Images of Orthodox Mothers according to the Shatberdian and Chelishian Editions of the life of St. Nino


DOI: 10.55804/jtsuSPEKALI-17-14

The Shatberdian-Chelishian editions of The Life of St. Nino are the most important pieces of writing depicting the conversion of Kartli, which contain ancient fragments, mythical realities and their Christian adaptation. The aforementioned texts contain noteworthy material about Mothers participating in the process of Christianization of Kartli. Studying these figures will highlight the importance of the role of women in the way of spreading and establishing the new religion.

The analysis of the Shatberdian-Chelishian texts of The Life of St. Nino revealed that there are more than twenty female characters in the work, namely: Queen Helena, Queen Nana, Salome of Ujarma, Perozhavr of Sivnieti, Queen Suji (also: Soji), two Sidonias (receiver of the Robe of Christ and co-author of the text), Elioz’s mother, Ripsime and Guyane, Susana and Sarah Niaphor, Anastos and, of course, “prisoner” and “Queen” Nino. Most of them are present in both editions. It should be noted that certain episodes include women whose names have not been preserved in historical records. The authors did their best to acknowledge every single detail and contribution that was made related to St. Nino’s efforts in order to create an accurate account of the conversion of Kartli, and to inform the readers that every detail was material on this road.

The female characters of The Life of St. Nino can be divided into two categories: direct participants in the conversion of Kartli and supporting characters, whose contributions are equal to the righteous actions of the apostles. However, this paper will only focus on the merits of the main female characters.

A number of scholarly works have been published about the Equal-to-Apostles: her legacy has been studied and presented in every way; therefore, this paper will study holy mothers who, together with Saint Nino, made an important contribution to the christianization of Kartli.

The first woman to encounter in both editions of the text is Queen Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine the Great. The first record about her is preserved in the Conversion of Kartli chronicles, namely, after introducing the merits of the twenty-eight kings of Kartli and their religious activities. The author of the Chelishian edition presents the joy of Emperor Constantine and Queen Helena when being able to get closer to Christ with much intensity and says the following: “His heart was filled with the love for God and he got baptized along with his mother and the entire royal court” [Dzveli... 1963: 83]. This passage seems to foresee their participation in the history of the Christianization of Kartli.

The story of Queen Helena begins with the passage of baptism and embarking on the search of the Holy Cross –“Helena travelled to Jerusalem in search for the true cross [Dzveli... 1963: 83]. According to the text, Queen Helena sought information about St. Nino, and later learnt from her letter that the king of Kartli had decided to convert the country. There is no mention of this episode in the Shatberdian edition; however, the Chelishian version fully conveys the joy that the emperor and Queen Helena fell upon learning the news: “Having learned the purpose of their visit, the hosts were filled with joy – Emperor Constantine and Queen Helena rose from the throne at once and paid their respect to God; they rose again lifting their arms to the sky with tears in their eyes and cried out: “Glory to you, our God for showing such kindness” [Dzveli... 1963: 85]. The fervent tears of the king and the queen are an expression of true joy and gratitude to the Lord, because St. Nino was able to bring the Lord’s word to the hearts of Georgians. Queen Helena’s attitude towards St. Nino and King Mirian’s wife is rather noteworthy - she writes them letters and refers to Saint Nino as  “Equal to a queen and to herself and to holy apostles” [Dzveli... 1963: 85] and calls Queen Nana “the blessed.” This passage clearly demonstrates how Queen Helena appreciated the merits of St. Nino and Queen Nana in the conversion of Kartli.

Interestingly, there is one passage that reflects on the spiritual life of Queen Helena before following Christ; both the Shatberdian and Chelishian editions tell the reader how the Ephesian woman went to the Church of the Resurrection, where Sarah Niaphor asked her the following: “Is Queen Helena in the same darkness and do they still reign in the absence of God? [Dzveli... 1963: 113]. This episode is fascinating as it shows how Sarah Niaphor, who raised St. Nino, perceives the existence of a human being (in this case - the queen) and, in general, the noble authorities and the entire kingdom that do not embrace the grace of Christ. For her, life without Christ is nothing but darkness. The Ephesian woman replied to Sarah Niaphor saying that she knew the queen intimately and therefore, was aware that “they have a true wish to follow God’s faith and be baptized” [Dzveli... 1963: 113]. Therefore, there are sufficient grounds to conclude that Queen Helena strived to embrace Christ with all her heart (this was confirmed by her later decision to overcome many obstacles even at an old age and somehow reach the Holy Cross). These very words of the Ephesian woman will motivate St. Nino “to appear before Queen Helena in the hope of getting the Queen closer to God [Dzveli... 1963: 113].

Regarding the above, Zurab Kiknadze (2008) writes that, although Queen Helena and Saint Nino did not meet each other personally, and the latter did not manage to participate in the Christianization of the elderly Helena, their paths never diverged. According to the author [Kiknadze, 2008], it was St. Nino who converted Kartli, but Queen Helena showed her great support, as it is known, with the letter, without actually being there. This is how Zurab Kiknadze explains why St. Nino and Queen Helena were referred to as sisters.

Based on the above, it becomes clear what a great role Queen Helena had in the Christianization of not only her own empire, but Kartli as well.

The narrators of The Life of St. Nino stress on the important role of Queen Nana in the Christianization of Kartli. Despite the fact that none of the editions fully present Queen Nana’s image and personality traits, which hagiography is not interested in at large, one can still see her as a strong person, loyal to her principles and interests. Despite the authors’ inexhaustive narrative, the reader can vividly feel her spiritual state, namely, how she endured her husband’s suspicions and reproaches, caused by his wife’s “acceptance” of Christ.

The editions of the Conversion of Kartli highlight the fact that the female member of the royal family was the first to have fearlessly renounced pagan idols and opened her heart to the true Savior, who healed her physically and spiritually. “God manifested his power …In Makvlovani; God cured her through prayers … from such a severe illness that even knowledgeable men were unable to treat” [Dzveli... 1963: 131]. From the moment of being healed, Queen Nana became Saint Nino’s spiritual sister and supporter. The texts emphasize that the queen decided to believe in Christ even a year earlier: “In the 6th year, the king’s spouse, Nana came to believe in God and in the 7th year, the king came to believe in the almightiness of God” [Dzveli... 1963: 84]. As it turned out, King Mirian needed more time to recognize the Lord as the supreme judge. The miraculous recovery of his dying wife was not enough for him to believe in the true God, and he did not embrace Christ until he himself fell into despair and the spiritual light of the merciful Lord defeated the darkness with light.

With the help of God, St. Nino, had healed people even before; however, the healing and subsequent conversion of the queen was of special importance, because the first lady of the country was an example for the entire nation of recognizing the true God and rejecting lifeless, “hand-made” idols. After being healed, closeness to St. Nino strengthened Queen Nana’s faith in the uniqueness of Christ. And it was after this very decision (which Mirian approved of a year later) that Queen Helena called her “the blessed one”. This is how the queen of Kartli is referred to in almost every episode of the Chelishian edition of The Life of St. Nino. This detail reveals the attitude of the authors and, therefore, of the inhabitants of Kartli towards Queen Nana. This once again highlights the contribution of Queen Nana to the Christianization of Kartli. In addition, the queen of Constantinople’s respect to Queen Nana is demonstrated by Queen Helena’s decision to send her the parts of the Holy Cross.

Revaz Siradze (1997) notes that the image of Queen Nana appears for the first time on the Feast of Armazoba, and then disappears from the royal chambers. She is more perceived as a follower of St. Nino in the reader’s mind than as a queen. “The spirituality stands above all the queenship… It is presented to us as an image of the first Christian Georgian queen, who was full of modesty, silent faith, co-attentiveness and manifestation of all Christian virtues. She is the primary image of St. Tamar and St. Ketevan.  She was the one, who made it clear that Christian virtues value more than noble background, even the royal honors. She is the female image of the “St. Knight” [Siradze, 1997: 199-201].

The story of Queen Nana is a clear demonstration of the fact that St. Nino managed to fulfill her apostolic mission and convert Kartli with the help of dedicated Mothers. The Orthodox Church acknowledges Queen Nana as equal to apostles. She is the last pagan and the first Christian queen of Kartli.

The editions of The Life of St. Nino testifies to the indisputable fact that in the history of the conversion of Kartli, the mission of women is superior to the ”labor” of men. This is reflected by the character of Salome of Ujarma, who was the daughter of the Armenian king, Trdat, and the wife of King Mirian’s son, Revi. The first detail to consider when discussing this character is that the equal-to-apostles confided Queen Helena’s letter to her. This seemingly insignificant detail tells on Salome of Ujarma’s distinctiveness from St. Nino’s other Mothers. In addition, the fact that King Mirian gave his will to his daughter-in-law implies that the princess enjoyed great respect and trust at the royal court - she was present at any important event and knew everything; as Archbishop Jacob writes: “The book that King Miriam wrote in the last years of his life, was handwritten by Archbishop Jacob and trusted to the wife of the king’s son - Salome of Ujarma, who was well aware of all the proceedings at the court” [Dzveli... 1963: 157]. It would be more proper if the king had given his will to his own son; however, as Zurab Kiknadze (2009) writes, Prince Revi was a genuine example of how women tend to be superior to men in their conduct and how they outweigh men’s initiatives on every occasion. Mariam Chkhartishvili (2017/2018) believes that this episode clearly communicates that Salome of Ujarma is ahead of her contemporary male politicians – she had exclusive access to all the important materials and possessions.

Salome of Ujarma  is worthy of trust not only for the king, but also for St. Nino: she is one of the describers of the life of the equal-to-apostles; besides, it is Salome whom St. Nino gave an important task of taking one of the three crosses and erecting it in Ujarma: “And give one of the crosses to Salome of Ujarma, God’s true servant and have her erect it in the town of Ujarma” [Dzveli... 1963: 150].

The same is reiterated in the Chelishian edition. St. Nino’s epithet (“True Helper of Christ”) reveals her attitude towards Salome of Ujarma. Considering all the above, the king’s decision to give his will to his daughter-in-law does not seem unusual to the reader any longer. The text portrays Salome of Ujarma as a strong, purposeful woman, who is trusted with crucial  tasks.

The Life of St. Nino describes the image of Queen Suji (Soji) with highly artistic skill and this paper deems it noteworthy to reflect on this character as she showed an attitude that is uncommon for the “narrow nature/mindset of mothers” on her path to embracing Christ. Only Chelishian edition includes this character. It is this very difference between the editions that led researchers to believe that the episode of Queen Suji must have been a late addition to the work; however, according to recent research findings, this opinion is no longer valid. Gocha Kuchukhidze (2009) draws special attention to this issue and notes that the episode of Queen Suji does not get in the way of the composition of the Chelishian edition of The Conversion of Kartli suggesting that it is rather an organic part of the work. The scholar [Kuchukhidze, 2009] believes that composition-wise, the Chelishian edition is the most coherent.

It is clear from the text that Queen Suji, driven by the devotion to God, intended to cross the swollen Aragvi in order to meet the representatives of the royal court on the other bank. The latter tried to follow the queen themselves, but the waves did not stop Suji and with a divine miracle, strong faith and an unshaken heart, she crossed the raging Aragvi.

Gocha Kuchukhidze (2009) reflects on the high artistry manner of the work and its constantly dynamic passages. The author focuses on the two episodes and their remarkable comparison - St. Nino heading to Kartli and Queen Suji striving to embrace her grace; according to the author (Kuchukhidze, 2009), blessed Nino may be portrayed as a concerned mother looking for her child. And Queen Suji is earning to unite with St. Nino as a child trying to cling on her mother’s breasts - the episode describes the events that happened at different times, but by combining these two events, the author created the effect that St. Nino and her “lost children”, in this case, Queen Suji, were rushing towards each other. After the queen crossed the river, they all went to the temple together. As Gocha Kuchukhidze (2009) notes, this whole episode (along with the final episode) created the impression that all the characters rushed towards St. Nino, and all their deeds, which were eventually finalized by St. Nino, strived towards a single teleological goal - the conversion of Kartli;

Discussing Queen Suji along with Salome of Ujarma is no coincidence. In the scholarly literature, there is an opinion that these two characters are one and the same person, and their identity must have been confused at some point – it must have been the editor’s mistake. Gocha Kuchukhidze (2009) provides interesting arguments in this regard. It would be reasonable to share this legitimate viewpoint suggesting that the two noble women are in fact one and the same person – stemming from this opinion, the contribution of Salome of Ujarma increases even more in the the process of converting Kartli.

There is also another opinion on the matter, according to which Queen Suji is the same person as Perozhavr of Sivnieti. Scholars Lela Pataridze and Mariam Chkhartishvili (Patridze, 2010) support this idea. They rely on the Chelishian edition, which notes that after the queen crossed the river, everyone recited the litany in the temple; “the town was shaken by the church bells and she hurried to the church as Perozhavr of Sivnieti was a mother to the people of Kartli” [Dzveli... 1963: 100]. The said episode begins with a story about Queen Suji and ends with the mentioning of Perozhavr of Sivnieti, which causes ambiguity; however, according to researchers, the author of the text believes that the identity between these two persons (Suji and Perozhavr) is itself clear and does not need further explanation.

Naturally, the image of Perozhavr of Sivnieti would be much more impressive with Georgian readers if the identity between her and the Queen Suji was confirmed. Nevertheless, the contribution that this orthodox Mother made to the conversion of Kartli deserves much praise. It is enough to say that she was one of the few (together with Salome of Ujarma) whom St. Nino assigned to describe her story. This is how St. Nino addressed her supporters:  “Messengers of faith, close friends of God, my queens, ... open the books and write about my modest life, so that your children learn about your faith... Then Salome of Ujarma and Perozhavr of Sivnieti started writing as Saint Nino  was telling her story” 1963: 105-106]. St. Nino’s words convey her attitude, love and respect for her followers. Calling them queens due to their noble background; although with Perozhavr of Sivnieti this might not have been the case, it is still clear that for St. Nino, Perozhavr is the closest person who stands with her on the path to spreading Christ’s light in Kartli.

According to the editions of The Life of St. Nino, the reason the saint decided to visit Kartli was to see the place where Christ’s robe was resting; one of the most significant orthodox Mothers - Sidonia is related with the story of robe of the Christ, although she is not mentioned by this name in any of the editions of The Life of St. Nino.

Before focusing on Sidonia, it is vital to reflect on the main member of the Elioz’s family - her mother, whose name is not recorded in any of the editions; nevertheless, it should be noted that her character immensely affected the actions of her children and their lives in general, as well as the history of Christian Georgia and the Orthodox Church. In order to follow the story, “Holly mother who waits the priest from the tribe” [Old…1963:128] begged her son not to be part of the Jew’s plan to crucify Christ “Since sayings belong to prophets and parables to wise men, Jews are deprived of the virtue and non-Jews are to enjoy bright and long life [Dzveli... 1963: 128]. This passage as well demonstrates the image of the Jewish mother who believes that the one to be tortured is in fact the savior. The words that convey what the woman heard in Mtskheta are even more compelling: (she heard) “the sound of hammer hitting the nails in Golgotha” [Dzveli... 1963: 128]. The last words of Elioz’s mother and her passing away are conveyed with similar intensity and emotional phrases – “The woman cried out bitterly saying his last words: So long, the reign of Jews, because you have killed our Savior, and from now on, you are enemies of the Creator"! - [Dzveli... 1963: 128]. The reader is particularly touched by the word “cried out bitterly,”which simultaneously expresses a number of sensations such as a movement caused by great pain, and a shocking and doomed sound. The process is so vividly delivered that the reader sees and hears all this and is charged with similar feelings.

Considering the above, it is no wonder why Sidonia had such a great love for the Lord. According to the texts, she asked Elioz to bring any item that belonged to the Lord from Jerusalem - Elioz brought the robe of Christ to Mtskheta. Sidonia greeted his newly-arrived brother in Mtskheta in the following manner: “She greeted him with bitter tears, hugged her brother and clutched the robe of Christ to her chest, overwhelmed with the death of her mother, the torturing of Christ and the happiness of having his robe [Dzveli... 1963: 129]. For a woman, the death of a divine parent must be more devastating than the death of an earthly parent. Filled with this pain, the woman passed away silently, without saying anything, which causes a mystery. However, one should be reminded that only such an immortal feeling that is hard to express with words can be truly genuine, because, as Revaz Siradze (1982) writes, silence is a noiseless existence... With reflection and inner faith, a person feels the rhythm of his/her own life; it can imply embracing great harmony; a person will feel in him/herself that he/she is a part of a great, universal life [Siradze, 1982: 142]. Sidonia became a part of such universal life – she joined Christ. Her silence spoke volumes, as it contained indescribable pain and joy at the same time caused by closeness to Christ. As the author notes [Siradze, 1982: 142], it is not about having nothing to say – it is about not saying something of immense significance.

It is interesting that the reader learns about the story of Elioz’s mother and Sidonia with the help of the latter’s successor. It is Sidonia, the contemporary of St. Nino, the daughter of priest Abiathar, who appears as one of the editors of the Conversion of Kartli. Furthermore, Sidonia made a significant contribution to the conversion of Kartli.

The following passage where Sidonia talks about St. Nino and their first encounter is rather noteworthy: “When I first caught a glimpse of Saint Nino, she was sitting in the chambers of King Bratman, in a high tower where she spent 6 years and had us, 7 sisters follow her faith [Dzveli... 1963: 130]. As the passage suggests, for Sidonia, St. Nino was the “the blessed”  teacher, with whom she had been friends for years, acting as an accomplice in every step that the saint took. The fact that she was entrusted by St. Nino with the recording of the conversion of Kartli indicates the dignity of this woman; moreover, according to the authors of other sources (Nikoloz Gulaberisdze, Arsen Beri, unknown author), Sidonia had an in-depth knowledge in Christianity, because it was she who taught the true law to Queen Nana. She also had the ability to predict the future and interpret dreams. The following passage recalls the episode when blessed Nino tells her friend about her dream: “The birds of the sky came along, they dived in a river and washed up and were heading to the paradise - it was beautiful to look at them” [Dzveli... 1963: 123].  The unknown author of The Life of St. Nino notes that Sidonia had the gift of prophecy, which the Blessed Virgin knew about. This is how Abiathar’s daughter explained her prophecy to the saint: “You, the savior of slaves …a woman has arrived in order to change the existing standing of this country” [Dzveli... 1963: 123]. Sidonia interpreted the dream in religious perspective and explained that with the efforts of St. Nino, the “garden-paradise” she saw in her dream would turn into a spiritual paradise. The passage presented above creates grounds to conclude that Abiathar’s daughter was the closest person to St. Nino. Therefore, she is one of the outstanding Mothers who had their say in the Christianization of Kartli.

Considering all the above, the texts of The Life of St. Nino convey the idea of equality between men and women. This is also confirmed by the 10 commandments of St. Nino that were aimed at spreading Christian love in Kartli. They stipulate the following: “There are neither men alone nor women - you are all one” [Dzveli... 1963: 116].

The fact that the conversion of Kartli was possible mainly with the efforts of women is confirmed not only by the actions of the main female characters of the work, but also by the actions of less important characters who had a certain mission in the recognition and establishment of Christianity in Kartli. Christianization of Kartli occurred with the grace of God, the efforts and determination of St. Nino and with the courage and faith of brave women, which makes their merits and contribution to the conversion of Kartli much more significant than the ones of men. That is why these women are called “the daughters of faith”.


აბულაძე ა.,
,,ძველი ქართული აგიოგრაფიული ძეგლები“, საქართველოს სსრ მეცნიერებათა აკადემია, თბილისი.
კიკნაძე ზ.,
,,ახალი ნინო“, კრებ. ,,წმინდა ნინო“, I, რედ. რევაზ სირაძე, მერიდიანი, თბილისი.
კიკნაძე ზ.,
,,ქართლი გაქრისტიანების გზაზე“, ლითერასი, თბილისი.
კუჭუხიძე გ.,
,,წმინდა ნინო და ქართლის მოქცევა“, ლიტერატურის ინსტიტუტი, თბილისი.
სირაძე რ.,
,,სახისმეტყველება, საუბარი ქართულ ესთეტიკაზე“, ნაკადული, თბილისი.
სირაძე რ.,
,,ქართული აგიოგრაფია“, ნაკადული, თბილისი.
სირაძე რ.,
,,წმინდა ნინოს ცხოვრება და დასაწყისი ქართული აგიოგრაფიისა“, თბილისი.
პატარიძე ლ.,
,,პეროჟავრ სივნიელის ვინაობისთვის“, ქართული წყაროთმცოდნეობა, XII, უნივერსალი, თბილისი.
ჩიკვაიძე ე.,
,,ნიკოლოზ გულაბერისძის ,,სვეტიცხოვლის საკითხავი“ და წმინდა ნინოს ცხოვრება, „წმინდა ნინო და ქართლის მოქცევა“, ლიტ. ინსტ. თბილისი.
ჩხარტიშვილი მ.,
,,ქართლში ქრისტიანობის სახელმწიფო რელიგიად გამოცხადების უცნობი დეტალები. პეროჟავრ სივნიელი“, ქართული წყაროთმცოდნეობა, XIX/XX, მერიდიანი, თბილისი.