Gelati Monastery

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Lara Frentrop

Gelati Monastery was founded in 1106 by King Davit IV (r.1089-1125), also known as Davit the Builder, with the intention of establishing a new dynastic burial site and promoting his kingship. Under Davit’s rule, a number of buildings in the monastic complex were begun. These include the Church of Nativity of the Virgin, the main church on the site; Gelati Academy; a well; and the south gate. After Davit’s death in 1125, his son King Demetre I (r.1125-1154) completed and decorated the Church of the Nativity of the Virgin, which was consecrated in 1130. The complex of Gelati also includes the domed Church of St George, to the east of the main church. The church of St George was built in the first half of the thirteenth century, and later damaged during the Turkish invasion in 1510. A bell tower and the two-storeyed Church of St Nicholas, which is located to the west of the Church of the Virgin, date to a further phase of construction in the thirteenth century.

The Academy at Gelati taught geometry, arithmetic, music, philosophy, rhetoric and astronomy. Gelati was an important centre in the Middle Ages, termed a ‘second Jerusalem’ for learning and the teaching of knowledge and a ‘second Athens’, far exceeding the first in divine law.

The Church of the Nativity of the Virgin at Gelati contains the chapel of St Andrew the First Called, the chapel of the Saviour and two chapels of St Marina. The narthex of the church is decorated with a fragmentary cycle of the ecumenical councils dating to the first half of the twelfth century. The chronologically arranged images of seven ecumenical councils are interspersed with a depiction of the Mandylion and the miracle of St Euphemia. Extended explanatory inscriptions accompany the scenes. The selection of ecumenical councils and emphasis on the council of Chalcedon reflect the dispute between Monophysites and Diophysites in the Caucasus at the time and the councils convened by King Davit IV at Gelati between 1103 and 1123-5, with the latter marking the pronouncement of the orthodoxy of the Georgian Church. The cycle of the ecumenical councils, with its dogmatic and ceremonial connotations, highlights the history of Orthodoxy and emphasises a strong anti-heretical message, including the role of King Davit IV and Gelati monastery and its academy in the life of the church and ecclesiastic unity in Georgia.

The main church of the monastic complex also houses the only complete surviving mosaic decoration from medieval Georgia. The mosaic in the apse, installed in the first half of the twelfth century and restored in the 1970s and 1980s, shows a Virgin and Child flanked by archangels. The rest of the church is decorated with frescoes that range in date from the period of the church’s construction and consecration to later, sixteenth-century additions.
The Georgian Chronicle mentions Davit dedicating precious reliquaries and icons to the monastery, as well as luxury liturgical objects, ecclesiastical furniture and lamps, crowns, jewels and vessels from his personal collection of plundered spoils, to thank God for the victories granted to him in battle. Amongst the precious objects housed at the monastery was the Khakhuli triptych, kept in the Treasury of Museum of Fine Arts in Tbilisi since 1952.

The Church of St George, to the east of the main church, dates to the first half of the thirteenth century and was renovated by King Bagrat II after being damaged during the Turkish invasion. The church was originally built as a prayer and burial chapel for the queens of Georgia and Imereti. The walls of the church were painted in the 1560s. The decoration includes a number of royal portraits, highlighting the importance of the church as a cathedral and royal burial place.

The Church of St Nicholas, dating to the late thirteenth century, is two-storeyed – an unusual construction type for Georgian churches. The nearby bell tower, from the same construction phase, is one of the oldest surviving bell towers in Georgia.

A wall encloses the monastery complex. The south gate contains the tomb of King Davit IV. His tombstone bears the inscription: ‘This is my resting place forever: here I will dwell for I desired so.’ The tombstone is positioned so that those entering the porch have to step on it – a placement allegedly desired by Davit as a marker of humility. The iron door of the gate, was made in 1062 according to its Arabic inscription by the blacksmith Al-Hadad Ibrahim by order of the Emir of Gandza Abu-I-Asvari. The Georgian king, Demetre I took it as a trophy in 1139, during a campaign in Gandza.

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  • I. Khuskivadze, and D. Tumanishvili eds., Gelati 900. Architecture, Murals, Treasures (Tbilisi, 2007)
  • L.Z. Khuskivadze, The mosaic of Gelati (Tbilisi, 2005)
  • R. Mepisashvili, and T. Virsaladze, Gelati: architecture, mosaic, fresco (Tbilisi, 1982)
  • V. Cincadze [Tsintsadze], ‘Arxitekturnyi ansambl’ ‘Soxasteri”, Ars Georgica 8 (1979), 29-44 E. Gedevanishvili, ‘Some thoughts on the depiction of the Ecumenical Councils at Gelati’, Iconographica 6 (2007), 54-60
  • T. Virsaladze, ‘Fragmenty drevnei freskovoi rospisi glavnogo Gelatskogo khrama’, Ars Georgica 5 (1959), 163-203 reprinted in T. Virsaladze, Izbrannye trudy (Tbilisi, 2007), 95-144