Medieval Georgian Churches & Monasteries


Part Four: Transitional Period


The period from the 8th to the 10th century is called the transitional period in Georgian archicture. The main centres of art of the time were Abkhazia, Tao-Klarjeti and Kakheti.

One of the most elaborate sculptural works of the era – the Tsebelda iconostasis (from the 7th or 8th century) – comes from Abkhazia. Some fragments of it survive, showing scenes such as the Sacrifice of Abraham, the Baptism, Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus, the Mourning and Martyrdom of Saint Peter and the Vision of Saint Eustace, as well as the representations of the donors.


The Tsebelda iconostasis already has some of the features typical of the transitional period. The reliefs in the era were generally simplified, almost hieroglyphic, yet very expressive, showing distorted forms such as emphasised body parts and eyes.

These features are best exemplified by a relief from Tao-Klarjeti. That region became a major political and cultural centre of Iberia under Ashot I (813-826). Ashot encouraged the repopulation of Georgians from Central Iberia, which was then under Arab control, to Tao-Klarjeti and supported the monastic communities operating there. The oldest of the monasteries here, such as Opiza and Khandzta, are from the second half of the 8th century.

The main church of the Monastery of Opiza was home to a sandstone relief, depicting Ashot I on one slab and the Biblical King David – the assumed ancestor of the Bagrationi dynasty – on the other. Ashot gives a domed church to Christ, whose hand consecrates it. Created in the early 9th century, the relief is considered to be the best example of sculptural art of the transitional period. It was brought to Tbilisi by Dmitri Yermakov in the late 19th century, and it now belongs to the Georgian National Museum.


The same features can also be found in the wall paintings of the period, which employ, furthermore, sharply contrasting colours and angular lines. Church interiors were not yet entirely covered with murals. Frescoes only covered the upper parts of the church (e.g., the dome), the sanctuary and sometimes the wall opposite the entrance. Some of the most important surviving wall paintings of the era can be found in the David Gareja rock-hewn monasteries (since the 8th century).

Different church plans were used throughout the transitional period.

A notable basilica of the era is the one in the Zedazeni Monastery (from the 8th or 9th century). From a slightly later period is the basilica in the Bodbe Monastery.


9. Bodbe Monastery

c. 850

After her missionary activities, which resulted in the conversion of Iberia to Christianity, Saint Nino withdrew to Kakheti, where she also died. King Mirian III soon had a small monastery built on the site of Saint Nino’s grave. The monastery became a major pilgrimage site.

The surviving cathedral of the monastery, dedicated to Saint George, was built in c. 850 on the site of the 4th-century church. It is a three-nave basilica with three apses. It is constructed entirely of brick, a very unusual feature in the 9th-century Georgia. The church was later modified multiple times (especially in the 11th, 17th and 19th centuries). Its walls are decorated with murals, the oldest of which may date back to the 9th century.



The kings of Kakheti used the Bodbe Monastery as a place of coronation in the late Middle Ages.

Other structures of the monastery include the three-storey bell-tower from the 19th century, a big 21st-century church, and a chapel housing the Spring of Saint Nino, the water of which is believed to have curative powers.


Although the basilica type continued to be widespread, it was the domed church that defined the development of Georgian architecture from the 9th century on. The best-known churches of the period, those in Gurjaani and Vachnadziani (both 8th or 9th century), combine the basilica plan with that of a domed church. The Gurjaani church is should especially be mentioned, as it is the only double-domed church in Georgia.

Numerous other domed churches survive from the transitional period. The Telovani Church (8th or 9th century) is a remarkable example of a domed triconch. The Tsirkoli Church (8th or 9th century), while looking like a single-nave church from the outside, actually contains a drumless dome. The Samshvilde Sioni Church (759-777) can be compared to the earlier Tsromi Church, as it also had a dome supported by four free-standing pillars.

Two churches of the Ikalto Monastery are very similar to the Tsirkoli and Samshvilde churches.


10. Ikalto Monastery

Church of the Holy Trinity – late 6th & 8th centuries; Church of the Transfiguration of the Saviour – late 8th or early 9th century; Ikalto Academy – 9th & 12th centuries; Church of the Dormition of the Mother of God – late 12th or early 13th century

The Ikalto Monastery was founded by Saint Zenon, one of the Thirteen Assyrian Fathers, in the late 6th century. From that time survives only one of the three churches of the monastery – the Church of the Holy Trinity. It looks like a single-nave church from the outside, but is actually a domed church with a deep apse. It has been modified in the later centuries.



Saint Zenon is buried in the main church of the monastery – the Church of the Transfiguration of the Saviour.

Tomb of Zenon


The surviving church is from the late 8th or early 9th century. It has a cross-in-square plan, with four piers supporting the dome. The church also has a narthex to the west and three porches to the west, north and south. The current brick dome with its substructures are from the 19th century. Its tall and thin look does not reflect the shape of the dome typical of the transitional period.



Near the church are the ruins of the most important structure of the monastery – the Ikalto Academy. Originally established in the 9th century, it was made famous in the early 12th century under King David the Builder. The academy trained students in the classical subjects following the trivium-quadrivium method as well as in the more practical skills such as pottery, metalworking, pharmacology and viticulture. Arsen of Ikalto was its most famous teacher and Shota Rustaveli its best-known student.

Today only ruins of the academy survive: walls with windows, niches and a base of a pulpit. The building originally had two floors. It shows several construction layers. It was burned down during the Persian invasion in 1616.




The third church of the monastery – the Church of the Dormition of the Mother God – was built at the end of the 12th or at the beginning of the 13th century.



Nearby are traces of the monastery’s winemaking, such as a wine press made of stone from the 8th century and holes for the kvevri.



The Kvetera Church is most important example of the late tetraconch church.


11. Kvetera Church

Early 10th century

Kvetera was an important town of the Principality of Kakheti in the 10th century. It was located on hill and consisted of two fortified areas. Among the remains of the upper fortress are a domed church and a palace (from the 10th or the 11th century). Of the lower fortress almost nothing survives. The area of the fortress is extremely hard to access, but its crown jewel – the church (my absolute favourite in Georgia) – makes all efforts to reach it worthwhile.

The church is built of carefully hewn calcareous tufa stone, known as shirimi in Georgian. It is a domed tetraconch, with the four cross arms each terminating in a semicircular apse. The east and west apses are slightly deeper than the ones in the north and south, on account of the deeper bays inserted between the central square and the apses.


Between the apses are niches with the diameter of 270°, but unlike in some earlier tetraconch churches, these do not lead to a separate chamber but, instead, decrease gradually towards the windows. This gives the church the star-shaped look on the plan.

In each corner of the cross arms are three semi-columns. These have vertically-oriented capitals with rounded endings and simple corbels, and they support imposts marked with two deep horizontal grooves. The columns support the high arches of the apses, the lower arches of the niches and the blind arches above the latter. This system of arches forms the circle on which the dome rests.





The elegant look of the interior is repeated on the outside. The apses have five sides each, while the niches are round. The apses are decorated with tripartite blind arches supported by semi-columns, while the windows of the niches are surrounded by thick frames held by short column-like elements. The drum of the dome is also divided into arches. This decorative minimalism is typical of the churches in Kakheti.







The Kvetera Church is a bold experimentation with the architectural design proposed by the Jvari Monastery at the turn of the 7th century. Its direct predecessor is the domed church of the Old Shuamta Monastery. It has also been compared to some of the contemporary Armenian churches, such as the Cathedral of the Holy Cross of Aghtamar in Lake Van, built in 915-921. The latter is, however, less individual in the floor plan than the Georgian church.

Stone altar of Kvetera Church



In the more mountainous regions of Georgia, simpler structures prevailed during the transitional period and later. A good example of this is the region of Mtiuleti, where there are two important shrines: the church on Mount Lomisa and the church in the village of Korogho.

The Lomisa Church is a simple hall church from the 9th or the 10th century. Dedicated to Saint George, it is the most sacred shrine for people living East Georgian mountains. It is famous for the lomisoba festival, which also includes a large-scale animal sacrifice.

The nearby Korogho Church, dedicated to the Mother of God, is a double-nave church from the late 10th or the early 11th century. It is known for the unique reliefs depicting different aspects of its contruction.


In the mid-10th century a great change took place in Georgian architecture, sculpture and painting, best illustrated by the four great monasteries of Tao-Klarjeti. These churches have a much more dynamic look that their predecessors, largely achieved by the use of blind arches as a decorative element on the façades. The basilica of the Otkhta Monastery (961-965; 978-1001) was one of the earliest churches to have blind arcades on its façades, just like the most important church of the region, the cathedral of the Oshki Monastery (963-973). The latter also has low reliefs typical of the previous period as part of the façade decoration.

Ornamentation, in general, played a bigger role now than before. The reliefs became more plastic and three-dimensional. In contrast to the earlier periods, when reliefs were only used to create emphasis (i.e., on doors and windows), now these became independent and as important as other components of the building. These trends went hand in hand with the increasing importance of wall paintings.

The Khakhuli Monastery provides several examples of trends in Georgian art at the turn of the 11th century. The decorative elements of its main church include, among other things, a window with radial rays made of white and red stones, as well as a statue of an eagle. The monastery was also home to the great Khakhuli Triptych – an icon of the Mother of God adorned with 115 cloisonné enamels from the 8th to the 12th century (now held in the Georgian National Museum).

Another important church of the period was the cathedral of the Ishkhani Monastery (917-1032). Its sanctuary apse has a semicircular arcade made up of eight columns with beautifully decorated capitals (cf. contemporary Armenian churches). Equally magnificent is the fresco in the dome of the cathedral, showing the Ascension of the Cross, with four chariots from Zechariah’s vision, on a lapis lazuli background (966).

These four churches can be seen as an introduction to the mature period in Georgian ecclesiastical architecture, which began in the first half of the 11th century.