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Brief | Culture Ministry, Church at Odds over Expert Conclusion on Gelati Monastery Restoration

What happened?

The Giorgi Chubinashvili National Research Center for Georgian Art History and Heritage Preservation, an entity under the Ministry of Culture, released a critical report on restoration works at the Gelati Monastery Complex near Kutaisi, commissioned by the Georgian Orthodox Church.  

The Ministry of Culture responded with an official statement, noting that the document was “a collection of opinions by a group of politically motivated people” that was “far from a scientific conclusion.” 

In response, the Georgian Orthodox Church confirmed that the conclusion was prepared at their request and that “politics has nothing to do with the report, which is motivated by the best interests of monument preservation.”

What is the scope of the expert report?

The Chubinashvili Center reported on the conservation and restoration works carried out at the Gelati Monastery Complex, a UNESCO World Heritage site, since 2016.   

Background

  • According to some reports, after the 2016-2019 reconstruction, the frescos were damaged due to the low quality of the roofing.  
  • Despite rejecting these claims at the outset, the National Agency for Cultural Heritage Preservation of the Ministry of Culture decreed in 2020 to install temporary roofing. The experts say this did not help preserve the frescos either.  
  • We covered this issue in 2020: 20/10/2020 – Watchdog Requests Probe into Damages to Gelati World Heritage Site.

What happens now?

The Chubinashvili Center reported that the damaged sections were reinforced in 2020-2021, while a few months ago, the Italian-Georgian group completed the conservation work.  

According to the conclusion, the works were carried out “with complete disregard of professional expertise.” Instead of conservation, arbitrary toning/restoration of the painting in the western wing of Gelati main temple was done in a way that contradicts the opinions and recommendations of highly qualified foreign experts.

What are the problems?

  • There is a lot of “serious damage” to the frescoes in the western wing of Gelati, “the peeling sections of the painted layer have already been completely detached from the base and are crumbling off.”  
  • In 2020-2021, “the dissolution-crystallization process of salts is still underway” on the reinforced sections, and the frescoes are peeling and falling. 
  • The report assesses the approach used in the toning-restoration of the western wing as “an extremely alarming methodological violation,” which “fundamentally contradicts the highest international standards and the principles accepted and shared in Georgia.” The conclusion states that the restorers replaced “historical reality with interpreted reality.”

How did such violations occur?

  • The Center concludes that the decision-making process related to restoration works was overly centralized in the Ministry of Culture and lacked transparency. In addition, the criteria and mechanisms for evaluating works remain unknown. 
  • Documentation describing the works is difficult to obtain, even for professionals, and may not even exist. 
  • The destructive interventions in the authentic appearance of the painting of the western wing were carried out in secret from the professional circle – they did not go through any professional evaluation, review, or approval. 

What can be done?

To improve the current situation, the Chubinashvili Center considers it necessary:  

  • For field managers to implement the recommendations of highly qualified experts and to arrange temporary roofing to create an environment conducive to safe and long-term work.  
  • To carry out continuous monitoring of environmental conditions and paintings in all areas of the monastery.

Statement of the Ministry of Culture

In response to the conclusion published by the Chubinashvili Center, the Ministry of Culture accused the authors of political bias and personal attacks on the minister. According to the statement:  

  • The document “is a collection of opinions by a group of politically motivated people” that is “far from a scientific conclusion.”  
  • The reliability of the conclusion and the competence of the authors of the conclusion is not credible as the authors “criticize the works carried out and its methodology by means of visual inspection from the scaffolding and without any practical experience in the field of conservation-restoration of mural paintings.”  
  • With the participation of UNESCO experts, the Ministry is trying to solve the problem that “some of the ‘scientists-turned-politicians were not interested in during the entire 12 years before the appointment of Tea Tsulukiani as the Minister of Culture.” 

The Ministry noted that since May 2021, UNESCO and its bodies had been informed about all decisions and steps taken by the Ministry of Culture.  

According to the same statement, the conclusion published by the Chubinashvili Center was made by a “politicized group of scientists,” does not bear the signature of the head of the Center, and, therefore, does not represent the official position of the Center. 

Shortly after the publication of the conclusion, it was reported that the financial services entered Chubinashvili Center to audit its accounts. 

Statement of the Chubinashvili Center

The Chubinashvili Center said in response to the Ministry’s accusations that “the Ministry’s letter shows the desire to politicize the Gelati problem.” The Center underscored that the assessment of the state of Gelati is based on a qualified, objective analysis of the facts and not on “partisan interests” and that “political sympathies and antipathies do not guide experts in the performance of their professional duties.” 

The Center expressed hope that the strongly negative attitude of the Ministry towards the report is ”more of an irritation than the result of a rational judgment” and that “the cooperation of the state organizations responsible for the heritage preservation with a wide circle of Georgian experts will take place.” 

Statement of the Georgian Orthodox Church

The Georgian Orthodox Church supported the Chubinashvili Center and confirmed that:  

  • The conclusion was prepared at the request of the Georgian Orthodox Church and that “politics has nothing to do with it.” 
  • The Georgian Orthodox Church denied that the conclusion was prepared privately and had no legal basis.  
  • It confirmed that the conclusion was prepared “with the participation of the members of the Scientific Council” and was signed by the Director of the Center. 

Why is it important?

As soon as the first critical comments about the restoration of the Gelati complex appeared, the Ministry of Culture accused the opponents of political bias. It was insinuated that the restoration policy was criticized by people who worked in the Ministry under the National Movement government.

Immediately after the appointment of Tea Tsulukiani as Minister, old employees were dismissed from many agencies and museums operating under the Ministry. A number of steps were taken to return cultural heritage to the Church, including the transfer of cultural monuments to churches.

The Patriarchate’s support for the Chubinashvili Center reverses the track record of cordial understanding and puts Minister Tsulukiani in a difficult political spot.

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This post is also available in: ქართული (Georgian) Русский (Russian)

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