Svetitskhoveli Cathedral

Infobox religious building
or the Living Pillar Cathedral

caption=The Svetitskhoveli Cathedral is one of the most venerated places of worship for Georgian Orthodox Christians. [Dowling, T.E. Sketches of Georgian Church History]
location=Mtskheta, Georgia
religious_affiliation=Orthodox Christianity
status=Major Cathedral
architect= Arsakidze
architecture_style= Georgian Cross-Dome
year_completed= 4th century AD, by King Mirian III of Kartli (Iberia)
5th century AD, during the reign of Vakhtang I Gorgasali
Between 1010 and 1029, during the reign of George I

Infobox World Heritage Site
WHS = Historical Monuments of Mtskheta

State Party = flagicon|Georgia (country) Georgia
Type = Cultural
Criteria = iii, iv
ID = 708
Region = Europe and North America
Year = 1994
Session = 18th
Link =

Svetitskhoveli Cathedral (Lang-ka|სვეტიცხოვლის საკათედრო ტაძარი, "Svet'icxovlis Sak'atedro T'aʒari"; literally, "the Living Pillar Cathedral") is a Georgian Orthodox cathedral located in the historical town of Mtskheta, Georgia, 20 km (12.5 miles) northwest of the nation's capital of Tbilisi.

Svetitskhoveli, known as the burial site of Christ's mantle, has long been the principal Georgian church and remains one of the most venerated places of worship to this day. It presently functions as the seat of the archbishop of Mtskheta and Tbilisi, who is at the same time Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia.

The current cathedral was built in the 11th century by the Georgian architect Arsukisdze, though the site itself is even older dating back to the early 4th century and is surrounded by a number of legends associated primarily with the early Christian traditions.

It is the second largest church building in the country, after the recently consecrated Tbilisi Sameba Cathedral, and is listed as an UNESCO World Heritage Site along with other historical monuments of Mtskheta.


Early history

The original church was built in IV 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 first 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. [Rosen, Roger. Georgia: A Sovereign Country of the Caucasus. Odyssey Publications: Hong Kong, 1999.] 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. [Rosen, Roger. Georgia: A Sovereign Country of the Caucasus. Odyssey Publications: Hong Kong, 1999.] Georgia officially adopted Christianity as its state religion in 317.

Medieval and modern

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.

In the 11th century, the present Svetitskhoveli Cathedral was rebuilt (from 1010 to 1029) in the Cross-Dome style by the architect Arsukidze, at the invitation of the Catholicon Melkisedek of Georgia. The king of Georgia for that time was Giorgi II (George II).

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 south. 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.


Design and construction of modern Svetitskhoveli

vetitskhoveli Basilica

The base of the three-storey basilica, supposed to have been built by Vakhtang Gorgasali after St.Nino's original church, has been found by archaeologists during the restoration of 1970-71.

Modern Cross-Dome Svetitskhoveli

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 Arsukidze

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::"The Hand of Arsukidze,:"slave of God,":"may forgiveness be his."An inscription on the east decade further attests to the fact that Arsukidze did not live to see his masterpiece finished (in 1029)::"This holy church was built by the hand of Thy wretched servant, Arsukidze.:"May your soul rest in peace, O Master."
Constantine Gamsakhurdia's Georgian 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 Frescos

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 Mskheta, the frescoes were all whitewashed, although in the end the Czar never came. Today, after much careful restoration, some few remnants survive including fragments of a 13th-century Beast of the Apocalypse and figures of the Zodiac. [The Treasures of Tbilisi, New York Times. September 30, 1990.]

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 are incorporated into the east façade, surviving from the fifth-century church, testimony of the folk influence on Christian iconography in that early period.

Baptismal font

On the right side from the entrance of the Cathedral is a stone baptismal font dating from the fourth 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.

ymbolic copy of the Chapel of Holy Sepulchre

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 fourth-century church have been found here.

Throne of Catholicos-Patriarch

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 Cathedral

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.




*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."
*The Treasures of Tbilisi, "New York Times". September 30, 1990.
*Rosen, Roger. "Georgia: A Sovereign Country of the Caucasus." Odyssey Publications: Hong Kong, 1999. ISBN 9622177484


External links

* [|georgia|mtskheta Location of Svetitskhoveli Cathedral on the city map of Mtskheta]
* [ Georgian government site]
* [ Max Planck Institute]
* [ UNESCO site]

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