monastery in the Gareja Desert in Georgia
Gareja, a semi-arid desert on the frontier of Georgia and Azerbaijan, has been a home for ascetic monks since the first foundation of a monastery there in the sixth century by St Davit Garejeli, one of the so-called 13 Syrian Fathers. At its height in the twelfth-thirteenth centuries around twenty monasteries and hermitages functioned in this inhospitable region. In October 2001 a small project was set up to investigate a series of wall paintings from the early middle ages in the main church at one of the monasteries, Udabno. The project was run by a small team from the University of Warwick and the Gareja Studies Centre in Tbilisi, under its director Dr Zaza Skhirtladze.
Udabno monastery is located on a ridge high above the first monastery, the Lavra. It is made up of caves cut into the rocks across more than 500m of the cliff face. More than fifty rock-cut chambers, including churches, chapels, cells and a refectory survive, although the fronts of many have collapsed over the centuries. Wall paintings from the ninth or tenth century to the thirteenth survive in eight of the churches and chapels and also in the monks’ refectory.
The main church of the monastery consists of two parallel caves, the main nave and a second chamber cut deeper into the rock on its north side. The southern half of the main cave has now collapsed, but the inner cave survives complete. Both structures were painted (and in parts repainted) at different times. This project was concerned with the paintings in the deeper of the two caves, known as the diakonikon. This chamber is almost the same size as the main nave (c. 12 x 6m.) and is now totally covered with wall paintings of the thirteenth century. However, in places fragments of earlier painting show through the top layer. The paintings are of particular importance as each layer is dedicated to the life of a major Georgian saint: the lower layer shows the life of St Davit Garejeli, the founder of monasticism in the region, and the upper layer depicts scenes from the life of St Nino, the fourth-century female evangelist of Georgia. In both cases, the depictions are the earliest known cycles dedicated to these two saints. They are therefore very important in the history of Georgian art. Both are also unusual in Byzantine and east Christian art in general, as painted lives of local/national saints are few and far between.
This project was instigated to decipher what can be seen of both layers of painting, and to make an accurate record of all surviving details. It has long been recognised by scholars that two layers of painting exist, and previous attempts have been made to record what exists in each layer; the last attempt was made nearly forty years ago. Our aim was to make a new record by producing 1:1 traced copies of all surviving fragments of painting and so reconstruct the iconography as accurately as possible and so learn more about the paintings, when they were produced and how they should be interpreted.
The ability to distinguish between the two layers is made possible by the way in which the second layer was added. Rather than paint it on a new layer of plaster (as was more common practice in Byzantium), it was painted directly over the first layer, with only a thin cover of white paint in between. This was only loosely attached to the wall and has slowly flaked away in many places, revealing the outline of the painting underneath. It is therefore possible to read much of the scheme of the lower layer, but it requires very close scrutiny. The paintings are very difficult to conserve and restore as any action designed to protect one layer tends to harm the other.
All our equipment, including very heavy old Soviet scaffolding poles and planks, a generator, lights and other materials had individually to be carried up the cliff from the Lavra-- a tough thirty minute climb (especially on the day that it rained). We are very grateful to Father Superior Louka at the Lavra, who organised help for us from among his small community of monks and lay brothers.
The painting of the life of St Davit Garejeli is limited to the west wall of the diakonikon and the western half of the north wall. The only other parts of the church that were painted at the same time were the apse and a giant cross on the ceiling. In the thirteenth century the whole church was covered in painting. The second half of the life of St Davit was covered with the new scenes of St Nino, and the first half on the west wall was covered by three scenes of the miracles of Christ. It was at this time that paintings were first put on the south wall and the ceiling covered with new images as well. Interestingly, the original paintings in the apse were left untouched, which allows us to gain some impression of the austere style and limited palette of the first layer of painting.
The actual work of making the copies was led by Davit Gagoshidze, an artist from Tbilisi who is also trained as a restorer (who is ranked at the highest level and works for the Institute for the Preservation of Georgian Monuments). We worked in pairs, scrutinising every square centimetre of the wall surface first looking for fragments of the lower layer of painting, and then the upper layer. One person held the light and the other copied what was seen. Every mark was recorded on special tracing paper carefully fixed to the wall in front of the paint surface. Fortunately, the colours used by the different painters and their manners of painting (especially the thickness of lines they drew) is distinct in each layer so they were relatively easy to distinguish – where they were visible.
Over the following week we worked through all the scenes – six in the lower layer and seven in the upper layer (four from the St Nino cycle, and three from the life of Christ). For the lower layer, the speed of our work was greatly helped by the previous records made, particularly that of Guram Abramishvili in the late 1960s. This provided a framework of where on the walls to look. The copies of the upper layer life of St Nino were easier to make as they required only looking at the surface of the wall. Despite St Nino’s importance in the history of Christianity in Georgia, these earliest depictions of her life have never been the subject of specific study.
Our new version of the life of St Davit differs significantly from the earlier copies, partly because more of the paint has fallen away since they were made, and partly as we were able to use much stronger lighting than was available in the 1960s. Conversely, however, some details that were visible then are now lost. We have found considerably more detail in many of the scenes. We discovered a whole new figure of a monk on the west wall, and our understanding of one scene was completely transformed: where previous scholars had seen two monks walking to the right, we found one monk facing left and climbing a ladder, carrying the second man in a sack on his back. We were also able to discern much more of the background and landscape of the scenes: we found grass and flowers around the feet of many of the figures – transforming what was thought to be arid desert into much more verdant pasture. The task now is to work out how the scenes relate to the medieval texts of the life of St Davit, to date the paintings more accurately, and to see what we can learn about desert monasticism at the time the paintings were made.
As is always the way with this sort of work, every discovery has prompted us to ask more questions, and has produced new problems. Why did the monks choose the scenes from the life of St Davit that they did? Why did the monks decide to replace the life of their founding saint with that of St Nino? How did each cycle relate to the other paintings in the church? How did these paintings relate to the function of this second chamber cut deep into the rock of Udabno mountain? These we must now attempt to resolve.