The Svetitskhoveli Cathedral literally the Cathedral of the Living Pillar is an Eastern Orthodox cathedral located in the historic town of Mtskheta, Georgia, to the northwest of the Georgian capital Tbilisi. A masterpiece of the Early Middle Ages, Svetitskhoveli is recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. It is currently the second largest church building in Georgia, after the Holy Trinity Cathedral.
Known as the burial site of Christ's mantle, Svetitskhoveli has long been one of the principal Georgian Orthodox churches and is among the most venerated places of worship in the region. The present structure was completed in 1029 by the medieval Georgian architect Arsukisdze, although the site itself dates back to the early fourth century. Svetitskhoveli is considered an endangered cultural landmark; it has survived a variety of adversities, and many of its priceless frescoes have been lost due to being whitewashed by the Russian Imperial authorities.
A 2010 UNESCO report has found that structural issues threaten the overall stability of the cathedral.
The original church was built in 4th century A.D. during the reign of Mirian III of Kartli (Iberia). St. Nino is said to have chosen the confluence of the Mtkvari (Kura) and Aragvi rivers as the place of the first Georgian Church.
According to Georgian hagiography, in the 1st century AD a Georgian Jew from Mtskheta named Elioz was in Jerusalem when Jesus was crucified. Elioz bought Jesus’ robe from a Roman soldier at Golgothaand 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. The place where Sidonia is buried with Christ's robe is preserved in the Cathedral. Later, from her grave grew an enormous cedar tree.
When the disciples of Christ cast lots after Pentecost, the lot for evangelizing Georgia fell to the Most Holy Theotokos. But Christ revealed to His Mother that it was not His will for her to preach there. “You have been entrusted to protect the Georgian nation,” He said, “but the role of evangelizing that land belongs to My disciple Andrew the First-called. Send him with an image of your face “not Made By Hands” to protect the Georgian people to the end of ages!”.
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 originally came from the Kingdom of Cappadocia, where she was visited in a dream, by the Virgin Mother, who told her to journey to a land far to the north, the land of Iberia. In the dream she was told it would be a hard journey but that she would be protected by the cross woven of vines that she was to bind into her hair.
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.
St Nino was blessed by God with the gift of healing and when Queen Nana fell deeply ill, and only through the prayers of Saint Nino was spared from death, did King Mirian turn to the Christian faith. He began to construct a church so that the priests arriving from Constantinople would have a place to serve. Seven columns to support the church were formed from the wood of a Cypress tree that had grown in the king’s garden, the tree Sidonia had been buried below. Six of the columns were erected without a problem, but the seventh could not be moved from the place where it had been carved. St Nino and her disciples prayed through the night, and at dawn they watched as a youth, encompassed by a brilliant light, descended from the heavens and raised the column. The miraculous column began to shine and stopped in mid-air.
Sweet-smelling myrrh began to flow from under the Holy Pillar’s foundations, and the entire population of Mtskheta flocked to that place to receive its blessing. Approaching the Life-giving Pillar, the sick were healed, the blind received sight, and the paralyzed began to walk. By that time a certain Bishop John and his suite had arrived from Constantinople. Saint Constantine the Great sent a cross, an icon of the Saviour, a fragment from the Life-giving Cross of our Lord (from the place where His feet lay), and a nail from His Crucifixion as gifts to the newly enlightened King Mirian and his people.
At the confluence of the Mtkvari and Aragvi Rivers in Mtskheta, the king and queen, the royal court, and all the people of Kartli were baptized into the Christian Faith. After the glorious baptism, Bishop John and his retinue from Constantinople set off toward southern Georgia, for the village of Erusheti. There they built churches and presented the Christian community with the nail from our Lord’s Crucifixion. Soon after, they began to construct the Manglisi Church and placed the fragment from the Life-giving Cross inside.
King Mirian wanted to keep some of the newly obtained sacred objects in the capital city, but St. Nino informed him that one of the holiest objects, the Robe of our Saviour, was already located in Mtskheta. The king summoned the priest Abiatar and inquired about the Robe, then rejoiced greatly after Abiatar confirmed St Nino’s words that the Robe of the Lord was held in the embrace of Sidonia, who was buried under the stump of the Cypress tree which now served as the pedestal for the Life-giving Pillar.
At that time a lush, sweet-smelling, wonder-working tree grew up on a mountain over Mtskheta and, at Bishop John’s suggestion, Prince Revi, the son of King Mirian, ordered that the tree be chopped down and a cross formed from its wood. The tree was chopped down and replanted, without its roots, next to a church that was under construction. For thirty-seven days the tree retained its original appearance—even its leaves did not fade or wither. Then, after thirty-seven days had passed, three crosses were formed from its wood.
For many days after this miracle the people of Mtskheta saw a vision: during the night a fiery cross shone above the church, surrounded by stars. When morning came, two of the stars had moved away from the cross in opposite directions—one to the west and the other to the east. The fiery cross headed to the north, stopped for some time over the hill on the other side of the River Aragvi, then disappeared.
St Nino advised King Mirian to erect one of the three crosses in the west, on Tkhoti Mountain, and another in the east, in the village of Ujarma. But it was unclear where the third cross should be erected, so King Mirian prayerfully beseeched the Lord to reveal to him the place.
The Lord heard his prayers and sent an angel to show him the place: a rocky hill to the north of the capital, at the confluence of the Aragvi and Mtkvari Rivers. At the moment the cross was erected on this hill, all the idols in Mtskheta fell and shattered to pieces.
Perched on a hill high above Mtskheta is the beloved monastic temple of Jvari which is Georgian for “cross”. Jvari is said to be the site where St Nino planted the sacred cross to symbolise Georgia’s acceptance of Christianity in the 4th century CE. Christianity attained the status of state religion of the Kingdom Iberia in Mtskheta in 337 CE. The city still serves as the headquarters of the Georgian Orthodox Church and residence of the Patriarch.
In Georgian sveti means "pillar" and tskhoveli means "life-giving" or "living", hence the name of the cathedral. An icon portraying this event can be seen on the second column on the right-hand from the entrance. Reproduced widely throughout Georgia, it shows Sidonia with an angel lifting the column in heaven. Saint Nino is in the foreground: King Mirian and his wife, Queen Nana, are to the right and left. Georgia officially
Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, originally built in the 4th century, has been damaged several times during history, notably by the invasions of Arabs, Persians and Timur, and latterly during Russian subjugation and the Soviet period. The building has also been damaged by earthquakes.
During the restoration of 1970-71 which was presided over by V. Tsintsadze, the base of the basilica built in the late 5th century by King Vakhtang Gorgasali after St. Nino’s original church, was found. During the early years of Georgian church building, the basilica was the dominant type of the Georgian church architecture before the cross-dome style emerged.
The present Svetitskhoveli Cathedral was built between 1010 and 1029 by the architect Arsakidze, at the invitation of the Catholicos Melkisedek of Georgia. The king of Georgia for that time was Giorgi I (George I).
A 14th-century copy of the aedicule of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre
During the restoration of 1970-71 which was presided over by V. Tsintsadze, the base of the basilica built in the late 5th century by King Vakhtang Gorgasali after St. Nino’s original church, was found. During the early years of Georgian church building, the basilica was the dominant type of Georgian church architecture before the cross-dome style emerged. The cathedral interior walls were once fully adorned with medieval frescoes, but many of them did not survive. In the 1830s, when Emperor Nicholas I was scheduled to visit Mskheta, Russian authorities razed the galleries and whitewashed timeless frescoes as part of an effort to give the cathedral a "tidier look"; in the end the Czar never even came. Today, after much careful restoration, some frescoes survive, including a 13th-century depiction of the "Beast of the Apocalypse" and figures of the Zodiac.
The walls are decorated with many Christian Orthodox icons, most of which are not original (the originals being in the national museums of Georgia). The decoration of the church stonework also features carved grapes (as in many churches of Georgia), reflecting the country's ancient wine-making traditions. The large figure of Jesus at the altar was painted by Russian artist in the 19th century. The majority of the icons here date to the 20th century. Some are copies of older icons and frescoes from other churches throughout Georgia. Two bulls' heads on the east façade, remnants of the 5th-century church, attest to the folk influence on Christian iconography in that early period.
On the right side from the entrance of the Cathedral is a stone baptismal font dating from the 4th century. It is thought to have been used for the baptism of King Mirian and Queen Nana. Immediately behind the font is a reproduction of the relief of Arsukidze’s right hand and bevel found on the north facade.
On the south side there is a small stone church built into the Cathedral. This is a symbolic copy of the Chapel of Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Built between the end of the 13th and the beginning the 14th centuries, it was erected here to mark Svetitskhoveli as the second most sacred place in the world (after the church of Jerusalem), thanks to Christ’s robe. In front of this stone chapel, the most westerly structure aligned with the columns between the aisle and the nave marks Sidonia’s grave. Remains of the original life-giving pillar are also here. It was built in the 17th century. Scenes of the lives of King Mirian and Queen Nana, and portraits of the first Christian Byzantine Emperor, Constantine I, and his mother Helena, were painted by G. Gulzhavarashvili at that time. Traces of the foundations of the 4th-century church have been found here.
The second structure aligned with the columns of the southern aisle was also built in the 17th century as the throne of Catholicos Diasamidze. It no longer serves this function, as current tradition requires a throne for the Georgian patriarch to be in the center of the church. Svetitskhoveli was not only the site of the coronation of the Georgian kings but also served as their burial place. Ten are known to have been buried here, although only six tombs have been found, all before the altar. The tomb of King Vakhtang Gorgasali can be identified by the small candle fortress standing before it. King Erekle II's tomb is identifiable by the sword and shield upon it. His son, George XII was the last king of Georgia and his marble tomb is next to his father's. Also in front of the altar are tombs of David VI, George VIII, Luarsab I and various members of the Bagrationi royal family including Tamar, the first wife of George XI, whose epitaph dating from 1684 is written both in Georgian (Asomtavruli) and Arabic script.