Saint Nino and the mystic light

External wall of Samtavro Monastery, opposite St. Nino’s former cell

“My eyes are dimmed, and you see the light?” They answered: “We see it bright, the light of the sun.”

The feast of St. Nino (წმინდა ნინო) (Kolastra ca. 296 – ca. 338), so venerated is she by the Georgian Orthodox church, is celebrated twice a year. The first occurs on 27 January, and the second is today, June the first.

St. Nino arrived from Constantinople to Georgia (or as it was called then, Iberia) to preach the Christian faith and to convert the country. According to tradition, she is from the Cappadocian town of Kolastra, and some sources consider her to be a relative of St. George. They attribute to her the conversion of Queen Nana and later of King Mirian III of Iberia.

Image of St. Nino in a South Georgian village church

“I see my daughter, your power is equal to the power of a lioness, which roars louder than any other four-footed animal, or like a she-eagle, which flies higher than the male and encompasses in the pupil of her eye the whole of the earth like a small pearl, and like fire, seeks food for herself, and seeing the food, folds her wings and falls upon it. Let your life be like this, guided by the Holy Spirit!” (ქართლის ცხოვრება, 47)

According to tradition, the king, while hunting in a deep and dark forest, lost his way, and found it only after praying to “the God of Nino”.

“When King Mirian went out to hunt in a forest, the sun went dark in broad daylight, and darkness fell on the ground. The king desperately invoked his gods Armaz and Zaden, but to no avail. Then he remembered the crucified God of Nino, and he asked His help, and there was light. The God of Nino gave back the light to the sun.” The version of this tale by the monk Arsen adds: “Suddenly darkness fell on King Mirian, he fell to the ground, and could not continue his way. His hunting fellows kept seeing the bright light of the sun, and they went on, but the king was paralyzed, he was caught by a strange blindness, and he was seized with terror and fear of death.”

The scene of the hunt on the Holy Pillar of the cathedral of Mtskheta

As in Dante’s Divina Commedia, the dark forest is the representation of a life (and of the kingdom of Kartli/Iberia), that lacks the light of Christ, which is symbolized with the sun. King Miriam and his kingdom had so far lived in darkness, putting their confidence in false gods.

The conversion to the true light allows them to see the sun at midnight, “the sun of truth in the middle of the night”.

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
ché la diritta via era smarrita.

Ahi quanto a dir qual era è cosa dura,
esta selva selvaggia e aspra e forte,
che nel pensier rinova la paura!

Tant’è amara che poco è più morte;
ma per trattar del ben ch’i’ vi trovai,
dirò de l’altre cose ch’i’ v’ho scorte.

Io non so ben ridir com’i’ v’intrai,
tant’era pien di sonno a quel punto
che la verace via abbandonai.
Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.

Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say
What was this forest savage, rough, and stern,
Which in the very thought renews the fear.

So bitter is it, death is little more;
But of the good to treat, which there I found,
Speak will I of the other things I saw there.

I cannot well repeat how there I entered,
So full was I of slumber at the moment
In which I had abandoned the true way.

(Dante Alighieri, Inferno I, 1-12, translation by H. W. Longfellow)

At the time of his conversion, St. Paul also sees a bright light:

“About noon as I came near Damascus, suddenly a bright light from heaven flashed around me. I fell to the ground and heard a voice say to me, ‘Saul! Saul! Why do you persecute me?’ “‘Who are you, Lord?’ I asked. “ ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting,’ he replied. My companions saw the light, but they did not understand the voice of him who was speaking to me. “‘What shall I do, Lord?’ I asked. “ ‘Get up,’ the Lord said, ‘and go into Damascus. There you will be told all that you have been assigned to do.’ My companions led me by the hand into Damascus, because the brilliance of the light had blinded me. “A man named Ananias came to see me. He was a devout observer of the law and highly respected by all the Jews living there. He stood beside me and said, ‘Brother Saul, receive your sight!’ And at that very moment I was able to see him. “Then he said: ‘The God of our ancestors has chosen you to know his will and to see the Righteous One and to hear words from his mouth. You will be his witness to all people of what you have seen and heard. 16 And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name.’ (Acts, 22:3-16)

“He who was unable to see the light in the middle of the day, became able to see it in the darkness of the night. […] It is the spiritual light that gives light to the real sun. It is the light of this sun which enters the country of Kartli, the ʻnorthern kingdom’, that is, the kingdom lacking the spiritual sun, obscured by sin, ʻwhose mist covers the highest peaks of its hight mountains’”.

“Near the city of Urbnisi, [St. Nino] met the people who worshiped pagan gods: these personified fire, stone, wood. She joined a company which went to Mtskheta, the big city and the seat of kings to sell their goods and worship the god Armaz. ʻI shed tears and to God I prayed’, said Nino, ʻbecause I saw how this northern kingdom is lost, because it lacked the light, and was conquered by darkness.’ […] Nino, anxious for this people who live in darkness, prays to her God who had become man for the salvation of men, to show them the true light.”

The cell of St. Nino in the former royal garden of Mtskheta, today of Samtavro Monastery

The image of the Georgian mountains also refers to the pre-Christian cult sites and idol statues, which, seen from the Christian perspective of salvation history, cover them with the mist of false faith.

And so it happened:

“As she finished her prayer, a great wind came from the west, a terrible thunder was heard, and great clouds appeared on the sky, which started to move against the idol statues. The people, overwhelmed with a great terror, ran away. The clouds opened up, and hail came out of them. The idols were crushed into dust, and the wind scattered the dust into the mountains. Only the ruby of the helmet of Armaz remained intact. When the storm subsided, St. Nino found it. She picked it up, and took it to the ancient city of Mtskheta, which was intended to become the cradle of conversion. This is how the old Kartli and its old gods were destroyed, but they nevertheless survived, as the idol statues set up in the souls had not yet been destroyed.”

It is no coincidence, that at the beginning of her attempt to convert Kartli to Christianity, St. Nino sets up the first cross – made of grape wood and tied up with her own hair – on the high mountain above Mtskheta.

“The cross of St. Nino” in the South Georgian mountains, and the church of Jvari (Holy Cross) built on the place of the first cross erected by her


After this, around 327 the king declared Christianity the official religion. Thus Georgia became the second Christian country (after the Armenian kingdom, ca. 301).

“Meanwhile St. Nino went to the place where the sacred tree was planted, there she prayed for six days for Kartli, and on the seventh day she returned to Mtskheta. Thus she repeated the six-day work of creation, recreating a dying country. On her arrival, she went to live in the garden of the king. It was a splendid garden, with a tree in the middle, and with birds that lived in the branches of the tree. However, the true meaning of it was revealed only after St. Nino, inspired by the Holy Spirit, gave name to all the creatures in the garden. Thus, the tree became the Tree of Life, the birds the Birds of Eden, who bathe in the water of life, and feed upon the grass of life, and announce that the samotkhe has become the property of St. Nino. In fact, the ancient Georgian word სამოთხე meant both garden and paradise. Thus the king’s garden has become the Garden of Eden, thanks to St. Nino.”

(All unmarked quotation come from G. Shurgaia’s book Santa Nino e la Georgia.)

Easter procession in Mtskheta Cathedral, just a month ago