In a letter addressed to Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili, and Culture Minister Tea Tsulukiani, Patriarch Ilia II asked to return Ancha Icon (referred to in Georgian as Anchiskhati), a centuries-old relic of incomparable importance, currently preserved in the Art Museum in Tbilisi, to the Orthodox Church.
According to Christian sources, the Ancha Icon of the Savior is one of the “made without hands” icons (acheiropoietos) miraculously imprinted on the cloth from Christ’s face, while some art historians date the icon as a medieval piece. In medieval times, the relic was kept in the Bishopric of Ancha of the then-Georgian historic Klarjeti region, in modern day Turkey. The icon was reportedly moved to Tbilisi in the 17th century following the Ottoman conquest of the area. The relic was since preserved in Anchiskhati Basilica, Tbilisi’s oldest surviving church named after the icon, until it was moved to the National Art Museum in the early Soviet times.
According to the Patriarch, the special initiative group for the return of the icon had already carried out relevant works to ensure proper conditions for preserving the relic, including ordering “a German company” to manufacture a kiot, a special icon box, which has been installed in the Anchiskhati Basilica.
“We hope we can jointly ensure the protection, which may turn into one of the examples of the cooperation between the state and the Church,” the letter reads. The Patriarch also stressed that the return of the icon would be “the greatest gift” as the Georgian Orthodox Church marks the 1,500 years anniversary of the Anchiskhati Basilica this year.
While the Church has called for the return of the relic earlier, the latest letter comes amidst the controversy over the uncertain fate of the art museum and its historic building, and some two months before crucial local elections in October.
Earlier vague statements of the Ministry of Culture about the restoration of the parts of the building not being “profitable,” coupled with controversial plans to temporarily evacuate the collections, sparked fears over the treatment of the nation’s most revered cultural artefacts.
Art expert Tamar Amashukeli told Formula TV, government-critical TV station there might be “some deal between the state and the Patriarchate”of the Orthodox Church to pass the art pieces of religious significance to the Church. Amashukeli however questioned the ability of the religious institution to take proper care of cultural heritage.
In today’s press briefing, Culture Minister Tea Tsulukiani assured collections would return to the museum building following restoration and conservation works, adding that the Ministry is considering two locations for the temporary storage of collections in the vicinity of the museum building.
Also today, the Minister held a meeting with the representative of the Patriarchate, where parties exchanged views over the “golden collection” preserved in the Art Museum.