Samtavisi temple of Christ the Savior stands close to the main highway towards west Georgia, in the middle of a fenced yard that dominates the center of the village. The barrel of its dome erected of the heavens is noticeable even from a long distance, but the real merits and beauty of the temple can only be perceived at its close look. Apparently, Samtavisi has become the center of eparchy in earlier times – one of the 13 Assyrian Fathers, St Illarion settled here in VI c. So, by all means, the church should have been built there in those times. The remains of a large basilica excavated on the territory adjacent to the current church from the south perhaps belong to that initial church.
The present construction built-in 1030 is made of neatly hewn stone. It is a domed building with a so-called “incorporated cross” configuration having four columns supporting the dome. The construction inscription curved on the stone slab narrates the history of the church foundation – Bishop Illarion – the son of the local nobleman was the church building donor.
Quite possibly that the referred above Bishop Illarion was not only the donor but also the church designer. Provided the aforementioned assumptions are true we do know the name of one of the outstanding medieval architects of Georgia. Despite the fact that the cathedral has not survived in its original state – it suffered considerable damages in XV c and even though only the southern porch had avoided the effects of those hard times, general artistic features of the temple are unchanged – the entire construction is admirably light, proportionate and raised.
This temple has got particular historical significance – it is the very first of so-called “inscribed cross” – type domed churches, which have become common for Georgian art from that point onward.
The external outline of the temple is close to a square shape, the interior is rather simple and laconic, distinguished by a multitude of panorama achieved through an optical intersection of arches and supporting columns. The decoration of the eastern facade created by the architect of Samtavisi is of particular importance. This is the depiction of three crosses – a symbolic repetition of the scene of Mount Calvary Crucifixion actively used in Georgian church architecture since the VIII century as the essential element for the decoration of the sanctuary exterior.
In this particular case, the tri-cross decoration of Samtavisi is represented as an absolutely unified composition created by means of thoroughly interdependent elements. Repetitions or variations of such kind of decoration can be seen in a number of Georgian churches.
Fretwork used for decoration of Samtavisi window framing crosses or upper sections of the facades considerably determines the impression created by the entire construction. Highly expressive florist ornamentation coupled with matchless craftsmanship of its performance, plasticity, and beauty and at the same time tangibility and strength of the ornament is quite rare even for X – XII cc – the period that abounds with samples of perfect fretwork.
A very expressive small sculpture of a griffon apparently the defender and guard of the paradise, cut in the corner of the eastern facade gains eloquence to the construction. The sanctuary of the temple interior is adorned with XVII c wall paintings performed by the bishop of Samtavisi Meliton. The porch with the bell tower on top incorporated into the defensive stone wall should be of the same period, as stated regarding the bishop’s residence – now in ruins.