Garo Nalbandian

The medieval Georgian poet, Shota Rustaveli (c. 1166–1250), is pictured in this wall painting, kneeling between Saint Maximus the Confessor, left, and Saint John of Damascus; both saints were composers of hymns. Shota, an envoy of Queen Tamar of Georgia (1184–1213), came to Jerusalem at a time when Georgia had achieved cultural, economic and military hegemony in the Black Sea region; he was to oversee what would become a rich restoration of the Monastery of the Cross, after the Crusaders had been driven from Jerusalem in 1187. Under his care, the compound attracted many scholarly monks, whose works later constituted the monastery’s first library. Shota also commissioned several beautiful wall paintings that comprised a major part of the monastery’s art collection.

This portrait of Shota was noted in the accounts of Georgian visitors to the monastery in the 18th and 19th centuries, but later the portrait mysteriously disappeared. In 1960 a trio of Georgian scholars visited the monastery to find Shota’s portrait. Following the descriptions in the earlier accounts, the group removed the outer layers of paint from a darkened section of the dual portrait to reveal a small kneeling figure who held out his hands in a gesture of supplication. The four-line inscription in ancient Georgian script over his head left no doubt as to the identity of the petitioner: “Lord, remember your servant Shota, who did all this. Amen.”