Svaneti 1. Stones

I am Michael. Saint Michael, archangel. One of the seven who stand in the glorious presence of the Lord, always ready to serve Him (Tob 12:15). I am from the village of Lahili, the gorge of Latali, from the solitary Church of the Archangel of Mkheri standing on a hilltop above the gorge, opposite the village.

I am an icon, molded of silver, sheathed with gold, in the custom of the valley of Svaneti, where paint is rarer than silver, and brush than hammer, and therefore the Byzantine icons brought from the south are here imitated in silver and gold, with such abundance, that even today they fill the ninety-four churches in the valley and the surrounding mountains.

If someone should butt in with, how can I be an archangel and an icon at the same time, he is most certainly a Latin heretic raised on the breast of vain reasoning. They, indeed, have separated the image and the holy person depicted on it since their Council of Trent, asserting that veneration is only due to the latter. But an Orthodox believer does not waste his time with such hairsplitting ontology. For the khoros of the venerable Second Council of Nicaea authorizing the veneration of the holy images states that “the honor accorded to the image passes over to its prototype, and whoever venerate the image venerate in it the reality of what is there represented.” I am therefore Saint Michael, an archangel who appears to the believer as if through a pane of glass, in the form of this icon, for veneration and to anticipate heavenly realities.

It is now eight centuries since I have protected the village of Lahili, the gorge of Latali, the mount of Mkheri, the valley of Svaneti and the whole of Georgia against evil, which ceaselessly attacks from all sides, so there is plenty of work. This was beseeched of me by the Deacon Abram, way back in the golden age of Georgia, in the time of King Giorgi Laska. Whosoever wants to read of this, it is written on my back, or at least I think it is still there, because even an archangel cannot look upon his own backside.

ქ. წმიდაო მთავარანგელოზო მუხერისაო, ჴელთუქმარო, ადიდენ მეფენი ბაგრატუნიანნი, და დადიანი, და დიდებულნი და ერთობილი საქართველო და ერთობილნი სუანნი და ჴევი ლატალისა; და აღაშენე მაშენებელი შენი სოფელი ლაილისა და ყოველნი მადიდებელნი შენნი, ამენ
მე მამასახლისსა ცოდვილსა და დეკანოზსა აბრამს შეუნდკენ ღმერთმან

Oh Holy Archangel of M(u)kheri, not made by human hand, glorify the Bagrationi kings, and Dadiani and the nobles and united Georgia and the united Svans and the Latali ravine and build your building village of La(h)ili and all who praise thee. Amen.
Oh God, forgive me, the sinful elder and deacon Abram.

The 12th-century Church of the Holy Archangel in Mkheri and the Latali Gorge

Truly it was a glorious and rare moment in the history of Georgia when I alone was not tasked with the protection of the country, but was also joined in this by the king and the nobles, and the province of Svaneti, from its lord Prince Dadiani down to the last Svan village, was united. It was such a long time ago, that maybe it was, anyway, not so.

I was created by the icon writer Irakli up here in St. Jonah’s monastery in Yenashi. Are you struck by the term? We, the Orthodox, name the maker of holy icons as an icon writer, ხატმწერი khathmcheri: he is the one who writes, წერს chers, and not paints, ხატავს khathavs the ხატი khathi, image, like the მხატვარი mkhathvari, the painter. There are many reasons for this. On the one hand, this is how we took the term from the Greek, where the maker of the icon is also called εἰκονόγραφος, icon writer, although today this simply means an illustrator, and our master is rather called ἁγιόγραφος, the writer of the holy image. It is true that in the Greek there has never been any separate term for painting and writing, and the painter of secular images has also been called ζωγράφος, “a writer after life”. But the Russians also call him this, an иконописец, with the composition of икона and писать, while they call the ordinary painter a художник, in which someone who has lived for as many centuries as me, still clearly feels the ancient Proto-Germanic term of *handu-gaz, “working with the hand”. True, the icon writer also creates the icon with the hand, even the so-called нерукотворный, “not-made-by-human-hand” icon. But the decisive moment is not this, but the spiritual prototype he sees in his mind or soul and writes on the icon panel, like the writer the text, and unlike the ordinary painter who duplicates on the panel or canvas what he sees, saw or could see with his bodily eyes. This is the intellectual surplus in “writing”, as compared to “representation”. Both create visual signs, but while mere images represent themselves, the characters – just like the icons – point beyond themselves to the meanings of a higher reality. Here I pray the over-learnt egghead Western heretical readers not to bring up the fact that “mere images” are also symbols. I have also read Cassirer on symbolic forms, I know what they are talking about, but I pray them try to understand what I am talking about. Of course, that would take humility, which is not a characteristic of the heretics.

The 12th-century church of the monastery of St. Jonas in Yenashi, and a monk in front of its Holy Archangels icon

While we are at the Warburg school, everyone remembers what Wittkower wrote in Born under Saturn, that the Renaissance painter tried to break out of the medieval category of “craftsman” – which put painters and apothecaries in the same guild, since both are essentially crushing powders – by trying to prove the spiritual essence of his work in a thousand ways, until in the end all had accepted him as a visionary, a spiritual twin of the writer or the poet. In order to maintain his relatively high social status, the “icon writer” also seeks to keep distance from the artisan-painter by linking his own identity and name to the superior writing and the transcendent reality revealing itself through writing, thus becoming a kin of the writers of the Gospels and other sacred texts, a богослов, a theologian indeed. And he can also justify this with a holy text, since the already mentioned Second Council of Nicaea uses the word περιγράφει, “describe” when authorizing the visual representation of Christ and the saints.


Bees buzzing at the hives of St. Jonah monastery. Recording by Lloyd Dunn

So I was created by icon writer Irakli up there, in the monastery of St. Jonah in Yenashi, where now, eight hundred years after my creation, the great road passes. If you raised your eyebrows at the fact that the icon painter working with paint was called an icon writer, then you may as well know that the icon writer of Svaneti writes the icon, not with a brush, but with a hammer. He takes a straight pine board that has dried for seven years. He inserts narrow beech shims into its reverse to stiffen it and prevent it from twisting, and then he carves a rectangular image field into its obverse. On this he roughly forms the body in molten beeswax to serve as the representation of my bodiless person. Then he hammers a thin plate of the silver that comes from the head of this valley, the mines of Mount Shkara. He stretches it on the board and gently hammers out the outlines of my body along the wax figure. My image largely fills the image field, and where there remains empty space, he fills it out with vegetal ornaments, tendrils and palmettes. And on the frame he hammers tendrils and grid patterns taken from holy manuscripts.

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Even so, he does not cover the whole frame with patterns. He leaves the four corners blank, as well as the middle of the frames of the four sides. Why? Because he knew he has only launched the icon on its worldly carreer, but he must also leave space for others so they may add the work of their own hands during the centuries to come.

In the West, it is believed that the image reaches perfection with the final brushstroke, so that nothing can be added or taken away, as the pagan Aristotle says. Such hubris! The icon, as the equally pagan Umberto Eco would say, is an open work, unlike the Western work of art. Ever since it leaves the hands of its maker, it is continuously increasing. Every believer enriches it with his prayers, which radiate back onto his offspring, and augment the value of the icon from generation to generation. God allows miracles to happen through it, which endow it with a sacred history and power. The severed hand of St. John of Damascus is placed on the icon of the Virgin, and henceforth it lives on as part of it, as the third hand of the Virgin. But even damage will become part of the icon’s history. If a Western image is attacked with a knife or a hammer, the owners immediately try to restore it to its original condition, which is considered perfect. However, the icon of the Black Madonna of Częstochowa displays the double sword-slashes of the Tatar bandits on her face so proudly that she even dripped the paint used to repair her wound; and without these scars she can no longer be imagined as the protector of wounded Poland.

And the grateful offspring express their appreciation and gratitude for the icon with a variety of additions. Painted icons are enriched with an icon cover in silver which obscures what is irrelevant and, leaving it free, highlights what is essential: the face and hands of the holy person. And in the icon, which is already made of silver, they insert precious stones for major events and historical turning points. With this in mind, the icon writer leaves empty spaces where the stones will be inserted. The stones are mostly not particularly valuable pieces, rather peasant fairings, but the owners, when meditating before the icon, can accurately recall the story of the insertion of each stone, and these stories make them truly valuable and personal family heirlooms.

This colleague of my age from the Sethi Saint George Church of Mestia has not worked hard for extra additions, although spectacular spaces have been left for them

This 10th or 11th-century Saint George from Labechin’s Church of the Holy Archangels, which, like a true Georgian man, strikes not the dragon but the Emperor Diocletian, persecutor of the Christians, now only boasts one red stone, but its frame, which has not survived, may have held more.

Well, this 11th-century Zestaponi icon of the Crucifixion and Ascension must have worked hard for its money, because in addition to the numerous small and large stones, whole brooches, typical of the 17th century, have been inserted on it over the centuries

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In this series, which is just beginning, we will enrich, over the course of a year, the image of Svaneti, which we received almost ten years ago, with thirty-seven stones, thirty-seven stories, corresponding to the 33 letters of the Georgian alphabet, plus the four special letters used in written Svan. Each story will be introduced by a monologue of an old Svan icon, an ancient protector of this valley and Georgia. And the stories will tell you how we wandered and got to know the medieval churches and villages of the Svan mountains, and what we learned about them, about Georgia and about ourselves.


3 comentarios:

Tororo dijo...

Thanks for this enlightening post.

Hans dijo...

The esteemed archangel is misattributing a word:
the ancient Indo-European root of *handu-gaz, “working with the hand”
"handugaz" is Proto-Germanic, so from a daughter of Indo-European, andiz's not a root but a full word.
It's always easier to nitpick than to praise, so let me just add that I read Your blog regularly and really love the unknown beautifil Corners of the world that you present.

Studiolum dijo...

Thank you, Hans. An achangel may also be wrong; only the pope is infallible. However, I saw him secretly consulting Vasmer’s Этимологический словарь русского языка where he found this etymology. True, Vasmer derives it from Gothic, so it might well be Proto-Germanic and not something more ancient.

Please come back, read, enjoy and nitpick!