GIER: Georgian Icons Electronic Registry

This is a short paper which introduces the GIER, or, Georgian Icons Electronic Registry. I am the voice only of the author, who works, as your program indicates, at the Academy of Science in Tbilisi, in the Republic of Georgia. (The full staff of the GIER are listed at the end of this article.) There are two parts to the paper. One delineates the unique features of the icons in question; the second identifies the goal of the electronic registry.

The conversion of Georgia to Christianity in the first half of the fourth century led, among other things, to an expansion of Georgia’s contacts with the more advanced countries of the Christian East, that is, Syria, Palestine, Cappadocia, Coptic Egypt, and the centers of the early Christian world, Rome and Constantinople. At the same time, and despite the new religion, Georgia retained its close ties to Persia. These various connections helped to stimulate the development of Georgian art during the Middle Ages, and, in particular, Georgian metalwork, which had already achieved a high level of craftsmanship in pre-Christian times, but reached its heyday by the middle of the eleventh century.

Of particular importance are the many chased icons. (Here, ‘chased’ means the engraving or embossing of metal.) These icons are characterized by superb workmanship and high artistic value and are unique from both the iconographic and the stylistic points of view. Their production depended upon a complicated technological process: they were hammered from the reverse side and then modelled into relief by punch-work from the front.

Medieval masters used the same materials as their predecessors in the pre-Christian ages, gold and silver. The well-established techniques of filigree, gold and silver incision, niello, champleve and painted enamel were being developed and elaborated, and the masterly use of these methods as well as their ingenious combination resulted in the superb artistic quality of many polychrome articles. The basic technical processes remained the same, the only invention of the early feudal period being the technique of cloisonne enamel on gold background.

Works by Georgian masters of the mature period are characterized by slender-proportioned figural representations, by superb formal plasticity and perfect modelling of details. Folds of the draperies are rendered in such a way as to outline the body contours and at the same time to perform an ornamental function. Against their background the expressively modelled faces stand out in bold relief. The accessories in the hands of the characters – e g., crosses, scrolls, manuscripts – are both meaningful and decorative.

From the eleventh century onwards, composition of the icons became structurally more complicated and bear witness to the development of spatial awareness in scenes with many figures. The treatment of the borders also becomes different; for instance, as early as the tenth century, the borders of some icons were first supplied with half-figures of saints in medallions. Such medallions gradually become a prominent feature of many embossed and painted icons. Besides, the borders were often decorated with scenes from the lives of Christ and the Virgin.

In the eighth century, Georgian goldsmiths began employing the cloisonne technique in their works. Cloisonne enamel was used, among other things, for decorating icons, for instance, placing enamelled medallions on the borders. Examples of enamelled icons similar to the Georgian ones are to be found in the iconography of Byzantium and Kievan Russia, where the cloisonne technique was well known. Georgian enamels, however, are easy to distinguish from Byzantine or Old Russian examples. The most outstanding example of Georgian enamel-work of the mature period is the Khakhuli triptych. The icon of the Virgin in its central section dates from the tenth century and is in fact the largest cloisonne enamel in the world The chased triptych which mounts the icon dates back to the first half of the twelfth century and displays a décor characteristic of that time: i.e. the gold surface of the mounting is entirely covered with a carpet-like embossed ornament and is lavishly adorned with enamel medallions and studs of gemstones.

During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the most widely-spread method of icon-making was stamping. These stamped icons were inferior to their counterparts of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, however. Even though masters of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries often used the matrices made and employed successfully by their predecessors, they were incapable of achieving their clarity and plasticity of forms.

The sixteenth century saw the reappearance of the well-established technique of embossing and the appearance of carving, the latter being a new technique for Georgian goldsmiths. The latter technique was used for decorating the background and the borders of icons. Many embossed items display a certain measure of Oriental influence, particularly the influence exerted by Persian decorative art of the Late Middle Ages. Some of these icons and crosses of the same origin are inlaid with colored gems and semi-precious stones, mainly rubies and turquoise.

Altogether, some five thousand Georgian icons survive, dating from the tenth to the nineteenth centuries, the majority of them still in Georgia itself. According to descriptions of foreign travellers who visited Georgia in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, however, the number of icons must have been much greater. It is known that during the Soviet regime in Georgia (1921-1991), a substantial number of icons, approximately 30% of those known to have existed, disappeared. These were either destroyed, or, as is thought likely in the majority of cases, removed illegally from Georgia. In 1982, for example, a Swiss museum faxed an icon image to Georgian scholars along with a request for assistance in verifying the date of the icon before buying it from a dealer. The Georgian scholars quickly realized it was one of the icons that had disappeared during the Soviet period.

The idea of the GIER project is to create an electronic multi-media database of Georgian icons. In order to accomplish this, all icons must be registered, on the basis of which an electronic database will be set up. A substantial body of information regarding Georgian icons already exists. In the early part of the twentieth century (1903-1907) the Georgian scholar E. Takaishvili made descriptions of almost all the Georgian chased icons then in existence. At the same time photographs were made of the bulk of the icons. These are preserved on some 2700 glass-plate negatives, most containing more than one image, so that approximately 90% of all Georgian icons are represented (including many of those now missing).

The project aims to digitise all this material, linking the images with the descriptions. A powerful descriptive scheme will be introduced that will both sustain the existing descriptions and allow for future expansion of cataloguing by appropriate scholars.

The benefits of the project lie most obviously in the enhanced ability for scholars to study the icons remotely, but one other very interesting result would be that it would make it easier to track down the icons that disappeared during Soviet rule. Thus pressure could be put on art dealers by removing their “didn’t know” excuse.

The illicit trade in cultural objects is now widely recognized as one of the most prevalent categories of international crime. As an international problem, it can be dealt with effectively only by international collaboration among diverse organizations in both the public and private sectors. There is widespread agreement that documentation is critical to the protection of cultural objects, for stolen objects that have not been photographed and adequately described are rarely recoverable by their rightful owners. Unfortunately, very few objects have been documented to a level that can materially assist in their recovery in the event of theft. Even for objects that have been so documented, the information collected is extremely variable. It is important, therefore, that efforts be made to increase public awareness of the need to make adequate, standardized descriptions of objects.

Our aim is to structure the catalogue in an easily accessible way which will enable the various types of users – scholars such as art historians, dealers in and valuers of art objects, as well as police and customs agencies – to identify the particular icons. The most obvious solution would be to turn the descriptions into a searchable XML (eXtensible Mark-up Language) documents. In order to do so we are creating a DTD (Document Type Definition) on the model of that created for manuscript descriptions by the MASTERj project, but also taking into account the Getty Museum’s “Object ID”, an international standard for describing art and antiquities.

We hope that the creation of a modern electronic register of Georgian icons will help to organize our knowledge not only of the cultural heritage of Georgia itself, but also of other Eastern Orthodox countries. The database could also, it is hoped, serve as a model for other web-based cultural heritage projects.

The Georgian Icons Electronic Registry

  • Irakli Iakobashvili, Institute of Manuscripts, Academy of Science, Tbilisi, Georgia,
  • Irine Nikoleishvili, Tbilisi State University, Tbilisi, Georgia
  • Mattew Driscoll, The Arnamagnnaean Institute, The University of Copenhagen, Denmark
  • Konstantinos Chandrinos, Institute of Informatics & Telecommunications NCSR “Democritos”, Athens, Greece
  • Nana Burtshuladze, Georgian State Art Museum, Tbilisi, Georgia
  • Eliso Akhvlediani, Institute of Georgian Art History, Academy of Science, Tbilisi, Georgia
  • Kakhi Todua, Independent Expert & Art Historian, Tbilisi, Georgia
  • Kakha Khimshiashvili, Institute of Georgian Art History, Academy of Science, Tbilisi, Georgia