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Fire damages Medieval frescoes in Georgian cave monastery

The blaze at the Church of the Dormition of the Mother of God at Vardzia may have been started by a monk’s candle

A fire on 1 November has damaged historic frescoes at Vardzia, a 12th-century cave monastery carved into the Erusheti Mountain in southern Georgia. Local media reports that the blaze at the Church of the Dormition of the Mother of God may have been started by a monk’s candle. 

The church was built in the 1180s by Queen Tamar the Great (reigned 1184-1214) and is central to lore about her military prowess. The monastery is now part of the Vardzia Historical-Architectural Museum-Reserve and is one of Georgia’s most popular tourist sites.

Specialists from London’s Courtauld Institute of Art and the Tbilisi State Academy of Arts carried out a four-phase conservation project at the site from 2012 to 2015, under the auspices of the National Agency for Cultural Heritage Preservation of Georgia. “As a result of the recent conservation programme, we also now know that the technological luxury, sophistication and superb quality of the paintings match their historical importance,” says Sharon Cather from the Courtauld’s wall paintings conservation department.

Amarilli Rava, a lecturer at the Courtauld, and Nana Kuprashvili from the Tbilisi academy’s restoration, art history and theory department, were dispatched with Georgian team members to assess the damage, “which initially appears to be deposition of smoke”, and “to undertake assessed trials of mitigation,” Cather says. Kuprashvili and a colleague, Mzia Janjalia, stress that a detailed assessment and proper analysis of the current state of the frescoes is crucial for further decisions.