Medieval Georgian Churches & Monasteries


Part Three: Centrally-planned and Domed Churches


Churches with a central plan and a dome appeared in the Caucasus in the 6th century. There is no clear evidence about the first church in Georgia that had such a plan. Some researchers have suggested that the first one was in Manglisi, although this seems to be not universally accepted.


5. Manglisi Cathedral

Original church – 330s; domed tetraconch – 5th, 6th or 7th century; expanded church – c. 1020; restoration – 1850s

Manglisi was one of the earliest centres of Christianity in Georgia. In the 330s, Constantine the Great gave Mirian III a valuable present: the suppedaneum, or the foot-rest, of the True Cross. Ioane I, the first archbishop of the Georgian church, upon his return from Constantinople to Georgia, brought it to Manglisi and had a church built for it. This makes the Church of the Holy Cross of Manglisi one of the very first churches in Georgia. Because of the relic it became a major pilgrimage site in the Caucasus, and it remained such until 628, when the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius took it away during his campaign against the Sasanian Empire.

The church that survives today is dedicated to the Dormition of the Mother of God. It is made of well-hewn blocks of the grey Algeti basalt.



We can see two phases of construction in the church. The first phase shows a very unusual plan: a domed tetraconch inserted into an octagon. There is no agreement about the time of construction of that church. The 6th and 7th centuries are generally proposed, but some authors suggest that the church was built much earlier, during the rule of Vakhtang Gorgasali (449-522), which then makes it the first domed tetraconch in Georgia.



The church was expanded in around 1020. The original sanctuary apse was moved further to the east and a transept was inserted between it and the central space. The modification of the plan is visible on the outside, in the very unusual position of the dome on the western, rather than the eastern part of the church. The dome itself was replaced, and porches were added to the south and west. The church also got a new stone dressing with carved exterior.

West porch


South porch

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Vault of the south porch


Detail of the south porch


Detail of the south porch


Window of the south wall of the east extension


The interior was fully painted. In the dome was the depiction of the Ascension of the Cross, probably influenced by the famous dome painting of the Ishkhani Monastery.


The medieval look of the church was significantly altered during the Russian restoration in the 1850s. The church lost many ornamental details and inscriptions and new details were added (such as the double-headed eagle of the Russian Empire above a cross on the south porch). The murals were also plastered over.


The church is surrounded by a very beautiful yard with a number of tombstones. Manglisi is a resort town known for its air quality and beautiful views over the surrounding hills.



Another early dome can be found in the Shio-Mgvime Monastery.


6. Shio-Mgvime Monastery

Church of Saint John the Forerunner – 560s-580s; Church of the Dormition of the Mother of God – 1103-1123

This monastery is located in a narrow limestone canyon. It got its name, which means ‘the cave of Shio’, from a monk, one of the Thirteen Assyrian Fathers, who established it in the 6th century. Saint Shio lived alone in a cave near the monastery. It soon became one of the largest monastic communities in Georgia.

The oldest building of the complex, the Church of Saint John the Forerunner, was built between the 560s and 580s on a carved-out rock. It is a cruciform building with an octagonal dome and a very strict design. A number of annexes were added to it later, most notably in the 11th century, when a long chapel was built to the west, over Saint Shio’s cave, where he is also buried. Between 1010 and 1033 the church got a richly ornamented altar screen (now in the Georgian National Museum).





Another church – the Church of the Dormition of the Mother of God – was added to the complex between 1103 and 1123 by King David the Builder. It was originally a cross-in-square church, but after the 1678 restoration it stands as a three-nave basilica.



Nearby stand the refectory (12th to 18th centuries) and the bell tower (1733) of the monastery.

Refectory and the Church of Saint John the Forerunner


Bell tower


On a nearby hill is the Church of the Ascension of the Cross. It dates back to the 12th century and is adorned with 13th-century frescoes. The monastery was supplied with water by a short aqueduct from the late 12th or early 13th century.


Other 6th-century churches with a central plan include the Old Gavazi Church and the Ninotsminda Cathedral.

The Old Gavazi Church is a perfectly symmetrical tetraconch with a dome placed over the centre of the square. Later an ambulatory was added to it.

The Ninotsminda Cathedral (c. 575) had an octagonal centre covered with vaulting and surrounded by niches. The latter served as a model for the transition to the type of a tetraconch as presented by the most famous church of the period – the Church of the Holy Cross near Mtskheta.


7. Jvari Monastery (Monastery of the Holy Cross)


In the early 4th century, Saint Nino erected a large wooden cross on the site of a pagan temple on a hill overlooking Mtskheta. The cross, which was associated with miracles, soon drew pilgrims from all over the Caucasus. In c. 545 a small church was erected north of it. It is a quadrangular building with a cross-shaped interior and a semicircular apse, originally covered with mosaics and frescoes.

Because the monastery was a popular pilgrimage site, a bigger church was needed. The new church was built to the south of the old one, to enclose the cross of Saint Nino. (The cross that we see here today, held by an octagonal substructure, is not original.) The church stands on the verge of the hill and looks like it naturally grows out of it.


The church is a domed tetraconch, i.e., a Greek cross with each arm ending in a semicircular apse and the central space crowned by a dome. The east and west arms are deeper than the north and south arms. The transition from the central square to the base of the dome is created by the use of a series of squinches. The dome rests entirely on the walls, not on columns, as was later common; thus a single interior space is created. The dome has an octagonal drum.


Between the apses are niches with the diameter of 270º, which are open to the central space. The four niches lead to four rectangular chambers: an altar and a sacristy in the east and prayer rooms for the ruler and women in the west. It was not the first church that had such chambers between the apses, but it was revolutionary for the transitional niches which place the chambers perfectly in the corners of the building, making them entirely separate places.

For these reasons Jvari is widely considered to be a masterpiece of domed architecture in the Caucasus. It served as a model for many churches in Georgia and elsewhere in the subsequent decades. In Armenia, a very similar plan developed at the same time, as seen in the Church of Saint Hripsime in Etchmiadzin, which was completed in 618 and had an almost identical plan. The plan of a tetraconch with four niches came to be known as the Jvari-type, the Hripsime-type, or the Jvari-Hripsime-type.



The east and south façades of the church are adorned with a number of reliefs, considered to be among the best examples of sculptural art of the period.

Above each of the three windows of the east apse is a slab with a bas-relief decoration. The central one shows the builder of the church, Stephen I, the presiding prince of Iberia (590-627), in front of the Christ. On the south window is Demetrius, the brother of Stephen I. The north window shows a figure with his son and archangels Gabriel and Michael flying above them. The figure is identified as one of the later presiding princes of Iberia – Adarnase I (627-637/642) or Adarnase II (650-684). Stephen I is also depicted kneeling in front of the Christ on a relief on the south apse of the church.


The lunette above the south entrance has a relief depicting two angels holding a Bolnisi cross (i.e. the Ascension of the Cross).


There are some other reliefs on the south wall of the church, such as a depiction of the Ascension of Christ and a kneeling figure on the drum, possibly the architect of the church.

The inner walls of the church were painted, but there is almost nothing left of it today.


A notable example of a Jvari-type church is the one in Ateni.


8. Ateni Sioni Church

original church – 5th century; current church – 680s; renovation – 982-986; wall paintings – late 11th century

Ateni Sioni Church stands on the site of a 5th-century basilica. The old church was spoliated during the construction of the new church in the 7th century, possibly in the 680s. Among the most visible remains of the old church is the relief in the lunette above the north entrance, depicting two stags at a fountain.


The church is a Jvari-type domed tetraconch, with four niches between the apses leading to rectangular chambers. The façades are made of entirely cut stone blocks.




On the façades are a number of reliefs from various periods and of different quality. The oldest ones are from the 680s and were probably made by Armenian artists. Other reliefs, made by Georgians, may have been added during the renovation of the church in the 980s. The donor reliefs can be found on the east façade.

Details of the east façade


Details of the south façade


Details of the west façade


Details of the north façade


Ateni Sioni also has a number of interesting inscriptions. On the south façade is an inscription in Armenian, mentioning a man named Todosak, who was either the architect of the original church or, more probably, its renovator or bishop in the 980s. Another inscription commemorates Adarnase I of Tao-Klarjeti, the first known nobleman from the Bagrationi family. His son Ashot became the first presiding prince of Iberia in c. 813.

Ateni Sioni is also home to the oldest known examples of the nuskhuri and mkhedruli scripts of the Georgian language, dating from 835 and 982, respectively.

The painted decoration of the original church included geometrical and ornamental motifs on the upper parts: on the arches, on the vaults, and in the dome, which had a cross. The surviving layer of murals is from the last quarter of the 11th century. These are known for their expressiveness and for the originality of their iconographic program. Their placement takes into account the features of the tetraconch church. The east apse shows the Virgin with the Christ Child and the archangels. Christ the Pantocrator is, unusually, placed in a medallion, as the cross of the dome, which was part of the original decoration, was retained. On the dome squinches are very rare allegorical representations of the rivers of the paradise. The north and south apses contain scenes from the lives of Christ and Mary, the latter showing influence from apocryphal sources (cf. the Sarıca Church in Cappadocia). The west apse is decorated with the scenes of the Last Judgment and the Deësis. It also shows the donors of the church, among whom is the young King David IV.

Murals on the east wall of the north apse



Churches of the Jvari type also include a church in the Old Shuamta Monastery and the Martvili Chqondidi Cathedral, both from the 7th century.

Among notable churches of the period are also the churches of Samtsevrisi and Tsromi in Inner Kartli and the ruined Bana Cathedral in Tao-Klarjeti.

The Samtsevrisi Church, constructed in the early 7th century, looks like a tetraconch from the outside, but in reality only its eastern apse is semicircular, while the other ends are square.

The Tsromi Church (626-635) has a dome supported by four free-standing pillars, which makes it one of the earliest cross-in-square churches in the world. Furthermore, it is the first Georgian church with two deep vertical niches on the east façade. As mentioned above, it has rare remnants of mosaics in the apse.

The Bana Cathedral (653-658; rebuilt in the late 9th or early 10th century) was a tetraconch surrounded by an ambulatory. It was modeled on the Zvartnots Cathedral in Armenia, which had just been completed.