October 2015

Hardly any of the twenty participants imagined the October excursion to Georgia as being a peaceful and restful experience. An enormously adventurous nature of this trip must have surprised even the most hard-bitten of us. As if the night flight from Budapest to Kutaisi itself, which was accompanied by strong turbulences, had been an omen for the really “turbulent“ and exhausting experiences of the following week.

Owing to the time zone shift we arrived in Kutaisi in the small hours of the morning. Being aware of the challenging programme of the first day we took a minibus (a vehicle that accompanied us throughout the whole of this excursion) from the local airport to probably the only open restaurant in the city at the very time. Simply, although our excursions deal with the history of art, culinary experiences are involved as well. We had loads of those on that morning. It was the first time we came across traditional Georgian cooking (chinkali). After fortifying ourselves with a substantial breakfast we set off for the next experiences, this time really visual ones.

Our first stop was Bagrati Cathedral from 11th century whose current appearance results more or less from the restoration works of 20th century, and so the highlight of the day was the visit to Gelati monastery complex. This came into being as a burial site of the Georgian kings as ordered by David IV the Builder early in 12th century. That place, which included an academy too, used to be a cultural and religious centre as witnessed by the rich mosaic or more precisely fresco wall decoration of the main monastery church. In the afternoon hours we got on the minibus and went north towards the high Caucasian mountains. All of us, except for the unlucky person who was sitting beside the driver watching the narrow road ahead meander with panic, were sleeping peacefully after the strenuous night flight. We got to Mestia in the late night hour.

In the morning we were pretty surprised by the height of the mountains surrounding us. Anyway, we were still more surprised by the rich collection of the local museum – Svaneti Museum. We spent all day with the „Georgian“ panel painting, which has been referred to since 10th century, with repoussé designs, crosses, thrones and other unbelievably splendid objects. As looking at those objects we talked, e.g. about the problematic Georgian historiography (periphery versus centre), about the value of the material, about the determination of studying panel paintings from „Vasarian“ point of view or about quality seen as historically measurable value. Being tired and intellectually exhausted we got back into the car where we spent the following night sleeping on each other’s shoulders. In the morning we woke up from the shallow sleep to the sounds of Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia where we were supposed to spend two nights.

On the first day we went from Tbilisi to nearby Mtskheta, one of the most sacred places in Georgia. First we went to see the local Sveticchoveli Cathedral from 11th century where we were greeted by amazing singing of a male voice choir. This made us remember the principal term of Alexei Lidov forming the current directions in academic research of art history - hierotopy.  The tones activating the architectural space resonated all cells of our bodies long after we had left the cathedral for the nearby hill. There was another architectural treasure greeting us on its top from far away – the central building (tetraconch) with a dome built at the turn of 7th century – Jvari monastery church. We finished the day’s programme in one of Tbilisi bakeries where we were invited to watch the production of Georgian bread being baked on the walls of a deep cylindrical oven. Our hunger being satisfied we went to our soft beds we gave a warm welcome to after spending the previous night in the car.

The following day in Tbilisi bore the signs of gold, silver and enamels. From morning till late afternoon we were admiring objects in the collections of the Georgian museum of fine arts (Shalva Amiranashvili Museum of Fine Arts). Unfortunately, I can highlight only a few items out of the countless range of fascinating objects. The first one is the golden chalice from Bedia dating probably from the year 999 with an image of the Virgin Mary, with Christ on the throne and a few apostles. The second one is the Khakhuli triptych with an icon of God’s mother which illuminated and attracted spectators from a great distance. This golden triptych was created in 12th century for an older icon of God’s mother, and there were numerous enamels of very high quality fastened on it. The enamels as such are the third and last item I would like to draw attention to. The thing is that this work of art achieved excellence in the territory of Georgia between 8-10th centuries. The enamels originating just there at that time equal, in fact even exceed the works produced in Constantinople. The second evening in Tbilisi proceeded in the same manner as the previous one since we visited our favourite bakery once again.

In the morning we set off south-eastwards. The next stop was David Gareja monastery complex situated in a desert region on the border between Georgia and Azerbaijan. This complex includes lots of cells, chapels or even churches hollowed out of sandstone where you often come across fresco decorations on their walls. It was extremely difficult to enter some of those chambers which enabled us to identify ourselves with the role of our hero Indiana Jones while we were crawling on our hands and knees in the dust in order to be able to see the remains of a wall painting illuminated with a pocket torch. It was the very moment that we scrambled out of those dark hollows and had a look around the surrounding wild countryside when we were a bit clearer in our minds about the reason why the monks had decided to hollow their living quarters in those very places. Leaving the desert we returned to Tbilisi for the last time from where we took a train to Gori, the birthplace of Iosif Vissarionovich Stalin.

On the following day there were two stops waiting for us. First we went to Tsromi where we were primarily interested in the local cathedral dating back to the first half of 7th century. There was mosaic decoration to be found in its apse until 1918. Its original appearance was the principal topic of debates led by quite a few outstanding art historians in 20th century. Some of them came up with the idea of the so called traditio legis being the original depiction, others promoted the idea of Assumtion iconography. In that place we had a long discussion about what kind of paintings could have been seen in the apse at the time of the decoration coming into existence. However, in this short paper I will primarily mention the fact that, no matter how we call that representation, a very persuasive iconography spread all over the empire in late antiquity period was in question. Our second stop was the Ateni Sioni church which also came into being in 7th century as a part of a now defunct monastery. This building is usually classified as a Jvari-type church thanks to its nearly identical ground plan to Jvari Church although the certainty, as for which of these churches came into existence as the first one, simply does not exist. Inside the building we should have seen one of the best preserved fresco cycles ever from 11th century. Unfortunately, we witnessed a restoration period instead. There was big scaffolding standing along the walls which did not allow us to enjoy the potential of the fresco decoration. In spite of these complications there were some well recognisable scenes from the Marian cycle in the south apse and depictions of benefactors to the church in the west apse being essential for dating. The day was coming to an end, and so we made our way from the wild surroundings of Ateni Sioni to Kutaisi.

On the last morning of our excursion we went to see the city market place which was doubtless interesting cultural experience. We fortified ourselves with the local roast or stewed meat and set off for the last stop of our adventure (not only) relating to art history. To be more concrete we headed for St. George’s monastery in a small village called Ubisi. It was founded in 9th century, and today there is a single-nave church of little interest left of it when seen from afar. A kind of disappointment the feeling of which we might have experienced when seeing the exterior of the church was replaced by enthusiasm right away on entering its interior. There we came across well-preserved fresco decoration from late 14th century. Its part were, apart from others, episodes from St. George’s life, scenes from the life of Christ or those of Pantocrator dominating the apse and finishing the succession of Christ’s faces being depicted in the east-west vault axis of the church.  After having an opulent snack on the bank of the local river we made our way back to Kutaisi. In early morning hours we got to the airport and subsequently left Georgia at 6.30 a.m. of the local time.

The one-week excursion to Georgia was one of the tightest and the most physically demanding excursions I have taken part in so far on the occasion of the expeditions organised by the Center for Early Medieval Studies. In a few days we practically travelled the length and breadth of Georgia.  We saw the Caucasus in the north, deserts in the south and Stalin somewhere in between. The reward for our endurance and determination was enormous, though. We were undoubtedly amazed by the cultural wealth of this country, and the knowledge and also the visual experience we had gained there will never leave us.

Martin Lešák