SvanetiSvaneti, the highest mountainous region of Georgia, is a treasury of history and art in in the north-west of the country. Especially Upper Svaneti in the Enguri valley has preserved the eldest forms of living and the most ancient methods of agriculture as well as an astonishing chronology of Georgian Christian art. The region was never occupied by foreign invaders who could have plundered or destroyed its treasures. Since in the 9th century churches were built in all villages. They were richly decorated with wall-paintings and supplied with painted and chased icons and crosses by local workshops.
The Georgian Centre for Monument Protection started to restore Svaneti’s churches and wall-paintings during Soviet times. When financial reasons caused this work to stop, Horizon stepped in and helped to continue and expand the restoration activities. Starting in 1997, fourteen Svan churches with their wall-paintings and icons were restored and documented with the help of Horizon. The programme brought work for Georgian specialists who would otherwise lack for an occupation in their field due to the absence of economic funds for restoration in the country. A further benefit of the programme was the support to the nascent cultural tourism in Svaneti, and to bring back the churches to the prayers of the people. The programme started with the restoration of wall-paintings and icons from the 9th-10th to 14th centuries. Later it was expanded to include the study of inscriptions as well as archaeological excavations and architectural reconstruction.
The Svaneti project was born out of the idea to save the culture in a region of worldwide importance. The ‘treasury of Georgian art’, as Svaneti is often called, is a unique cultural landscape. Situated in the mountains of the Greater Caucasus, it has preserved the eldest forms of living and a tremendous richness of Christian art. Unfortunately, with the economic breakdown of Georgia after the fall of the Soviet Union, these treasures were endangered due to a lack of financial means to properly care for them. The restoration project brought together European and Georgian enthusiasts and specialists to organize support for Svaneti and its treasures.
The first important restoration and research programme for Svaneti was accomplished within ten years. The project had the support of the Georgian Orthodox Church, the Georgian Monumental Protection as well as the local population. As early as 1999, the head of the Georgian Church visited the restoration works in Ushguli.
Ushguli, the highest village community of Europe and a site on the World Heritage List, has preserved many towers dating from the Middle Ages and also some of the most impressive churches of Svaneti, such as The Church of the Mother of God (in Svan: Lamaria) from the 10th century, with wall-paintings from the 10th and 12th centuries. Once part of an important religious centre of Upper Svaneti, the church was the first to be restored in this village community where it is still the main church used for celebrating the liturgy.
The Lamaria Church was connected with the other churches of the community, especially when processions took place. One of them, the Church of the Saviour in Murkmeli, was included in the restoration programme as well as its paintings from the 11th – 12th centuries showing the Crucifixion and Baptism of Christ.
Kala – Lagurka, Iprari
The first church proposed for restoration in 1997 is of special importance for Svaneti. Situated on a steep and rocky hill in the village community of Kala, the Church of St. Quiricus (in Svan: Lagurka) attracts Svans from all corners of Georgia to celebrate their most important holiday: Kvirikoba, held annually around July 28th. The interior of the church, once the centre of a famous monastery, is decorated with an extraordinary wall-painting from 1111. Its painter Tevdore names himself in an inscription ‘painter of the king’, indication that he was working at the Georgian royal court.
Tevdore’s first painting in Svaneti dating from 1096 is nearby: the wall-painting in the Church of the Archangels in Iprari, in the same village community, was restored together with the Lagurka painting. It includes scenes of the life of Christ including the Nativity. The expressive arrangement of the representation and the unusual number of four instead of two angels points to the individual conception of this gifted painter.
Kala – Khe
The church architecture of Svaneti is dominated by small sized churches of the one-nave basilica type. Their facades are mostly plain and a few have preserved paintings. Some of them, such as the Church of St. Barbara in Kala dating from the 12th century, deploy sculptural decoration. Entering the churches is always a surprising experience as their interior is exuberantly ornamented. St. Barbara’s Church is richly decorated with a painting that covers all the walls including the chancel. The restored wall-painting and the icons show Christ, the Mother of God, apostles, church fathers and other saints which have enjoyed the veneration of Svans over these many centuries.
The Church of the Archangels, an old chapel for hunters, can be found outside the village of Adishi and surrounded by the mountains of the Greater Caucasus with its icy peaks rising up to 5.000 m. The church had been damaged by several earthquakes. Its colourful wall-painting from the 12th century show Christ in the Deesis with Mary and John the Baptist praying for mankind, as well as scenes of the life of Christ.
The restoration of the Church of the Saviour in Ieli could be realized only after thorough investigation, but the restoration itself also provided new insights. The historical inscription revealed that it was built in the 10th century to create a monastery at this place. Excavations of other churches in the same village community of Ipari have shed more light on the history of this remote valley and gave evidence of the once rich economic and social life in Svaneti, which seems isolated now but had close connections with the lowlands since pre-Christian times.
The largest church in the village of Shamushi, in the village community of Mulakhi, dates from the 12th century, the so-called Golden Age of the Georgian Kingdom with Svaneti as one of its provinces. The Church of the Saviour with its refined relief arcs resembles the architecture of the former southern Georgian province of Tao-Klardsheti (now Turkey). When the wall-painting was cleaned, this revealed that it must have been the work of a professional painter from Tao, a centre of Georgian monasticism and art production. However, he was unable to finish his painting seeing that it has not been completed with finishing colours and lights and has no inscriptions. Although the history of this painting remains mysterious, it proves the close connections between the mountainous province Svaneti and other Georgian regions, especially in this period.
One of the principles of the Svaneti project was the complex research and restoration of churches including archaeological excavations, architectural reconstruction and the restoration of paintings. An example of this principle is the work done on the Church of the Saviour in Laghami, in the village community of Mestia. The original building, a tiny chapel, dates from the 9th century. In the 14th century it was enlarged by a second church above the old one, the original church being used already as a sepulchral chapel.
With the results of the excavations and the architectural study it was possible to reconstruct the church with its 14th century entrance and to find the corresponding methods for the restoration of the wall-painting of the 9th-10th centuries in the lower chapel and the painting of the upper church from the 14th century, which is executed in the so-called Palaeologian style, the last important period of Byzantine painting, and depicts the Maecenas of the painting as well as St. Julitta with her son Quiricus, two venerated saints in Svaneti.
The programme was organized not only in the name of saving art but also contributed to preserving the cultural heritage of Svaneti and to support its people to be able to stay in their mountainous villages. According to this principle, all churches were restored to function. The Church of the Archangels in Pkhotreri was fully reconstructed with its old western ambulatory. The ambulatory, a kind of ‘side-church’ with an altar for praying, is always accessible, while the church is mostly closed. The restoration in Pkhotreri comprised a carved wooden door from the 10th century and a wall-painting from the 14th century as well as icons which are used for the liturgy, such as a large icon of the Archangels Michael and Gabriel carrying a clipeus of Christ, dating from the 11th century.
Georgians call Svaneti their “treasury of art” because nowhere else in their country can one find as many churches with such exceptional wall-paintings as in this mountainous region. The tiny churches and their wall-paintings seem to reflect the beauty of the landscape and demonstrate that this remote region was part of the spiritual life of the whole of Georgia, having the advantage of being more secure than the lowlands.
The restored wall-painting of the Church in Tanghil dating from the 12th century has preserved particularities of early Georgian iconography, such as St. George killing not the dragon but the impious Roman emperor Diokletian. At the same time, it expresses the emotional style of painting in the Christian East, the Holy Land and the Sinai, areas which Georgia had been closely connected with since the country was christianised in the 4th century.
Latali / Icons
Apart from its churches, Svaneti’s greatest wealth is the hundreds of painted and chased icons and crosses which as preserved in the museum of Mestia and in the main village churches. Many of them can be found in Latali, one of the richest Svan village communities. Icons like the Archangel Gabriel from the 12th-13th centuries, an icon panel from the 13th or 14th century, or the Saviour with two layers from the 10th and 12th centuries, were chosen for restoration as rare art objects but also as especially important cult objects of the villages. While the restored icon panel was replaced on the chancel barrier of the Church of the Saviour, the two icons were put under glass to be shown during the liturgy. The icon of the Saviour is claimed to be able to perform miracles.
Some of the Svan churches may be considered museums of Christian art, for example the Church of St. George in Svipi Pari. The church from the 10th century is situated high up in the mountains, with only a few houses nearby. The church has preserved an outstanding façade painting from the 12th century. Its interior is decorated with two layers of wall-paintings from the 10th and 14th centuries. As all paintings were damaged, a complex restoration was necessary. At first, the church was supplied with a new roof to protect the rare painting on the eastern façade representing the warrior saints George and Theodore on horseback with St. Demetrios standing between them. The next stage was to dry out the walls before it was possible to restore the wall-painting of a huge figure of St. George from the 10th century and, among others, the patron of the wall-painting in the second layer of the 14th century. The Ladbashi, the annexe of the church, was reconstructed for local feasts.
Svaneti was christianised later than the Georgian lowlands. One of the first churches of the early Christian period in Svaneti is the Church of the Saviour in Nesguni from the 9th or early 10th century. This relatively large church in the centre of the village was painted immediately after it was built. The restoration revealed parts of this first painting with apostles in medallions placed in the vault before the chancel. Like many other churches in Svaneti, the church was decorated a second time in the 12th century, this time with the Svan standard programme of this period which included all the warrior saints on horseback. Part of the restoration programme in this church were some icons and crosses, including the pre-altar cross from the 11th century. Such crosses once stood on stone pedestals in front of the altar chancel.
Becho – Icons
The restoration programme was planned but it was also an adventure full of surprises. One of those was the discovery of lost icons and crosses in an old tower in Doli in the village community Becho. The former church treasures had been hidden there during the annexation of Svaneti to Tsarist Russia in the middle of the 19th century. Now they were damaged to such a degree that the villagers asked for their restoration. One icon was a sensation. After having collected the broken pieces of wood and chased silver plates, a precious enamel with the representation of St. Mark was found as well as two inscriptions. The reconstruction of the icon brought to light that the find was a reliquary icon of the Mother of God from the 11th century. One of the inscriptions on the border mentions Georgian King George I (1014-1027). Under his rule the painted centre of the reliquary, a miracle-working icon of the Mother of God from Mount Athos, now lost, was decorated with a chased and gilded silver framing to which were added two rows of relic boxes, enamels and precious stones to create one of the most venerated icons of Georgia of the time.