Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Reigning Saints of Georgia

By Edith McClintock

In Georgia, every other person seems to be Nino or Giorgi, which did make it easy for me to remember names. They are named in honor of St. Nino and St. George, both adored saints within the Georgian Orthodox Church, which governs much of Georgian life. 

Saint Nino

Saint Nino brought Christianity to the ancient Georgian Kingdom of Iberia in the early 4th century, and within Eastern Orthodoxy she is considered “Equal to the Apostles”, a designation given to saints who spread Christianity as much as the original apostles.

The Georgian Orthodox tradition places Nino as the daughter of a Roman general from the region of Cappadocia in present day Turkey and even a relative of St. George. Interestingly, in the Western Catholic tradition, St. Nino is a slave, although not nearly as well known—I, admittedly, had never heard of her before traveling to Georgia.

According to legend (and there are many, not all in agreement, nor historically accurate), Nino received a visit from the Virgin Mary who gave her a cross made from a grapevine branch and told her to take Christianity to Iberia. The grapevine cross, with its downward arms, is now a symbol of the Georgian Orthodox Church and has many legends of its own.
Saint Nino's
grapevine cross

Nino is said to have traveled to Iberia first by way of Constantinople and then Armenia, where she was nearly beheaded by the Armenian King Tiridates III. She arrived in Iberia around 320, when the Georgian Kingdom was heavily influenced by the Persian empire and had a mix of pagan religious practices. Nino performed a miraculous healing of the Georgian Queen, Nana, who in turn became a convert to Christianity.

Later, Nana’s husband, King Mirian III, became lost in darkness on a hunting trip but after praying to Nino’s god regained sight and found his way. Around 326, King Mirian asked Emperor Constantine for missionaries and priests and declared Christianity the official religion of Iberia. Today, St. Nino’s tomb is still shown at the Bodbe Monastery in the Kakheti region of Georgia.

Saint George

Georgian coat of arms
Although Georgia (called Sakartvelo in Georgian) is not named after St. George, its English name is considered by some to have been derived from the saint’s prominence in Georgian history. St. George is, however, the patron saint of Georgia and is displayed killing his dragon on its coat of arms and on its flag in the form of a red cross on a white background.

George (Giorgi) is not only a popular name in Georgia, but also a favorite church name. There are 365 Orthodox churches named after St. George based on a rather gruesome story that he was cut into 365 pieces after he fell in battle with each piece buried in a different corner of Georgia (or the Kingdom of Iberia as it would have been at the time). This is notwithstanding the likelihood that the historical George, if he existed, was from Lydda (now Lod, Israel) and a soldier under the Roman Emperor Diocletian.

Georgian flag
The most popular legend of St. George around the world is, of course, the slaying of the dragon. Despite many versions, at its most basic it is the same as St. Nino’s story—the conversion of pagans to Christianity. In fact, St. Nino is credited with bringing the legends of St. George to Georgia. And his veneration in Georgia is ancient—the earliest eastern texts and images of St. George are eleventh-century Georgian.

But back to the dragon—George uses his cross (or the sign of the cross) to protect himself and slay a dragon that is blocking a village water source (possibly in Libya) and demanding maiden sacrifices. In thanks—or awe, or demand from St. George for his heroism—the townspeople convert from paganism to Christianity.

Saint George slaying the dragon
in Freedom Square, Tbilisi
St. George is also said to have descended from heaven to lead the Georgian army on a white horse through many battles and therefore represents national liberation. Today, a golden statue of George slaying the dragon rises above Tbilisi’s Freedom Square—the site of mass demonstrations during Georgia’s Rose Revolution and independence from the Soviet Union. (Strangely, while I was in Tbilisi last year the metro began announcing stops in English in addition to Georgian, but called it Liberty Square rather than Freedom Square, although I think it was just a translation glitch rather than an official English name change).

Georgia commemorates St. George not once but twice a year in May and November, celebrating both his birth and death. But it is November 23 that is the national holiday, with schools and businesses closing. It is a day for church (likely a St. George church), a variety of regional traditions, and of course a Georgian supra with hours of toasts offered to the family's many Giorgis. 


  1. I'm interested in Georgia's St. Nino as female. In Italian Nino is common nickname for men, short for Antonio. In fact, I have a recurring character in my fiction named Nino.

  2. Yeah, it confused me at first too, as niño in Spanish is boy, so I expected a man the first time I met my boss.