Samtavisi is an eleventh-century Georgian Orthodox cathedral in eastern Georgia, in the region of Shida Kartli, some 45km from the nation’s capital Tbilisi. The cathedral is now one of the centers of the Eparchy of Samtavisi and Gori of the Georgian Orthodox Church. You can come here as a short day trip from Tbilisi.
The cathedral is located on the left bank of the Lekhura River, some 11km of the town of Kaspi. According to a Georgian tradition, the first monastery on this place was founded by the Assyrian missionary Isidore in 572 and later rebuilt in the 10th century. Neither of these buildings has survived however. The earliest extant structures date to the eleventh century, the main edifice being built in 1030 as revealed by a now lost stone inscription (An inscription on the east facade, documented in the 19th century but missing today dated the construction of the church to 1030 and named the founder as Bishop Illarion of Samtavisi. He is also thought to have been the architect). The cathedral was built by a local bishop and a skilful architect Hilarion who also authored the nearby church of Ashuriani. Another inscription in the east facade states that the church was finished by a Bishop John in 1168.
The church originally had ambulatories in the north, south, and west, but these were removed. The west facade was restored in the 15th century after the cupola drum collapsed upon it as a result of the destruction of Tamerlane's invasion. The restoration of the cupola drum dates from the 15th century as well. The defensive walls were restored in the 15th and 17th centuries. The church also shows some signs of 19th-century refurbishing. The masterly decorated eastern facade is the only survived original structure.
The Samtavisi Cathedral is a rectangular 4-piered cruciform domed church. It illustrates a Georgian interpretation of the cross-in-square form which set an example for many churches built in the heyday of medieval Georgia. The exterior is distinguished by the liberal use of ornamental blind arcading. The apses do not project, but their internal position is marked by deep recesses in the wall. In contrast to earlier Georgian churches, the drum of the dome is taller surmounted by a conical roof. Artistically, the most rounded portion of the church is its five-arched eastern fac,ade, dominated by the two niches and enlivened by a bold ornate cross motif.
Like its contemporary Samtavro, in Mtskheta, Samtavisi Church is a cruciform domed church most remarkable for the high quality of the sculptural design on its facades. As with the cathedral at Sveti-tskhoveli, blind arcading is used to great advantage to emphasize the verticality of the structure. One's eye is seduced into following these arcades to their conclusion beneath the gable of the tall transepts, after which the progression to the drum and cone becomes inevitable. The whole structure displays an elegance, balance, and harmony that have been retained despite renovations.
The most significant feature of the church is the beautifully carved ornamentation of the east facade. The workmanship represents the pinnacle of Georgian stone-carving, and many of the designs served as models for other churches. Deep triangular niches flank the altar apse window. They are adorned with a fan carving within and bordered by repeating stone rods that serve as a unifying element throughout the facade as they travel to outline the blind arcading. Intricately carved floral and vegetal designs surround the windows and make up the body of the large cross above the altar window and the two diamond moldings below it. Elegantly carved Asomtavruli characters form three inscriptions around the cross. Reliefs of bunches of grapes, pomegranates, and a lone griffin supply added dynamism to the elements. The effect is further augmented by the use of different color stone to highlight certain sculptural elements, such as the green bosses in the center of the diamonds.
The ground plan is a simple and straightforward cruciform with no surprises. The cupola is supported by four freestanding pillars. (The eastern pillars do, however, join the apse wall toward the top.) Mural fragments from the 17th century decorate the altar.
To the left as you enter the gate on the north side of the church complex are the remains of the bishop's palace; the bell-tower under which you enter dates from the 17th century, but the church itself is a unified structure dating from 1030-68. Outside, the north, west and south sides are relatively simply decorated, although the north side has what seems to be a fake clock; the east end is richer (perhaps the best stone-carving in Georgia), with the two deep recesses that are typical of Georgian architecture marking the shape of the altar apse within and the lateral apses on either side. They draw the eye upwards to the incised cross and the dome above, stressing the verticality of the building. Inside, the church is high and bare, with the central dome set on four free-standing pillars that are not quite parallel. There are some battered fragments of 17th-century frescoes in the altar apse, and in the cupola (you'll notice that the figure of Christ is always the right way up for the priest, not the congregation), and tombstones dating from the 11th century. If you want to spend more time in the area, there's a fine-looking fort which is easily reached by a track northeast from the next village to the north.