crossI’m not great at needlework. I can’t paint. I don’t have the patience to bead. Pottery, ceramics, and mosaics are beyond my reach, artistic wise. But I can make a St Brigid’s Cross. Or at least I could … when I was in primary school. But even now I can see in my mind’s eye how it’s done. Not the most complicated thing in the world to make, but a skill I’m somewhat proud of.

I’ve long had a fascination with crosses and the stories behind them and get positively excited when I happen on one I’ve not seen before. Yup it doesn’t take much to rock my world.

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Georgian Cross at Bagrati Cathedral

I’d never heard of the Georgian Cross, aka St Nino’s Cross or the Grapevine Cross. Apparently, it dates back to the 4th Century and is a major symbol in the Georgian Orthodox Church.

St Nino, a woman from Cappadocia, came to Iberia to preach Christianity. As the story goes, Our Lady appeared to her en route and gave her a cross made from two grapevines. To make it even more secure, St Nino tied it in the middle  with strands of her own hair. Now, grapevines, being the flexible beasts that they are, don’t hold their shape very well so in time, the horizontal vine began to droop, giving it its familiar look.

The cross has a long history.

According to traditional accounts, the cross of St Nino was kept at Svetitskhoveli Cathedral in Mtskheta until 541. During the Persianinvasions it was taken to Armenia and stayed there until David IV of Georgia recovered the Armenian city of Ani from the Muslims in 1124, and brought the cross to Mtskheta. King Vakhtang III of Georgia (1303-1307) enshrined the cross in a special envelope, decorated with the scenes from St. Nino’s life. During the 1720s, when Georgia was subjected to a Persian and Ottoman invasions, the cross was taken to safer areas, to Ananuri in highland Georgia. From there, the Georgian bishop Timothy brought the cross to the emigre Georgian princeBakar, residing in Moscow and then in Lyskovo. The Georgian king Erekle II tried to recover the relic for Georgia from Bakar’s family, to no avail. In 1801, Bakar’s grandson George presented the cross to the Russian tsar Alexander I who returned it to Georgia in 1802 on the occasion of Georgia’s incorporation within the Russian Empire.[1]

Today it can be seen in Tbilisi’s Sioni Cathedral. A reason to visit Tbilisi, if ever there was one.

Georgian Cross at Gelati Monastery

Georgian Cross at Gelati Monastery

I stumbled on two while in Georgia: a simple, more faithful copy of the original in Bagrati Cathedral, and another, more ornate one in Gelati Monastery. And I tried, unsuccessfully, to buy a small replica for myself in silver or wood. But among the mass of religious items on sale everywhere, there wasn’t a cross to be found.  Any entrepreneurs out there?


A pilgrimage … of sorts

Bagrati Cathedral looms over the city of Kutaisi like a proud parent wondering how her child will turn out. It can be seen from any street in the city, and being on a hill, getting to it requires a climb. We cheated. We took the cablecar across the river up to the leisure park and walked from there.

IMG_5286 (800x600)IMG_5293 (800x600)Ignoring the many taxis vying for business, we decided to walk, to get a feel for the neighbourhood. And it was worth it. I mentioned before that the faded metalwork is gorgeous. And I’ve written before about my fascination with doors and how I staccatoed a lot of smooth walks by stopping to take pictures of doors in Morocco. This fascination was challenged by a new one in Kutaisi – gates. The colours are simply amazing. The newer ones, the ones that were bright and sparkly weren’t nearly as attractive. I was in my element.

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IMG_5298 (600x800)A tad concerning were the gas pipes which run along the streets. On the one hand, leaks are easily discovered and fixed. On the other, you have to wonder at the damage a stray match might do. The meters look like they’ve seen a few winters. Some new houses have been built in what seems to be a very old neighbourhood and they, like the sparkly newly painted gates, instead of looking impressive, look like fakes. Gentrification can’t be too far away, but I hope that the ‘hood manages to hold on a while longer.

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We eventually got to the cathedral. Built in the tenth century by Bagratt III, it was blown up by Ottoman invaders seven centuries later. Reconstruction took more than 50 years and finished in 2012. So it’s sort of new.

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BT Bagratti2 (800x589)IMG_5329 (600x800)IMG_5318 (600x800)There was some sort of service going on  with lots of people coming and going. There was a choir in the corner – half a dozen old dears singing their hearts out. Lots of young people, girls in particular, went through the rituals that are so alien to me.

No matter how long I stood and watched, I could see no pattern. There were repeated signs of the cross and a lot of kissing of various relics and pictures. And there was a lot of candle lighting. That part I was fine with. Some day, someone will have to explain it all to me. But despite the pomp and ceremony, the walking in and out, the brandishing of candelabra, there was a palpable sense of devotion.

The silent reverence that I’m used to felt a little shallow. In Bagrati, people seemed to live their faith, to treat their church as if it were their home.  A graduation group posed for photographers in front of the altar, only scolded when they stood on a rug that wasn’t for standing on. And all this as the service continued. It was confusing. It was impressive. It was quite something else. The bells rang  as we left and looking up at the bell tower, we saw the man in action. Special.

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IMG_5371 (600x800)The view from above is quite breathtaking. The traffic of visitors in and out looked set to continue for a while yet. It’s open till at least 9pm and possibly longer, depending on who’s there. I could have stayed for hours, but there was still a city to see.  Following Giorgio’s directions, we found our set of steep steps and accompanied by chickens, made our way back into town without falling foul of loose stones and shakey guard rails. All part of the experience and every step of it worthwhile.  Some photos for you:

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