Part Five: High Medieval Period: Unification of Georgia
In 1008, Bagrat II of Abkhazia inherited the crown of Iberia from his father Gurgen. He united the two kingdoms and became, as Bagrat III, the first ruler of the Kingdom of Georgia.
Under Bagrat, several notable churches were built. One of the most important of them was the Bedia Cathedral in Abkhazia, a cross-in-square church completed in c. 999. The cathedral is famous for the richly decorated golden liturgical vessel that it originally had (known as the Bedia Chalice, now in Georgian National Museum) as well as for being the burial place of Bagrat III (died in 1014). Another example is the Bichvinta Cathedral in Abkhazia. It is a cross-in-square church with the walls made up of alternating rowns of stones and bricks, like in the contemporary Byzantine churches.
The most important structure constructed under Bagrat III was the cathedral subsequently named after him in Kutaisi, the kingdom’s capital.
12. Bagrati Cathedral
1001-1008; porches – 1030s; reconstruction – 2009-2012
The Bagrati Cathedral, dedicated to the Dormition of the Mother of God, stands on the site of an earlier structure. It is a triconch church with a dome supported by four piers. The east façade, which is flat, hides three apses. The pastophoria apses have two floors, just like the elongated west arm of the church, which has galleries for women from royal families on the upper floor.
The exterior of the church is adorned with blind arches. Decorations with vegetal and animal motifs can also be found. There are many inscriptions on the façades, providing information about the construction and the builders.
The church can be entered through richly-decorated porches in the west and south.
The architects of the Bagrati Cathedral were clearly influenced by the churches of Tao-Klarjeti. Its floor plan is very similar to that of the Oshki church, just like the shape of the dome as we see it today. The blind arches, too, come from Tao-Klarjeti. It is believed that the Bagrati Cathedral introduced the motif to the other parts of the Georgian kingdom.
The cathedral lost its dome and vaults during an Ottoman attack in 1692. The west porch collapsed in the 19th century. Restoration works took place in the 20th century. In 1994 the Bagrati Cathedral was declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In 2009-2012, full reconstruction took place to return the church to its original state. The reconstruction, which brought back the upper parts of the church, negatively affected its integrity and authenticity, according to UNESCO. As a consequence, it removed the Bagrati Cathedral from its World Heritage List in 2017.
Another church built under Bagrat III is the Nikortsminda Cathedral in Racha.
13. Nikortsminda Cathedral
1010-1014; porches & south chapel – mid-11th century; frescoes – 16th & 17th centuries
The Cathedral of Saint Nicholas, located in the village of the same name in Racha, has an unusual plan. On the soutside it has the shape of a cross, while on the inside it reveals a hexagonal plan, with five apses surrounding the hexagon, except at the west entrace. The dome leans on pendentives carried by apse projections with half-columns. It is only one of two 11th-century domes preserved in its original state in Georgia (the other being in Manglisi). Porches were added to the west, south and north of the cathedral in the mid-11th century, together with a chapel in the south. The north porch does not survive.
The Nikortsminda Cathedral has one of the most beautiful decorative ensembles of all the Georgian churches from the Middle Ages.
The exterior is decorated with blind arches of Tao-Klarjeti style. The doors and windows and the dome are covered with rich ornamental motifs.
Several figurative motifs can be found on the façades.
Christ in Majesty with pine cones (on the west tympanum)
Christ with Saint George, who attacks the dragon (i.e., evil), and Saint Theodore, who wounds Diocletian, the last Roman emperor who carried out large-scale persecutions of Christians (on the lunette above the west entrance)
Second Coming of Christ (on the south tympanum)
The interior is covered with superb frescoes from the 16th and 17th centuries.
In addition to images typical of Christian iconography we also see depictions of members of the Tsulukidze noble family, who commissioned the frescoes. Most men wear high-heeled shoes and earrings, showing cultural influence from the Persians and Ottomans.
Among the frescoes are depictions of a man being sodomised by the devil – the sinner has a jug of water tied to his neck but is unable to quench his thirst – and two homosexuals lying in bed, with the devil standing beside them.
The most important Georgian church of all – the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral in Mtskheta – is also from this period. It holds the Holy Robe of Christ and was the site of coronation of the Georgian kings.
14. Svetitskhoveli Cathedral (Cathedral of the Life-Giving Pillar)
first church – 330s; second church – late 5th century; third church – Arsukidze, 1010-1029
Tradition has it that a Georgian Jew named Elias was in Jerusalem when Jesus was crucified. He bought the seamless robe that Jesus wore during the crucifixion from a Roman soldier and brought it to Mtskheta, his home town. He showed the robe to his sister Sidonia, who, when touching it, died from exalted emotions. Since the robe could not be removed from her hands, she had to be buried it. A huge cedar tree later grew out of her grave.
In the 330s, King Mirian III, who had just converted to Christianity, wanted to build the first church of his country in Mtskheta. Under the guidance of Saint Nino he chose for it the site where Sidonia’s grave stood and had the tree that was growing on it cut down. Miraculous events ensued regarding a pillar that had been made out of the tree, various versions describing it having risen up in the air by itself and emitting liquid with healing power (cf. the miraculous foundation of the Etchmiadzin Cathedral in 301-303 in Armenia). The church that was subsequently built was named after that wonder-working pillar. It became the holiest place in Georgian Christianity.
Some sections of the original wooden church survive in the south arm of the current church. A stone baptismal font, believed to have been used for the baptism of King Mirian III and Queen Nana, can also be seen.
The second church on the site was built in the late 5th century, under Vakhtang Gorgasali, who is also buried here (together with a number of later Georgian kings). The new church was large stone basilica. Its remains can be seen under the columns and in the western and south-eastern parts of the current church. The bulls’ heads on the east façade are also from this period.
The third church was built between 1010 and 1029. It was the largest church in Georgia for almost a millennium, until the construction of the Holy Trinity Cathedral of Tbilisi in 2004. Its plan followed the layout of the previous basilica. Only the eastern part, where the sanctuary apse and the pastophoria stand, was expanded.
The new church had a cross-in-square plan, with long longitudinal and short transverse arms. There were galleries running along the western arm and the esonarthex, and deep arched niches covering the outer walls of the upper part of the western arm. There were also portals in the west, south and north, which gave the church a harmonic three-step look. Some of these features were lost in the subsequent centuries.
The church is built of yellow sandstone. Its façades are covered with blind arches and show a number of richly ornamented details.
On the east façade we can see two deep vertical niches. The vaults of the niches and the central blind arch are decorated with peacock-tail motifs (a symbol of the Twelve Apostles). The central window is surrounded by ornamental stripes made of red stone. In the upper part of the façade are two bas-reliefs, depicting an eagle and a lion. There is also an inscription that informs us that the church was built by an architect named Arsukidze, and that that Arsukidze did not live to see his masterpiece finished.
On the north façade is another reference to Arsukidze: an arm holding a chisel and an inscription with the text: ‘The hand of Arsukidze, slave of God, may forgiveness be his.’
High up on the west façade is a large elaborately decorated window. Above that window, under the cornice of the tympanum, is a depiction of the Ascension of Jesus in relief (a 19th-century restoration).
The south façade is not less modest.
A number of features of the church as we see it today are from the later centuries.
The copy of the aedicule of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, which can be found inside the cathedral, was erected in the late 13th or early 14th century, to mark Svetitskhoveli as the second holiest place in the world.
At the beginning of the 15th century the dome was modified, and in the mid-17th century the new dome was reconstructed with green stone. The reconstructions made the dome lower than it originally was.
From the 17th century, too, are a number of structures on the inside, such as the throne of the Catholicos. The most important of them is the ciborium indicating the location of Christ’s robe and the life-giving pillar. The ciborium is decorated with paintings depicting scenes from the Gospels and the conversion of Iberia to Christianity.
The frescoes covering the walls are from various periods (mostly from the 16th and 17th centuries). A number of medieval frescoes were whitewashed by the Russian authorities in the 1830s.
Christ the Pantocrator
Beast of the Apocalypse and the Zodiac
The cathedral is surrounded by a defensive wall with eight towers (1787). Within the walls are also the ruins of the Palace of Melchizedek I, the first Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia, from the 11th century. Nearby is the two-storey Palace of Anton II from the late 18th or early 19th century.
The greatest medieval monument in Kakheti – the Cathedral of Saint George in Alaverdi – is also from this period.
15. Alaverdi Monastery
1010s, 1020s or 1030s
The monastery was established in the 6th century by Joseph of Alaverdi, one of the Thirteen Assyrian Fathers. It stands on the site of an ancient village that was the centre of the pagan cult of the Moon. The alaverdoba festival, which culminates on September 28 every year, grew out of the feasts celebrated in honour of the Moon.
The cathedral of the monastery as we see it today was constructed under Kvirike III, the King of Kakheti and Hereti from 1010/1014 to 1037/1039. It was built over the ruins of an older church dedicated to Saint George. It is approximately 50 m tall, which made it the tallest religious building in Georgia until the construction of the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Tbilisi in 2004. It is only slightly smaller than the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral.
The cathedral, made of well-hewn pieces of the shirimi stone, is a triconch. The apses are inscribed in a rectangle formed by the outer walls, instead of projecting, as was common before. Two lateral naves stretch across the prolongated western arm of the cross. The original church had upper galleries (later significantly modified) as well as chapels on the north and south sides (destroyed in the 19th century). Only the west ambulatory survives.
The church has a strong vertical emphasis, notable both outside and inside.
On the façades are blind arcades and niches, with no further ornaments, reflecting the decorative austerity typical of Kakhetian churches.
The frescoes are from the 11th to the 17th centuries. These include depictions of the Virgin and the Christ Child in the sanctuary apse and of Saint George over the western entrance.
The church has suffered many times throughout the history. The first great restoration, carried out in the 15th century, replaced the dome. Another major restoration took place in the 18th century. In the 19th century, the interior of the church was whitewashed. The frescoes were uncovered in 1966-1967.
Near the church are other structures, such as the winery (active since 1011), ruins of the summer palace of the Persian governor (1615) and the refectory. The defense wall dates back to the turn of the 18th century, incorporating older sections. The bell tower is from the 19th century.
Two architecturally influential churches are from the second quarter of the 11th century.
16. Samtavisi Cathedral
Hilarion Samtavneli, 1030
The first church on the site was built either by Vakhtang Gorgasali in the second half of the 5th century or by Isidore, one of the Thirteen Assyrian Fathers, in the 6th century. Nothing of that church remains.
The surviving church, built in c. 1030, has a cross-in-square plan. Its length is reduced, compared to the other churches of the period. Its dome is taller and narrower, topped by a conical roof. The dome does not rest on four independent piers as was common before, but on two free piers and altar projections. The façades are decorated with blind arches typical of the period.
The most impressive feature of the Samtavisi Cathedral is its east façade, imitated many times in later Georgian architecture.
The east façade is vertically divided into three by two deep niches, which indicate the position of the three apses on the inside. The central vertical axis is formed by a bold decorated cross, a spherical motif, an ornamented window, and a motif consisting of two rhombi. There are also smaller crosses, which form a part of the arcading. In the lower northeastern arch survives a relief depicting a gryphon (there was originally another gryphon, lost during a reconstruction in the 19th century). Plant ornaments can also be found here and there.
The Cathedral was partly reconstructed in the 15th and 16th centuries, after earthquakes which destroyed the dome and parts of the piers and the west façade. The two windows that can be seen on the latter are surrounded by the ornaments of the original dome. There are also multiple inscriptions on the façades.
The church originally had portals in the west, north and south.
The church was originally covered with frescoes. New frescoes were painted in 1679. These, visible in the apse and the dome, are less monumental and less detailed than the original ones. The altar apse has a depiction of the Deësis, while the dome fresco shows Christ the Pantocrator.
The bell tower of the cathedral is from the 16th or the 17th century. It is attached to the defense wall, like many bell towers in Georgia, and its ground floor operates as a gate, the middle floor contained a room for the guards, and the upper floor was used as the belfry. Around the cathedral are ruins of other structures, such as the bishop’s palace and a small church.
17. Samtavro Monastery
The Samtavro Monastery is the third most important religious structure in Mtskheta. Its name means the ‘ruler’s place’ in Georgian, referring to King Mirian III, the builder of the original church in the 330s. Mirian is buried here together with his wife, Queen Nana.
The surviving Church of the Transfiguration of Christ dates back to the first half of the 11th century. It was probably built right after the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral. The church has a cross-in-square plan, with the dome resting on two piers and the projecting walls of the altar apse. The original dome was destroyed during an earthquake in 1283. A new one was built immediately after, but it does not fit into the proportions of the 11th-century church.
The east façade of the church is plain, compared to the Svetitskhoveli and Samtavisi cathedrals. The north and south façades have rich relief decorations around the windows, and the south porch has arches and ornamental carvings. Many ornamentations are from a later period, though.
South façade with the dome
The church had wall paintings since the beginning. The surviving frescoes are from the 16th and 17th centuries.
Near the Church of the Transfiguration is the smaller Nunnery of Saint Nino. It was constructed by Saint Nino in the 4th century, but was later rebuilt multiple times.
The monastery is surrounded by a defensive wall with a three-storey bell tower. There are also remains of a palace on the monastery grounds.
The first half of the 11th century was an extraordinary period in Georgian architecture. The Bagrati, Svetitskhoveli and Alaverdi cathedrals, built around the same time, are considered to be among the greatest cathedrals ever built in Georgia. The architectonic development of the Georgian church reached its culmination, as exemplified by the Samtavisi and Samtavro churches. These served as the main models for the architects of the subsequent centuries.
The crystallization of the church plan and the decorative scheme took place through simplification. From now on rectangular churches with the cross-in-square plan became dominant, especially with its compact form, where the dome is supported by two piers and the corners of the sanctuary. The richness of sculptural motifs gradually receded in favour of plainer façades. The wall paintings remained severe and monumental, showing large images with classical proportions and expressive faces. The paintings now covered the entire inner space of the church and the iconographic program was more complex than before.