A collaboration between researchers in Ukraine and from London’s Natural History Museum, which began before the country was invaded, is hoped to save the country’s historic artwork.

The National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine and the Museum are working together to establish the cause of damage to the world-famous medieval murals in Kyiv’s Saint Sophia Cathedral, an important cultural site in the country.

Painted in around 1000CE, the artworks began to develop dark spots, requiring research to establish the type of microscopic organisms that were living on the walls and causing the damage.

Disrupted by the attacks on the country, the initial investigations in Kyiv involved the Ukrainian team taking DNA samples from the walls of degraded areas to identify an organic substance secreted by fungi.

Research, using microscopic techniques at the Natural History Museum in London established that the crystals were calcium malate, a by-product of malic acid secreted by the fungi to feed on inorganic nutrients in the plaster. The fungi were dissolving the plaster and producing crystals that were tearing the plaster fabric.

With the new information, researchers in Kyiv now hope to be able to prevent it and preserve the murals for years to come.

Ukrainian researcher Marina Fomina, lead author on the paper, says: “Russia’s attempts to violently destroy and assimilate so much of our cultural identity meant the work to preserve Saint Sophia and this precious artwork was even more urgent.

“It is a huge relief to understand the cause of this damage and enable its conservation for our national and the world’s cultural heritage.”

Dr Javier Cuadros, a senior researcher at the Natural History Museum and a co-author of the paper, added: “We were collaborating with them throughout this devastating time. However, when Kyiv was attacked it was impossible for our colleagues to continue working because they had to suspend everyday life and flee their homes.

“I’m very happy to have been able to play a role in this research. The discovery means a lot to our Ukrainian colleagues and will help preserve their legacy and other historic artworks for future generations.

“Hearing about the support they gave each other in their communities has been a lesson in human solidarity and maintaining cohesion in the most challenging of times. We dedicated the paper to the courageous Ukrainian people whose resilience is so admirable.’

Art Fund – Going Places – Oct 2023
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