Georgia and the Ubiquity of Religious Icons
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Orthodox Christian icons are everywhere to be found in Georgia - gazing over the shoulders of butchers cutting meat, peeking among stacks of cards in notary bureaus, dangling over the windscreen on public buses and marshutkas, and a cross sway from the mirror in most cars across the country. Religious images are ubiquitous attributes of public spaces and lay bare the Georgian society’s entrenched religious belief.

Georgia embraced Christianity as a state religion between around 327 AD and it has since then been the pillar of the country’s character. As the country was engulfed into the Soviet project in 1921, religious institutions were undermined, many of their representatives were executed, and the authority of those who survived dissolved - in 1917 there were 2,455 working churches, by mid-1980 a mere 80 remained, plus a handful of monasteries and seminaries. When Georgia became an independent state at the meltdown of USSR in the early 1990s, religious feelings re-emerged, stronger than ever, and the Church played a key role in shaping the re-gained national identity - you are Georgian, hence you are Orthodox Christian. Today, 89 percent of Georgia’s 3.7 million people define themselves as Orthodox Christians.

This affirmation spilled over the severe high walls of chapels and monasteries, inundating public spaces which have become places to communicate who Georgians are and stand for. Here, creed takes up different forms as religious icons mingle with religion’s arch-enemies like former USSR’s head Joseph Stalin, himself a Georgian trainee priest till he met with Karl Marx’s theories, and modern-day secular cult, footballers.

 

Photo: Lala Aliyeva ; Text: Lika Antadze

The framed photo of Ilia II, Catholicos-Patriarch of Georgia, hangs over piles of bags, rags, and Soviet-manufactured sewing machines in a tailoring atelier of Tbilisi.
An icon of the Virgin Mary with the Child watch over Georgian traditional costumes sitting in a corner of the atelier.
A printing shop displays an array of religious icons, including Goderdzi Urgebadze – Georgian monk who was canonized as Holy Father St. Gabriel. A photo of footballer Lionel Messi gives the final secular blessing to the display.
Sacred and profane mingle over the crumbling wall of a shoemaker in Tbilisi. Arsen Mekokishvili, Georgia-born heavyweight freestyle wrestler who won an Olympic medal for USSR in 1952, poses next to the Patriach Ilia II and Sheikh Kato, the Yazidis’ spiritual leader. An image of Leonardo da Vinci’s Madonna and the Child complete the pious patchwork.
In a cramped sport gadget shop football players and religious personalities sit side by side. The religious poster on the upper left side portrays the building Svetitskhoveli, one of Georgia’s oldest churches situated in Mskheta, the country’s old capital.
Religious icons are a patch of color on the walls of a butcher shop in Tbilisi.
Religious calendars sit next to images of Joseph Stalin, Soviet Union’s President until 1952, in a place that sells cheap vodka, popular among people suffering from alcohol abuse.
Stalin governed the USSR with iron fist crushing religious institutions and representatives. Since the early 2000s there has been a revival of Stalin’s cult which is rehabilitating the dictator’s life and deeds.
A store in Tbilisi’s bazroba, the large market where everything can be found, sells random goods and displays various religious posters including old religious calendars.
Saint Nino’s cross hanging in a computer service shop. Saint Nino, considered in the Georgian Orthodox Church as “equals to the Apostles, and enlightener of Georgia,” was the woman who brought Christianity to the ancient Kingdom of Iberia.
Religious icons plaster the window of a cheese shop in the capital Tbilisi. Here neighbours and relatives come to play backgammon, to chat, to rest. And eventually to buy some cheese.
Religious gadgets are not a rare commodity in Georgia and stalls selling candles and crosses of all sizes, icons, books, and rosaries are to be found in every market.
Churchkhela dangle near an array of religious images in a small food shop in Tbilisi’s central bazaar. Churchkhela is Georgia’s traditional candle-shaped candy made of grape must, nuts, and flour.
The small room in a notary bureau has a large exhibition of various religious images, including the pictures of Ilia II and Father Gabriel.
The photo of Sameba Cathedral - the largest church in Georgia, the picture of Catholicos-Patriarch of Georgia and several religious icons displayed in a public transport.
The beauty saloon displays variety of religious icons.
The icon corner in a boutique store in Tbilisi.
Chai Khana
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