Merab Ghaghanidze – Sulkhan-Saba Orbeliani and Western Christianity

In the history of the seventeent-eigteenth centuries Georgian society and culture, Sulkhan-Saba Orbeliani (1658-1725) was known as a statesman, diplomat, prosaist, poet, preacher, scholar, lexicographer and editor. More than one trends of the old Georgian writing language and literature were crowned in his works; in particular, the old Georgian prose reached the peak of its development, and Sulkhan-Saba laid the foundation to the reform of the Georgian verse; he was the founder of the descriptive genre of pilgrimage and traveling in Georgian literature; he revitalized artistic narration and preachment after the centuries-old decline and created the first Georgian explanatory and translation dictionary. His life and creative work served as a proof of his firm devotion to the Georgian spiritual and cultural values, and he, at the same time, clearly demonstrated his attitude to the European values.
Sulkhan Orbeliani was brought up at the royal court and was considered an educatee of his cousins Giorgi XI, Archil and Levan, and was a tutor to Vakhtang VI. He belonged to the party of Giorgi XI and was his supporter. After Erekle I (Nazaralikhan) became King of Kartli, both Giorgi XI and Sulkhan Orbeliani found themselves exiled. Sulkhan then sought shelter at his father-in-law’s house in Akhaltsikhe, who was a grandee. However, in 1696, he returned to his patrimony. In 1698, he took the monastic vows at Davit-Gareja Udabno (a sparsely populated area) under the name Saba, but before that, in 1687 (1692, according to some other sources), he had secretly converted to the Catholic faith. In 1703, he renewed his political activity, when the throne of Kartli was ascended by Vakhtang VI. In 1710-1712, he was on his political-and-diplomatic mission in Persia, and in 1713, he, together with Richard, a French missioner, traveled to Europe. In April of 1714, Louis XIV, King of France gave him an audience. The same year, in the month of July, in Rome he was twice received by the Pope Clement XI. Due to the sudden death of the King of France, the hope of getting the aid, the reason for Saba’s trip to Europe, faded. In 1716, after having seen many perils, Saba returned to his motherland to be persecuted and oppressed because of his open confession and preachment of Catholicism (he served the purpose of spreading the Catholicism not only by his own example, but also by bringing the European missioners to the Kingdom of Kartli. At the same time, his choice of confession is clearly reflected in his autographical collection A-303, which is preserved at the National Centre of Manuscripts in Tbilisi and not published completely to date). Saba, at returning from Europe, found himself in great embarrassment and peril, which was even more aggravated by the conflict arising between Saba and Vakhtang. However, they soon reconciled, the reason for which was their joint translation a famous work of Persian literature Kalila and Dimna into Georgian. In July of 1724,Sulkhan-Saba Orbeliani, together with Vakhtang and other nobles and clergy of Kartli in flight, headed for Russia. On January 26, 1725, Sulkhan- Saba deceased in Moscow. He was buried at the Georgians’ Church in Vsekhsvyatskoe, near Moskow (his grave is lost).
Sulkhan-Saba Orbeliani, a Georgian aristocrat, writer and scientist, with his religious environment mostly being of Eastern Christianity (however, at the same time, pro-Catholic or pro- Roman trends at the royal court and among the aristocracy were obvious), linked his confessional choice to the Catholic Church, and his political choice to the Catholic Europe. Orbeliani became a follower of Catholicism as early as in Georgia, and headed for Rome by transiting France to meet the supreme representatives of the Roman Curia and the Pope, as a member of the Roman Catholic Church.
The close relationship of Sulkhan-Saba Orbeliani with the Holy See is evidenced by his correspondence, preserved in Rome. Orbeliani’s letter addressed to the Pope Clement XI dated 1709 and the letter and benediction of Clement XI to Sulkhan-Saba dated 1715 are preserved.
However, before that, as early as in his youth, Orbeliani contributed to the preparation of the Georgian version of the Catechism of the Catholic Doctrine.
On November 7, 1687, a Catholic priest Justino of Leghorn (Livorno) sent a list of the newlyconverted Georgians from Tiflis to Rome. These were the Georgians, having joined the Roman Catholic Church not long ago. The list says, ‘…grand Sulkhan, son of a grand minister, cousin of the King, who is a most noble Georgian. If Your Highness wishes, He can see the virtuous deed he has done, as he has amended the Christian Doctrine, translated by me. He converted to Catholicism on August 15, 1687’
Naturally, Sulkhan Orbeliani, who was a representative of the Kaplanishvili-Bartashvili-Orbelisdze noble clan, scribe and statesman, would never make a decision to join the fold of the Roman Catholic Church only on the political or emotional grounds, or even under the influence of the Catholically oriented surroundings or personal influence of his close people (King Giorgi XI, mentor at the Royal Court, and namely to Sulkhan, in the first place). This was surely his inner choice stipulated by the young Sulkhan’s spiritual and cultural explorations. He converted to Catholicism and helped Father Justino to edit the ‘Christian Doctrine’ what was not only the professional aid by one of the most profound and graceful experts of the Georgian language, or paving the way to the origins of the Western Christendom for others, namely Georgian readers, but also this ‘virtuous deed’ is the demonstration of Saba’s intellectual approach – he wants to be well aware of and proficient in what he accepts; he wants every his step to be sensible and conscious.
As for the translated and amended text of The Christian Doctrine, an opinion suggesting that the translation by Sulkhan-Saba has not survived to our days as it fell victim to the historical cataclysms has been firmly established among the researchers of Sulkhan-Saba Orbeliani’s life and work. On the other hand, the depositories of Georgian manuscripts preserve a textbook of Christian doctrine by Sulkhan-Saba Orbeliani –The Christian Doctrine, a book for youth by Sulkhan-Saba Orbeliani called “The Gates of Paradise”. Not to mention other things, an autographic collection by Saba has survived to date, which is the pocket book, the author had with him during his pilgrimage in Rome and which includes the texts of a Catholic nature (the collection presumably was re-written for one’s personal use and was compiled with the aim of the above-mentioned awareness and proficiency). The autographic collection, which Orbeliani had with him in Europe and later brought to Georgia, starts with the text called The Christian Doctrine or The Gates of Paradise making one-third of the manuscript.
Particular research is needed to study not only the source (or perhaps, sources) serving as the basis for Saba’s The Gates of Paradise, but also the relation of the given text to other Georgian textbooks of Catholic doctrine created and published before and after. Therefore, at present it is difficult to state with confidence whether the text included in the autographic manuscript by Sulkan-Saba is the hortatory textbook prepared in Georgian jointly by the Italian priest Don Justino of Leghorn (Livorno) and Georgian writer Sulkhan Orbeliani. However, it should be noted that the following story might well be true: the catechism translated from Latin (or Italian) may have been amended and revised by Saba further including it in the collection with the Catholic spiritual-ecclesiastic texts in it.
The Christian Doctrine or The Gates of Paradise by Saba was subject to further revisions not once. The primary reason for the revision was an intention to widely use the text for the educational and tutorial purposes (and not only of the youths, presumably), which, in the form of questions and answers, describes the fundamentals of the doctrine of the Christian faith, Christian morale and divine service in an accessible, laconic and transparent language; however, to make the book acceptable for those, who did not recognize the supremacy of the Holy See, The Gates of Paradise by Sulkhan-Saba was purified off the Roman Catholic dogmata (this is particularly true with the fragments in the text considering the questions of procession of the Holy Spirit and supremacy of the Pope, where the Eastern and Western churches differ in their opinions). The manuscripts amended in such a way, either by preserving the authorship of Sulkhan-Saba, or anonymously (the name of Silkhan-Saba Orbeliani is erased in these manuscripts) have survived in large numbers. The names of the spotters are also known – Saba’s brother, the metropolitan Nikoloz of Tiflis; Vakhushti Bagrationi, a Georgian prince (Batonishvili); Mzechabuk Orbeliani and others. Among the amended versions, the one included in Saba’s autographic collection seems to undoubtedly belong to Saba. As for the manuscript, re-written by Nikoloz Chachikashvili in the about 80s of the eigteenth century, with its text acceptable for every member of the One Church in respect of confession – for the representatives of both, Eastern and Western Christianity (as all disputable issues between the East and the West are simply removed from the text), the opinion suggesting that the version preserved in it is the original one of the The Christian Doctrine or The Gates of Paradise created by Sulkhan-Saba, with the version included in Saba’s autographic manuscript being its version, which was revised later (in a Catholic manner) can be hardly substantiated, moreover when it was not unusual for Chachikashvili to change or edit the texts written by others (as in case of other texts by Orbeliani).
The study of various manuscripts and different versions of the text makes it clear that The Gates of Paradise was created by its author not as a textbook opposing the Christian faith, or an Eastern Christian textbook, but was originally created to express the Catholic position and was subject to confessional modifications later. The edition in question was first done by Nikoloz, Orbeliani’s brother, a metropolitan of Tiflis declaring the Eastern Christian position in it; later, Georgian prince Vakhushti removed the text fragments demonstrating Orbeliani’s Catholic position, replaced them by anti-Catholic fragments, which he further supplemented; the priest Nikoloz Chachikashvili ignored the confessional polemics and amended the text to make such confessional differences neutral. In addition, one more version identified recently, which must belong to Mzechabuk Orbeliani, shows an anti-Catholic preference. The history of creating and editing The Gates of Paradise, together with the personal and societal preference, clearly reflects the history of searching the ideological and cultural references in the given epoch.
At the same time, the Western Christendom preference of Orbeliani is demonstrated in his other texts, too. Among his ecclesiastic works, the confessional choice of Orbeliani can be found in the collection of sermons The Teachings consisting of the sermons told by the preacher before the community of the Davit-Gareja Monastery (the collection includes 46 sermons). In these texts, Sulkhan-Saba is shown as a diligent follower of the Gospel, devoted member of the Church and brilliant expert of ecclesiastic literary sources. It is important that, as it is known, according to the position of the Roman Church, the Head of the Church is a successor of St. Peter, and St. Peter is considered the prince of the Apostles. In the view of the Eastern Church, the princes of the Apostles are St. Peter and St. Paul, with St. Andrew enjoying a particular advantage, who, according to the Eastern tradition, is called the First-Called. The sermons by Sulkhan-Saba Orbeliani, which he preached at the Davit-Gareja Monastery, always name St. Peter as the prince of Apostles. It should be noted that those sermons were preached before Orbeliani openly proclaimed his Catholic preference. Therefore, the given and similar facts are to be given particular attention when judging about the early confessional sympathies of Orbeliani.
At present, without special comparative studies, it is difficult to say whether the mentioned sermons called The Teachings reflect Saba’s pro-Catholic disposition, and special research is needed for this purpose, but as mentioned above, repeatedly naming the Apostle Peter as the prince of Apostles and specially noting that Christ “Informed Peter about feeding His lambs and taught him leadership” and He “Appointed him the prince of Apostles” is evident. We would repeat that this fact is obvious, while according to the Eastern Christian-Byzantine tradition, the princes of Apostles are St. Peter and St. Paul, and the Apostle Andrew is honoured as a superior. It is known that the Catholic Doctrine about the supremacy of the Pope is based on the given tradition of the Gospel about the superiority of St. Peter, who is considered the first Episcope of Rome and accordingly, the first Head of the Catholic Church.
Orbeliani, as early as in his youth, on the instruction of King Giorgi XI, started to compile The Georgian Dictionary, which was later named Sitkvis Kona (The Bunch of Words) by King Vakhtang VI. The dictionary is the thesaurus of the Georgian language, the oldest one survived to our days. It also consists of a translation section (Italian, Turkish, Armenian). Saba’s dictionary, with its lexical completeness, accuracy and abundance of interpretation, and wide choice of sources, is a brilliant specimen of the Georgian lexicography. It should be noted that The Georgian Dictionary by Sulkhan-Saba Orbeliani includes a separate interpretation and consideration of the word ‘purgatory’. Purgatory, as a part of the afterlife is not recognized in the Eastern Christian-Byzantine ecclesiastic Doctrine. Therefore, such clear acknowledgement of the purgatory by Saba is a clear evidence of his confessional preference. The inclusion of the word ‘purgatory’ in the dictionary was followed by a clearly negative response by the Georgian ecclesiastics, which were the followers of the Eastern Christianity.
One of the most important specimens of the prosaic heredity of Sulkhan-Saba Orbeliani is so called Travels to Europe (unfortunately, the first half of the text, as well as the original title are missing), which is the description of Sulkhan-Saba’s Italian voyage and his returning home, to Kartli. The author briefly and often, emotionally shares his impressions with us, describes the landscape and architectural sites, tells us about his meetings with the Pope and Roman nobles, upper Catholic clergy and local father-confessors and ecclesiastics, painfully paints his return home, which was full of dangers and the trouble he had on his way back home and at arriving in Kartli inflicted by his compatriots because of him recognizing the Catholicism, or Orthodoxy, as he states. (It should be mentioned that for Orbeliani, like for any other Catholic, an ‘Orthodox’ means a follower of the Doctrine of the Catholic Church and accordingly, a Christian devoted to the Pope. The Travels to Europe is the first work of the genre of travel-and-pilgrimage in the Georgian literature describing the pilgrimage in the spiritual capital of the Catholic world, in Rome.
In addition, Sulkhan-Saba wrote several Catholic ecclesiastic texts, both liturgical and hagiographical, which are included in his autographic collection and are not published yet.
Sulkhan-Saba Orbeliani’s contribution to the Georgian Biblical studies is prominent. The so called The Bible of Mtskheta is edited by him, which is the most complete collection of the Holy Scripture texts of ancient Georgia survived to our days. The author of the concordance of this Bible is also Orbeliani. There is an opinion suggesting that while editing the Georgian text of the Bible and compiling its concordance, Sulkhan-Saba was guided by the sources of Western Christianity.
The researched problems and the results of the studies evidence Sulkhan-Saba Orbeliani’s close and sane association with the Western Christinity.
The paper was presented at the fourth Via Egnatia Conference held by the international scientific network in Tbilisi in 2009.
გამოქვეყნდა კრებულში: „ქართული წყაროთმცოდნეობა“ [რედ.: გიული ალასანია და მარიამ ჩხარტიშვილი] #13-14, 2011-2012, გვ. 235-238.
Published in: “Georgian Source-studies”, [Editors: Giuli Alasania and Mariam Chkhartishvili], vol. XIII-XIV, 2011-2012, pp. 235-238.
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