Historical Aspects of the Royal Emblem and the Georgian Stone Reliefs of the 11th Century

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Irma Matiashvili


The goal of the present research is to study symbolical reliefs that were part of the facade decoration in Georgia at the beginning of the 11th century. The reliefs from the churches, in particular Khtsisi and Bagrati Cathedral in Kutaisi that are built as a result of the royal order bear the zoomorphic elements which were characteristic to the period of their construction. Eastern facade of the Khtsisi church (built in 1002) demonstrates a composition with four figures. There, two large griffins are grabbing the smaller figures of a single lion and a griffin. The content of the composition is apparent: one creature captures and owns another. In the Byzantine studies identical reliefs are considered to represent the emblems of victory.

Another example deals with the relief on the porch of the Bagrati Cathedral (consecrated in 1003). It consists of two abstract representations. Despite the compositional and typological differences, here as well, a griffin captures or defeats another figure. Flanked with single figures of the eagles, the composition contains two zoomorphic fantastic characters tightly connected to each other. The griffin in the upper section of the surface catches a hoofed tetrapod with an anthropomorphic head.

Contextually and compositionally dominating griffin is a popular “classical” character of Georgian stone reliefs of that period. The associated attributes give the figure a supreme hierarchical significance. The symbol derives from Sassanian Iran and is related to the Byzantine royal court. Since the middle of the 10th century it appears in the same context on the monuments of the revived Tao-Klarjeti School. Bearing the royal semantics, the flanking eagles continue the same conceptual line.

The reliefs contain one more figure that shares traditions of pre-Christian Georgian sculpture, classical and Hittite art. To understand the context that is synchronous with the symbolic meaning of the representation, one should consider the Islamic tradition of depicting the horsewoman. Muhammad’s horse al-Burāq is a winged womanheaded creature. During the Night Journey it takes Muhammad from Mecca to Jerusalem.

Within the span of the battle against the Arab annexation, when the ancient capital Tbilisi remained the political unit of the emirate, the master who executed the royal order, rendered the figure as a symbol of religious significance. The artist who worked at the cathedral in the capital of the united Georgia, decorated it with an emblem of a king’s victory.

Published: Nov 13, 2022

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Matiashvili, I. (2022). Historical Aspects of the Royal Emblem and the Georgian Stone Reliefs of the 11th Century. Academia, 132–144. Retrieved from https://academia.openjournals.ge/index.php/academia/article/view/3551