Friday, November 13, 2015

Svetitskhoveli Cathedral and Mtskheta, Georgia

Previous posts:
2. The Fortress and City of Gori, Georgia

Svetitskhoveli Cathedral and Mtskheta, Georgia

Svetitskhoveli Cathedral in Mtskheta, Georgia. Photo by Caroline Carson.
After visiting the city of Gori, our group headed back toward Tbilisi to Svetitskhoveli Cathedral of the Twelve Apostles. in the gorgeous ancient city of Mtskheta, Georgia. 
Mtskheta, Georgia: View from Jvari monastery, photo by Caroline Carson
Now, if there's anyone who loves visiting churches and cathedrals, it would be me! I happily observed that Georgia seems to have more churches than I've ever seen before so I was excited the whole time I was there! The stunning Mtskheta is one of the oldest cities in the country and also one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. It was even declared a "Holy City" in 2014 by the Georgian Orthodox Church as it was the birthplace of Christianity in Georgia. The city itself is a charming destination and seems to enjoy a reasonable amount of tourism. The citizens are very friendly, the food is fantastic, and there are plenty of things to do.
Mtskheta. Photo by Caroline Carson
The way through town to the cathedral is through quaint, narrow streets lined with grape leaves. Georgia has a vibrant wine making history; the fertile valleys of the Caucasus making it one of the world's oldest and largest producers of wine. The region holds the source of the world's first cultivated grapevines and Neolithic wine production, from over 8,000 years ago! Everything I tasted was excellent so I can vouch for quality of both the white and red wines - all research was scientific - of course ;-)
               Mtskheta streets                   
The Georgian Orthodox Church developed several important styles of religious art which are still around today: polyphonic church singing, cloisonne icons, and enameled mosaics, calligraphy, and the "cross-dome" style of architecture. I saw some of these in Svetitskhoveli Cathedral though I did not hear any Georgian choirs or orthodox choral music (very similar to Russian Orthodox choral music). I did hear chanting though and there's a video link later in this post. The cathedral was cross-dome shaped.
Built into the cathedral, on the south side, is a tiny square cupola chapel built between the end of the 13th and the beginning the 14th centuries. It is a replica of the Chapel of Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and was built at the site to mark Svetitskhoveli as the second most sacred place in the world.
Part of the old structure - a tiny Medieval
cupola chapel within a cathedral! Photo by Caroline Carson.
The name "Svetitskhoveli" means "Living Pillar". In the traditional Georgian style of churches, it has one dome atop a descending layer of structures. The cathedral is the second largest church building in the country, second only to Sameba (Holy Trinity Cathedral) in Tbilisi. Svetitskhoveli is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is rumored to be the place where Christ's mantle is kept. Of COURSE it was "downstairs being preserved" and safe underneath the crypt, so no one can see it. I found out later that there are several versions of where Christ's mantle is kept. (Link above and see below regarding Georgia's versions.)
According to the tradition of the Georgian Orthodox Church, the chiton was acquired by a Jewish Rabbi from Georgia named Elioz (Elias), who was present in Jerusalem at the time of the crucifixion and bought the robe from a soldier. He brought it with him when he returned to his native town of Mtskheta, Georgia, where it is preserved to this day beneath a crypt in the Patriarchal Svetitskhoveli Cathedral. The feast day in honor of the “Chiton of the Lord” is celebrated on October 1.
Prayer book with candle wax stains
Another, more dramatic version is here (again from wiki, sorry, BUT I had no guide to tell me anything while there and nothing was in English so.....)

According to Georgian hagiography, 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 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.[2] 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 Georgiansveti means "pillar" and tskhoveli means "life-giving" or "living", hence the name of the cathedral.
Side of cathedral

Fascinating! I really wish I had known all of this history before I went. As it was, I hadn't even the foggiest idea! Svetitskhoveli Cathedral is ALSO the location of a relic of St. Andrew, the First-called's footstep. It looked like the top of a foot was under the glass case. Here, from the Georgian Brotherhood of the Holy Cross, is a bit more about St. Andrew in Georgia and takes us to the point at which St. Nino came to the country.

According to the will of God and the blessing of the Theotokos, St. Andrew the First-called set off for Georgia to preach the Christian Faith. He entered Georgia from the southwest, in the region of Atchara, and subsequently preached in every region of the nation. He established a hierarchy for the Georgian Church and then returned to Jerusalem for Pascha. When he visited Georgia for the second time, the Apostle Andrew was accompanied by the Apostles Matthias and Simon the Canaanite. Years passed and, under threat from Persian fire-worshippers and other pagan communities, the memory of Christ faded from the minds of the Georgian people. Then, at the beginning of the 4th century, according to God’s will and the blessing of the Most Holy Theotokos, the holy virgin Nino arrived in Kartli to preach the Christian Faith. She settled in the outskirts of Mtskheta, in the bramble bushes of the king’s garden. St. Nino inquired as to the whereabouts of our Lord’s Robe, but no one could remember where it had been preserved. In her quest for the Precious Robe, she became acquainted with Elioz’s descendants, the Jewish priest Abiatar and his daughter, Sidonia. St. Nino converted them to Christianity.
Georgian painting of St. Andrew entering the country
I tried taking several photographs discreetly, but everything was too dark. I found the relic when I heard chanting and wandered into a smaller side chapel to listen a bit. I saw this priest lighting candles, chanting, and kissing the icons and THEN......
I heard a female voice chanting in response! I stayed to bathe in the incense, the holy aura of slowly wafting light, and the chant in stillness I hadn't found in the other, busier and touristy parts of the cathedral. It was so beautiful and serene. A slice of a life in an orthodoxy I knew little about, carrying its daily routine to God with care and dedication.
After a while, my wits came to order and I managed to make a small video of the room and the chanting. By then a few other folks were coming in.
Above is the gorgeous main dome of the cathedral, bedecked with  Medieval painting. The cathedral is also the Medieval coronation and burial site of all of the kings of ancient Georgia. At least six tombs have been found, but more are assumed to be there below. Several found tombs are all set before this altar front area. (Sorry for the fuzzy image - soft lighting and lack of camera skills.)
The whole Svetitskhoveli cathedral and monastery complex contains the remnants of a palace and the gates of the king Melchizedek I who was the first Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia, from 1010 to 1033. He is held as a saint by the Georgian Orthodox Church.

Back inside the cathedral, amazing Medieval paintings were on many walls. My absolute favorite one is below. (I love ancient wheels!) I'm not sure of all that this one represents, but the wheel in the center features the Twelve Apostles in the inner circle and the outer rim of the wheel is of the Zodiac! SO COOL! First is a closeup (w/ flash) and then an overall shot. 

There are also other wheels - this Seraphim was to the right of the high altar area. This whole area was blocked off due to reconstruction and restoration efforts.
And this, below, was the best shot I could get of the entire altar painting without scaffolding:
Painted in the 19th Century by a Russian artist
There are several modern items to the Cathedral, including the giant painting above. These give it a timeless quality and accessibility to those of Orthodox faith that visit today. This holy is a highlight and testament to the centuries of Georgian Orthodoxy, Christianity, and history. If you are in Georgia, DO NOT MISS IT. 

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