Part Six: High Medieval Period: Georgian Golden Age
The Georgian Golden Age is a period starting with the reign of King David the Builder (1089-1125), reaching its apex under Queen Tamar (1184-1213) and ending with the Mongol invasions in the 1220s. At that time the Kingdom of Georgia successfully used its military might to increase its territories and gained great power in political and economic terms. The cultural life also flourished. Monasteries became educational centres and secular literature emerged with great force – with The Knight in the Panther’s Skin by Shota Rustaveli.
The Gelati Monastery is widely considered to be the masterpiece and the symbol of the era.
18. Gelati Monastery
Gelati Academy – 1106-1110; Cathedral of the Nativity of the Holy Virgin – 1106-1130 (decoration & chapels from different periods); Church of Saint George – mid-13th century; Church of Saint Nicholas – late 13th century
In 1106, King David the Builder launched the construction of a monastery near Kutaisi, the then-capital of the Kingdom of Georgia. He chose a spot in an area of great natural beauty, near a number of old churches, some of which going back to the 6th century. His main aim was to propagate his kingship by founding a world-class centre of education and building a new burial site for the members of the Georgian royal family.
The Gelati Academy was the first structure that was completed (1106-1110). Established following famous examples abroad (e.g., the Monastery of Saint George of Mangana in Constantinople), it soon became an influential educationial institution in the Orthodox world, earning nicknames such as the ‘new Hellas’ or the ‘second Athos’. The most celebrated Georgian theologians, philosophers and scientists of the era taught here, including Ioane Petritsi and Arsen of Ikalto. The curriculum followed the trivium–quadrivium system. Medicine may have also been taught here.
The academy itself is a rather simple structure: a long hall with a pedestal for the professor, benches for the students, and niches for books. Unlike the Ikalto Academy, the other great school established by King David the Builder, which had two floors, the Gelati Academy had just one.
In the 14th century a richly-decorated porch was added to the east façade of the academy.
Near the academy is a well-like hole, used for the observation of celestial bodies in astronomy classes.
The main church of the Gelati Monastery – the Cathedral of the Nativity of the Holy Virgin – was constructed between 1106 and 1125. It is made of well-hewn slabs of yellow limestone. The façades are decorated with blind arches, following the tradition initiated by the churches of Tao-Klarjeti and the nearby Bagrati Cathedral.
The church has a cross-in-square plan. The dome is supported by two massive piers and the corners of the sanctuary apse. The dome is unusually wide, reminiscent of Byzantine domes. The interior well illuminated and spacious. There are three apses to the east, also visible from the outside, and a narthex to the west.
The most outstanding feature inside the cathedral is the apse mosaic, showing the Virgin with the Christ Child and archangels Gabriel and Michael on a golden background (1125-1130). The mosaic is of the same quality as the best Byzantine mosaics. It was probably created by a master that had studied in the Byzantine Empire. It is the only well-preserved mosaic from the Middle Ages in the wider region of Eastern Anatolia and the Caucasus.
The walls of the church were painted between 1125 and 1130. Of these only the frescoes of the narthex survive, depicting the Ascension of the Cross and the Seven Ecumenical Councils, including the Miracle of Saint Euphemia at the Council of Chalcedon. These are the earliest extant representations of the Seven Ecumenical Councils. They are considered to be the best surviving examples of the Georgian wall painting of the era.
The murals that survive in the naos are mostly from the 16th and 17th centuries. These were made by the same artists that painted the interior of the Nikortsminda Cathedral.
The dome shows Christ the Pantocrator.
Other frescoes include typical scenes such as the life of the Virgin, the prophets and the apostles.
There are also many portraits of Georgian monarchs and high clerics. In the lower register of the northern wall is a 16th-century fresco depicting King David the Builder holding a model of the Gelati church in his hand.
The cathedral has two porches, one in the south and another in the north.
In the south porch are fragments of wall paintings in Palaiologan style, executed between 1360 and 1395. The porch is flanked by two chapels.
To the east is the Chapel of Saint Andrew, built in the 12th century.
The Chapel of Saint Andrew has a notable painting ensemble from 1291-1292, with two portraits of King David VI Narin. Here we also find a reproduction of a fresco depicting Queen Tamar from 1833.
To the west of the south porch is the Chapel of Saint Marina. It was built in the 12th century, but reconstructed in the 13th century. Its walls are decorated with murals of folk inspiration from the 16th century.
The north porch dates from the early 13th century, just like the Chapel of the Saviour to its east. To the west of the porch another Chapel of Saint Marina was added in the mid-13th century. Murals here are from the 16th to the 18th centuries.
There are two other churches in the Gelati Monastery, one dedicated to Saint George and another one to Saint Nicholas.
The Church of Saint George, built for the queens of Georgia, is from the mid-13th century. It is located to the east of the main church and is quite similar to it, although smaller and with more elaborate stone decoration. The walls were painted between 1565 and 1583.
Domes of the Church of Saint George (in the foreground) and the Cathedral of the Nativity of the Holy Virgin (in the background)
Church of Saint George
Window on the north wall of the Church of Saint George
The Church of Saint Nicholas is from the late 13th century. It is located to the west of the main church and has, unusually, two floors. The lower floor is open, its corner piers and arches supporting the main body of the church on the upper floor.
Upper floor of the Church of Saint Nicholas
Gelati Academy (left), Church of Saint Nicholas (middle) and bell tower (right)
The bell tower of the monastery is from the late 13th century. It was constructed above a spring of water with healing qualities.
Last but not least, we should mention the south gate of the monastery. Here we see an iron gate with an Arabic inscription. It is from the Ganja Fortress and was made in 1062-1063. It was brought to Gelati by King Demetrius I (1125-1154, 1155-1156) after the capture of Ganja in 1139 as a trophy.
Gate of Ganja
In the south gate, on the floor, is a gravestone with words from Psalm 131/132 carved in it in Georgian: ‘This is my resting place forever; here I will dwell for I desired so.’ It is the place where King David the Builder is believed to have been interred. The south gate was the main entrance of the monastery at the time. It is known that King David desired to be buried in the most frequented place of the monastery, as a sign of humility, so that all the Georgians who would enter it would step over his tomb.
One of the oldest burials in the Gelati Monastery was George of Chqondidi, the chancellor of the kingdom, and the second most important figure after King David. He died in 1118.
Other rulers from the 12th and 13th centuries buried in the Gelati Monastery include Demetrius I (1156), George III (1184), George IV (1223) and David VI (1293). It has been suggested that Queen Tamar was also buried here in 1213, but this has not been verified conclusively.
There are not many famous structures from the mid-12th century. A notable exception is the Tigva Monastery (1152) in the disputed territory of South Ossetia, known for its ascetic look. The Church of Saint Andrew in Tbilisi, commonly known as the Blue Monastery, may have been built around the same time.
19. Church of Saint Andrew of Tbilisi (Blue Monastery)
1155 or 1180s
Tradition has it that there was church on this spot already in the 7th century. The current building, dedicated to Saint Andrew, was erected either in 1155 or in the 1180s. It is one of the less-known old churches in Tbilisi. Its popular name – the Blue Monastery – comes its roof, which was covered with glazed blue tiles.
The church had cross-in-square plan. The dome was supported by two piers and apse corners. The dome was removed in a 17th-century reconstruction, which left a three-nave basilica made of brick. The church got a new, Russian-style dome in 1873. The current conical dome is from 1995.
Of the 12th-century church survive the apse, the lower half of the south wall and a couple of stone rows on the west and north façades. Unusual is the lower position of the central window of the apse compared to the other two windows.
In the lunette above the south entrance is a long inscription in Georgian asomtavruli script.
To the south is a Russian church dedicated to Saint John the Theologian (1898-1901).
A notable church of the period is the one in Ikorta (1172). It has the typical cross-in-square plan, with the dome being supported by two piers and the corners of the sanctuary apse. The latter is, unusually, flanked by four rooms, two on the ground and two on the upper floor. The exterior is lavishly ornamented, following the tradition initiated in the 10th century. This makes the Ikorta Church a sort of an anachronism in the second half of the 12th century, when the façades are generally becoming more austere, losing their blind arches and elaborate relief decorations.
The churches constructed under Queen Tamar are also known for their wall paintings. Among the earliest examples are the murals in the Church of the Dormition of the Mother of God in the Vardzia cave monastery, including a depiction of King George III and the young Tamar (executed between 1184 and 1186).
The best examples are the churches of Kintsvisi and Timotesubani.
The Church of Saint Nicholas of the Kintsvisi Monastery has magnificent murals painted no later than in 1205. The most excuisite of them is the image known as the Kintsvisi Archangel, showing an angel sitting on a tomb and pointing to an open sarcophagus in the scene of the Resurrection. The depiction shows profound humanity and lyricism. The lavish use of the expensive natural ultramarine colour in the background is also extraordinary. It is one of the most beautiful paintings from medieval Georgia.
The Church of the Dormition of the Mother of God in the Timotesubani Monastery is often seen as the most outstanding building in artistic terms from the era of Queen Tamar. It has vivacious frescoes following a complex iconographic program (painted between 1205 and 1215).
The main church of the Betania Monastery, constructed under Tamar over a 10th-century basilica, also has remarkable wall paintings. Among them is a group portrait of King George III, Queen Tamar herself and King George IV (executed in c. 1207).
In terms of architecture, the churches of Timotesubani and Betania are quite similar to a number of other structures of the era, such as the monasteries of Kvatakhevi and Pitareti and the cathedral of Ertatsminda. A less-known example of the type is the Tsughrughasheni Church.
20. Tsughrughasheni Church
The Tsughrughasheni Church well illustrates the stylistic change that took place around the turn of the 13th century. It is smaller than the churches of the previous centuries, has a more intimate look, and is located at an isolated spot in a landscape of great beauty.
A notable change in proportions catches the eye: the drum of the dome is very elevated compared to the compact mass of the rest of the building.
The church is made of slabs of stones of multiple colours and translucent qualities. The exterior has exquisite stone ornaments, especially on the dome. Typical of the era is the cross motif between the two decorated windows on the west façade.
The church has a cross-in-square plan. The sanctuary apse is flanked by two-storey pastophoria. In the dome is a depiction of the Glory of the Cross, a feature much more common in Georgian than in Byzantine churches.