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Old Georgian Calligraphers


The history of Georgian literature goes far back in time bearing an immense cultural, historical, literary and artistic importance. Georgian manuscripts have brought down to us works by ancient authors, which figure prominently in Georgian as well as world literary treasures.

An enormous amount of Georgian calligraphers' tireless and devoted efforts have gone into preserving Georgian manuscripts up to this day. It is a tribute to their dedication that the writings accomplished in a neat, calligraphic hand have threaded their way down to us. Many of them, however, as well as other monuments of national culture, were destroyed by invading enemies. In times of ordeal the need to preserve or reproduce ancient Georgian manuscripts took on a whole new meaning. Georgian calligraphers embarked on a great mission to retain unscathed the writings of ancestors for posterity. Consummate pieces of their fancy lettering still provide marvels to behold.

Georgian calligraphers were engaged not only in reproducing Georgian manuscripts but also in restoring damaged sections or replenishing missing parts of the texts. They championed the national cause by increasing literacy among people.

"Literacy is the most precious commodity of people: the sun and the moon were given to attend to our bodily selves whereas books provide a source of spiritual nourishment" - said a calligrapher based at Shatberdy Monastery in the 11th century.

Had it not been for the valiant efforts of totally devoted calligraphers, we would have never been able to pride ourselves on the glorious literary legacy forming the centerpiece of our national culture.

Calligraphers were faced with a severely uphill task. But it was their unselfish dedication to books, which made them approach their task with an almost missionary zeal. "...I penned the end of the book on my knees, in ten papers, in Alaverdi church"... "... Reader, this book was put in black and white on my knees, over the night"... "...I was severely ill, unable to sit up, and this book was handwritten on my death bed. For God's sake, excuse me for errors" - Georgian manuscripts bear a great number of similar inscriptions.

Fancy lettering has been a bedrock art realm since time immemorial. The skills it took included: parchment processing, ink preparation, treatment of book covers, bookbinding techniques, exacting calligraphic skill of shaping Nuskhuri (minuscule) and Mkhedruli characters and ornate capital letters, etc.

The master calligrapher was known for his craftsmanship to print letters on paper in the best possible calligraphic style. He was blessed with the ability to give his pen strokes elegance, create elaborately decorated letters, maintain perfect symmetry between lines, and ensure correct representation and positioning of uppercase letters, illuminated characters and miniatures to add grace and style to the text. The quality of manuscripts varied, based on their possible destination.

Manuscripts for sale or donation involved extremely elegant and refined letter forms. When creating pieces for their own use, however, calligraphers tended to show less thoroughness: "God knows I copied it for myself, not for sale, and know not of what good or ill".

Calligraphers firmly believed that the work of their own hands, whether created for profit, as a gift or for personal use, would not only benefit the soul but would also help fuel a patriotic sense among posterity: "the master will leave this world but his mastership will live on after him".

The Georgian people's ardent passion for reading posed an enhanced need for the dissemination of copybooks among the masses. Penmanship was no longer a predominantly ecclesiastical occupation. It rapidly penetrated all walks of life.

Professional calligraphers tried to hand their knowledge down to their offspring. Penmanship was often seen as a traditional family occupation.

The handwriting style of each family of calligraphers (Chachikashvilis, Tumanishvilis, Meskhishvilis, etc) was increasingly a very personal creation.

The Meskhishvilis enjoy a well-deserved reputation in the history of ancient Georgian literature.

They appeared on the arena in the 17lh century and, for over two centuries, they made a name for themselves as skilled calligraphers, manuscript illuminators, translators, editors and poets. They owned an extensive treasury of books. The Meskhishvilis are also credited with laying the groundwork for a highly-reputed school of calligraphy.

The Meskhishvilis were based in Anchiskhati Church. It was initially known as the Bell Church because of its exclusive right to ring bells during the period of Arab dominance. The church, which was granted this right as a seat of the Catholicos-Patriarch, retained its bell-name until the 17'" century. After Patriarch Domenti moved G' the Anchi Vernicle Icon from Mtskheta to Tbilisi and rested it in the Bell Church, the latter was renamed Anchiskhati Church.

From then on Anchiskhati Church was endowed with even greater prestige. Erekle II set up a seminary in the yard of Anchiskhati Church. This was exactly when the church evolved into a cultural-educational centre and the church figures took on the mantle of researchers and literary workers. The Meskhishvilis' family of calligraphers, who had integrated successfully into church life, added a whole new dimension to Anchiskhati. The church choir carried out drills in chanting and officiating. The priests of Anchiskhati Church were selected by Patriarchs and Kings for their high standards and enviable reputation. From the late 17th century to the early 19th, Anchiskhati priests and archpriests were predominantly Meskhishvilis.

Aleksi Meskhishvili is deemed to be the forefather of the Meskhishvilis' grand family of calligraphers and literary men. The rich traditions he established to be passed down from generation to generation and the fact that King Erekle granted Aleksi's offspring permission to be named Aleksi-Meskhishvilis point clearly to the high esteem in which he was held in the upper reaches of society and the tremendous contribution he made to Georgian culture. He was a man of letters, a chorister, an accomplished calligrapher and a manuscript illuminator. "Aleksi was an archpriest of Anchiskhati and a man schooled in the arts of writing, whose scribal works executed in Khutsuri and Mkhedruli scripts are of great literary merit" - Ioane Batonishvili writes of him. Aleksi Meskhishvili's descendants sometimes hold the surnames of Aleksishvili or Aleksidze. In manuscript footnotes Aleksi speaks of himself as the son of Grigol the artist. It appears the artist Grigol was thoroughly involved in honing Aleksi's techniques and writing skills in both Georgian scripts - Nuskhuri and Mkhedruli.

Aleksi's sons were consistent in upholding well-established family traditions, Ioane Batonishvili wrote that "Aleksi gave his sons good upbringing in theological and ecclesiastical matters and schooled them in chanting skills". Solomon Meskhishvili, Aleksi's son, was an outstanding calligrapher of his time. Exceptionally talented, of Aleksi's sons, was Davit Meskhishvili. His works are distinguished with incredible versatility. There is hardly any domain in culture or literature, in which Davit Meskhishvili has not left a lasting imprint. He was a poet and a scholar, a manuscript illuminator and an editor, a born pedagogue, a compiler of textbooks, a lexicographer, a poetry pioneer, a brilliant calligrapher such was an unrivalled range of Davit Meskhishvili's talents. King Erekle's deed reads as follows: "I, King Erekle assigned you, Davit, son of Aleksi as rector of the seminary in Telavi". Davit Meskhishvili was often referred to as Rector Davit, without indication of his surname. "There is nothing but a quest for wisdom that richly rewards the effort" - such was a slogan he tried to instill in his pupils. King Erekle entrusted Rector Davit with an important mission of bringing up his grandsons: Davit, Ioane and Teimuraz Batonishvili.

"Our descendants are famed for their art of fine penmanship" -and indeed, the Meskhishvilis' calligraphic works feature the vital spark of skill involved in creating magnificent swirls and delicately shaded curves, and the singularity of style that has continued to set them apart for over two centuries.

Georgians always showed their steadfast appreciation of the art of handwriting, believing it was created to uplift the spirit. "Writing is bile to the flesh and balm to the soul". It was this spiritual insight that gave them the strength to fulfill their duty before their country and next generations. Our museums act as a treasure trove of richly ornate manuscripts by Georgian calligraphers, whose descendents are beholden to keep on record their contribution, however insignificant, and bring their names into the shining spotlight.

Doctor of Philological Sciences


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