After singing the Paschal all-night vigil at Bana Monastery, and trapeza in the morning, I started back towards Tbilisi with four monks as passengers (going to visit their families). Along the way, we stopped at the Kintsvisi Monastery to see its famous frescoes. There, we were happy to sing Easter chants to celebrate aghdgoma (the Resurrection) in the wonderful acoustics of the main domed church of St. Nicholas.
For an Easter day in April, the weather was glorious. All of the monks were in a celebratory mood, despite our collective sleeplessness. When we arrived at Kintsvisi, the resident monks there emerged to respectfully acknowledge our group... many of them were older monks so I was reminded again of the youth of the brotherhood at Bana Monastery: most monks there are in their 20s or early 30s.
Video: "Easter chants" at the Kintsvisi Monastery, April 17th, 2017
Frescoes in the Church of St. Nicholas (1205 AD)
Inside the Church of St. Nicholas at Kintsvisi - dated to the early 13th century - there are a set of impressive frescoes that attract specialists from around the world. The most famous of these is the depiction of Archangel Gabriel in the North apse, considered to be a masterpiece of fresco painting from the period.
The incredible blue colors are still bright. Copies of this fresco abound everywhere in dedicated icons, stone carvings, brochures, and trinkets.
Also of note is a fresco of Queen Tamar (one of the four remaining including the one at Betania Monastery).
Church of the Virgin (10th c.)
The oldest of the four churches at Kintsvisi is actually a 10th century church dedicated to the Virgin Mother. Built of impressively large rough-hewn red blocks, the church was a large basilica type church that unfortunately has fallen into serious disrepair (it's listed on the World Monuments Fund as a field project): the entire West end of the church has crumbled as the river below eroded the cliff and retaining wall that it was once sitting on. Inside, a beautiful fresco in the East apse remains intact!
A new church at Kintsvisi
A brand new church has also been built in the church yard, Lord knows why. The older churches need care, and money was spent on this. But then the local monks explained that the young abbot of Kintsvisi, only 32 years old, died tragically in 2006, and is buried in this chapel, so perhaps that was the reason for the new space.
Inside I found a very nationalistic map of an "ideal" Georgia, one that includes the regions of Abkhazia+, Samachablo, Lori, Klarjeti, Tao, and all of the high Caucasus regions. This may have been the extent of the Georgian kingdom under Queen Tamar in the late 12th century, but I don't even know if it was that fully intact then.
It's worth noting that this type of nostalgic nationalism is not nearly as prevalent in Georgia as it is in Armenia, but it does come up every once in awhile. Still, to see it reflected in a map carved into stone on an iconostasis is a new and bold expression of this kind of nationalism, one that I have not seen before.
The Tower Monastery at Kintsvisi
For a final adventure, we decided to drive up a steep dirt road to a clearing about 500 meters above Kintsvisi. A new monastery is being built there which looks like a medieval Scottish fortress.
The entrance to the upper floors is by exterior metal staircase, and at the very top there is a small chapel with a cupola, all freshly painted with frescoes. We climb up. The roof is burnished gold, the view spectacular!
Downstairs, a pingpong table sits next to a professional-looking exercise center equipped with full-size boxing bag, weights, treadmill, and other items.
Inside, the full man cave is revealed: fireplace, built in bar, beer "on tap," a gigantic fish tank under a 48 inch television, a stuffed bobcat and weasel on dedicated shelves, and in the corner, a full set of Khevsuretian chain mail with daggers and swords to match.
The priest decided I was a special guest and thus needed to be dressed up in the chain mail. 🙂 🙂
We didn't meet the abbot of this particular outfit, but needless to say the whole operation was a bit amusing both to me and to my monk friends from the austere and unblemished natural environment of Bana Monastery (where the only electricity is solar, the only heating and cooking by wood). On the way back to Tbilisi, we joked about it all, and realized that stereotypes of ascetics were worthless anyway. As long as people are living with a healthy relationship to God, who are we to judge others?