Medieval Icon Painting of Georgia

The origins of Georgian ecclesiastical art are associated with Europe and Asia due to its geographical location. The Assyrian Fathers brought with them the conventional and graphic language of the Syriac fine arts. Byzantine art, with its Hellenistic backbone, also had its artistic influence on Georgian art.

According to a legend, the first image to become known in Georgia was the Icon of the Savior Not Made by Hand on a tile, an imprint on a large tile or brick that one of the thirteen Assyrian fathers, Anton of Martkopi (6th century), brought with him.

The Savior of Anchiskhati, or rather, its original dating back to the 6th-7th centuries (it was copied later, in the 17th century), is one of the oldest known icons in Georgia.

The Savior of Anchiskhati

However, it is only possible to actually speak of Georgian icon painting since the 10th century, when there appeared a number of fresco ensembles of significant importance for Georgian art.

The most ancient surviving image preserved in its original form is the icon of the Mother of God with the Child and St. Barbara (10th century), which is now stored in the Museum of History and Ethnography of Svaneti. It is characterized by an almost monochrome, graphically expressive style; archaic types of faces suggest the connection of its author with the Asia Minor centers of art.

The icon of the Mother of God with the Child and St. Barbara (10th century)

The ties with the capital of the Byzantine Empire became decisive for Georgian art at the end of the 10th – 11th centuries. Iveron Monastery on Athos and other monasteries where Georgian monks lived (for example, Hesychasterion near Constantinople) also played a major role in this development. These monasteries became educational centers; they started extensive translation projects; at the same time they became the conduits of new artistic ventures related to the Constantinople art for Georgia.

Georgian culture reached an advanced level of development by the 12th century, partly due to strong cultural ties with several monasteries. This period features several extant Georgian icons, which are of substantial artistic value and which by all accounts were painted on the territory of central Georgia.

Archangel Michael

The ancient beauty of the face of the Archangel Michael with his big eyes, slender neck, shoulders turned, large hand with long fingers – all the beauty and manliness of the face of the Archangel, proportionality and expressiveness of the face and figure – are comparable with the fine examples of Constantinople art. At the same time, it is not characterized by the color of the icon, there are no full-bodied, luxuriant shades of precious paint. The blue chiton of the Archangel on the icon has a grayish tint, while the cinnabar is reddish.

The image of St. John the Forerunner (12th century) also belongs to the same period.

However, the pictorial techniques in Georgia are rough in comparison with the Byzantine ones. The shape of the saint’s body is compacted. The lines drawn in dense black paint dominate the icon.

The most ancient icons of Georgia were related to the decoration of churches, and there were probably very few of them.

The Georgian art reached its true uniqueness by the end of the 12th century. This is the time when the Georgian state was independent and powerful. The style that came from Byzantium acquired greater austerity in Georgia and at the same time was marked by special attention to personalistic traits. A vivid example of this is the icon of the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste, which was apparently painted in Central Georgia as well. Despite a dense multi-row composition, each martyr’s posture is unique and their faces have different expressions. The faces have clear contours but this doesn’t diminish their aesthetic value. The colors are succinct. This icon is one of the best examples of Georgian heritage.

The development of the metal embossed icon had a great influence on the style of iconography – Georgians were great experts in this field. This is evidenced by the slightly exaggerated, frozen shapes, heavy relief, roughness of lines and clarity of contours on the icons.

Zarzma Icon of the Mother of God, 1020s
Fresco from Zarzma Monastery
Fresco from Zarzma Monastery

The heyday of Georgian art was stopped by the Mongol conquest of the country in the 13th century. There appeared a tendency to reproduce ancient shapes and models of distant epochs with the utmost precision, which stopped the development of the style. Some artifacts resemble the paintings of Cappadocia of the eighth and ninth centuries with their archaic primitive style. The drawings on these artifacts are straightened; geometrical lines are prevalent; the few colors serve as the coloring of the drawing, as for example, on the image of Christ the Pantocrator (13th century) from the Church of St. Barbara in the village of He, Svaneti. But despite this, the spiritual density of these images is formidable. The face, the gesture of the blessing hand, the look of the Savior directed into the timeless space – all this makes a very strong impression on the viewer.

The image of Christ the Pantocrator (13th century)

During the next two centuries, only individual Georgian principalities with relative political independence were able to maintain their culture at a high level. Thanks to the Iveron Monastery on Athos, there was an influx of new artistic ideas from Byzantium, which at that time was in the phase of high cultural and spiritual ascent. For the most part, the Palaiologos’ innovations in art contributed to the creation of fresco ensembles on the territory of Georgia. 

The vibrant and intense style of the artists who mastered the standards of the Byzantine art of the Palaiologos period influenced the Georgian art: notwithstanding the conciseness of the existing artistic language of the local artists, there were a number of icons created in the 14th-15th centuries, in which softened emotion and a certain dynamics of the image can be seen behind the rigidness of the drawing and color and some general symbolism of the image. This became a distinctive feature of Georgian art: a combination of ancient archaic shapes, poorly suited to convey emotions due to their succinctness, and the expressiveness of painting.

The icon of St. George, 15th century, from the Church of St. George, Mestia
Archangel Michael, late 14th – early 15th century, Church of the Archangels in Iprari village, Svaneti.

In subsequent centuries, the icon painting of Georgia has mostly been confined to its previously found patterns, but this does not prevent it from existing at a decent level.

Daria Chechko

About the author

A philologist; an author and designer of St. Elisabeth Convent's website; a sister of mercy and a member of the Catalog of Good Deeds team.

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