In the wake of the secular Tbilisoba celebration, the Georgian Orthodox Church observes Mtskhetoba-Svetitskhovloba (October 14), a celebration of Georgia’s ancient capital city, and its legendary cathedral. Some students and fellow mentors from the International Spark Program this afternoon decided to take a marshutka out to Mtskheta to see the festivities.
At the center of the celebration (much like Tbilisoba, with concerts and crafts fairs) is Svetitskhoveli, a massive cathedral built in the 4th century during the reign of King Mirian III, the first Christian ruler of Georgia. He was converted through the ministry of St. Nino, a woman from Cappadocia. For the site of the first Georgian church, Nino is said to have chosen Mtskheta, as it was located at the confluence of the Mtkvari (Kura) and Aragvi rivers. Georgian hagiography (Christian legends considered canonical by Orthodox believers), however, states that the site has even greater significance in Christian history.
According to these legends, 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 with him to Georgia. Returning to his native city, he was met by his sister Sidonia–who died immediately upon touching the sacred object. The robe could not be removed from her grasp, so she was buried with it, and from her grave grew an enormous cedar tree. Centuries later, Nino ordering the cedar to be made into seven pillars for the construction of Georgia’s first church. After much struggling to move the final column, Nino prayed and it magically floated into place–the column then produced a kind of sap that was said to cure all illnesses. It is from these events that the church derives its name: in Georgian, sveti means “pillar” and tskhoveli means “life-giving” or “living.” A famous icon known as the “Glory of Iveria” was painted in 1880, depicting the legend of Svetitskhoveli. Reproduced widely throughout Georgia, it shows Sidonia at the base of the cedar, and and angel lifting the column. Saint Nino is in the foreground, with King Mirian and his wife, Queen Nana, to the right and left. Georgia’s patriarchs are depicted on the left side, and Christian rulers shown on the right.
By the 11th century, the cathedral had suffered from several foreign invasions, and was rebuilt between 1010 to 1029 under King Giorgi I, in the Byzantine cross-dome style (which emerged in the Middle Ages and became the principle style after the political unification of Georgia by Bagrat III). Construction was supervised by the architect Arsukidze, at the invitation of the Georgian patriarch Melkisedek.
On the exterior north wall, a relief of a right arm and hand holding a chisel (the symbol of a stonemason) can still be seen today with an inscription reads:
An inscription on the east wall (completed one decade later) suggests that Arsukidze did not live to see his masterpiece finished:
- This holy church was built by the hand of Thy wretched servant, Arsukidze.
- May your soul rest in peace, O Master.
Georgian writer Constantine Gamsakhurdia wrote a novel, “The Hand of the Great Master” (full PDF in English here) based on the legend of Arsukidze. According to this story, King Giorgi (jealous of Arsukidze’s beautiful lover, Shorena) and Arsukidze’s former teacher (jealous of Arsukidze’s skill as a craftsman) conspired to cut off his right hand and later kill him.
Since the 11th century reconstruction, Svetitskhoveli continued to weather invasions and earthquakes–the dome has been reconstructed numerous times as a result, and was most recently re-stabilized in 2011. The interior walls are painted with frescoes, most of which have not survived in their original state. In the 1830s, when Czar Nicholas I was scheduled to visit Mtskheta, the frescoes were all whitewashed–although in the end, the Czar canceled his visit. Today, after much careful restoration, a few remnants can be seen, some featuring unusual subjects like Beast of the Apocalypse and figures of the Zodiac. Most of the walls are decorated with icons, most of which are not original (these are located in the treasury of the Georgian National Museum). Some are copies of older icons and frescoes from other churches in Georgia.
Exterior stonework features many folk elements: carved grapes (reflecting the country’s ancient wine-making traditions), stylized birds, and two bulls’ heads on the east façade (survivors from a 5th century church).
On the south side of the cathedral is a small stone church, a symbolic copy of the Chapel of holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Built between the 13th and 14th centuries, it was designed to mark Svetitskhoveli as the second-most sacred place in the world (after the church of Jerusalem), as the resting place of Christ’s robe. Columns mark Sidonia’s grave. Remains of the original life-giving pillar are also said to be there, based on archaeological findings that align with the 4th century foundations. During the 1970-71 restorations, an archaeological team also discovered the base of a basilica built in the late 5th century by King Vakhtang Gorgasali (founder of Tbilisi).
Our group visited Jvari monastery, a 5th century structure overlooking Mtskheta. The mountain was packed with Mtsketoba celebrants, picnickers, and wedding parties. The monastery was also recently renovated, although a side effect of this is that they slapped an awkward wooden annex onto one side, but I guess it’s technically removable so the preservationist in me can’t really object.