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«Monumental Georgian Sculpture Fifth to Eleventh Century Bas-reliefs Natela Aladashvili PH.D, Professor, Tshubinashvili Institute of History of ...»

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It is not easy for Westerners to obtain much information on line about Romanesque and

pre-Romanesque sculpture in the East apart from those in the Byzantine Empire. This

article gives detailed information about sculpture from a number of churches in Georgia,

with some useful photographs.

From: http://www.open.ge/art/treasure/stonec~1.htm

Monumental Georgian Sculpture

Fifth to Eleventh Century Bas-reliefs

Natela Aladashvili

PH.D, Professor, Tshubinashvili Institute of History of Georgian Art, Tbilisi, GEORGIA Stone carving is an important facet of Medieval Georgian art. It includes ornamental carving and bas-reliefs, and Christian churches all over Georgia are decorated with basreliefs which are closely related to the buildings they adorn. Ornamental carving and sculpted reliefs were regarded as especially important for decorating altar screens, and open air stelae with reliefs were also common.

Georgian master craftsmen tried their hand in many kinds of relief, as can be seen by the many sculptures in stone and many metal and wood carvings. The earliest Medieval Georgian sculptures date back to the fifth century A. D. and the art form reached its height in the eleventh century. The essay is about Georgian decorative sculpture from the fifth to the eleventh century.

Christianity came early to Georgia - it became the official religion of the state of Kartli in Western Georgia in the first half of the fourth century. There was already an old preChristian tradition in reliefs in time.

Excavations have brought a rich find of small sculpture, metalwork decorated with human and animals' figures and compositions to light. Excavated bas-reliefs date from the middle of the second millennium B.C. up to the Christian times. All that facilitated the appearance of the Christian subjects in stone carving.

Almost inevitably new subjects were borrowed from the early Christian art, especially in Asia Minor. At the beginning of the feudal epoch, Georgia had close contacts with Eastern Christian countries, with Syria and Palestine, and there were obvious ties with art of Sassanian Persia. The first Christian sculptures also echoed the ancient Graeco-Roman traditions, which had influenced pre-Christian Georgian art.

These influences combined with local traditions in early Georgian sculpture. In the early feudal period, Georgian sculpture developed on similar terms to early Christian art yet remained unique. The Georgian masters did not confine themselves to the traditional canons, but developed them creatively. They created their own compositions and contributed to the development of early Christian art.

The Sioni Basilica in the village of Bolnisi (478-493) is an early example of ornamental reliefs. The Christian cross and animal figures ornament mainly pilasters' capitals and interior columns in the central nave, northern gallery, its south-east part, which served a baptistery, and bring outthe basic architectural design. Zoomorphic reliefs are given advantageous places. Traditional early Christian symbols such as two peacocks on either side of the cross, symbolising the Resurrection, the immortality of the soul, grazing deer to symbolise the Christian nourished by his faith, take the place alongside such obviously pagan symbols, like a pair of sitting lions with a running chamois between them, a bear pursuing a chamois (apse capital), the head of a bull (capital of the baptistery), which were well known in the pagan East and, in particular, in pre-Christian Georgia. Several types of rend are used in the Bolnisi Sioni, though most of decoration is flat. The expressiveness and skill with which the animals are depicted point to a long tradition.

The Ascension and the Glorification were very popular subjects in early feudal Georgia, with the Ascension of Christ in the sixth-century church of Tetri Tskaro, the Ascension of Christ and the Glorification of the Virgin in the sixth-century Kvemo Bolnisi Basilica and the Glorification of the Virgin in the sixth-century church of Edsani. This theme was usually above the entrance, a place of honour in the church. This was traditional in the Eastern Christian world, and can be found in churches in many areas: the architrave in the church of El-Moalak (fourth-fifth century), a monastery in Baouit (sixth century), in Egypt, the portal in the church of Khodzha Kalesi in Asia Minor (fifth century), the architraves in the Kanashir and Zebed churches In Syria (sixth century). Of course, compositions differ completely, for though sculptors based themselves on established iconography they introduced their own variations in the details or the whole composition.

In the stone reliefs at Kvemo Bolnisi, Edsani, Tetri Tskaro the figures stand out slightly from the background in clear contours, with a strong emphasis on line and smooth surface. Close straight and bow-shaped lines of the folds evenly cover the surface and give an impression of decorative graphic ornament. Reliefs are relatively small against the massive buildings. The masters apparently imitated the works of other dimensions.

In the fifth and sixth centuries bas-reliefs are used on the interior, and not the façade. But by the nineties of the sixth century we see this tackled brilliantly on the Jvari Church in Mtskheta.

This church is dominated by its façade, whose strongly segmented large reliefs blend completely with the architecture to create an impression of monumentality. The architects ornamented the east and south fronts of the building, which are open to view.

There are three reliefs symmetrically placed just above the windows on the central threeedged projection of the altar apse. They have common features both in style and subject.

Christ is the centre and the visual focus and kneeling ktitors (Ed. “founders”) Erismtavar Stephanos, the Ruler of Kartli, and Demeter and Adrnerce, of the same stock are turned towards Him with hovering angels showing them the way to Christ. In composition with the emphasis on the central panel it resembles a triptych, though it essentially retains the principles of monumental sculpture.

The central edge of the apse on the southern façade has a portrayal of Kabul Stephanos before his patron - saint - St. Stephan the Diacon. The vertical division of the façade is emphasised by a second relief on the drum of the dome, along the central axis, which is supposed to be a portrait of the builder of the church, kneeling in prayer. This relief is no longer in its original place, and the niches are occupied by the very damaged ktitors' group. The doorways are accentuated by purely religious compositions. On a main entrance tympanum, along the central axis, we find the Ascension of the Cross, and on the architrave of the side door the Ascension of Christ.

The sculptures make a harmonious whole.

The ktitors' reliefs are unique, for although some subjects and details show a steady Eastern Sassanian influence, in particular the position of kneeling figures, the stylised spiral hair and beards, they show the master's firm artistic independence.

The relief on the east façade has something in common with early Christian altar mosaics, where Archangels introduce historical characters to Christ, as in the St. Vitalis Church in Ravenna. The somewhat conventional composition in the altar conch, in the Jvari Church it is on the outer wall of the apse and is very original. The artist's independence also shows in his Ascension of the Cross, a very individual interpretation of a traditional early Christian theme in which he adopts it to the shape of the tympanum. The hovering angels have very fluid movement. There is a rhythm to the folds of the robes and the roundness of the figures is emphasised. The movement of Christ and figures of the Archangels are fluid and their poses are free. All the figures of the composition are well-proportioned and faces and clothes show the plastic treatment of the stone surface.

These features, which distinguish Jvari from the rather flat earlier reliefs, show a creative approach to the Hellenic tradition.

The Jvari reliefs place Georgian sculpture among the best in sixth-seventh century early feudal art.

The façade of the Sioni Church in Ateni (seventh century) too is decorated with basreliefs.

The early seventh century church in Martvili has very different reliefs from the Jvari Church. Here the subjects are made into a whole in two decorative friezes along the three-edged apses of the east and west façades. Ornamental branches, leaves and bunches of grapes, frame and unite them all.

The reliefs have obvious semantic affinity. The compositions of the west frieze show warrior-saints defeating a man and a snake, Samson conquering a lion, the Ascension of Christ, Daniel in the Lion's Den, and express the victory of good over evil and, altogether, symbolise the triumph of Christianity.

The bas-reliefs in Martvili are sculpture-like, with smooth contours, but details lack fluidity which shows especially compared with the Jvari Church.

Apart from these two churches we find none where the façade is more than superimposed ornamentation until late in the eighth century.

From the fifth to the seventh century, when new Christian art was taking shape in Georgia, there were various trends in style and in the decorative uses of sculpture.

The Greek influence is very noticeable in Jvari and Martvili reliefs, and in the Sioni Church in Ateni, where a creative approach to the Hellenic tradition gives us a more sculptural approach, as compared to the old rather flat figures.

The flatter, more graphic approach is quite common (the churches in Kvemo Bolnisi, Edsani, Tetri Tscaro and some stelae).

From time immemorial Georgia had had close political, trade and cultural contacts with the ancient world, and Roman arts and crafts were much in demand. But though Georgian masters often imitated them Georgian art took its own road. On the whole, the linear, decorative style which derives from Eastern influences and local tradition prevails in the early Christian fifth to seventh century Georgian sculpture.

The eighth and ninth centuries were a period of transition. This is seen in the late seventh century and was still visible into the middle of the tenth century. There was a search for new forms in architecture, and in eighth- and ninth-century churches the ornamentation on façades is simple and even meagre. Ornaments and bas-reliefs are sparsely used, and they decorate walls over windows (in Tsirkoli), doorways (Telovani) or blank walls (as in Ubisi and Opisa).

The treatment of the subjects was much simplier. Decorative primitive images took over from the earlier almost natural human figures. The stone background around the figures was cut out so that while they seemed to project, they did not break the flat stone surface.

In line with this two-dimensional approach, all figures are face on or half-face and often both. Human character was reduced to a convention to symbolise the Idea of the scene.

The smaller reliefs, such as a stela from Usaneti, the slabs and small columns of the altar screen from Gveldesi, and façade reliefs from the Opisa church or tympanum from Borjomi, were done in this manner.

The relief of Ashot Kuropalat from Opisa is the most characteristic example of the transitional period. It is highly expressive and emotional, the head and hands are emphasised by size.

Between the eighth and ninth centuries Georgian sculpture lost imitation aside. G. N.

Chubinashvili takes the view that this was a progressive process, for it cleared the way and stimulated the development of new forms.

West European sculpture was going through the same "primitive" stage in this period between the seventh and ninth centuries. The flat and graphic approach in Germany, Italy or Spain shows surprising affinity.

Continuous development toward more plastic forms in sculpture originated from this ancient stage in Western Europe, and also in Georgia, where it continued into the tenth and eleventh centuries.

The interest in decorating buildings increased in tenth-century Georgia and ornamental carving and bas-reliefs became more frequent. There were flat reliefs come across in the first half of the tenth century and even in the second half, as we see in the churches in Nadarbazevi,


Asavreti, Burnasheti, Shepyak, but other tenth-century reliefs show definite progress in developing three-dimensional forms. Depth of the background became very important, as in the window surrounds in Petobani church or a fragment from a slab from Sukhumi, and figures are freed from the constraining surface of the relief. The edges are more rounded and figures project and contrast with the background, yet forming an indivisible whole.

The "archaic" stage in sculpture is already seen in the first quarter of the tenth century in the relief from Tbeti (the representation of Ashot Kukh, the builder of the church), and becomes more common in the mid- and late tenth century (the churches in Tskarostavi, Vale, Korogho, etc.). Here the squat figures with heavier proportions and big heads are static and motionless.

The themes are mainly religious: the scenes from the Old and New Testament, and portrayals of saints, though historical characters were also beginning to appear. As in the early feudal epoch, they were usually feudal nobles, members of the tsar's family, the ktitors who initiated and donated the building. Ktitors were often represented holding a model of the church in their hands, before Christ and saints, blessing the building, and also on their own.

They are scattered around quite freely. Thus, in Kumurdo, the architect put Tsarina Gurandukht and her brother Leon in the squinches under the dome, while in Doliskana, the Tsar Sumbat, the donator of the church, was raised onto the drum of the dome, showing that worldly people were allotted the place in the upper, celestial sphere of the cult building.

A relief cycle, carved on the western cornice of the Korogho Church in Mtiuleti (later half of the tenth century), is devoted to worldly subjects. The scenes that follow one another in a frieze tell a vivid story about the stages in building - bringing the stones, grouting, carving and processing them and so on. The cycle from Korogho is unique for its time, though the portrayal of work is not unknown in Medieval art.

But in the Korogho carvings the sequence of the stages of building is the actual aim. They go beyond the borders of religious thinking and show evolving of worldly, realistic tendencies within dogmatic, conventional Medieval art.

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