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Gelati Monastery

Date of Submission: 25/10/2013
Criteria: (iv)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
Ministry of Culture and Monument Protection of Georgia
State, Province or Region:
Tkibuli Region
Ref.: 5843
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Description

Gelati Monastery is located in Western Georgia on the left side of the river Tskhatsitela, some 12km east of the city of Kutaisi and 8km west of Tkibuli. The site is located on a hillside extending towards a plain to the south and south-west.

The ensemble of Gelati Monastery was established by King David the Builder in 1106, with launching of the construction of the Main Church dedicated to the Nativity of the Virgin. The site consists of a group of well-preserved historical monuments dating from the early 12th and 13th centuries. These are three churches: Church of the Nativity of the Virgin, Church of St. George, and Church of St. Nicholas, as well as a bell tower and the Academy. The Monastery also includes several residential buildings dating from the 18th to the 19th centuries. The site is surrounded by a low stone wall with two porches, one in the east that is the current entrance, and another in the south that used to be the original main entrance.

The main church dedicated to the Nativity of the Virgin is located in the centre of the enclosure. To the east of it there stands a smaller building - the church of St. George; to the west - a two-storied church of St. Nicholas and an academy building behind it. To the north-west of the main church there runs a stream, above which a bell-tower is erected. These monuments form an architectural ensemble of perfect unity, its dominant being the main church. Together with the other buildings the monastery is seen as a single artistic entity.

The Monastery is important for its architecture, the mosaics, the mural paintings, as well as metalwork and enamel. The mural paintings of Gelati cover a chronological range which extends from the 12th to the 17th centuries, and it is therefore significant, as a kind of a museum of Georgian monumental painting. Gelati was not only a monastery, but also a centre of science and education. The Academy, which was founded here, was one of the most significant centres of culture in the ancient Georgia. Consequently, Gelati monastery both for its architectural merits and for the magnificent samples of Georgian culture represents a unique cultural treasury and a rare collection of excellent monuments of high artistic value, gathered in a single ensemble.

Entrances: The territory of Gelati monastery is fenced within a stone enclosure. The present entrance is from the east. Originally however the road led to the south porch, where the greatest Georgian king David IV the Builder was buried beneath the tombstone bearing an ancient Georgian Asomtavruli inscription: "This is my abode forever and ever, for I wish it. I have found eternal peace here". The iron gates of Ganja, brought by David's son, King Demetre I (1125-1156), in the memory of his victory, after the seizure of Ganja, are placed in the south porch. In the course of the centuries the south porch was rebuilt more than once, being finally closed and transformed into an annex.

The main church of the Nativity of the Virgin (12th century) is located in the centre of the ensemble. It is a cruciform-domed building, faced with large ashlars. Originally there was intention to make a three-sided ambulatory around the main building. However when the construction was finished, during the reign of Demetre I (1125-1156), separate annexes were built around the church including an annex with a porch on the south and the narthex on the west side. Annexes on the north side were built subsequently during the 13th century.

The building is faced with yellowish limestone. The massive forms of the main church are embellished by the decorative arches in the upper part, on all the four façades of the building. Three polyhedral apses are projecting from the east, of the building. Alongside the decorative arcade, exterior decoration of the church comprises of carved stone framings of the windows and large rosettes.

The interior of the church, surmounted by a wide dome, leaves the impression of ampleness and solemnity. The light is flowing lavishly into the church through many windows. The first floor gallery is connected with the central part by means of the arches. A staircase arranged in the west wall of the church leads to the gallery.

Three doors of the main entrance are located in the west. Entering the church the eye is caught by the 12th-century mosaic in the apse conch - the Virgin and two Archangels are depicted in colour tesserae against the golden background. The frescoes, covering the walls are of a later periods. Alongside Biblical scenes, the portraits of the historical persons are also seen here.

The wall-paintings of the Church of the Nativity of the Virgin belong to the following periods:

- the mosaic of narthex and conch: 12th century

- the niche in the East wall of the North-West chapel and the South-East chapel: 13th century

- the gate of the South-East chapel: 14th century

- the South-West chapel, Southern and Northern arms of the central area, the lower part of the chancel, the upper part of the Western arm, the entrance of the North-East chapel: 16th century

- the North-West and East chapels, the lower part of the central area of Western arm, the baldachin built by the king Alexander III (1639-1660) in the Narthex: 17th century.

The paintings of the Church of the Virgin represent a unique work of art of medieval Georgia. They include almost all stages of development and history of Georgian mural painting. It affords an opportunity to trace back the iconographic and artistic characteristics of painting over a considerable length of time, starting from the 12th century and including the 18th century.

The church of St. George (13th century) is a domed building. Among the three projecting apses, the middle one is embellished with arches. The door and the windows are decorated with moulded framings. The dome is supported by two massive stone columns and apse angles. The west porch was adjoined somewhat later. It bears the fragments of the contemporary murals. The murals of the church are ascribed to the 16th century. Painted chancel barrier is also dated to the 16th century.

To the north of the main church there is a spring. In the 12th century, a stone vaulted canopy on four columns was built over the spring, in the 13th century a room was built over the vault. Upper above there is an open arched part of the bell-tower.

The church of St. Nicholas (13th century) is erected to the south of the main church. It is a two-storied building, the ground floor of which is open on all the sides by the arches. A small domed church is located on the first floor. A stone staircase, built to it later, leads to the church. Earlier one could get into the church with the help of a ladder. This monument is of special interest as a rare sample of a two-storied cult building. The first floor - the church proper - is of a polyhedral form. Its walls are faced with accurately hewn ashlars. The windows are embellished by minute, articulated framings.

The Academy building was erected during the reign of David the Builder (1025-1125). This large structure is lighted through wide-arched windows. Originally the building was supplied by three entrances from the east (one of them is filled up at present). In the early 14th century, a richly decorated porch was built to the middle entrance. Originally the walls of the Academy were painted. Stone seats are arranged along the hall walls. Alongside the lectures, disputes and receptions were also held in the Academy, preconditioning the necessity of building a main entrance and lighting the hall through the wide windows, opening a view on a fascinating gorge. In Late Middle Ages, when Gelati Academy ceased functioning, the building was turned into a refectory.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

The ensemble of Gelati Monastery is intimately related with the development of feudal monarchy and early Christianity in the Caucasus Region. It represents the highest expression of the distinctive stylistic idiom in the ‘Golden Age’ of the medieval Georgia, which was closely associated to the development of feudal monarchy in the Caucasus Region.

The origin of the early political entities in the territory of the present-day Georgia go back to the second and first millennia BC. Kutaisi emerged as a capital of the kingdom of Colchis at that time. The Georgian Kingdom dates from the 4th century BC. From 66 BC, the region became part of the Roman Empire and subsequently the Eastern Roman Empire/Byzantium. From the 3rd and 4th centuries AD, the city of Kutaisi experienced a new period of growth, marked by intensive building activity. The King Bagrat III (978-1014) of the Bagrationi dynasty crowned in Kutaisi as king of Abkhazians in 978 and united Western and Eastern Georgia. The reign was later expanded by David IV the Builder (1089-1125). From 978 to 1122 (until David the Builder transferred it back to Tbilisi, after liberating it from Arabs) Kutaisi was the capital of Georgia. This period coincided with major reforms and building activities. The heyday of the Georgian Kingdom extended from the 11th to early 13th centuries.

The distinctive stylistic expression of church architecture in the Caucasus region developed gradually from the 4th century, and achieved its highest expression in the great cathedrals and monastic churches conceived from the late 10th to early 13th centuries. Due to its location in the Caucasus Region, ancient Georgia was subject to diverse influences from the east and west. Christianity was introduced here in the 1st century AD, and it was recognized by King Mirian III as the state religion of Georgia as early as AD 337. The first Christian church in Kutaisi was built in the 4th century, and rebuilt in successive centuries.

The royal Monastery of Gelati, near Kutaisi, encloses the Church of the Virgin, its principal church, founded by King David the Builder in 1106, as well as the churches of St. George and St. Nicholas dating from the early 13th century. The monastery of Gelati was one of the principal cultural and intellectual centres in Georgia. Throughout the Middle Ages, within the monastery functioned an Academy, which gathered the most celebrated Georgian scientists, theologians and philosophers thus integrating influences from Constantinople and the wider Byzantine world. The monastery also became the burial place for a long list of Georgian kings, starting with David IV The Builder, one of the greatest. The Gelati Monastery has preserved a great number of mural paintings and manuscripts dating from the 12th to 17th centuries, as well as the renowned 12th-centry mosaic, depicting Saint Mary and child. 

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

Statement of Integrity

The nominated property includes all elements that form the historic monastic ensemble of Gelati and are necessary to express its Outstanding Universal Value. These elements include the churches, the Academy building, the gates, the service structures, and the external stone wall that limits the monastery area. The buffer zone delimits the surrounding rural landscape area. It is defined on the basis of systematic visual analysis to guarantee the visual integrity of the nominated site and its surroundings. The property is subject to regular maintenance and conservation, and does not suffer from adverse effects of development or neglect.

Statement of authenticity

The Monastery of Gelati has preserved the material and formal authenticity of all the principal historic elements that justify its Outstanding Universal Value, including the architectural features as well as the mural paintings and carved decoration. Even though the monastery suffered from Turkish invasion in the early 16th century, it was immediately restored respecting the historic forms. In recent years, the monastery has been subject to conservation work that has allowed to valorize its artistic and architectural qualities. The monastery continues to have its religious and spiritual feeling, and it is continued use. 

Comparison with other similar properties

The Gelati Monastery, initiated by the Georgian king David IV the Builder in 1106, was the center of the spiritual life and education throughout middle ages.  From its very foundation it was called the “Second Athos” as the cradle of literacy and the “Second Jerusalem” as the religious center. The Gelati Monastery was the property and burial vault of the royal house. Almost all Georgian kings after David the Builder were buried there.  As to David the Builder, at his own will, he was buried under the stone inside the main southern porch of the Gelati Monastery.

The oldest building of the complex is the large domed church of the Virgin which was built during the reign of David IV. Its conch, like the Byzantine churches is decorated with mosaics where the Mother of God of Nicopeia type with the Christ Child and archangels is presented. The technique of these mosaics reveals similarity with the Antique mosaics and signifies the interest of the king in the Antique culture. These mosaics should have been conceived and commenced and perhaps even completed during the reign of David IV. The width of the dome of this church and illumination of the interior stretches and extends the interior space that at a first glance seems to distinguish it from other Georgian churches. Such difference can be noticed also in the exterior decoration of the building. Instead of the richly decorated facades the walls of the main church of the Gelati Monastery are faced with decorative arcs and doorway moldings. Such approach along with other features (the Conch mosaics) can be considered as the step made by the David the Builder towards the Byzantine  (imperial) aesthetics although with the strong Georgian influence. The grandeur of the cathedral interior is underlined by the mural paintings which have been also saved on the walls of small chapels attached to the cathedral. On these chronologically different paintings (XII, XIII, XVI, XVII centuries) in addition to the traditional Biblical scenes we can see also the portraits of Georgian kings and high-rank clergymen that imparts to the church interior the importance of the museum. 

Along with the main cathedral the oldest buildings of the Gelati monastery complex are: the Academy, the southern gatehouse, the enclosure wall and spring with the ancient water supply system. Later, in the 13th century there were built the St. George cruciform domed church (which interior walls have preserved the mural painting of the 16th century), St. Nicholas domed church and the belfry.  In the 17th century the northern gates built were in the enclosure. In the territory of the monastery there are also monks cells preserved from the 18th - 19th centuries, some of which are of special memorial importance.

The layout of buildings inside the Gelati monastery complex follows the planning traditions of Georgian monasteries. The main buildings: three domed churches, belfry, the Academy are functionally and architecturally independent buildings which are the same time compositionally connected. Within the monastery, the Cathedral of the Virgin stands out by its dimensions and significance. Due to its scale it dominates over the St. George Church located to the east and St. Nicholas Church and the belfry located to the west. The same time it defines the silhouette and stylistic solution of façades of other buildings in the ensemble. The whole complex represents the complete and compositionally well balanced image as if the first architect had designed from the outset the sizes of future buildings and their layout in an integrated ensemble. The same time functional independence of the buildings is well established and represented in their architecture. From this aspect, if we compare the Gelati monastery with any Byzantine monastery complex we will see quite a different picture. For example, in the Pantocrator (Savior) imperial monastery (XII century) of Komnenian  dynasty in the city of Constantinople three domed churches of different periods are built in one line with each other from the south to the north as if for the sake of saving place. The latest - Archangel Michael church of those three churches is “crammed” between the two others. Apparently, in this complex the artistic effect was concentrated on the interior more than on the exterior. We can see similar approach in Greece, in the monastery complex Hosios Lukas (X-XI cc) located at 140 km from Athens. There two churches built in different periods are attached to each other. From this point of view it is interesting to examine examples of monastic architecture in Armenia where in medieval period a different system of construction of monastic ensembles was developed. The Sanahin Monastery (10th -11th centuries) located in the northern part of Armenia is the monument of the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage. Here the oldest Virgin church and later larger church of the Amenaprkich (Savior) are connected by the vaulted corridor. Both churches from the west are surrounded by the vaulted Gavits and, actually, one can get from one building to another without going out. The same situation is observed in the Haghpat Monastery (10th -11th centuries) located near Sanahin (also a World Heritage Site) where in the immediate proximity to the main Surb Nishan (St. Cross) church are located smaller chapels and other monastery buildings.

Therefore, the provided examples make apparent the differences in development of the medieval monastic complexes in Georgia and its neighboring countries.

The Gelati monastery was also the largest treasury in medieval Georgia. Despite the fact that the monastery was robbed several times during invasions, part of the treasury has been preserved up to date and is kept in the collections of the national museums in Tbilisi and Kutaisi. An exceptional example of the Gelati treasury is the triptych of the Mother of God (X century) that had been brought here from the Khkahuli monastery (now on the territory of Turkey) by David the Builder. In the central part of the composition there is placed the enamel icon of the Mother of God (X century). This is one of the largest known items of cloisonné in the world that has been preserved up to date in fragments. This icon was then placed in the large gilt silver chased triptych to glorify David IV and his son – king Demetre I. The triptych also accommodated cloisonné icons and medallions of various periods that make this item a kind of museum of cloisonné. With its artistic significance it can be paralleled with the Venetian Pala d’oro. Today this work of art is exposed in the treasury of the National Museum of Georgia where the Atskuri and Bichvinta icons, phelonions with golden-stitch embroidery and liturgical objects brought from Gelati are also deposited. The crosses and icons and various ecclesiastic and memorial objects of the Gelati monastery are deposited at Kutaisi State Historical Museum.

Together with the cast and painted icons, embroidery and liturgical objects the unique library of Gelati has also been partially preserved through the centuries. It is distinguished by the richness of Georgian as well as Byzantine theological and other manuscripts. Gelati library also preserved the medieval hymns recorded with an ancient Georgian music score system.

Gelati monastery also keeps the medieval ironwork door from Ganja that was donated to the monastery by the king Demetre I after conquering the city.

Gelati monastery had been the significant educational centre. In the academy functioning here the students were taught secular sibjects (antique literature and philosophy, math, music) along with religious disciplines. This was also the centre where the works of theology and philosophy were written and translated. Gelati was known for handwriting and miniatures and has kept high its status as the centre of the book art for centuries.

The Gelati monastery complex by its historical and architectural diversity is the monument of Georgian and world culture.