Patriarchate Locum Tenens asks PM for "timely steps" on handing Anchiskhati icon to Orthodox Church

The frame into which the Patriarchate intends to place the Anchiskhati icon in the monastery of the same name in Tbilisi. The frame currently holds a different icon. Photo via Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Georgian service., 01 Nov 2021 - 15:44, Tbilisi,Georgia

The Locum Tenens of the Patriarchate of the Georgian Orthodox Church, who effectively serves as second in the hierarchy after the Catholicos-Patriarch, has addressed a letter to the prime minister of the country asking for "timely steps" in handing the Anchiskhati icon to the Church management.

In the latest development on the controversial subject of management of the medieval icon, a major cultural exhibit currently preserved at the Georgian National Museum, the letter from Shio Mujiri details steps taken by the Patriarchate to install a frame into which the icon is intended to be placed at the Anchiskhati Church in Tbilisi.

Presenting technical specifications of the frame - produced by the German company Sehner on a €70,000 commission by the Patriarchate - the letter lists "active and passive systems of humidity management", LED lighting and bulletproof glass panels "protected against ultraviolet rays" among technical properties of the construction.

The address to the PM is intended to indicate an infrastructural readiness of the Orthodox Church to receive the Anchiskhati icon from the museum network and preserve it under necessary conditions. The handover has been a long-standing and continuous request of the Patriarchate since the 1990s.

In the letter, the Locum Tenens reminds the PM of the previous letter from the Catholicos-Patriarch on the same subject, delivered to the former's office back in August, and says the Church would like to "once again remind you of the necessity for timely steps on measures for returning the icon" to the Patriarchate management.

In the earlier address, Catholicos-Patriarch Ilia II himself asked the head of the government to make the decision on handing over the icon to the Church aegis, which drew criticism from some secular sectors of society on its timing, and allegations of a possible "deal" between the government and the Patriarchate on the subject ahead of the municipal elections last month.

Among other figures, the possible handover was criticised by art historian Tamar Amashukeli and Literature Museum Director Lasha Bakradze, with Amashukeli telling TV Formula channel the development created suspicions of an agreement between the two parties on handing over a part of the Golden Fond collection - a group of major historical exhibits, including the Anchiskhati icon, currently at the GNM network's Museum of Fine Arts - to the Patriarchate.

The art historian said the Patriarchate had no means to protect historical items that required specific environment for preservation, with Bakradze telling the possible move on changing management over the treasured icon could have a political backdrop.

Bakradze said the ruling party could be incentivised to make the decision on switching management over the icon for "gaining votes for the [October 2 municipal] election" from the Orthodox electorate, while also adding the move could form a part of a wider development of bringing the state and the Orthodox Church closer as part of an effort against liberal and secular parts of the society.

Answering questions from reproters later in August, Minister of Justice Rati Bregadze said any decision on the icon would be "made with full consensus" between the government and religious authorities.

The fate of the icon has also become the subject of the latest discussions in the frame of recent developments around the Museum of Fine Arts, where the Golden Fund and the icon are preserved. The crumbling museum venue is scheduled to be rehabilitated and renovated in a major project announced by culture minister Thea Tsulukiani, with its exhibits to be temporarily moved out of the building before returning after the renovation, expected to be completed in 2024.

The Anchiskhati icon is regarded as a major historical exhibit for both its cultural and religious significance. Representing as an illustrative item of Georgian goldsmithery, the icon was created using encaustic painting method on a wooden frame with silver details.

Originally preserved at the Ancha Monastery in historical southwest Georgia's Bishopric of Ancha - now the Artvin Province of Turkey - it was returned to Georgia in the 17th century following the Ottoman Empire's conquest of the territory of the monastery. The icon was initially preserved at the Anchiskhati Church in Tbilisi before being moved to the Museum of Fine Arts during the 1920s.