The Art of the Khelrtva

Credit: National Center of Manuscripts, 2017. “Signature of Mariam Dadiani (1783–1841) on a deed signed by Solomon II of Imereti (1772–1815) for Jruchi Monastery, 1809.”

From kheli (ხელი) “hand, handwriting” and the verbal root rtva (რთვა) “adorn, decorate” — the khelrtva (ხელრთვა) is one of the most complicated calligraphic traditions in medieval handwriting, rivaling that of the Ottoman tughra, the Japanese kaō, or the Jeli Diwani variety of Arabic script (also used by the Ottomans under Suleiman I).

The khelrtva is a type of handwritten cursive— or, just a signature — that was used by the nobility, patriarchate, and monarchy of the Kingdom of Georgia (and, its successor kingdoms) — reaching the height of its known popularity between the 12th and 14th centuries.

Its use was revitalized in the 18th and 19th centuries, preceding Georgia’s incorporation into the Russian Empire in 1801.

It combines block and cursive letters, different scripts, symbols, artwork, and monograms to create a complicated, overlapping form of writing used to identify a regent, their issue, their house, and title.

Contemporarily, Prime Ministers, Presidents, and Speakers of Parliament in Georgia have sometimes opted to use a modern form of the khelrtva in place of a traditional signature — melding block symbols with cursive— such as Giorgi Gakharia:

Credit: Government of Georgia, “Order №2 of the Prime Minister,” 2020

A khelrtva is sometimes referred to in historical documents as the right hand of the Lord (საუფლო ხელი) — a reference to the artistic motif that draws inspiration from the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

The first appearances of the khelrtva begin in the 11th c., largely with offices of appointed roles — such as the Mechurchletukhutsesi (მეჭურჭლეთუხუცესი), the office of the royal treasurer — marking deeds, tax documents, and wills with a small seal.

Signatures from the 11th c. — 13th c. are relatively small, but gradually grow in size, complexity, and extravagance over time — culminating in massive signatures by members of the House of Bagrationi in the 15th c. — 18th c., centuries after the collapse of the Unified Kingdom of Georgia and the era of the Triarchy of Imereti, Kartli, and Kakheti.

Of all the consecrated rulers of medieval Georgia, very few definitive, legible instances of the khelrtva remain — although, the National Center of Manuscripts in Tbilisi has boasted a collection of 65,000+ documents. The vast majority of which have not been examined, verified by scholars, digitized, or made available to the general public.

Credit: National Center for Manuscripts, 2014, “Signature of Queen Tamar with David Soslan, 1202.”

Digitization of the khelrtva of Queen Tamar:

Credit: Wikimedia Commons, National Center for Manuscripts, 2014

There are only three known documents that were written and/or signed by Queen Tamar that researchers have come to a consensus on. This one — a deed drafted by court scribe Iakob Itsrelisdze transferring a servant to Tamar and David Soslan— is one of the three.

As readers of Georgian may notice, many of the khelrtva signatures from nobility, consorts, a batonishvili (ბატონიშვილი), or the patriarchy are formed from Mkhedruli script — the contemporary script. Sometimes they are in Nuskhuri, but this usually *only* for royal offices approving legal documents.

However, the khelrtva monogram of a regent is *always,* without exception, written in Asomtavruli — the most ancient, original Georgian script.

Such as Tamar’s monogram from 1200, as seen on this coin with accompanying Arabic script:

Credit: CNG Coins, 2010

Here is a digitization of Tamar’s monogram:

Credit: Kober, Wikimedia Commons, 2008

Beginning in the early 11th c., the khelrtva — as both a signature and monogram was pretty uncomplicated, small, and legible for the average literate Georgian.

Credit: CNG Coins, 2008

Here we have a coin of Bagrat IV from about 1060 CE, with his accompanying khelrtva in Asomtavruli script. Notice how there is no overlap in the letters to form a single symbol.

If we move to George II, immediate successor to Bagrat IV, we can see his signature — which, again, is quite uncomplicated, but more unique:

Credit: National Archives of Georgia, Accessed 3 March 2021

However, when we move on to David the Builder, it begins a trend where the khelrtva becomes increasingly long — sometimes including family names, titles, consorts, issues, the year, and so on. Not necessarily complicated and difficult to read, but much longer:

Credit: Wikimedia Commons, National Archives of Georgia, 2014

If we were to fast-forward about three centuries to the collapse of the Kingdom of Georgia, the Triarchy of Kings, and the decline in sovereignty of a unified House Bagrationi, we begin to see a move away from using a legible khelrtva — starting a trend that combines both the cursive and symbols, blurring the lines between a signature and monogram:

Credit: National Archives of Georgia, Signature of Vakhtang IV, 2020

Some regents, such as Alexander II of Imereti (15th c.), use a combination of both traditions:

Credit: Carnby, Wikimedia Commons, 2014

In the 16th c., we see again the usage of simple signatures and monograms to designate regents — largely those of Kartli — like Luarsab II:

Credit: National Archives of Georgia, 2020

And Bagrat VII:

Credit: National Archives of Georgia, 2020

This trend continues until the late 18th c. and early 19th c., when the khelrtva reaches the height of its complexity under regents like Solomon II:

Credit: National Center of Manuscripts, 2017. “Solomon II’s handwriting on a deed he issued to the Jruchi Monastery,1809.”

The khelrtva is important to the study of medieval Georgia, because its significance is not only one of political or dynastic tradition. As mentioned earlier, this form of signature carries religious connotations too — thus being an integral part of identifying clergy in historical documents.

Think of the khelrtva in the same way as you would an ancient Christogram, like Chi-Rho (☧). This was the tradition that the medieval Georgians were trying to emulate.

The nobility kept the khelrtva tradition strong for nearly 800 years, through occupations by the Arabs, Turko-Persian Timurids, and Russians. Even as different Georgian regents converted to Islam or intermarried, they kept the tradition of their noble signatures.

It is much more than a complicated signature or monogram, but it is a reflection of Georgian identity — and, Orthodox Christian heritage. It firmly grounded regents and consorts in the House Bagrationi, it legitimized their signatures on legal documents, and it served as a symbol on decrees, currency, and banners to identify their sovereignty over Georgian territory.

With more than 65,000 historical manuscripts kept at the National Center for Manuscripts, the National Archives of Georgia, and the National Parliamentary Library in Tbilisi — there is an unknown number of monograms, seals, and signatures yet to be uncovered.

Although we only have knowledge of a few, Georgian history spans thousands of years. Who knows what is yet to be discovered?

More examples:

Credit: Wikimedia Commons, “Signature of Archil Bagrationi, 1705,” 2014
Credit: National Archives of Georgia, “Rusudan of Kartli, 18th c.,” 2020
Credit: National Archives of Georgia, “Signature of Constantine II, 1467,” 2020
Credit: Wikimedia Commons, “Signature of Erkele II,” 2014
Credit: Wikimedia Commons, “Signature of Teimuraz II,” 2014

Alexander Leslie is a foreign policy analyst, freelance journalist, and has an M.A. in Eurasian, Russian, & East European Studies from Georgetown University. His interests include U.S.-Georgia relations, energy politics, and studies in counterterrorism policy.

Contact: aejleslie@gmail.com

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