The Svetitskhoveli Cathedral (Georgian: სვეტიცხოვლის საკათედრო ტაძარი, svet'icxovlis sak'atedro t'adzari; literally the Cathedral of the Living Pillar) is an Eastern Orthodox cathedral located in the historic town of Mtskheta, Georgia, to the northwest of the Georgian capital Tbilisi. A masterpiece of the Early Middle Ages, Svetitskhoveli is recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. It is currently the second largest church building in Georgia, after the Holy Trinity Cathedral.
Cathedral seen in 2013
|Affiliation||Georgian Orthodox Church|
|Location||Mtskheta, Mtskheta-Mtianeti, Georgia|
|Completed||4th century AD (by King Mirian III)|
5th century AD (during the reign of Vakhtang I)
1010–1029 (during the reign of George I)
|Official name: Historical Monuments of Mtskheta|
|Designated||1994 (18th session)|
Known as the burial site of the claimed Christ's mantle, Svetitskhoveli has long been one of the principal Georgian Orthodox churches and is among the most venerated places of worship in the region. The present structure was completed in 1029 by the medieval Georgian architect Arsukisdze, although the site itself dates back to the early fourth century.
Svetitskhoveli is considered an endangered cultural landmark; it has survived a variety of adversities, and many of its priceless frescoes have been lost due to being whitewashed by the Russian Imperial authorities.
The original church was built in 4th century A.D. during the reign of Mirian III of Kartli (Iberia). St. Nino is said to have chosen the confluence of the Mtkvari (Kura) and Aragvi rivers as the place of the first Georgian Church.
According to Georgian hagiography, in the 1st century AD a Georgian Jew from Mtskheta named Elias was in Jerusalem when Jesus was crucified. Elias bought Jesus’ robe from a Roman soldier at Golgotha and brought it back to Georgia. Returning to his native city, he was met by his sister Sidonia who upon touching the robe immediately died from the emotions engendered by the sacred object. The robe could not be removed from her grasp, so she was buried with it. The place where Sidonia is buried with Christ's robe is preserved in the Cathedral. Later, from her grave grew an enormous cedar tree. Ordering the cedar chopped down to build the church, St. Nino had seven columns made from it for the church’s foundation. The seventh column, however, had magical properties and rose by itself into the air. It returned to earth after St. Nino prayed the whole night. It was further said that from the magical seventh column a sacred liquid flowed that cured people of all diseases.
In Georgian sveti means "pillar" and tskhoveli means "life-giving" or "living", hence the name of the cathedral. An icon portraying this event can be seen on the second column on the right-hand from the entrance. Reproduced widely throughout Georgia, it shows Sidonia with an angel lifting the column in heaven. Saint Nino is in the foreground: King Mirian and his wife, Queen Nana, are to the right and left. Georgia officially adopted Christianity as its state religion in 337.
Medieval and modernEdit
Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, originally built in the 4th century, has been damaged several times during history, notably by the invasions of Arabs, Persians and Timur, and latterly during Russian subjugation and the Soviet period. The building has also been damaged by earthquakes.
During the restoration of 1970-71 which was presided over by V. Tsintsadze, the base of the basilica built in the late 5th century by King Vakhtang Gorgasali after St. Nino’s original church was found. During the early years of Georgian church building, the basilica was the dominant type of the Georgian church architecture before the cross-dome style emerged.
The present Svetitskhoveli Cathedral was built between 1010 and 1029 by the architect Arsakidze, at the invitation of the Catholicos Melkisedek of Georgia. The king of Georgia for that time was Giorgi I (George I).
The cathedral is surrounded by a defensive wall, built of stone and brick during the reign of King Erekle II (Heraclius) in 1787. The top storey was designed for military purposes and has gun emplacements. The entrance to the Cathedral from the wall is located to the west. The wall has eight towers: six of them are cylindrical and two of them are square. Archaeological expeditions in 1963 found the house of Patriarch of the 11th century at the southern part of the wall. Inside the church yard, the remains of the two-story castle of Patriarch Anton II were found.
The architecture of the present Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, which dates from around 1020, is based on the cross-dome style of church architecture, which emerged in Georgia in the early Middle Ages and became the principle style after the political unification of Georgia by Bagrat III (978-1014). The characteristic of this style is that the dome is placed across all four sides of church. The structure of the church is intended to ensure good acoustics. The dome of Svetitskhoveli was reconstructed several times over the centuries to keep the church in good condition.
The basic stone used for the Cathedral is a sandy yellow with trimmings, while around the apse window a red stone is used. The green stone used in the drum of the cupola is from the 17th century. The curved blind arcading throughout is unaltered from the 11th century.
A large window occupies most of the western top side of the church. The decoration shows the Christ sitting and two angels at the both sides. The original sculpture on the wall has not survived, but was restored several times, most recently in the 19th century.
The architect ArsukidzeEdit
A legend surrounds a relief sculpture on the external northern wall. This shows a right arm and hand holding a chisel - symbol of the stonemason – with an inscription reads:
An inscription on the east façade further attests to the fact that Arsukidze did not live to see his masterpiece finished (in 1029):
Konstantine Gamsakhurdia's novel The Hand of the Great Master relates the legend, for which there is no documentary evidence, that a priest who had also been Arsukidze’s patron and teacher was so jealous of Arsukidze's success that he used his influence with the king to have the architect's right hand cut off. According to the novel, King George was also jealous of Arsukidze over his lover, the beautiful Shorena.
Icons and frescoesEdit
The cathedral interior walls were once fully adorned with medieval frescoes, but many of them did not survive. In the 1830s, when Emperor Nicholas I was scheduled to visit Mskheta, Russian authorities razed the galleries and whitewashed timeless frescoes as part of an effort to give the cathedral a "tidier look"; in the end the Czar never even came. Today, after much careful restoration, some frescoes survive, including a 13th-century depiction of the "Beast of the Apocalypse" and figures of the Zodiac.
The walls are decorated with many Christian Orthodox icons, most of which are not original (the originals being in the national museums of Georgia). The decoration of the church stonework also features carved grapes (as in many churches of Georgia), reflecting the country's ancient wine-making traditions. The large figure of Jesus at the altar was painted by Russian artist in the 19th century. The majority of the icons here date to the 20th century. Some are copies of older icons and frescoes from other churches throughout Georgia.
Two bulls' heads on the east façade, remnants of the 5th-century church, attest to the folk influence on Christian iconography in that early period.
On the right side from the entrance of the Cathedral is a stone baptismal font dating from the 4th century. It is thought to have been used for the baptism of King Mirian and Queen Nana. Immediately behind the font is a reproduction of the relief of Arsukidze’s right hand and bevel found on the north facade.
Symbolic copy of the Chapel of Holy SepulchreEdit
On the south side there is a small stone church built into the Cathedral. This is a symbolic copy of the Chapel of Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Built between the end of the 13th and the beginning the 14th centuries, it was erected here to mark Svetitskhoveli as the second most sacred place in the world (after the church of Jerusalem), thanks to Christ’s robe. In front of this stone chapel, the most westerly structure aligned with the columns between the aisle and the nave marks Sidonia’s grave. Remains of the original life-giving pillar are also here. It was built in the 17th century. Scenes of the lives of King Mirian and Queen Nana, and portraits of the first Christian Byzantine Emperor, Constantine I, and his mother Helena, were painted by G. Gulzhavarashvili at that time. Traces of the foundations of the 4th-century church have been found here.
Throne of Catholicos-PatriarchEdit
The second structure aligned with the columns of the southern aisle was also built in the 17th century as the throne of Catholicos Diasamidze. It no longer serves this function, as current tradition requires a throne for the Georgian patriarch to be in the centre of the church.
Burials in the CathedralEdit
Tomb of Erekle II in Svetitskhoveli Cathedral.
Tomb of Vakhtang Gorgasali in Svetitskhoveli Cathedral
Bilingual epitaph for Tamar, the first wife of George XI
Svetitskhoveli was not only the site of the coronation of the Georgian kings but also served as their burial place. Ten are known to have been buried here, although only six tombs have been found, all before the altar. The tomb of King Vakhtang Gorgasali can be identified by his the small candle fortress standing before it. King Erekle II's tomb is identifiable by the sword and shield upon it. His son, George XII was the last king of Georgia and his marble tomb is next to his father's. Also in front of the altar are tombs of David VI, George VIII, Luarsab I and various members of the Bagrationi royal family including Tamar, the first wife of George XI, whose epitaph dating from 1684 is written both in Georgian (Asomtavruli) and Arabic script.
- Dowling, T.E. Sketches of Georgian Church History
- UNESCO List of World Heritage in Danger, Retrieved: 1 June 2016
- Oliver Bernier, The Treasures of Tbilisi, New York Times. 30 September 1990.
- Rosen, Roger. Georgia: A Sovereign Country of the Caucasus. Odyssey Publications: Hong Kong, 1999.
- Oliver Bernier, The Treasures of Tbilisi, New York Times. 30 September 1990.
- UNESCO Report on the Mission to Historical Monuments of Mtskheta and Bagrati Cathedral and Gelati Monastery, Georgia, June 2-10, 2008
- Abashidze, Irakli. Ed. Georgian Encyclopedia. Vol. IX. Tbilisi, Georgia: 1985.
- Amiranashvili, Shalva. History of Georgian Art. Khelovneba: Tbilisi, Georgia: 1961.
- Grigol Khantsteli. Chronicles of Georgia.
- Bernier, Oliver (30 September 1990). "The Treasures of Tbilisi". The New York Times.
- Rosen, Roger. Georgia: A Sovereign Country of the Caucasus. Odyssey Publications: Hong Kong, 1999. ISBN 962-217-748-4
- Натроев А. Мцхет и его собор Свэти-Цховели. Историко-археологическое описание. 1900
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