Medieval Georgian Churches & Monasteries


Part Seven: Decline of the 13th, 14th and 15th Centuries


The Mongol invasions caused a great deal of instability in the Caucasus. In architecture, this marks the beginning of a period of decline, especially from the mid-13th century on. Some monasteries established at that time are more remarkable than others, but in terms of artistic quality they cannot compete with the masterpieces of the Georgian Golden Age. In this context we should mention the Gudarekhi Monastery, which has some reliefs of the 11th-century inspiration and the oldest dated bell tower in Georgia (1278), as well as the Mghvimevi Monastery, which has rich ornamental sculptures on the façades of its churches (second half of the 13th century).

The Metekhi Church in Tbilisi can also be dated to this period.


21. Metekhi Church


This church, dedicated to the Assumption of Virgin Mary, is a notable sight in the old town of Tbilisi. It stands on a cliff next to the Mtkvari (Kura) River and, like the Jvari Monastery in Mtskheta, looks like it grows out of it.

The origins of the church are obscure. Tradition has it that it was originally built either by King Vakhtang Gorgasali (possibly in 455) or by King Dachi (r. 522-534). Its name is first mentioned only in the 12th century, although it is not clear if it actually refers to this church. If a church stood here during the Georgian Golden Age, it was destroyed during a Mongol invasion in 1235. The church that survives today is from between 1278 and 1289, from the time of King Demetrius II.


The church has a very archaic look. First, it has a cross-in-square plan, but the dome is supported by four piers with semicircular projections, not two piers and the apse corners, as was common since the 11th century. Secondly, its east façade shows three strongly protruding round apses – an unknown feature in the High Medieval churches of Georgia. Third, instead of the typical western portal, the church has a portal in the north, with stairs and entrance from the east. Common of the 13th century is the miniaturised, schematic and disconnected look of the façade decorations.


The dome and its substructures were modified in the 16th to 18th centuries. The original wall paintings do not survive.


The Mongol domination was overthrown and Georgia’s former strength was partially restored by King George V (1299-1302, 1314-1346). From this period are the main churches of the Sapara and Zarzma monasteries. Slightly later is the nearby Chulevi monastery (frescoed in 1381).

The most famous religious structure from the 14th century is the Gergeti church.


22. Gergeti Holy Trinity Church


The Gergeti Holy Trinity Church is widely considered to be the most beautiful church in Georgia, because of its solitary position on top of a mountain, with the majestic Mount Kazbek (5,054 m) in the background. Tradition has it that Andrew the Apostle erected a cross here, above which King Vakhtang Gorgasali built the first church in the late 5th or early 6th century.

The current church is from the 1330s. It was originally dedicated to the Transfiguration of the Saviour. It is the only cross-in-square church in the highland region of Khevi. The dome is supported by two piers and the walls of the sanctuary apse. There are some decorations on the façades and on the drum of the dome.


More ornamented is the bell tower, constructed in the second half of the 14th century.


Nearby is the council building from the late 15th or the early 16th century.


Georgian wall paintings in this period developed under the influence of the Byzantine Palaiologan art, showing complicated forms and emotional exaltation. The best examples are the frescoes of the Ubisi Monastery, executed by painter Damiane in the 14th century, and those of the Tsalenjikha Cathedral, created by a Constantinopolitan artist at the end of that century.

The Kingdom of Georgia disintegrated into several kingdoms and principalities in the years following the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks in 1453. Soon after, the Ottoman Empire and the Safavid Iran enjoyed an increasing influence over the Georgian states. As for the arts, the 15th century is generally seen as a period of decline. No new major churches were built in Georgia at that time, and the level of craftmanship diminished substantially.