Of all the arts that have been developed and practiced throughout Georgian history, none surpasses architecture as an expression of the nation's artistic vision and heritage. It is difficult to know whether this phenomenon is a direct result of the Georgians affinity for and skill with stone, whether its springs from certain edicts of Eastern Orthodoxy that inhibited sculptural representation,
or whether it evolved from a people's need to build and rebuild monuments to their nation and their faith in the face of ceaseless incursions and conquerors. Whatever the underlying reason for such a magnificent 1,300-year tradition, the traveler to Georgia cannot but be amazed at the degree of artistry and creativity that gave birth to these treasures.
The vagaries of fate, or perhaps the conscious will of the divine, have left us many times more ecclesiastic buildings than secular ones by which to trace the flourishing of Georgian architectural genius. Every indication suggests, however, that secular and ecclesiastical buildings sprang from the same native roots and share many features in common.
Georgian scholars generally agree that the famous cupola structures that dominate Georgian ecclesiastic architecture can be traced to domestic dwellings with circular floor plans that date as far back as the fourth to third millennium BC. These dwellings ultimately evolved into the darbazi structures that have survived into modern times. Their significance lay in the transition of the square substructure into a beehive dome.
Sioni Urbnisi (VI-VII cc)
Two major forms of ecclesiastic building developed in Georgia; the central domed structure and the basilica. The basilica form came to Georgia primarily through the influence of the Roman and Hellenistic worlds. Its reformulation in Georgia was a blend of Syrian influences as well as local traditions of construction found in prefeudal secular structures: markets, country halls, audience chambers. The basilica itself has two forms in Georgia. The three-aisled basilica is without a transept and, shaped like a hall, has middle and side naves of the same height covered by a common gabled ceiling. The only surviving example is the Sioni basilica at Bolnisi. Variations on this style that are contemporary with Bolnisi or of a somewhat later date do exist but in not so pure a form (Anchiskhati, Urbnisi). The second form, which evolved out of the first in the late sixth century and exists only in Georgia, is the triple-church basilica. This basilica is also without a transept, but - unlike the three-aisled basilica in which side naves are linked to the central nave by arcades - the side naves are shut off from the central aisle by walls and access is only through doors. Although all three aisles were barrel-vaulted, they were cut off from one another, essentially creating three "separate" churches. In addition, the middle room was two to three times higher and wider than the side rooms. Kvemo Bolnisi is an excellent sixth-century example and a higher degree of refinement is evident at Nekresi in the seventh century.
Khintsvisi (XII-XIIi cc.)
The second form of building that appeared in Georgia in the early feudal period and evolved into many complex variations was the central domed structure. Domed churches had already achieved a clearly individualized profile by the fifth century, although no fourth-century examples survived. Devoid of a dominant main axis, the central section was either square or hexagonal in shape. (Later types such as the cross cupola churches developed from these). The substructure acted as a base upon which the drum and ultimately the cupola rested. The transition from the room shape to the circular drum was achieved through the use of squinches. Squinches are small arches that grow wider as they project in concentric arches across the interior corners of a square or polygonal room. In Georgia this technology reached a high degree of sophistication early on. The pendentive is a kind of pandrel or triangular area at the corners of a square or polygonal room used to achieve the same effect as the squinch.
Variations on the central domed church appeared in the sixth and seventh centuries. termed "free-cross"churches, they are cruciform in plan. One variety (Idleti, from the sixth century, and Samtsverisi, from the seventh century) is characterized by having the north, south, and west sections of the cross of the cross end in a quadrate and the eastern apse in a horseshoe. Another variation, also developed in the sixth century and extended in subsequent centuries into highly diverse formulations, was the tetraconch configuration (imagine a square surrounded by a clover leaf). The sixth-century Church of Dzveli-Gavazi is one of its oldest examples. The cathedral of Ninotsminda (sixth century) is the earliest large centralized ecclesiastical building that has survived.
The turn of the seventh century was an epoch of extraordinary architectural achievement, as the early tentative forms with which Georgian architects struggled to achieve their vision found harmonious completion. The tetraconch Church of Jvari is perhaps the shining example of this artistic triumph. original in design and conception, it soon became a model for many other architects. Sioni Ateni, Dzveli Shuamta, Martvili, and Dranda are all churches classified as of the Dzhvari type.
Although the second half of the seventh century brought the Arab invasion of Georgia, the consensus of scholars is that the base had already been laid for the further expression of a decidedly Georgian aesthetic. Georgian architects moved away from city centers to work for individual rulers in the countryside. They thus felt free of the constraints of the classical rules that had governed previous building. As such, the eighth and ninth centuries were an interesting transitional period, a time of experimentation in which certain hybrid forms were achieved; for example, the fusion of the central domed church and the triple-church basilica. The most notable surviving successes of this kid include the domed Church of Vachnadziani and the double-domed Church of Kvelatsminda at Gurjaani. These buildings served as important stepping-stones to the triumphs in grand-scale building that were to come in the greatest period of the Georgian architectural tradition: from the tenth to the thirteenth centuries.
In this epoch no single structural element came to dominate in a way that deflected an appreciation of the whole by absorption with details. the pendentive replaced the squinch as the means of choice for making the transition from the square substructure to the drum. the consequent increase in fluidity largely eliminated any vestiges of ponderousness that might have been felt in the interior. Exterior ornamentation reached a supreme level of artistic confidence. fanciful use of a wide variety of motifs - animal, vegetal and geometric - worked in conjunction with architectonic devices to render a harmonious and powerful organic totality.
The Golden Age of Georgian culture came to an abrupt end with the invasion by the Mongols in the 1240s. The most important building constructed under Mongol domination occurred in the province of Samtskhe under the rule of the Jakeli family. Through clever political stratagems, the clan leader, Sargis Jakeli managed to stay on the right side of the Mongol khan, thereby managing to found the large domed church of Zarzma in the early 1300. This structure and a very similar church at Sapara are throwbacks to models from 100 years earlier, as was the case with other structures going up in other provinces throughout Georgia at this time. The particular brand of Georgian creativity that had flourished from the tenth to the early thirteenth centuries was in decline.
Despite many attempts by Georgia to throw off foreign dominance, Iranian influence was the strongest new element in Georgian architecture from the end of the fifteenth through the seventeenth centuries, Brick became the building material favored over stone, and the arrangement of bricks into patterns is distinctly Islamic, although the Georgians adapted the technique to serve their own Christian iconography. The province of Kakheti possesses the greatest number of excellent examples of Islamic-influenced architecture. The citadel of Gremi and the bell tower of Ninotsminda are superb examples of Georgian interpretation of Persian tastes.
With Georgia's incorporation into the Russian Empire in the nineteenth century, Russian neo-Classicism came to Tbilisi with a missionary fury. (The three-storey bell tower across form Sioni Cathedral, erected in 1812, is the oldest example). Georgian culture was too strong, however, not to influence the Russians' strict notions of classical order. Seduced by the charms of the Caucasus, the Russians' desire to impose a foreign aesthetic faltered: the resulting hybrids found in Tbilisi are one of the principal architectural joys of that city.
During the twentieth century, Georgia did not escape the self-aggrandizing piles that marked the Stalinist era. Many municipal ad state buildings were constructed in the 1950s to cow an already sorely tried populace into fearing the power of government. Although a tour of Georgia's outstanding contemporary buildings would not take up much time, one building, the Ministry for Highways in Tbilisi demonstrates that architectural creativity is alive and well in the land.
The Georgian Church in Bethlehem (4th century)
The Church of Gavazi (4th century) in Akhalsopeli (Kvareli district of Kakheti region)
Akaurta Church (5th century) in Bolnisi district (Kvemo Kartli region)
Ikalto Monastery complex (5th-7th centuries) (Kakheti)
Jvari Monastery (6th century)
Sioni church (5th century) in Bolnisi
Monastery of Shio Mghvime (6th century)
Davidgareja Monastery complex (6th-7th centuries)
Jvari Monastery in Mtskheta (6th century)
Anchiskhati Church (6th century) in Tbilisi
Nekresi Monastery Complex (4th-9th centuries) in Kakheti
Sioni church (7th century) in Ateni
Petritsoni Monastery in Bulgaria (11th century)
The Georgian Monastery (10th century) on the Black Mountain in Syria
The Georgian Iveron Monastery on Athos (10th century)
Svetitskhoveli Cathedral in Mtskheta (10th century)
Anchiskhati Church (6th century)
Opiza Monastery (10th century) in Tao-Klarjeti (now territory of Turkey)
Monastery Doliskana (10th century) in Tao-Klarjeti (now territory of Turkey)
Monastery Otkhta-Eklesia in Tao-Klarjeti (now territory of Turkey)
Oshki Monastery (10th century) in Tao-Klarjeti (now territory of Turkey)
Gelati Monastery (11th century) in Kutaisi
Sioni Cathedral (11th century) in Tbilisi
Alaverdi church (11th century) in Kakheti
Monastery Samtavro (12th century) in Mtskheta
Vardzia Monastery (12th century) in Meskheti