Accepted Paper:

The affordances of Orthodox Christianity for Georgian vernacular religion  


Kevin Tuite (University of Montreal)

Paper long abstract:

It has long been recognized that vernacular religious practices in Georgia and adjoining regions of the North Caucasus have been influenced by institutional Orthodoxy. What has not been undertaken, however, is a detailed investigation of precisely which features of Orthodox practice are continued in vernacular religion — and likewise which features were not transmitted. This report will draw upon over three decades of fieldwork in Georgia, with a special focus on the highland province Svaneti.

Among the features to be discussed are:

(1) Spatial organization and the structure of buildings — eastward orientation of the sanctuary; gendered hierarchy of access; architecture and spatial divisions; lands surrounding or belonging to the church;

(2) Ritual practices — Liturgy & celebrants; offerings; preparation (purification, abstention);

(3) The calendar — The Orthodox church calendar abounds in feast-days, festivals and fasts, many of which remained popular even in the absence of priests. Ritual elements of some festivals are continued in vernacular Orthodoxy (e.g. torches in mid-winter festivals derived from Candlemas). Others are linked to popular saints (e.g. George, Mary, Elijah). The continuity of yet others appears to be primarily due to their time-marking function (for example, the mid-summer feast of St Athenogene, which in the earliest Georgian church calendars fell on the 50th day after Pentecost, itself celebrated on the 50th day after Easter.

(4) Cults of saints and church decorations — Orthodox churches in Georgia and the North Caucasus were elaborately decorated. Despite church-imposed iconographic constraints, the preference of donors for frescoes and icons depicting the military saints, especially St George, is evident. Early depictions of the saint show him standing alone, whereas the dominant image in the Middle Ages shows George on horseback, spearing an adversary (often a man rather than a serpent), or freeing a princess from a dragon. Taken together, these facts point to the special significance of a warrior saint for an aristocracy confronting the menace of Islamic armies to the east and an increasingly hostile Byzantium to the southwest.

A handful of churches in Svaneti conserve frescoes painted on the outside walls, including the remarkable depiction on a church in the village Lenjer of an ogre-slaying scene from the medieval romance Amiran-Darejaniani. Folklore and ritual feature a character with similar attributes and the same name as the hero of this romance, implying that secular themes popular among the elite could also find their way into vernacular religion.

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