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Between East and West: Georgia Through its Churches

Updated: Sep 24, 2020

Georgia is often described as being the land between the East and West. For centuries, the country oscillated between Russian, Ottoman, and Persian rule, with each successive power leaving behind traces of its own culture in Georgia. Georgia’s food is laced with the spices of the Middle East; Georgia’s language is filled with loanwords from Persian and Russian; but by no other means is Georgia’s civilizational mix better exemplified than in the architecture of Georgia’s churches. 

A traditional Georgian church in Telavi.
A traditional Georgian church in Telavi. Photo by Visiting-Georgia

Why Churches?

Religious structures, such as mosques, synagogues, temples, and churches, have traditionally been the at the physical and social center of society. As such, these buildings generally had the best architects and engineers design them and were built with the best materials, therefore lending themselves to be the best examples of the architectural style and civil engineering of their time.

Georgia’s Churches

Georgia’s churches have two distinct architectural phases. The first phase was during Georgia’s first few centuries following its conversion to Christianity. Like most other churches throughout the young Christian world, these structures followed the Roman/Byzantine basilica form. These first structures were simple rectangular buildings, usually with columns on either side of the main space. The best examples of this in Georgia are ბოლნისის სიონი Bolnisi Sioni Cathedral and ანჩისხატის ტაძარი Anchiskhatis Basilica in Old Tbilisi. 

The second phase of Georgia’s ecclesiastical architecture began after the completion of სვეტიცხოველი Svetitskhoveli in Mtskheta. The construction of the current cathedral began under King Bagrat III, who ruled Georgia between 1001-1014 C.E. Most of the building, however, was finished during the reigns of King Giorgi I and King Bagrat IV. The cathedral was completed in 1029 C.E. During the 11th Century, Georgian architect Uta Arsukisdze made major modifications to the architectural form of the original building by introducing the barrel-dome over the central crossing, the cruciform floor plan, and barrel-vaults for the interior ceilings. Following the completion of Svetitskhoveli, most of Georgia’s churches replicated Svetitskhoveli’s design, notably ბაგრატის ტაძარი Bagrati Cathedral and ალავერდის მონასტერი Alaverdi Monastery. These three modifications drastically changed the look of Georgian churches, bringing them more in line with the churches that were being constructed across Europe and during this time.

Alaverdi Monastery, Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, and Bagrati Cathedral are all examples of Georgian architecture.
Alaverdi (top), Svetitskhoveli (bottom left), and Bagrati Cathedral (bottom right) all share the same fundamental elements of Georgian architecture. Photo by Visiting-Georgia

A Mix of East and West

Typical Eastern Orthodox churches follow a Greek cross floor plan, which, in its most basic plan, is a simple square-shaped building with the main worship area taking the shape of a cross where all four arms are of equal length. The best example of this is St. Basil’s Cathedral and the Cathedral of the Dormition in Moscow. Meanwhile, typical Western churches, such as Notre Dame de Paris, Westminster Abbey, and the Vatican, follow a typical Latin-cross floor plan. Georgian churches combine the two--the transepts (horizontal part of the cross) bisect the vertical part, but, unlike the Greek-cross plan, the vertical parts are longer than the transepts. 

The floor plans of the Cathedral of the Formation, Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, and Notre Dame de Paris.
The Cathedral of the Dormition (top left) in Moscow follows a Greek-cross plan, Svetitskhoveli Cathedral (top right) follows a combined floor plan, and Notre Dame de Paris (bottom) follows a Latin-cross floor plan. The domes are shown as a thin circle. Floor plans not to scale. Photo by Visiting-Georgia

What’s more, most Eastern Orthodox churches have five domes--one large dome over an altar area and is surrounded by four smaller domes. Western churches, however, tend to have what’s called a spire--a tall, narrow pyramid-shaped tower--or an actual tower over the altar area. Georgian orthodox churches again combine the two by placing one barrel-shaped dome over the central crossing but have no other domes, spires, or towers. Perhaps the biggest difference between the architecture of Georgian churches and Western ones is that architects in the West continued to innovate and change their styles over time, while Georgian architects tended to follow an Eastern European tradition of replicating existing structures. 

The spire over the Sainte Chapelle in Paris.
The spire over the Sainte Chapelle in Paris. Photo by Visiting-Georgia

Let’s take French architecture as one example. Originally, the churches were narrow and dark, like Notre Dame de Paris. As technology improved, the cathedrals began to see more windows and better stonemasonry, such as the cathedrals of Reims and Amiens. These innovations later gave way to Renaissance architecture, and then Baroque, and then Neoclassical architecture. Each style, though keeping the basic form, innovated on previous styles and methods to create entirely new categories of architecture which would define that era. Architecture in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, however, did not follow such a path and instead replicated the same style. As such, Georgian churches lack the architectural innovations that were evident in the West. 

St Sulpice Basilica and Notre Dame de Paris
St Sulpice, built in the 1600s, is in the Baroque style, while Notre Dame de Paris, built in the 1100s, is built in the Gothic style of architecture. Photo by Visiting-Georgia

A New Future?

The architecture of Georgian churches changed in 1995 with the construction of Tbilisi Sameba Cathedral. Unlike Georgian churches which, up to this point, were small and humble structures, Sameba is a grandiose structure--87 meters/285 feet tall, dwarfing the surrounding Avlabari district. Additionally, Tbilisi Sameba emphasizes verticality--something which was mastered by the great medieval Gothic cathedrals of France. On Sameba’s walls, stone carvings taking visitors' eyes from the floor up to the ceilings hundreds of feet above. Also, unlike typical Georgian churches which have small windows on a single level of the structure (typically on the main church structure itself), Sameba has large windows on all tiers of the building. Finally, Tbilisi Sameba has rounded transepts as opposed to the rectangular and rigid form of Georgian churches. 

Svetitskhoveli Cathedral and Tbilisi Sameba
The west facade of Svetitskhoveli (left) and Tbilisi Sameba (right) both have the same fundamental form, but Sameba combines elements of other architectural styles with traditional Georgian architecture. Photo by Visiting-Georgia

The still-under-construction Makhata church, located in Tbilisi’s Vazisubani district, follows Tbilisi Sameba’s radical departure from tradition by its large size, its emphasis on verticality, its large windows on all sides of the church, and its rounded transepts. 

If architecture is to be a symbol of a given era, then this suggests that a new era in Georgian history has begun. Today’s newest Georgian churches seek to innovate on the traditional Georgian style to create something new and truly Georgian--a synthesis of modernity and tradition. 

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