Problems Behind Gelati Monastery Conservation – Part 6

We talk about what is happening in Gelati monastery and why we all should be worried about 

Authors: Tamuna Kimadze, Nino Bakradze and Manana Ghoghoberidze

Gelati Monastery has been the focus of attention already for two years. First, water leakage and its damage to the unique frescoes was arranged after its uncertain maintenance and restoration. Since the summer of 2021, around a million was spent to cover expeditions by Italian and Georgian experts to save the monument. However, the future fate of the monastery is still unclear.

Now the works in the main temple have been paused. The officials wait for the instructions of the UNESCO mission. From 18 November to 2 December, the joint advisory delegation of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) and the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM) visited Gelati. Their conclusion will be a basis to decide when and how the work regarding restoring the damaged paintings of Gelati will continue. However, the question is how reliable and objective the evaluation would be because the state body has financed the visit – the National Agency for Cultural Heritage Preservation of Georgia.

According to the contract signed on 24 November, the state agency will pay the ICOMOS experts 6 000 euros requiring the evaluation of the restoration works related to the roofing of the temple of Virgin Mary of Gelati that was carried out for two years, review of the studies prepared on the monastery and evaluate the methods and the materials of the wall paintings in both western and northern part of the monastery. We are not surprised about the uncertainty regarding Gelati monastery conservation. This time, we face another uncertainty – how ICOMOS will evaluate the working methods and materials in the northern part of the temple from June 2021 until September 2022, when neither Italians nor Georgians have not worked at this part of the temple at all.

For two years, attention was paid to the painting of only the western part of the Church of the Virgin Mary, the work necessary for the replacement of the roof and the conservation of the painting was carried out there. The northern and southern parts remain the same. No attention is paid to the Church of St. George, a part of the complex, and the damage to its painting is also visible. The ICOMOS Georgia report also evidences this.

“It is important to mention that the instability of the wall painting was detected in local sections of other spaces of the main temple and other specific parts of the St. George’s Cathedral,” – reads the document published on 5 December.

Merab Buchukuri’s group worked with the Italians to conserve the painting of the western wing arch of the temple. Buchukuri is the head of the department of Icon Painting and the Restoration of Easel and Monumental Icon Painting at Tbilisi Theological Academy and Seminary. He confirms that they did not work on conserving the painting of the northern arm of the temple. They removed from one section of the arch mentioned above at the end of the summer for only 2-3 days.

“We only started working on a small fragment of the Northern arm, and our work has been stopped. Otherwise, we would love to continue work to uproot active salters. It doesn’t even mean intervention in conservation; while working on it with a small brush, you don’t touch it… I didn’t take responsibility for the rest of the interventions on myself. Moreover, the contract did not envisage it. I will also ask, what does this mean? If I did not work, what are they going to check?” – said Merab Buchukuri.

In conversations, the art experts also mention that the condition of the northern arch was discussed during the meetings organized by the agency. However, the most severe case was in the western part of the monument. So the work first started there. 

“The talks (about northern and southern wings) were all the time, not only at this meeting but the last meeting was specifically dedicated to its implementation (the work)]. And works were carried out only on the western wing because the condition here was complicated, and it is,” – told us the art expert Tsitsino Chachkhunashvili. She participates in the World Heritage Council established by the National Agency for Cultural Heritage Preservation of Georgia.

iFact has examined Gelati’s “adventure” for two years and follows the latest developments. Our investigation shows that the ongoing events around Gelati monastery are still not transparent and the fear that we might lose this most important cultural heritage of Georgia has the ground.

This fear is strengthened by the official document developed by the agency itself. Last April, they emphasized that “the process of identified damages is active and (Gelati monastery) is in grave danger of damaging the most important attributes of its special value that is common to all mankind.”

The report of ICOMOS Georgia, published on 5 December, is based on the conclusion of experts invited by the Patriarchate and is not promising either.

“At this stage, the damage to the wall paintings (in the western arm and the surrounding area) continues, and the loss of paintings has been increased,” – the report reads.

How the situation has changed after April is not yet known because the Ministry and the National Agency for Cultural Heritage Preservation are silent as night and do not bother to talk about the state of Gelati in detail. Despite the spent million, they tell us nothing about the results achieved or the plan.

The Patriarchate of Georgia does not speak publicly either. Although on its behalf, foreign experts visited Gelati and prepared a critical report on its state.

Our 2021 investigation showed that the damage done to Gelati resulted from the agency’s nepotistic style of management and organizational indifference. After the critical media interest and coverage of the topic, the head of the National Agency for Cultural Heritage Preservation, Nikoloz Antidze was dismissed. The newly appointed Minister of Culture, Thea Tsulukiani, expressed her interest in Gelati.

At that time, there were two things for the society questioning the condition of the monastery: fixing the roof so that water could not seep in and saving the painting. The Ministry, with the renewed staff, started working on these topics. However, it forgot to be accountable to the public and avoided publicly talking about the topic. From the summer of 2021, calls for new tenders have been released, and after spending up to one million GEL, it is still unclear what will happen to Gelati monastery in winter. 

What is the UNESCO mission about?

At the end of November, the UNESCO delegation visited Georgia to evaluate the situation around the Gelati monastery and to identify future steps. At first glance, it gives hope that the monument will not be touched before the conclusion of the international experts.

However, the UNESCO delegation did not visit the country independently. The government asked for their visit and the development of the recommendations. On November 24, the National Agency for Cultural Heritage Preservation officially signed a 6 100-euro contract with the International Secretariat of ICOMOS.

“iFact” got interested in our country’s already existing practice on international missions that have been paid for before. We talked to a former employee of the Ministry of Culture who worked in the Department of Cultural Heritage in that division that was in charge of the ICOMOS visits. The former employee did not want to reveal his/her identity. However, he told us anonymously that host countries do not finance ICOMOS monitoring missions. At least, that was the case during his/her presence. 

“Theoretically, I cannot exclude the case if Georgia hired and financed some expert from ICOMOS for research. During my time (until 2009), Georgia did not cover such expenses. ICOMOS paid visits at its own expense. There were several ICCROM missions when the leadership came at their own expense and did significant work around Mtskheta Cross Church.”

The art expert Nika Vacheishvili tells us that if the country decides to invite an international delegation of its own and it does not fit into the planned calendar, part of the expenses may be covered from the budget. However, as he remembers, these are miserably small expenses, only the coverage for accommodation and ticket price. Nika Vacheishili cannot recall a practice when the state has signed direct procurement for consulting services.

“UNESCO might recommend a company, and you can reach out to that company, but I am not sure; I don’t know about paying to ICOMOS directly,” – said Nika Vacheishvili.

We also asked ICOMOS what did they know about financing missions. We were told that the visits determined by the mandate of UNESCO are free of charge. However, there are also advisory missions, which can be requested by the state and it is paid in this case.

According to the document, the ICOMOS expert will evaluate the overall state of conservation of the monument, the environment, the works on the roof of the main temple, the methods and materials used for the conservation and restoration of the wall paintings on the western and northern arms, and review the findings of the already conducted studies. Based on the analysis expert will develop recommendations and future steps. UNESCO experts should submit the final report on conclusions and recommendations by the end of January 2023, within eight weeks of the visit to Gelati.

What happened and what is the fate of Gelati’s painting?

A few months after tiling the roof of the main temple of Gelati, we learned that water was leaking into the building and the medieval frescoes were being damaged. The western arm has the most difficult situation, but other parts were not saved from the rain and snow either.

After public criticism, the agency covered the tiled roof with another layer of tin. The agency thought that it might prevent the water from leakage. However, the frescoes were still damaged as the water accumulated under the tiles slowly seeped into the interior.

While having Gelati in this condition, the agency invited specialists from Italy for the first time last year. The association “Giovanni Secco Suardo” was instructed within the agreements signed at different times to develop specific actions and analyze the microclimate in the building to improve the condition of the painting.

The Italian association prepared the conclusion at the beginning of July 2021. The document describes the works that, in their opinion, would have rescued the painting and protected it from further damage. Based on these recommendations, urgent conservation work was started in Gelati.

From the beginning, Georgian and foreign specialists looked at the methodology proposed by the Italian experts with suspicion. They asked the agency to send the report to other foreign specialists for their evaluation.

Critique of International Experts

In September 2021, the British group “Rickerby& Sheked” evaluated the conclusion of the “Suardo” association. In May 2022, the Patriarchate of Georgia invited independent experts who expressed their opinion on the same conclusion. Their positions coincided with each other.

Both reports strongly criticized “Suardo’s” proposed recommendations, including the methodology for drying the walls and removing salt from the paintings. Both groups agreed that the study of the Italian company was incompetent, dismissing the evaluation of the painting technology and the type of paint. The Italian company assumed that all paintings were made with the fresco painting, which is not the case. We will tell you separately about criticism of the British group, followed by the evaluation of experts invited by the Patriarchate.

The British “Rickerby & Shekede” is considered trustworthy and holds a good reputation for conserving wall paintings. Its experts collaborate with the Courtauld Institute of Art (London) and the Getty Conservation Institute (Los Angeles). According to their conclusion, it gets known that “Giovanni Secco Suardo” violated international conservation standards. They recommended using substances without laboratory testing that could damage the painting years later. Some are used only on sandstone, brick or stone stacks, sealing materials, and not on wall painting.

In addition, ” Suardo ” recommended using synthetics and ammonium oxalate during conservation. “Rickerby & Shekede,” says that these types of substances will worsen the condition of paintings and speed up the salting process.

As seen from the conclusion of the British group, the Italian company planned the conservation of the painting so that it did not analyze the areas of penetration and spread of moisture. The company tried to determine the wetness, but with a tool used for timber. The humidity level was measured by putting salty paper sheets on the wall. They would leave papers and see if they got melted in a few days. “This is a basic method,” – says the Rickerby & Shekede review.

“Rickerby & Shekede” write that “Suardo” considered using high-concentration consolidants to fix the cracks. This is a gluing substance that should be washed off with hot water. Considering Gelati’s old and damaged painting, it would pose more risk to the monument.

Despite the negative evaluation of the British specialists, one month later, based on the 26 October 2021 agreement, the agency continued working with the Italian “Suardo” to develop recommendations for the restoration of the Gelati painting and to monitor the climate and paid 34 thousand euros for service. Before, the agency had three contracts with “Suardo” worth 38 thousand euros. In May and July 2022, the agency ordered another 142 thousand euros for work from Italians.

Another critical conclusion was issued regarding “Suardo’s” recommendations this year. At the beginning of May, the Patriarchate of Georgia invited experts from the United States, Britain and Switzerland for a two-day working visit. The experts were provided with all the documents prepared by the agency. The mission of this group was to study how the urgent conservation work was carried out, taking into account “Suardo” recommendations.

Like “Rickerby & Shekede”, the invited experts of the Patriarchate also disliked the plan of the Italian “Suardo”. According to them, these recommendations should be reviewed because considering them would worsen the state of Gelati even more.

The document says that the walls were still wet and salty in May, and “Suardo” developed the conservation plan without studying humidity and saltiness. In addition, there are no photographs evidencing that damages were examined. Moreover, “Suardo” rushed into the planning of the conservation. According to experts, in a waterproof building, a water-soaked 25-centimeter wall dries out in one year. In the case of Gelati, it may take 3 to 5 years. Until then, conservation works were too early to start.  “Suardo’s” recommendation to dry the wall artificially with heating was also disliked. Experts believe that this should happen naturally and gradually.

The head of the Georgian delegation group in Gelati, Merab Buchukuri, also confirms that urgent conservation works have been started on the damp walls. However, it was jointly decided by the Patriarchate, Ministry, Cultural Heritage Agency, art restorers and historians.

“We talked and jointly decided in the end that somehow we should take a risk and make it so that it can withstand the winter. We told them that if they take responsibility in the case, it will fall… What power did I have to go against the Patriarchate and the Ministry? As a rule, the student is also aware that the urgent work cannot be carried out on the wet surface, but it was in such a condition… we risked the fragments, we had no other choice considering the reality,” – says Merab Buchukuri.

In the report published by ICOMOS Georgia on 5 December, which is based on the conclusion of the Patriarchate invited experts, we read that in the main temple, “no urgent intervention was carried out, but full conservation work.”

The group invited by the Patriarchate says that “Suardo” applied the same conservation plan and the material to all paintings, which is inadmissible. According to the document, each painting is unique in its technique, composition, date of painting, and current condition. Therefore, it requires a unique treatment.

The group of experts invited by the Patriarchate, says that the moist air from outside also spells the salt from the walls. To control this, it is important to continue environmental monitoring, which was stopped in September 2021.

Merab Buchukuri tells us that this information is false and that environmental monitoring continued after September last year. According to him, even now, special measuring devices are installed in Gelati, equaling 15 units.  Based on the analysis, they identify whether it is permissible to continue the conservation works. He says that the invited experts of the Patriarchate were misled because the documentation was mistakenly provided to them by Mariam Sagaradze, a former employee of the National Agency for Cultural Heritage Preservation.

“She admitted that she was mistaken. What does it mean to mess up and confuse foreign experts? (Sagaradze) knows the theory of restoration but has no practical experience restoring any monument. I am sure that the information was shared incorrectly.  I don’t know why and when the information was shared and its purpose, ” said Merab Buchukuri.

Sagharadze teaches at the Art Academy. “IFact” tried to contact her. Academy representatives did not give us her contact number, saying that she was abroad and we could not reach out to her. Therefore, we e-mailed the questions to Mariam Sagaradze. We were interested in her version of the story, what mistake she made in providing the documents, and if so, why the final version of the report was not corrected with the facts.

According to the document, “Suardo” recommendations allowed using acryl, silicates, phosphates, oxalates, and nanomaterials in conservation, which are incompatible with the original painting technology. Experts say that using polymers can interfere with the flow capacity of water vapor, which will lead to the crystallization of salts below the paint layer or inside the plaster.

International experts also negatively evaluate the method of salt removal from the painting surface, developed by “Suardo” which was removing salt from the surface with a soft brush and water-containing materials.

“There are many different types of salt. If we do not know the origin of the salt, using water can worsen the situation. The use of acryl is not recommended because it changes the properties of the painting, crystallizes salt in deeper pores, behind the paint layer, inside the plaster,” – the conclusion reads.

They also criticize the wall-strengthening works. As it turns out, “Suardo” recommended using slaked lime and silicon-containing aggregates here. The invited experts of the Patriarchate concluded that adding water-mixed materials would activate the soluble salts and create worse problems.

We inquired with the National Agency for Cultural Heritage Preservation information how the Italian company was selected. We asked for market research documents to find out the information about other candidates and the selection criteria of “Giovanni Secco Suardo”. The agency has not yet provided the requested information.

We also sent questions to the official email address of the Italian association “Giovanni Secco Suardo.” We have not received answers from them either. We will update the material as soon as we receive it. Also, we continue to investigate how the agency found this organization and why they decided to entrust the Gelati monastery painting.

From July to October 2022, the Georgian group worked with the Italians on conserving the painting of the arch of the western arm of the temple. Merab Buchukuri leads the Georgian group. Buchukuri is the head of the department of Icon Painting and the Restoration of Easel and Monumental Icon Painting at Tbilisi Theological Academy and Seminary. His assistant Zaza Sumbadze is also working on restoring Gelati’s painting.

When painting works in Gelati started, professionals interested in the future of Gelati complained that carrying out this work on wet walls would worsen the situation. British specialists said the same thing last summer. “Rickerby & Shekede’s” report states that if the walls of Gelati are still wet, reinforcing the painting, there will create more problems than they are now. The group invited by the Patriarchate to visit Gelati at the beginning of May 2022 repeats the same.

Italian specialists were responsible for controlling the humidity in the temple. They had to install the appropriate equipment and prepare reports. We requested information from the Ministry on if the humidity level in the building is controlled and what was its monthly level. The Ministry did not respond to this letter, as before. Merab Buchukuri told us: “I know that there are 15 installed pieces measuring as per need. I am not a specialist in this field and my recommendation is invalid. I was told, either it can be done [conserved] or it can’t.”

We also requested from the Ministry of Culture all the conclusions and recommendations issued by foreign experts around Gelati. However, we did not receive a response. Consequently, we decided to get public information through the court. In this dispute, lawyers of the Institute for Development of Freedom of Information (IDFI) will present us. Currently, we are waiting for the scheduling of the court session.

What is happening in Gelati’s attic now?

When the glazed tile covered the roof, the open spaces with waterproofing and ventilation were also filled. It was then said that this was a new waterproofing layer to which the tile had to be attached.

A new waterproofing layer was made on all parts of the temple’s roof: the sails, arms, and narthex. No air layer under this roof would naturally create insulation, as with the dome. Pumice stone, foam concrete and lime layer were used as filler. But this happened without prior planning. The project documentation has not been handed to International ICOMOS or UNESCO.

 “Likely, the damping/wetting of the upper sections of the facades is related to the damage to the tiles, and the waterproofing layer cannot prevent water infiltration from the damaged roofing. As a result, water gets into the wall’s structure, but due to the presence of the waterproofing layer, it cannot evaporate and finds its way out on the wall’s surface,” – reads the report prepared by the agency.

The agency also concludes that waterproofing damps the interior. Instead of protecting the painting from water, on the contrary, it contributes to its damage. It comes out on the inner surface because the tile above prevents evaporation.

This waterproofing layer is still in place on the north and south wings of the temple. No one removed it from the roof and did not restore the free air space.

This year the works were carried out on the western arm only. “Capitelin engineering” LLC removed the tiled roof and the temporary covering. Removed the waterproofing layer under the tile, soaked with water through which moisture reached the interior. The company made a temporary metal roof again. The service cost amounts to 225 thousand GEL.

Both Suardo’s first and the agency’s mission reports say that water was also detected into other arms. Damage was observed on both the northern and southern arms. Merab Buchukuri told us that in the summer, they also noticed the salts coming out from this part and started to remove it from the surface, but only hastily, for 2-3 days. This is not conservation. According to the agreements signed with the agency, Buchukuri is not obliged to work on the conservation of the painting of the southern and northern arms. He confirms this in our interview.

Tsitsino Chachkhunashvili is a senior researcher at George Chubinashvili National Research Centre for Georgian Art History and Heritage Preservation. Chachkhunashvili, as an art expert, also participates in the World Heritage Council established by the National Agency for Cultural Heritage Preservation of Georgia. During these two years, we talked to Chachkhunashvili about Gelati many times.

Our last conversation took place on 21 November. According to her, the condition can be similar to other parts of the monastery, as observed in the western arm.  As Chachkhunashvili tells us, there was a discussion at the council meeting. “There was also such an opinion that scaffoldings should be towered up everywhere and the painting should be monitored. It may appear here (on the western arm) and may not be clearly seen elsewhere, and the process will begin. However, the conservation of the painting there had not yet been carried out because the walls were still wet. That’s why I say that many things need to be checked, even the analysis of what has been done,” says Chachkhunashvili.

No one is working in Gelati right now.  The works were stopped until they received advice from UNESCO experts. The head of the Georgian group of specialists, Merab Buchukuri thinks the works will continue from spring.

“It is West Georgia, if it rains, it will be difficult to dry out; if the weather is good, it will start soon (conservation works). It would take months. We also asked Massari and he told us that it requires a few 3-4 warm months. It could start in May… Greek, French and Italian experts have paid a working visit. We will wait for their recommendation and based on that, either I will proceed, or as they decide… it is not up to me,” – they told us Buchukuri during a telephone interview.

The damage to the Gelati monastery is a criminal offense. The harm to Gelati is visible, and there is no doubt about that. Who, when and why damaged the monastery is also known. The Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association filed a lawsuit and addressed the prosecutor’s office.

An investigation started two years ago, but the prosecutor’s office is silent. The Financial Police has launched another investigation to detect financial crime in the Gelati case. They are silent, too; nothing is known about the progress, not the investigation result.

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