The Revival of Lost Techniques

Irina Bagauri

Interview with Ermile Maghradze

"Along with multiple wonderful techniques that man created with the help of fire during the evolution of the mankind, one of the most important is that of cloisonné enamel," today the undisputed master of this technique is Ermile Maghradze, who spent more than 30 years undertaking thorough scientific research of the techniques of the Medieval period. A copy of a medallion that he created in 1990 by applying traditional methods is kept in the Museum of Fine Arts of the Georgian National Museum and can be seen by anyone who so desires. In December 2013, those interested in better familiarizing themselves with the art of enamel, were able to view a new project of Ermile Maghradze.

The cross created for Pope of Rome Benedict XVI.
"The Revival of Lost Technologies" is a project implemented on the initiative of the Georgian National Museum with financial assistance from UNESCO. Within the framework of this project, Ermile Maghradze recreated an entire workshop just as would have existed in the Middle Ages; by using reproduced tools and equipment of those times and applying the archaic methods of boiling glass and processing metal, he made a copy of a Georgian cloisonné enamel medallion, which was displayed along with the tools at the exhibition. Documentary film director Mukhran Makharadze filmed the process of Maghradze's work, capturing a vast amount of rich and interesting material which will arouse the interest of any researcher of the history of arts and indeed anyone else interested in the subject, even more, this can be used as a guide for any higher education faculty where Byzantine art is taught.

The art of Medieval Eastern Christendom is very rich. The brilliance of Byzantine mosaics and enamel leaves very few people indifferent. Proof of this can be seen in the long queues of people found at cathedrals and Byzantine art exhibitions in various museums; in particular in the large number of visitors at the treasury of St. Mark's Basilica in Venice, which houses the treasures of Constantinople, including the famous Pala d'Oro installed on the high altar with the lower part of it covered with enamels illustrating the story of Saint Mark.

One of the richest collections of Georgian and Byzantine enamel artwork is kept in the Museum of Fine Arts in Georgia. The museum is also home to the Khakhuli triptych with its icon of the Virgin Mary: a work whose wealth is often compared to the Pala d'Oro in Venice. However, if those Venetian masters who applied the Byzantine enamel in the Pala d'Oro came under severe criticism for their work, the brilliance of the Kahkhuli triptych is acknowledged as not only a masterpiece of Georgia, but of the entire Eastern Christendom. The artwork Maghradze created within the framework of this project is a copy of one of the medallions on the Khakhuli triptych depicting the apostle Simon the Zealot.

Ermile Maghradze: "Luckily, the historical sources have been preserved to date; this project is implemented based on the tractates of a medieval monk, Theophilus Presbyter, and Georgian King Vakhtang VI [who reigned in the early 18th

A copy of one of the medallions on the Khakhuli triptych.
century]. We try to replicate the works of the old masters within those same conditions they had. This is how workshops operated in earlier ages – they did not have modern utensils and, by applying whatever was available then, they achieved such results that are much greater in quality than we have today. This technique was spread in two areas – Byzantium and Georgia. One can find all the raw materials needed for cloisonné enamel in Georgia: the composites of glass, metal, gold, silver, and copper – all these are needed for enamel artwork. Within the framework of this project I organized several expeditions in the mountainous regions of Georgia to obtain the necessary raw materials which we thereafter ground down and processed according to the rules described by Theophilus Presbyter and Vakhtang VI."

Ermile Maghradze is an employee of the Museum of Fine Arts and works as an art conservator in the department of precious metals and glass of the museum's treasury department. He has taken care of Georgian and Byzantine artworks for many years now. He does not shun from speaking about the imperial influences, though he is especially proud of the existence of an independent Georgian school:

"It is quite difficult to speak about the differences between the Byzantine and Georgian enamels and the influence of the former on the latter. I shall not act as a pseudo-patriot asserting that everything is authentically Georgian, though the existence of independent Georgian workshops is an undeniable and proven fact. If anything, there exists a tractate of Vakhtang VI, 'On mixing oils and chemical reactions,' which describes the various methods of boiling glass of various colors. Following this tractate as a guide, I calculated measurements, conducted tests and saw that glass can be boiled perfectly well. Georgian workshops stopped operating from the 15th century, but the fact that this knowledge reached the time of Vakhtang VI means that the practice still continued during the course of those two centuries. This is something which researchers do not pay attention to and thus they do not treat these writings seriously, treating them as if they were wide of the mark. In reality, however, Vakhtang knew how to boil glass and did so at a time when Byzantium had already been destroyed. He was the king and he made inquiries about the existing masters; he then wrote down the formulas he learned from those masters, conducted tests and received what he needed. And if this knowledge existed in the 18th century, how could it have ceased to exist earlier?

“Colchian lid” created by Ermile Maghradze. Photo: Mukhran Makharadze
"I have cleaned with my own hands and conserved a pair of earrings and a ring discovered in an archaeological excavation in the Modinakhe site that were dated to the second century AD. They have elements of inlay-work which is a technique preceding that of cloisonné enamel. Such items are in abundance. Nearby Tbilisi, in Mtskheta and its vicinity, in Orbeti, the existence of a color glass workshop has been proven – a kiln and glass of all colors were discovered. When we have such evidence and also have items of glass jewelry from even earlier ages, how can one say that our enamel was only boiled in Byzantium? However, it is equally stupid to say that this technique was used only in Georgia and everything spread to Byzantium from here.

"We were born in the Soviet space and, to some extent, still live in that Soviet space. We were part of such a huge empire but we maintained our independent way of life, did we not? Byzantium was a huge empire, excellent workshops operated in Constantinople and, naturally, it was prestigious to be there. No matter how much Greeks assert otherwise, it is a fact that somewhere here, in and around the Chiatura-Sachkhere-Vani area [in Western Georgia], independent workshops did exist and Georgian artisans indeed crafted in them."
The masterpieces of cloisonné enamel mainly date back to the Middle Ages when they were mostly created by religious servants working in monasteries. According to Ermile Maghradze, each work of art reflects the spirituality of its creator and the mindset characteristic of that epoch.

"Naturally, every piece of art bears a sign of the corresponding epoch and it is futile to attempt to replicate this art in the present unless it is treated with that same depth of spirituality which the old masters applied towards the artworks they created. It is known that iconographers directly visualized icons in their minds before putting them in their work. That was not a form of blind perception, but a conscious realization of the universe, a live attitude. Such men were mediators between the spiritual and material worlds and that can be felt in their work. We must not accept any artwork that is dated from the 10th century as necessarily good – there are many poor works too – however, there are several great artists who created monuments of a very high artistic level both here and in Byzantium.

"In the 15th century, the fashion of cloisonné enamel passed away; people of that time no longer needed such things. In general, the turn of the 14th and 15th centuries was a time when virtually the entire world began to fundamentally change its attitude towards the universe. All that left an impression. Before that, people had different attitudes towards the spiritual world, they were looking towards the East and at angels. But around that time, people turned their backs on all this and became more pragmatic.

"The processing of precious stones provides good example of this transition. Before that period, when a man extracted mineral stones for embellishment – be it a sapphire or ruby, he would clean and polish it, trying not to excessively alter it and thus maintain the shape given to it by god, and would then place it where needed. However, from the 14th century, people started processing mineral gemstones in a well-thought-out manner, giving them geometrical shapes, faceting them. People of those times no longer tolerated cracks and unsmooth forms of gemstones, they required that the surface be neat and polished. The same held true for enamel – cracks and uneven surfaces, which were always viewed as something natural, were suddenly regarded as defective. As the height of their partitions is two, sometimes even three millimeters, the Byzantine and Georgian artworks of the 10th and 11th centuries bear numerous cracks.

"After the 15th century, European enamel became very thin as the masters of the time tried to minimize those defects. Consequently, the artwork produced by those masters was ideal – with polished surfaces and bright colors. For example, in the enamel artworks of Peter Carl Fabergé, a great jeweler of the 19th and 20th centuries, one cannot spot even a single line running astray, a single defect; only ideal geometric figures."

Ermile Maghradze's artwork is kept in many cathedrals and it was from him that several years ago the Georgian nuncio of the Vatican in Georgia ordered a cross as a present for then newly elected Pope of Rome, Benedict XVI. However, Ermile Maghradze is mainly kept busy with his academic research and has almost no time for private orders. With the support of Nuncio Claudio Gugerotti, he has tutored several young masters of enamel and, if a benefactor were to appear, he would desire to continue this pedagogical activity. Moreover, he intends to combine all his different research, which was conducted over a period of many years, into one book which will serve as a sort of textbook for interested persons:

"I want to write what this art means in reality. Truth and lies have been mixed together too much. It is bad to reprimand someone, but many have stooped to doing such things that they must not do; they turned this art form into a commercial, money-making activity and have distorted the real art. This is wrong and will leave a negative stain on the development of our national culture."


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