This article was originally published in Kunstpedia in August 2012
Situated up on a mountainous ridge overlooking the desert plains of Azerbaijan are a group of abandoned caves that shelter one of Georgia’s best art treasures – the frescos of the Davit Gareji school.
Georgia may be considered a part of Europe, albeit one of its most eastern frontiers, but its art history differs significantly from its Western European counterparts like Italy or the Netherlands. Up until the 18th century, easel painting didn’t really exist in Georgia; instead Georgian art mostly took on the form of murals and frescoes that dot the country’s various monasteries and churches.
The artistic renaissance came to Georgia much earlier than in Western Europe, when the great heights of mural painting experienced their golden age between the 11th-13th centuries. Frescos often were inspired by religious themes, but not limited to them since murals of a more secular nature also exist.
In style, the colouring and the iconography of Georgian frescoes display an influence from the Byzantine style, yet they encompass their own individual reimaging of motifs and stylisation distinguishing Georgian art of the middle ages from its Byzantine counterpart.
Various national schools with their own unique styles sprung up around the South Caucasian country, which not only celebrated Georgian hagiography, but also drew influences from the cultural contacts they had with their neighbouring countries.
One of the most important fresco schools of Georgia’s golden age was at the rock-hewn Davit Gareji monastic complex located in the south of the country on today’s border with Azerbaijan.
The main monastery of the Davit Gareji, known as Lavra, originates from the 6th century. This was founded by St. David Garejeli, one of the 13 ascetic Syrian fathers who returned to Georgia from the Middle East to spread the word of Christianity. Over time, the complex grew over the area where separate cave monasteries sprung up in the nearby mountains, including Udabno and its famous frescos.
The Davit Gareji monastery complex soon became Georgia’s sacred spiritual and cultural centre where the translation of manuscripts took place and birthed the once flourishing Davit Gareji fresco school.
The private art school of fresco painting of Udabno became one of the most significant events in the cultural life of Georgia’s middle ages. Where the colourful murals of Udabno chronicle the development of the life within the monasteries. When Davit Gareji reached its zenith in the 11th-13th centuries, the artistic school evolved from its austere style with the limited palette of its 10th century frescoes into the lush, brilliantly coloured and highly stylized murals of its golden age – reflecting the prosperity not only of the monastery, but also of the Kingdom of Georgia itself.
The cave complex of Udabno on the ridge above the original Lavra monastery was founded between the 8th-10th centuries. It spans more than 500m across the mountainside. Carved into the rock face, the now abandoned Udabno monastery consists of over 50 overgrown caves that once housed cells, chapels, churches and even a refectory.
The frescos of Udabno serve as a living chronicle to the progression of Georgian medieval art. Some of the older frescos date back as far as the 9th-10th centuries to the revered 13th century murals.
In some places in the Udabno complex, you can see where the old frescos were over-painted in the 13th century. The school at Davit Gareji did not use the Byzantine technique of applying a plaster basecoat before repainting, but only administered a thin layer of white paint before the new fresco was applied. Nowadays, this allows art historians to investigate the older painting underneath the newer layer, since the flaking of the topcoat causes the fragments from the older murals to show through.
The life of St. David Garejeli is chronicled in an older fresco in one of the chapels at Udabno, underneath the life of St. Nino, a 4th century Georgian female evangelist, that was painted in the 13th century on top of the original. Both frescos are rare, since it is unusual in Byzantine and Eastern Christian art to chronicle the lives of local and national saints.
Visiting the frescos of the Davit Gareji School is more complex than taking a trip to the National Gallery or driving to a monastery or church in a town. The Davit Gareji complex is situated in the middle of nowhere between the southern Georgian steppes and the Azeri desert, with nothing but a bad road and a soviet era taxi to get you there.
Even after a bumpy ride through what is a stunning landscape that feels more like Central Asia than Eastern Europe, the journey hasn’t finished yet. The Lavra monastery is located right next to the car park, but it’s a place of holy residence and not a tourist centre. Visitors are allowed into the courtyard to enjoy the view of the sandstone caves, but no further – since there is still a colony of monks residing on the premises who value a life of tranquillity and peace.
Udabno is accessible from Lavra, but involves an hour-long hike up the mountainside to reach the ridge where the abandoned caves are located. Even at 11am the temperature reached over 35°C, going up by five degrees when you cross into Azerbaijan, and you have to pay attention to the dirt path leading upwards in case you come across the occasional poisonous viper or two.
Natural health hazards aside, the site has been a subject for political debate for some time since it falls right on the Georgian-Azeri border. Back in May this year, the site was closed off to the public by Azerbaijan over territorial disputes with Georgia. Fortunately, after discussions between Baku and Tbilisi, the Davit Gareji monastery was reopened to allow visitors and pilgrims back in. Although getting to the caves of Udabno means you’ll unintentionally cross into Azeri territory, it’s unlikely you’ll come across any border guards until you reach the top of the ridge, and Kalashnikovs aside, they’re very friendly and helpful guys.
Experiencing the frescos of Udabno is unlike any art pilgrimage I’ve had before – this was the Indiana Jones experience of the art world. We were totally alone up on the ridge, with no other tourists in sight walking an uneven dust track that lay between the caves and a steep drop into Azerbaijan. There are no labels telling you who painted the fresco and what it depicts. Neither are there any cordoned off paintings nor gallery security guards to keep you from getting up close and personal with the murals.
Most of the frescoes are in poor condition, since the Soviet army had used the caves around Davit Gareji for artillery practice due to the region’s resemblance to Afghanistan, not to mention the damage caused by the 17th century Persian invaders who defaced some of the paintings. There is also no climate control up here to preserve the frescoes and since the caves are exposed to the elements, only time will tell how long these gems of Georgian art will survive. You may have to brave the desert, the mountain, the Azeri border guards and poisonous snakes to visit them, but the beauty of the Davit Gareji frescoes makes the journey worth it.
Jennifer is a freelance writer specialising in art, travel & culture. This blog is a melange of her published articles and independent thoughts.