Georgian Cloisonne Enamel

In the conditions of world globalization, a big part of modern mankind realized how important human ties are to their roots. Once neglected traditions today acquire vital importance. People search for and go back to old traditions, create and implement new ones, which time will give their proper places in the processes of the development of mankind.

Georgian Cloisonne Enamel
Christ Pantocrator, gold reliquary cover, 10th Century, Georgian, 6 x 3 cm.

For those who have been in contact with Georgia, it is known that this small country has always been and still is a country following its numerous and rich traditions. And if any from these traditions was lost, it was only due to its complicated and full of contradictions history.

Georgia, with its spiritual and material treasures, occupies a very significant place in the world culture. We have not mentioned spiritual and material culture accidentally, as the story that we are going to tell unites in itself both of these two concepts and perfectly ties them to each other. This is Georgian cloisonné enamel, which according to the survived earliest examples counts at least twelve hundred years of existence.

This sphere of art flourished in the medieval centuries in Byzantium. Georgian cloisonné as well as the whole Georgian culture at that time, was in very close connection with the Byzantium world, it organically absorbed its best traditions of the Byzantine school of cloisonné and created unique examples of cloisonné, adjusting them to Georgian manner and taste. ‘Moreover, among the few earliest surviving monuments of world cloisonné Georgian materials, have special significance, as iconoclasm, which ruined numerous monuments of early Christian art, remained strange to Georgia and did not interfere intense creative life, which covered all the medieval centuries and created most sophisticated masterpieces of cloisonné enamel. They are gathered and safely stored in the gold fund of the State Museum of Fine Arts, one can see a couple of old cloisonné works in Svaneti and Kutaisi, but main materials that consist of more than 200 things belong to Tbilisi Collection.

It goes without saying that it is not the number, which completely describes the production made throughout centuries. “Mostly cloisonné enamels were scattered in different churches and monasteries of Georgia. When they were robbed and set on fire many of these things were lost without traces. Many were found in different museums (The Hermitage, Berlin, Metropolitan Museum etc) and private collections.

Majority of existing monuments of cloisonné are dated back to VIII-XII cc. Despite of their age. the overwhelming majority of them have preserved their original glamour and are not ruined. We also have works of the later period of XV-XVII cc.

Georgian collection occupies its dignified place among the world treasures for its richness, diversity and high artistic value. According to the researchers it is a worthy rival of the richest Venice Pala d’Oro. Only Khakhuli triptych will suffice. To quote the scientists this icon itself is a whole museum of cloisonné and thus is an absolutely unique monument of cloisonné.

Khakhuli icon was kept at the Gelati Monastery, which in 1859 was robbed. The icon was stolen and after found itself in the private collection of Botkin. In 1923 the icon returned back to Georgia.

Georgian Cloisonne Enamel
Khakhuli Icon, fragment, electrum, 10th Century. Georgian.

This is a gold chased icon adorned with 115 cloisonné enamel medallions and precious stones. It is a wonderful example of Golden Age of Georgian history and accurately represents the richness and the greatness of the epoch. Its decorations are dated to the VIII-XI cc. Medallions are of a small size except the central picture of the Virgin, which is greatly damaged (survived only the hands and the face of the saint). It is the biggest in the world cloisonné (116 cm x 95 cm).

Ehakhuli icon as well as the whole collection consists of two groups of cloisonné, Georgian and Byzantine, this gives us a good chance to compare them and trace their resemblances and differences. Greek and Georgian inscriptions, names of various historical people combined with stylistic means is the only way to give exact dating of the piece, as the exact date of its creation is never known. By the way, this is generally applied to Georgian art. Georgian masters always tried to avoid immortalization of their names. That is why only identification of mentioned in the inscriptions historical names and events makes it possible to date the things.

Georgian Cloisonne Enamel
Virgin Mary Kyriotissa, gold, 10th Century, Georgian.

Every sample of Georgian cloisonné, is made of the finest gold. We can also come across silver and gold alloy, so called electrum, which gives more stability to cloisonné, Deepness and transparency of colors tell us about the high professionalism of a master enamelist. Majority of these works is not distinguished for their polishing which is a necessary condition for preservation of the cloisonné but despite this fact these samples of the cloisonné, are perfectly preserved.

Georgian Cloisonne Enamel
Virgin Mary of Vardzia Monastery, gold, 10th Century, Georgian.

cloisonné, enamels from the Museum are mostly of ecclesiastic destination. That is why they have amazingly deep spirituality. Sincere faces, expressive large headed and sitting figures are characterized with simplicity. Besides, in many cases, strict religious dogmas are completely ignored and we can view a whole gallery of portraits of saints pictured with national features. Together with deep spirituality these portraits have surprisingly warm and human features and generally are one organic part of Georgian art.

Georgian Cloisonne Enamel
Martvili Panagia, 10th Century, Georgian. 3.8 x 3.8 cm.

In XV c. stops an uninterrupted line of development of Georgian cloisonné, This is the end of cloisonné, evolution in Georgia, which covered a long period from VIII-IX c.c. up to XV c.

It is strange that a very popular and highly developed sphere of art, which had lasted for hundreds of years, would disappear. We do not know the keys of this disappearance. We do not know where exactly, but it was asleep somewhere and it is a fact that it woke up at the end of the twentieth century with new strength.

Who are those people who preserved this genetic code with such an effort and secrecy? Their names were not known until the 60s of the last century. Those who worked in this field preferred to stay in the shadows, like ancient masters hidden behind the taboo. Only the following generation came to the light. (This process was supported by the ruin of the iron state, which put an end to the taboo).

Zaza Lodia, Paata Paatashvili, Irakli Megrelishvili, Soso Alavidze and the late Goga Kupradze are those people who made an unestimated contribution to revive this secular tradition. Each of them guessed anew the secret called Georgian cloisonné, enamel. Their creative art is also marked with the same deep spirituality (especially of Zaza Lodia’s masterpieces), which ruins all the borders and acquires new resonance.

The secret being revealed, next thing is to take care of it and support its development. It seems very symbolic that this mission is taken by a woman. Modern enamel artist Tea Gurgenidze together with other ladies, Marina and Khatuna Babunashvili, experts of history of Cultures makes practical steps to develop and promote this field of art.

In 2000 by these three people there was founded an art gallery “Ornament” where they gathered works of the above mentioned enamelists and organized an exhibition, which became a real event.

The exhibits were exposed in three small cases. The number of the cases have not increased after, which meant that this one event was not enough for development of the field and the organizers decided to act more decisively and the result was the establishment of a school of cloisonné, enamel art. All the famous masters of cloisonné, were invited as teachers and the new stage of cloisonné, art began, by and by more studios appeared and this field of art proved to be not only viable but popular as well.

On the second of January 2001, there opened a Modern cloisonné, Enamel Art Gallery “Ornament” in Tbilisi, Georgia. It is the only gallery in the world where you can see unique works of cloisonné, on permanent exhibitions.

Our gallery is a leader in cloisonné, art, its design and style, where as a blueprint you can see its originality, personal expressiveness and high quality. Our aim is to supply customers with high quality services and information.

Gallery “Ornament” presents enamelists who have mastered every nuance of cloisonné, enamel technique, widened the range of topics and made it diverse and interesting.

Enamel artists who are presented at our gallery are distinguished with their individuality and variety of themes. Some of them make interpretations of ancient topics and creates modern forms, some leave old traditions aside in favor of postmodern style of expression, others make copies of mediaeval age Georgian-Byzantine art or work on their variations.

Today the school of the enamel art gallery “Ornament” is a leader. Classes are held two times a week for three hours of practical studies and one hour for theory given by the experts of the field.

Students are chosen from the people with artistic experience. Classes continue two months. Two times a year there are exhibitions of the works of the teachers and the students at the gallery with a symbolic name “The Generation”.

cloisonné, enamel work is a result of a complicated technological process and it has not changed since ancient times. Thinnest metal partitions are applied to a metal plate by a natural glue (made from the stones of quince) according to the previously designed pattern and are fired in a special oven for a certain period of time at the temperature of 720-850 degrees Celsius. After cooling, the partitions are filled with colors and fired again. After this the colors die down and more color is added in the partitions several times. Temperature for different layers of colors is different and the work is fired several times. Final stage is its polishing; only after this, the work acquires its final shape.

In the school there is every condition to overcome all these complicated processes. At the beginning of the establishment of the gallery, we have imported materials from different companies and the students are given the opportunity to receive all ready-made materials. Thus students do not have to deal with the harmful-for-one’s-health chemicals connected with obtaining of colors from nature and their preparation.

It must be noted that, for its high price gold is seldom used, especially in the process of learning. Mainly they use pure silver and copper, which are much more difficult to process as these metals are easily oxidized and spoil enamel. Those who are good at working with copper can easily cope with gold.

Georgian Cloisonne Enamel
Archangel Michael, 10th Century, Byzantine, 7.7 x 3.7 cm.

As we have mentioned technology has not changed but the diversity of materials and topics exceeded every expectation. Side by side with the religious things (replicas among them) there appeared works of applied arts. Also works based on the principles of painting and sculpture. One can also see works of different modern trends, like cubism, modernism etc. Range of decorations and ornaments made by enamelist artists is limitless, they use different precious stones, glass, and artificial stones as well. And eventually combined with Georgian traditional goldsmith work we deal with finest works of art.

At this stage we can declare that a complicated creative process for revival of Georgian cloisonné enamel goes on successfully. Though at the beginning many skeptics thought it impossible. For a long time there was a myth that only a few can work in this field and it is a crime to reveal all its secrets. But is not every true thing incarnated with talent and love? Who sets taboos? Who will stop a high wave, which brings a new life every new day?

By Khatuna Babunashvili - © Glass On Metal - Vol. 23, No. 4, August 2004
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