and the Frescoes of Ubisi and Tsalentsikha

June 1984


In the Andropov year of 1984 I visited Merab for two weeks in June to recover from most unhappy visits to Moscow and Siberia. It was a bad year, all my good Russian friends avoided me uncertain of the course Andropov, the former head of the KGB, would steer, and self-sure as I had become traveling in the USSR, a couple of new acquaintanceships in Moscow and Siberia - not without my contribution - turned rather complicated....

When I reached Merab I found that he had acquired a new sponsor to pay for my visit, Djemal Akobia from Migrelia. I never asked whom Djemal worked for, probably the Georgian branch of the KGB. He was nice enough, but he became the only person during all my visits to the USSR who to my knowledge ever attempted to lift sensitive information from me - of all things on the laser program in China, which I had visited a year earlier. It was not difficult to deflect his advances. I told him scores of colorful tales about my adventures in China. When he noticed that I played games with him, he became more specific, and I told him that his government should send some competent scientists to China instead of trying to pump his honorable guest.

Merab offered to take Djemal and me to Migrelia, Abkhasia, and Svaneti.. Abkhasia was disappointing and Svaneti was flooded out. Instead we spent three days in the vicinity of Zugdidi visiting the home of one of Djemal's cousins in Djvari at the southern end of the Inguri Gorge, and the father of one of Merab's students in Zugdidi. Both visits afforded an interesting insight into the private lives far from Tbilisi in Western Georgia, and for that reason I will include the story and pictures from that journey. But the high points of that trip were the murals of Ubisi and the burial church of the Dadiani in Tsalentsikha. We missed the run-down Dadiani castle in Zugdidi.


Damiane's Murals at Ubisi

 Ubisi on the border between Imereti and Migrelia, off the road from Kutaisi to Zestaphoni, is not a well-known place and yet the church and its monastery go back to the 9th century, and the church houses a unique cycle of murals from the late 14th century which rival the best paintings in the Byzantine churches of Istanbul. It had been one of my special wishes to see Ubisi, and Merab, because of a misunderstanding about the name (also known as Ube) of the place, drove past it twice before we found it on this trip.

The 12th-century tower behind the church at Ubisi and its caretaker filling the gate to the monastery


In the Ubisi Camay I found this charming quintessential Georgian lady and one of many graves with a table for a memorial meal of the living....


Although the painter's name, Damiane, is known, the accurate dating of his murals are in dispute. Because of their obviously non-Georgian style and their colors I venture to contradict the Georgian art-historian Shota Amiranashsvili's claim that the paintings are Georgian and suggest that Damiane came from Konstantinopolis during the last years before the fall of the city in 1428. It is also rare that the name of a Georgian church painter is known. I know of only two other examples: Cyrus Emanuel Eugenicus (also written Evgenika) who was hired from Konstantinopolis in 1384-96 by the Dadiani to paint in Tsalentsikha, and, of course, Tevdore and his disciples in Svaneti. The Damiane paintings have no relatives in Georgia but much in common with those of the Kariye Ecclesia in Istanbul and the paintings of other Konstantinopolian refugees in Crete and Greece. - I think for instance of El Greco's Cretan teacher.  - I welcome comments by Brigitta and Rolf Schrade and other scholars of this subject.

Symbols of the Trinity in the vault of the church. The elegant hair-style of God Father and the cabalistic rhomb winged by a Tetramorph! To the left is the Annunciation pictured below and to the right the Nativity also shown further down.



The almost aggressively dramatic angel of the Annunciation.



Less well preserved than the Trinity the depiction of the Mother of Christ adheres to traditional Eastern Byzantine models, but it is surrounded by scenes in a pastoral landscape more turbulent than even contemporary Tuscan paintings. The washing of the child below the Three Kings to the right.



Christ's entry into Jerusalem. Christ in off-blue is nonchalantly enthroned on a tired white donkey, the children hacking-off palm branches and especially the two dramatic crowd-scenes with their massed together people and individualized facial features (the man on the left holding out a palm leaf!) are highly refined. What and where are the models of Damiane?



The Great Tetramorph and an over-elongated saint reminiscent of El Greco..... Nino, what minerals did Damiane use to prepare his blues?



Christ in Majesty in the apse conch....



....and below his feet the Last Supper, an unusual location for Georgia and Byzantine painting. - The disciples have no halos and an eleventh disciple is out of the picture to the left. But Judas sits at his conventional place in the left foreground on a stool. Unfortunately this photo is not sharp. I was once again precariously hanging from a restorer's scaffold watched by a worried Merab from below. The place was very dark, my hands must have trembled.




Eugenikos' Murals at Tsalentsikha

 On a hill 50 km northeast of Zugdidi, surrounded by a cemetery, sits the burial church of the Dadiani above the subtropical town of Tsalentsikha. It had been a suggestion of my architect friend Victor Djorbenadze, neither Merab nor I knew of it. Its walls and ceilings are covered with murals in very bad repair. Nino, a restorer from Tbilisi who also worked for the Schrades in Svaneti, took us around - but she only spoke French, which I had forgotten in the Babylonian confusion of languages that surrounded me at the time. Neither can I find a monograph on the Eugenikos frescoes. So, I will reproduce the photos I took and wait for some knowledgeable person to educate me. Even without such education it is obvious that these paintings are of secondary quality, and so are unfortunately my photographs....

Judging from the enthroned Madonna in the apse these frescoes are from before 1300 (and not by Eugenikos?)


Mary enthroned in the apse

This time I removed some bare spots in Mary's vestment, but not in her face











The apse in the burial chapel of the Dadianis. This provincial, late Byzantine fresco may be by Eugenikos



Travels in Imeretia and Migrelia with Merab and Djemal Akobia

Merab filling his Zhiguli - Akobia in the back seat with a fashionable captain's cap! - On our trip to Svaneti in 1980 Merab had loaded his car with four Jerry cans filled with gasoline. The car reeked for gas, and he smoked one cigarette after another - a veritable bomb.... Progress! This time there were enough gas stations along the road - and Djemal provided the government coupons for the long drive.

We had lunch twice at this charming Imeretian restaurant near Zestaphoni



A Georgian tradition, lunch on the verandah.



Djvari on the Inguri River

When it became obvious that we could not risk a drive to Svaneti in the rain, Djemal suggested to spend the night at the house of his cousin in Djvari. Djvari is a small Mingrelian village surrounded by the tea plantations of the Dadiani, which had been revived by the Soviet government and provided the lion share of all tea consumed in the USSR.

Djvari, a woman at the ticket window of the local bus station The daily ticket intake was counted by weighing the chips on the scale visible through the window.



Djvari, tea bushes and the ubiquitous pigs


The House of the Akobia

We arrived unannounced at the Akobias, and the women of the house with the help of two friends from the village immediately set out to prepare a grand feast for the guests from the capital. Meanwhile Merab and Djemal played backgammon..... - It took some time for Djemal to get used to being photographed by the foreigner. Merab finally put him at ease - I was a "good" man. -




.... And I inspected the bookcase in the living room. Djemal's cousin was a well-to-do state farmer with no higher education, there were not many books. But next to an old photo of their youngest child and those of their older son in uniform - stood one of the infamous Supreme Hero of Georgia, of the Georgian who had usurped the throne of the Russian Empire. The small plaster bust is also him! The veneration of Stalin by the older rural population was very strong in Georgia. "Stalin was a Tiger," they told me, when I raised my brows.



At three o'clock the feast started with Djemal as "tamada." The woman of the house sits next to Merab. She was imported from Russia, a kind and modest person. Next to her sits her friend and the couple at the end of the table is the local teacher and his wife. The host had gone to the cellar to get more wine.



After three hours I felt very sleepy and despite that I had not drunk much I was almost falling off my chair. With a motherly smile of understanding the hostess took me upstairs into one of their many bedrooms and let me sleep for a while.

I had just enough energy to take a picture of the velveteen Tiger who would watch over me....



When I woke a couple of hours later the feast had reached high gear. Two more friends had arrived. Here the host - after a lengthy toast to my wife and all other absent women emptied a drinking horn with Djemal - they had gotten over my refusal to join their drinking. This went on until 2:00 in the morning....



Breakfast at the Vice-Director's house in Zugdidi

Next morning we were invited for breakfast at the house of the technical vice-director of one of the two tea factories in Zugdidi. He bade us to wait in his living room. Notice the wall-poster, the elaborate mirror, and the vase with flowers! - My photo bag leans behind the easy-chair.



Waiting for the food to arrive my two companions went back to playing backgammon - this time in the opulent bar of the successful man....

Notice Merab's fashionable Adidas!




Over breakfast - the formidable array of bottles, including Champaign at nine in the morning! - in front of a fireplace constructed of hand-beaten copper I finally understood the reason for this impressive extravaganza. The good man had a daughter at Tbilisi State University who was not doing so well - he was trying to curry favor with Merab in the hope that he would put in a word with her professors.... Merab, after we had left, gave me a sorry smile and shrugged, she was simply not as clever as her engineering father....



However, the piece de resistance in the director's house were the guns in his study. Obviously he was a learned man to judge by the carelessly arranged display of books - for Merab's benefit? - but guns? Once again I had to abandon another of my prejudices. At variance with American propaganda, private Soviet citizen were allowed to own guns! Well, the host explained that he was a member of the Zugdidi hunting club - a status symbol of the arrivé !....

And the iron grills in front of all windows? Where there thieves in the Soviet Union? or was the owner of the house only temptingly "rich." Later I noticed that most houses in Zugdidi had such barricades. Because in a socialist country not all citizens could be rich - there must have been a lot of restless thieves in Zamegrelo....! Which is exactly what the people of Kartli - Eastern Georgia - had always told me....


When we reached home late at night, Djemal indicated that he wanted to continue to discuss our unfinished business at a local restaurant. The phone could not be unplugged - and besides, that would have been suspicious. It was hot in my room, the air-conditioning unit was "kaput," so I put my blanket over the phone and never heard of Djemal again. - A few years later the organizers of the next Chinese laser conference asked me for help, and I had them invite some of my Russian physicist friends to Xiamen. Barbara was with me, and we enjoyed their company, and I made sure that they returned with new uncensored impressions of China.


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