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© 2000 PAT O'HARA, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
 

As one of the oldest cultures in the world, Georgia has more than its share of monuments to an illustrious past. Most notable are the early Christian churches, dating from the fourth century onward, powerful structures of stone that have their roots not only in the public architecture of Rome and Byzantium but the traditional homes of Iberia, or eastern Georgia, known as the darbazi. The circular floor plan surmounted by a beehive dome structure, which originally was vented to allow wood smoke to escape, lent itself metaphorically to the vaulted dome of heaven in ecclesiastical structures.

Though the cruciform structure (shaped like a cross) was one of the common elements of Christian religious structures throughout the Middle East, Georgia's innovation was the triple-naved basilica, whose three domes share a common roof, such as found at Sioni Basilica (built between 478-493 A.D). Other domed churches include the triple-church basilicas at Nekresi and Kvemo Bolnisi, which feature three naves joined by arcades. Variations followed and evolved over the next century, such as the tetraconch (four-asped) church at Jvari (constructed between 586-604 and rebuilt several times since).

The Arab invasion in the seventh century interrupted this early creativity, but brought new artistic influences into the mix. The architecture of Georgia has often been called Byzantine, but its influences are more wide-ranging due to its location at the crossroads of so many cultural influences. By the era of David the Builder and Queen Tamara (11th and 12th centuries) Georgia's renaissance was well underway, and again the churches were dramatic expressions of skill and aesthetics. The structures at Mtskheta, the old capital just outside of Tbilisi, are good examples.

Paintings, sculpture and representational art were not permitted in early church structures, due to religious reasons, but after the 11th century a more humanistic tradition appeared. Fresco art such as found at David-Gareja and Vardzia are like windows into the past with their portraits of royalty and religious themes. Mural art blossomed too, and over the next centuries Byzantine and Persian influences penetrated the Caucasus.

In the 19th century, painting became a more important aesthetic outlet for Georgians living under the rule of the Russian czars. Then as the 20th century dawned what became Georgia's most celebrated painter was discovered living the life of a beggar in the streets of Tbilisi --Niko Pirosmani, a self-taught sign painter. He produced perhaps 2,000 paintings primarily as trade for drinks, even after his discovery by three Russian artists in 1912. He died a pauper in 1918, and while most of his work has been lost, his colorful na´ve style was once thought typical of Georgian folk art.


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