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The Fine Arts Museum

Art Museum (Gudiashvilis 1; 11.00-16.00 Monday off; admission GEL1.50, plus GEL3 for the Treasury, plus GEL10 for the indispensible guide)

Just off the northeast corner of Tavisuplebis moedani is the Fine Arts Museum, a comprehensive if underwhelmingly presented storehouse of Georgian art and artisanry from several centuries BC up to the late 20th century. Housing the Treasury of gold- and silverware and cloisonne enamel from the Christian era, the Art Museum is if anything even more amazing than the collection in the National Museum of Georgia; the museum also has western European, Russian and Georgian paintings from the Renaissance onwards.

The Museum of Georgian Art was built between 1827 and 1834. Originally a hotel, the building next functioned as a seminary until 1905. A plaque to the left of the entrance once proclaimed that Stalin studied there from 1894 to 1898, until it was removed in 1989. The museum was founded in 1933 by bringing together other diverse collections of artworks. The permanent collection of sculpture and painting from all over the world is enriched by unique works by Georgian painters and sculptors.

The major highlight is the treasury section, which can only be entered with a guide (no extra charge). This contains a great wealth of icons, crosses and jewellery in precious metals and stones from all over Georgia and old Georgian churches and monasteries on what is now Turkish territory. Many of Georgia’s most sacred and revered objects are here. Don’t miss the beautiful little pectoral cross of Queen Tamar, set with four emeralds, five rubies and six pearls – the only known personal relic of the great 12th-century monarch. A visit to this museum is a must.

The museum also has sections devoted to the wonderful paintings of Niko Pirosmani; 19th-century Persian and Azerbaijani art and crafts; and Georgian, European and Russian paintings of the 18th to 20th centuries. The building was once a seminary: Stalin studied for the priesthood here from 1894 to 1898 until expelled for revolutionary activities.

The treasury is immediately opposite the main doors of the museum; after passing copies of frescoes from Betania and Kintsvisi, you'll start with the Treasury. Naturally most of the exhibits are icons, in fine golden frames - many are of St George, who is often shown lancing the Roman emperor Diocletian rather than a dragon or devil, as a symbol of the triumph of Christianity over paganism; St George is also shown being tortured on the wheel. Three-dimensional sculptures of the saints were forbidden by the Orthodox Church, but relief was permitted. Encaustic enamels, in which the colours were mixed with wax, were (from the 6th century) another speciality, reaching a peak in the 10th to 12th centuries; the technique of firing them so that the colours were melted, but not the gold frame, was lost in the 15th century.

Here in Treasury you will see extraordinary masterpieces of Georgian repousse work from the ninth to the 19th centuries. With the exception of the jewelry of the Georgian kings and queens, most of these objects served ecclesiastical purposes, as shown by the chalices, processional crosses, and icons that abound. The pride of the collection is the Khakhuli Triptych, which has been kept here since 1952. Its name comes from the Khakhuli Monastery in Tao (now in Turkey) where the tenth-century cloisonne icon of the Virgin was originally kept. Believed to be miracle-working, the icon was brought to the Monastery of Gelati by King David the Builder and given a new repousse case with pearls, rubies, and cloisonne enamels from an earlier period. The preserved side panels of the triptych exemplify tenth-century silver-chasing techniques. All that remains of the central part of the triptych are the cloisonne hands and face of the Virgin. The background of precious metals has been lost.

The Khakhuli triptych: the head of Christ is a 6th- century encaustic wax painting, to which the Virgin (the largest piece of cloisonne enamel in the world) was added in the 10th century. These, with 115 cloisonne enamel medallions dating from the 8th-11th centuries, were set in a gold frame (with gilded silver wings) in the first half of the 12th century, after it was brought to Gelati from Khakhuli, now in Turkey. The Russian governor of Imeretia, Levashev, tore out much of the gold and jewels in 1859; only the Virgin's face and hands have been recovered. The Martvili Icon of the Virgin, dating from the first half of the 12th century, is of gold with small enamels of the Evangelists in the corners and in the middle of the right side a medallion of St Peter from the 9th century, the oldest known Byzantine enamel. The 15th-century cross of Gori-jvari is 2m tall and bears 16 silver plaques, with reliefs of St George.

The collection has many other highlights, firstly the chalice from Bedia (in Abkhazia) made in AD999, with a fine relief of Christ, the Virgin and Apostles; and the 11th- century tondo from Gelati, a circular, silver plaque with a high relief of St Mamai on a lion. Queen Tamar's pectoral cross has almost mystic significance for many Georgians, as a tangible link with one of their greatest rulers; it was made at the end of the 12th century, of gold set with emeralds, rubies and pearls, and has a 13th- century starotech or holder.

The Icon of the Saviour from Anchi from the sixth century is the oldest extant example of Georgian icon painting; it came to the Anchiskhati Basilica in the Old Town from the Anchi Monastery in southwestern Georgia. The embossed gold setting is the work of the famous 12th-century goldsmith Века Opizari. The Tondo of St. Mamai Riding a Lion is an llth-century silver plaque with masterfully executed embossing. The Gold Pectoral Cross of Queen Tamara dates from the end of the 12th century. Set with four emeralds, six pearls, and five rubies, it is a superb example of the bejeweled splendor with which religious metalwork was decorated. The Golden Goblet of King Bagrat III and Queen Gurandukht dates from 999. Made from a single piece of gold, the chalice is embossed with figures of the Virgin, an adult Jesus, and ten saints.

After the 12th century, Georgian metalwork lost its way somewhat, although good pieces were produced again from the 15th century; from the 16th century icons from eastern Georgia show Persian influence, with floral motifs rather than vines.

By the 18th century emphasis was on secular jewellery; there's a display of the jewels of Katarina Dadiani, daughter of Alexander Chavchavadze, and the possessions of other notable families, including a three-litre khantsi or drinking horn, karkara wine jars with a spout twisted to make a glugging noise, silver fire shovels, David IV's stirrups (11th century), Irakli lis spectacles (18th century), a royal glass stamp, a travelling inkset and an 18th-century Italian marble table. Weapons include Vakhtang VI's shield (18th century), and the sabre of Tamar's grandson (13th century).

From here you can go downstairs to the collection of Iranian art in the basement (including 16th-19th-century miniatures, and carpets), or upstairs to Georgian and Western painting. Although there's plenty of good stuff here, it's a bit of a jumble. Most of the 18th-century works are somewhat naive in style, but in the later 19th century the influence of French art can clearly be seen, as well as a certain amount of Orientalism.

The earliest works are 16th-century icons from Moscow and Yaroslavl, followed by a 17th-century Italian portrait of a senator of the Contarini family, and 18th- century Flemish and German portraits. There's a Winterhalter portrait of a lady (1855), and two Kandinsky abstracts. Russian painters who are less well known in the West include S F Shchedrin (1791-1830), I E Repin (1844-1930), V A Serov (1865-1911) and Z Serebryakova (1884-1967).

Among the works in the collection of European paintings are a 14th-century triptych by the Florentine painter Bernardo Daddi, a polyptych by Paolo Veneziano, Landscape with Waterfall by the Dutch master Jacob van Ruisdael, and The Procuress by the German painter Lucas Cranach the Elder. The museum also displays Egyptian, Chinese, Japanese, and Iranian art. Noteworthy is the collection of 19th and 20th-century Russian masters, including llya Repin, Valentin Serov, Ivan Aivazovsky, and Apollinary Vasnetsov. The first and second floors also contain a significant collection of medieval Georgian stone carvings: bas-reliefs, altar screens, and fragments of carved stone.

Perhaps of greatest interest to the inveterate gallery-goer are the examples of 19th- and 20th-century Georgian paintings. Note especially the works of Gigo Gabashvili (1862-1936) and his contemporary, Mose Toidze. The work of the following three 20lh-century painters is housed in separate museums: Lado Gudiashvili (1896-1980), David Kakabadze (1889-1952), and Elene Akhvlediani (1901-1976).

Besides the medieval works in the treasury, the other most significant holdings in the museum are the paintings of Niko Pirosmanashvili (1862-1918). The sell-taught Pirosmani was born in the small Kakhetian village of Mirzaani and became an itinerant sign painter, rendering scenes of the Caucasus on the walls of wine cellars and laverns. He captured the quintessential nature of everyday life in Georgia by celebrating the traditions of towns and villages in an unaffected, startlingly straightforward style. Georgian admirers of his animal paintings are equaled in number only by those who favor his historical narratives. Others prefer his portraits, and still others his scenes of feasts and celebrations. Pirosmani is revered in Georgia as the painter who best captures the national essence. Certainly, new generations of Georgians have come to define their vision of themselves through his work.

In his own time, Pirosmani was appreciated in the milieu in which he worked and lived: the owners and patrons of the shops and taverns (duknebi). He was never part of the artistic establishment, and his work was not considered "art" but at best a rough and quirky kind of primitivism. Only in 1912, through the efforts of painters Kirill Zdanevich and Michael Le Dentue and the poet Ilya Zdanevich, was Pirosmani's work introduced to a wider public. In time Pirosmani's genius at expressing the essential aspect of whatever he depicted-a tsvadi (shish kebab), a loaf of bread, a shepherd with his flock-came to be recognized. Unfortunately this recognition didn't come until after the painter's death in April 1918. He died penniless in a cold basement that had been one of his temporary abodes.

There's a couple more rooms of works by lesser Georgian artists, sadly suffering from heat and humidity, leaving them faded, dull and drained of impact.

Next door is the 'architectural gallery', ie: a barely labelled collection of capitols, mosaics and copies of frescoes from the 5th century onwards, and photos and models of churches.