone architecture in the Iberian Peninsula.