SVETITSKHOVELI CATHEDRAL, in Georgian literally means the LIVING PILLAR CATHEDRAL. In Georgian “sveti” means “pillar” and tskhoveli” means “life-giving” or “living”, hence the name SVETITSKHOVELI. This is an Orthodox Cathedral located in the historical town of MTSKHETA, Georgia, 20km north-west of the nation’s capital TBILISI.
SVETITSKHOVELI CATHEDRAL, known as the burial site of Christ’s Robe has long been the principal Georgian Church and remains one of the most venerated places of worship to this day. It presently functions as the seat of the Archbishop of MTSKHETA & TBILISI, who is at the same time Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia.
The current Cathedral was built in the 11th century by the architect Arsukidze,, though the site itself is older dating back to the early 4th century and is surrounded by a number of legends associated, primarily, with the early Christian traditions. It is the 2nd largest Church building in the country, after the recently consecrated —— Holy Trinity Cathedral of TBILIS, and is listed as an UNESCO World Heritage Site along with historical monuments of MSKHETA.
The original Church was built in the 4th century AD during the reign of Mirian -3 of Kartli (Iberia). Saint Nino is said to have chosen the confluence of the Mount Kvari and Aragvi rivers as the place of the 1st Gregorian Church. According to Georgian “hagiography”, in the 1st century AD, a Georgian Jew —- Elias was in Jerusalem when Jesus was crucified. He bought Jesus’ Robe from a Roman soldier (it was a seamless one) at Golgotha (also known as the “place of the skull”) 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 Robe, which could not be removed from her grasp and so she was buried with it.
The place where she was buried, with Christ’s Robe is preserved in the Cathedral. Later, from her grave grew an enormous cedar tree. Ordering the cedar tree chopped down to build the Church, Saint Nino had 7 columns made from it for the Church’s foundation. The 7th column, however, had magical properties and rose by itself into the air. It returned to earth after Saint Nino prayed the whole night. It was further said that from the 7th column a sacred liquid flowed and cured people of various diseases.
SVETITSKHOVELI CATHEDRAL, portraying this event can be seen on the 2nd 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 his right and left. Georgia, officially adopted Christianity as its state religion in 317.
SVETITSKHOVELI CATHEDRAL has been damaged several times during history, notably by the invasion of Persians and Timur. It has also been damaged by earthquake. During the restoration of 1970-71, the base of the Basilica was built. During the early years of Gregorian Church building, the Basilica was the dominant type of the Gregorian Church architecture, before the “cross-dome” style emerged.
In the 11th century, the present SVETITSKHOVELI CATHEDRAL was rebuilt (from 1010-1029) in the “cross-dome” style by Arsukidze. The Cathedral is surrounded by a defensive wall, built of stone and brick during the reign of King Heraclius in 1787. The top storey was designed for military purposes and has gun emplacements. The entrance to the cathedral, from the wall, is located to the south. The wall has 8 towers : 6 of them “cylindrical” and 2 of them “square”. Archaeological expedition in 1963, found the house of the Patriarch of the 11th century at the southern part of the wall. Inside the churchyard, the remains of the 2-storey castle of Patriarch Anton —- 2 were found.
The base of the 3-storey Church, is supposed to have been built by Vakhtang Gorgasali after Saint Nino’s original Church has been found by archaeologists during the restoration of 1970-71. The architecture of the present Cathedral, which dates from around 1020, is based on the “cross-dome” style. The characteristics of the style is that the “dome” is placed across all four sides of the Church. The structure of the Church is intended to ensure “good acoustics”. The dome of SVETITSKHOVELI was re-constructed several times over the centuries to keep the Church in good condition.
The basic stone used for the Cathedral is a “sandy yellow” with trimmings, while around the apse window a red stone was used. The green stone used in the drum of the cupola is from the 17th century. The “curved blind” arcading throughout is “unaltered” from the 11th century. A large window occupies most of the western side of the Church. The decorations show Christ sitting between two angels. The original sculpture, on the external wall, has not survived, but was restored several times, most recently in the 19th century.
The interior walls are painted with frescoes, most of which have not survived in their original state. The decorations on the Church’s stonework features ” carved grapes”, reflecting the country’s ancient wine-making tradition. On the south side, there is a small stone Church built into the Cathedral. This is a symbolic copy of the Chapel of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. It was built between the end of the 13th and the beginning of the 14th centuries, and it was erected here to mark SVETITSKHOVELI as the 2nd most sacred place in the world (after the church of Jerusalem), thanks to Christ’s Robe. Remains of the original “life-giving” or “living” pillar are also here.
The cathedral was not only the site of the coronation of the Georgian Kings, but also served as their burial place. Ten of the Kings are known to have been buried here, although only 6 tombs have been found, all in front of the altar.
A 2010 UNESCO report has found that structural issues threaten the overall stability of the cathedral.