Symposium Papers & Presenters

“An Intimate Glimpse of Georgian Monasticism”

Fr. Theodore Niklasson, Holy Archangels Orthodox Christian Retreat Center, Ozarks, MO

Since the late 1980’s, the revival of the Georgian Orthodox Church has been popular, swift and momentous. Yet, the suppressions of Soviet Union that this revival has overcome represent only the most recent impediment to a unique Georgian expression of Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Soon after sovereign Georgia was subsumed into the Russian Empire, the Moscow Patriarchate abolished the right of the Georgian Church to self-governance in the early 19th century. While retaining their language, orthography and ecclesiastical chant, the Georgians lost a living connection with traditions handed down through the centuries from their affiliation with Antiochian Patriarchate in late antiquity. Since that time, hundreds of monasteries across Georgia have served as the spiritual heartbeat of an independent Church Body repeatedly threatened by internal and external politics and destruction. Can these monasteries recover their 1500 year old legacy and return to become central sources of spiritual strength, reacquiring an inherent trust of Georgian laity and clergy, alike?

In the revival of Orthodox monasticism in Georgia, I have witnessed moments of spiritual rebirth among individuals re-discovering the faith of their ancestors, together with moments of despair that seem to accompany any form of growth. In this talk, I will focus on one individual, Mother Sosana, whose personal quest to dedicate her life to the service of the Georgian people (through the Church) resulted in a whole group of like-minded women joining her. Together, they trained themselves to chant the monastic services and explored ways to support a growing network of women’s monastic coenobitic sketes throughout the diocese of Akhalkalaki on the Armenian - Georgia border. These reflections offer a glimpse into the burgeoning monastic life throughout Georgia, suggesting Orthodox Christianity is experiencing an authentic and culturally intrinsic revival. The talk will be illustrated with photographs from my time in Georgia from early 2001 to late 2007.

Hierodeacon Theodore Niklasson is a monk and deacon of the Orthodox Church, having entered the monastery of St. Herman of Alaska in Platina, California in 1992. With the blessing of His Holiness Patriarch Ilia II, he has served in the Caucasus region under Metropolitan Nikoloz of Akhalkalaki and Kumurdo from 2001 until August 2008. Continuing his connection with the Georgian Orthodox Church until January 2014, Fr. Theodore was instrumental in developing the national nonprofit corporation which supports Georgian Church communities in North America and remains actively available to Georgian nationals working and studying in the United States. Currently, he serves the Orthodox Church in America and has established the Holy Archangels Orthodox Christian Retreat Center in the Missouri Ozarks. Fr. Theodore holds graduate degrees in Theology and Communications and is a Senior Fellow of the Sophia Institute associated with Union Theological Seminary in New York City.


“Ways of Seeing Frescoes in Georgian Churches: Past, Present, and Future”

Tasha Vorderstrasse, University of Chicago

The exceptional preservation of large numbers of wall paintings in Georgian churches from both the medieval and post-medieval period means that it is possible to understand better how different audiences viewed and experienced frescoes in churches. Georgian churches were not simply static buildings, however, and like their viewers, changed through time. Since Georgian frescoes adorn buildings that continue to be used, the frescoes themselves, as well as the perceptions of those frescoes, have altered through the centuries. This presentation will examine how this happened and continues to happen, as well as prospects for the future of Georgian frescoes.

Tasha Vorderstrasse is a Research Associate at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. She is interested in questions regarding the material and visual culture of the Near East, the Caucasus, and Central Asia and the relationships between those areas and also interactions with China. In 2014 and 2015 she led Oriental Institute tours to Georgia and Armenia and she has worked on archaeological projects in different parts of the Middle East, most recently in Armenia and Turkey.


“St. Nino in Drama: Hagiography in the Context of Religious Revival”

Paul Crego, Library of Congress

Twice in the past two centuries, Georgians have reasserted their national identity: first against the Russian Empire and later, the Soviet Union. This reassertion involved the Orthodox Church in Georgia, which suffered mightily under Russian rule (losing autocephaly in 1811), and seven decades of Soviet State rule. The Church, in times of renewal, found ways to relocate its identity among its ancient traditions. The publication of the lives of the saints, especially the hagiography of St. Nino, Equal to the Apostles and Enlightener of the Georgians (4th c.), was an important marker of this renewal.

In the late nineteenth century many publications appeared in connection with the revival of Georgian Orthodox consciousness, including a play published in 1901 called “St. Nino the Worker.” My paper situates this play within other works about St. Nino, placing it within the context of the phenomena of Orthodox revival in Georgia in printed media. I will consider a number of issues, including the character of Abiatar, the Jewish priest and the Chief of the Magi. I will also look at the role of female saints in hagiography, as exemplified by the ways in which St. Nino has been portrayed. In “St. Nino the Worker” the issue of her being a woman is explained in part by the character of Abiatar, and in part, by elements of pre-Christian history that surface in the play.

Paul Crego is a Senior Cataloging Specialist at the United States Library of Congress and is the cataloger for Georgian and Armenian language material. He has a PhD in Theology from Boston College, an M.Div from the Harvard Divinity School, an MA from Harvard’s Soviet Union program, and has studied the Georgian language since 1977. Among his publications is an article, “The Georgian Orthodox Church in the Post-Soviet Period,” Eastern Christianity and Politics in the Twenty-First Century. New York: Routledge, 2013.


“Stereotyping Architectural Form: Building and Rebuilding Plans for Orthodox Churches in Georgia”

Terry Cowan, University of Texas

Architecture is one aspect of the revival of Orthodoxy in Georgia. And while new church construction is certainly exciting to behold, one observes an uncanny uniformity in the design of new churches. Every new Georgian church looks like every other new church, their cross-and-dome design a reflection of the twelfth century “glory days” of the Georgian medieval kingdom. This design is instantly identifiable as both “Georgian” and “Orthodox,” but the high Georgian style did not spring fully formed in the 12th and 13th centuries. Rather, this particular architectural style evolved over several centuries, in different geographical regions of the country, sharing influence and ingenuity with neighboring Christian cultures such as the Byzantines and Armenians. Earlier churches boasted any number of forms including the standard triform basilica, basilica churches with two domes, cross-shaped churches with shorter or longer apses, or higher or lower ceilings, and all of these were no less “Georgian,” no less “Orthodox.”  

Many of the revival churches being constructed across the country are located in places where the ‘standard’ cross-and-dome form either never gained ascendancy (such as in the highlands of Svaneti), or where they aesthetically clash with existing structures (such as at the Bodbe Convent, a 9th century basilica). In this paper I argue that a confident and healthy Orthodox Church in Georgia need not limit itself to a single design in the construction of new churches. The diversity of form on display throughout Georgia is a testament to the unique, creative, and diverse expression of Orthodox architecture in this country, and that should be its strength moving forward. During this time of rebuilding in the Orthodox world, both in Georgia and elsewhere, discussions on form lead us to understand that our diversity is our strength.

Terry Cowan wears several hats. An entrepreneur and registered professional land surveyor, he runs a family firm established in 1946 operating in East Texas and Louisiana. He is also a historian, teaching boundary law and Texas state history at the University of Texas, and publishing articles that address property issues and the Public Domain of Texas. He is a founding member of the Church of St. John of Damascus, contributing specifically to the design and implementation of a new parish church in the city of Tyler, TX. Cowan is a committed traveler and has visited Georgia six times specifically to see obscure and remote monasteries. His writings on these travels, in an influential Orthodox blog called Notes from a Common Place Book, reflect a breadth of reading in Georgian history and culture, and have inspired many dozens of like-minded Orthodox adventurers.