Mural Portrairs of Tsars from Second Bulgarian Empire Identified in Largest Study of Frescoes from Medieval Capital Tarnovgrad (Veliko Tarnovo)

Fresco fragments found in the northern yard of the 13th century Holy Forty Martyrs Church in Bulgaria's Veliko Tarnovo is where mural portraits of Tsars from the Second Bulgarian Empire have been identified. Photo: Wikipedia

Fresco fragments found in the northern yard of the 13th century Holy Forty Martyrs Church (pictured) in Bulgaria’s Veliko Tarnovo is where mural portraits of Tsars from the Second Bulgarian Empire have been identified. Photo: Spiritia, Wikipedia

Previously unkown mural portraits of Tsar Ivan Asen II (r 1218-1241), one of his wifes, and three other medieval Bulgarian rulers from the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396) have been identified in the most comprehensive study to date of the frescoes of the churches and monasteries of medieval Tarnovgrad (today’s Veliko Tarnovo).

Tarnovgrad was the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire throughout almost its entire existence (1185-1393), until it was destroyed by the invading Ottoman Turks at the end of the 14th century. Today one of its two main citadels, the Tsarevets Fortress, is the most visited cultural tourism site in Bulgaria, while the other, the Trapesitsa Fortress, is still being excavated and is under partial archaeological restoration.

The mural portraits of Tsar Ivan Asen II, who was possibly the most powerful ruler of the Second Bulgarian Empire, one of the wives (he had a total of three marriages), and three other Bulgarian Tsars, have now been identified in the partially preserved frescoes of the Holy Forty Martyrs Church in Tarnovgrad.

The church in question was built by Ivan Asen II to honor his victory over the Despotate of Epirus, a successor state of the Byzantine Empire, in the Battle of Klokotnitsa in 1230 AD. It also contains a column with a detailed inscription by the Bulgarian Tsar narrating the events from his war with Epirus.

More about Tarnovgrad’s Tsarevets Fortress and Trapesitsa Fortress, the Battle of Klokotnitsa, and Tsar Ivan Asen II’s inscription in the Holy Forty Martyrs Church learn in the Background Infonotes below!

The mural portraits have been identified from fragments of frescoes discovered in the northern yard of the Holy Forty Martyrs Church. Their discovery was announced during the presentation of the newly published two-volume study of the frescoes of over 60 churches from medieval Tarnovgrad (Veliko Tarnovo) by Dr. Diana Koseva-Toteva, an expert in medieval art from the Veliko Tarnovo Regional Museum of History.

In her words, the fragments from the murals found in the northern yard of the Holy Forty Martyrs Church have helped put together parts of the portraits of the rulers and their attire, crowns, and accessories.

“This way a complete picture of Tarnovgrad’s imperial court can be drawn from the time when the first murals of the temple were created, a time reflected in Tsar Ivan Asen II’s inscription,” Koseva-Toteva says, as quoted by the local daily Yantra Dnes.

She is positive that the specific styling and characteristics of the images mean that these are the portraits of Tsar Ivan Asen II, one of his wives, and three other Tsars who have not been identified.

In her study of the frescoes from medieval Tarnovgrad, Koseva-Toteva has differentiated between the murals which stem directly from the art models of medieval Byzantium, and those murals which were typical of the local art models of the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire.

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Dr. Diana Koseva-Toteva (left) and Prof. Hitko Vachev (right) during the presentation of Toteva's book. Photo: Veliko Tarnovo Regional Museum of History Facebook Page

Dr. Diana Koseva-Toteva (left) and Prof. Hitko Vachev (right) during the presentation of Toteva’s book. Photo: Veliko Tarnovo Regional Museum of History Facebook Page

The covers of the two volumes of the largest study to date of the murals of a total of 60 medieval churches from the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire, Tarvnograd (today's Veliko Tarnovo). Photo: Yantra Dnes daily

The covers of the two volumes of the largest study to date of the murals of a total of 60 medieval churches from the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire, Tarvnograd (today’s Veliko Tarnovo). Photo: Yantra Dnes daily

The two-volume study entitled “Mural Paintings of the Archaeological Excavations from the Medieval Bulgarian Metropolis Tarnovo” is the first of its kind of terms of its comprehensives and details, and is based on a total of 20 years of research. It has led to a number of other meaningful conclusions about the development of Bulgarian and Balkan culture in the High Middle Ages, more specifically the 13th-14th century.

The book has been reviewed by Prof. Elka Bakalova from the Institute of Art Studies of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, and has been presented by renowned archaeologist and explorer of medieval Tarnovgrad, Prof. Hitko Vachev.

Its findings are to be presented at the upcoming International Congress of Byzantine Studies whose 23rd edition is scheduled to take place in Serbia’s capital Belgrade in August 2016.

The first volume of Koseva-Toteva’s study covers the archaeological excavations in the numerous churches of the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire, the restoration laboratories, and the Christian Art Department of the Regional Museum of History in Veliko Tarnovo.

The second volume features a detailed color catalog presenting over 300 frescoes, and all known information about the interior decoration of the temples of medieval Tarnovgrad.

“Almost all church buildings in Tarnovo connected with the period when it was a capital have been found through archaeological excavations. These are over 60 temples whose interior was decorated with wall paintings. Discoveries of new frescoes have now become a rare occurrence which is why the researchers are now focusing on reviewing individual details, and more fragmented fresco materials,” Koseva-Toteva explains.

“When attempting to recreate the complete picture of the mural decorations of the churches of Tarnovgrad, it always comes to the lack of fully preserved archaeological structures. In almost all of the temples discovered during excavations, the height of the original walls goes up to the first register of images of saints. These are usually preserved up to their shoulders, at best, and the faces are usually missing. That is why every single detail is important, the decorative composition or the costume with its specific decoration – letters, parts of architectural and natural environment. All of this provides a limited but correct idea of the glamorous character of the church murals in the capital city,” elaborates the researcher.

Dr. Diana Koseva-Toteva has been a curator at the Christian Art Department of the Veliko Tarnovo Regional Museum of History, and its head since 2005. She specializes in medieval and late medieval art of Southeast Europe.

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The military campaigns and battles of Tsar Ivan ASen II of the Second Bulgarian Empire. Map: Kandi, Wikipedia campaigns-of-tsar-ivan-asen-ii-second-bulgarian-empire

The military campaigns and battles of Tsar Ivan ASen II of the Second Bulgarian Empire. Map: Kandi, Wikipedia

Background Infonotes:

Tsar Ivan Asen II’s Inscription in the Holy Forty Martyrs Church: In order to commemorate the Battle of Klokotnitsa, the Bulgarian Emperor had an inscription carved in one of the marble columns of the Church “Holy Forty Martyrs” in the capital of the Bulgarian Empire, Tarnovgrad (Veliko Tarnovo):

“In the year 6738 (1230), third indiction, I, John Asen, in God Christ true Tsar and sovereign of the Bulgarians, son of the old Tsar Asen, raised from the foundations and decorated with art this holy church in the name of the Holy Forty Martyrs, with the help of whom in the twelfth year of my reign when this temple was being decorated, I made war in Byzantium and defeated the Greek army and captured their Tsar, Kyr Teodore Komnenos, together with all his bolyars. And I occupied all of his land from Odrin (Adrianople) to Drach (Dyrrhachium), Greek and also Albanian and Serbian; and the towns around Constantinople and this very town were ruled by the Frizes (Latins), but they also subjugated to my empire; because they had no other Tsar but me and thanks to me they spent their days, because God ordered this, because without Him neither a deed, nor a word is done. Glory to Him forever, amen.”

***

The Battle of Klokotnitsa occurred on March 9, 1230 AD, near the town of Klokotnitsa (in today’s Haskovo District in Southern Bulgaria). In the Battle of Klokotnitsa, the inferior forces of Tsar Ivan Asen II (r. 1218-1241 AD), ruler of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD), soundly defeated the armies of Theodore Komnenos Doukas (r. 1216-1230 AD), ruler of the Despotate of Epirus, one of the three Byzantine Greek successor states formed after Western European crusaders from the Fourth Crusade conquered Constantinople in 1204 AD, and set up the so called Latin Empire (1204-1261 AD). The Battle of Klokotnitsa is considered one of the most important military victories in the 1400 years of Bulgarian history.

Around 1221–1222, the Bulgarian Tsar Ivan Asen II signed an alliance treaty with Despot Theodore Komnenos Doukas from the Epirus Despotate which allowed Theodore Komnenos to focus on expanding against the Latin Empire by conquering Thessaloniki but also by capturing some Bulgarian territories such as Ohrid in the region of Macedonia. After the death of Latin Emperor Robert of Courtenay (r. 1221-1228 AD), his successor to the throne of the Latin Empire, Emperor Baldwin II was just 11 years old, and the Bulgarian Tsar Ivan Asen II appeared as the most likely choice of a regent for him. As a result, he and the Bulgarian Empire were considered an obstacle by Theodore Komnenos who was aspiring to the throne of Constantinople in order to resurrect the Byzantine Empire. Thus, in early March 1230 AD, Theodore Komnenos invaded Bulgaria with a large army in violation of his alliance with Tsar Ivan Asen II, and without a declaration of war. The Bulgarian Tsar, with a smaller army, marched to meet him surprisingly quickly. On March 9 (March 22), 1230, the their armies met near the town of Klokotnitsa. Tsar Ivan Asen II had the broken alliance treaty to be pierced on his spear and used as a flag. In a battle that lasted till sunset, the Epirotians were completely defeated, and only a small force under the despot’s brother, Manuel Komnenos Doukas, managed to escape. The rest were killed in the battle or captured, including the entire royal court of Epirus and Theodore Komnenos himself.

After the Battle of Klokotnitsa, the Bulgarian Tsar Ivan Asen II released the captured soldiers without any conditions, while the nobles were taken to the Bulgarian capital Tarnovgrad (today’s Veliko Tarnovo). His fame for being a merciful and just ruler went ahead of his march to the lands of Theodore Komnenos, and they were regained to Bulgaria without resistance. These included the territories between the Black Sea, the Aegean Sea, and the Adriatic Sea. The captured Despot Theodore Komnenos was kept as a prisoner in Tarnovgrad for seven years; he was blinded after his involvement in a conspiracy there. He was released in 1237, after the Bulgarian Tsar Ivan Asen II married his daughter Irene, and returned to Epirus where he died in 1253.

***

The Tsarevets Hill is one of two main fortified historic hills in the medieval city of Tarnovgrad, today’s Veliko Tarnovo, in Central Northern Bulgaria, the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire between 1185 and 1396 AD. Together with the Trapesitsa Hill, Tsarevets was one of the two fortresses of the inner city acropolis of Tarnovgrad (Veliko Tarnovo). The Tsarevets Hill is a natural fortress on the left bank of the Yantra River, and is surrounded by it on all four sides with the exception of a small section to the southwest. It is located southeast of the Trapesitsa Hill. The Tsarevets Fortress had three gates, the main one being its southwestern gate. The name of Tsarevets stems from the word “tsar”, i.e. emperor.

The first settlement on the Tsarevets Hill in Bulgaria’s Veliko Tarnovo dates to the Late Chalcolithic (Aeneolithic, Copper Age), around 4,200 BC. The hill was also inhabited during the Bronze Age and Iron Age by the Ancient Thracians, and there have been hypothesis that it was the site of the legendary Ancient Thracian city Zikideva – even though a recent hypothesis claims that Zikideva was in fact located in the nearby fortress Rahovets. An Ancient Bulgar settlement was built on the Tsarevets Hill in the 9th century AD, during the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680-1018 AD) which later grew into a city. The Tsarevets Hill rose to prominence as the center of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD) in 1187, after the successful Uprising of Asen and Petar, later Tsar Asen I (r. 1190-1195 AD) and Tsar Petar IV (r. 1185-1197), who ruled as co-emperors, against the Byzantine Empire in 1185-1186 AD.

Thus, the construction of the Tsarevets Hill Fortress began in the 12th century AD. The total length of the Tsarevets Hill fortress wall is 1,1 km, and it reaches a height of 10 meters (on top of the natural defenses of the hill’s slopes) and a width of 2.4-3.6 meters. The most vulnerable point of the Tsarevets fortification was the southeast section with its gate; however, it was protected by the so called Baldwin’s Tower because it is known that after defeating the Crusader knights from the 3rd Crusade in the Battle of Adrianople in 1205 AD, the Bulgarian Tsar Kaloyan captured the Latin Emperor of Constantinople Baldwin of Flanders, and kept him captive in the tower for several months, until Baldwin’s death. The Baldwin’s Tower was restored in 1933 by Bulgarian archaeologist and architect Alexander Rashenov; the restored Baldwin’s Tower was modeled after the surviving fortress tower in another medieval Bulgarian city, the Cherven Fortress.

The medieval church of the Bulgarian Patriarchate is located in the center of the Tsarevets Hill. It is called the Church of the Ascension of God, and was restored in 1981. The church was known as the “mother of all Bulgarian churches”, and was part of a complex with a territory of 2,400 square meters. Right next to it are the ruins of the imperial palace of the monarchs from the Second Bulgarian Empire which had a territory of almost 3,000 square meters. Both the imperial palace and the Patriarchate’s complex were surrounded by fortress walls and protected by towers. The archaeological excavations on the Tsarevets Hill have revealed the foundations of a total of 470 residences which housed the high-ranking Bulgarian aristocracy, 23 churches and 4 urban monasteries as well as a medieval inn. In the northern-most point of the Tsarevets Hill there is a high cliff cape known as the Cliff of Executions which in the 12th-14th century AD was used for executing traitors by throwing them into the canyon of the Yantra River.

For some 200 years the medieval Tarnovgrad, also known as Tsarevgrad Tarnov (i.e. the Tsar’s City), together with its fortresses Tsarevets, Trapesitsa, and Momina Krepost (“Maiden’s Fortress”), also known as Devingrad (“Virgins’ Town”), rivaled Constantinople as the most important city in this part of Europe, with some of the most glorious and famous Bulgarian Tsars – Tsar Asen (r. 1190-1195), Tsar Petar (r. 1185-1197), Tsar Kaloyan (r. 1197-1207), Tsar Ivan Asen II (r. 1218-1241), Tsar Konstantin Asen Tih (r. 1257-1277), Tsar Ivaylo (r. 1277-1280), Tsar Todor (Theodore) Svetoslav (r. 1300-1322), Tsar Ivan Alexander (r. 1331-1371), and Tsar Ivan Shishman (r. 1371-1395) – ruling their empire from Tsarevets.

Tsarevets and the rest of Tarnovgrad had a tragic fate, however, after in 1393 AD, after a three-month siege, it became the first European capital to fall prey to the invading Ottoman Turks. This was somewhat of a logical outcome after the de facto feudal disintegration of the Second Bulgarian Empire in the second half of the 14th century. After Bulgarian Tsar Ivan Alexander (r. 1331-1371 AD) lost his two eldest sons – Ivan in 1349 AD and Mihail in 1355 ADin battles with the Ottoman Turks, he failed to prevent a number of Bulgarian feudal lords from seceding, and on top of that divided the remainder of the Bulgarian Tsardom between his two surviving sons. His third son Ivan Sratsimir (r. 1371-1396) received the smaller so called Vidin Tsardom, with the Danube city of Bdin (Vidin) as its capital, and his fourth son Ivan Shishman (r. 1371-1395) received the rest, the so called Tarnovo Tsardom, with the capital proper of Tarnovgrad (today’s Veliko Tarnovo). Just two decades later all Bulgarian lands, disunited and even warring among themselves, fell prey to the invading Ottoman Turks, ushering Bulgaria into five centuries of Ottoman Yoke (1396-1878/1912), and signifying a practically irreversible loss of its former great power status.

As the last ruler of Tarnovgrad, Tsar Ivan Shishman was not in the capital at the time it was besieged by the forces of Ottoman Sultan Bayezid I (r. 1389-1402 AD), its defense was led by the legendary Bulgarian Patriarch St. Euthymius (Evtimiy) of Tarnovo (ca. 1325-ca. 1402-1404 AD), the founder of the Tarnovo Literary School. After they conquered the Bulgarian capital on July 17, 1393, the Ottoman Turks slaughtered its population – an especially dramatic scene was the beheading of 110 captured Bulgarian aristocrats, and razed to the ground the Bulgarian imperial palace and the churches and monasteries of the Bulgarian Patriarchate. Tsarevets and Veliko Tarnovo were liberated from the Turks in the summer of 1877 in the Russian-Turkish War of 1877-1878 that restored the Bulgarian state.

The archaeological restoration of the Tsarevets Hill Fortress began in 1930 and was completed in 1981, the year that was celebrated, now somewhat questionably, as the 1300th anniversary since the founding of the Bulgarian state. Tourists visiting Tsarevets can view the so called “Sound and Light” audiovisual show, an attraction using lasers and music to tell the story of the medieval Bulgarian Empire as well as Bulgaria’s fight for freedom against the Ottoman Empire, and the story of Bulgaria’s National Liberation. It was first launched in 1985 for the 800th anniversary since the Uprising of Asen and Petar. The Tsarevets Fortress was granted a protected status by the Bulgarian government for the first time in 1927, and in 1964 it was declared a “monument of culture of national importance”.

***

The Trapesitsa Hill is one of two main fortified historic hills in the medieval city of Tarnovgrad, today’s Veliko Tarnovo, in Central Northern Bulgaria, the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire between 1185 and 1396 AD. Together with the Tsarevets Hill, Trapesitsa was one of the two fortresses of the inner city acropolis of Tarnovgrad (Veliko Tarnovo). The Trapesitsa Hill is a natural fortress on the right bank of the Yantra River, and is surrounded by it on three sides. It is located northwest of the Tsarevets Hill. The Trapesitsa Fortress had four gates, the main one being its southern gate, which was also connected with the Tsarevets Fortress with a bridge across the Yantra River. There are two hypotheses about Trapesitsa’s name. The first one is that it comes from the Bulgarian word “trapeza” meaning a “table” or “repast”, possibly referring to the receptions of the medieval Bulgarian Tsars; the second hypothesis is that the word comes from “trapezium” because the hill is in fact is a trapezoidal plateau.

The first archaeological excavations on the Trapesitsa Hill Fortress in Bulgaria’s Veliko Tarnovo between 1884 and 1900 revealed the foundations of 17 medieval Bulgarian churches with fragments of rich murals, colorful mosaics, and beautiful floor tiles. The documented artifacts discovered there include crosses, necklaces, coins, rings, earrings, vessels. The churches on Trapesitsa were richly decorated with various architectural forms such as pilasters, niches, blind arches, colored slabs, among others.

The largest preserved church on the Trapesitsa Hill known as “Church No. 8” is named after the 10th century AD Bulgarian saint, St. Ivan Rilski (St. John of Rila) (876-946 AD); it was surrounded with other buildings which are believed to have been part of a monastery complex. It is known that in 1195 AD, Bulgaria’s Tsar Asen I (r. 1189-1196 AD) transported the relics of St. Ivan Rilski from the city of Sredets (today’s Sofia) to Tarnovgrad (today’s Veliko Tarnovo), and had them placed in the specially constructed church on the Trapesitsa Hill. The Bulgarian archaeologists believe that a room in the southern part of Church No. 8 was the reliquary for St. Ivan Rilski’s relics. The relics of St. Ivan Rilski (St. John of Rila), who is Bulgaria’s patron saint, were kept in Veliko Tarnovo until 1469 AD when they were transported to the Rila Monastery where they are kept to this day in what became a major event for the Bulgarians during the early period of the Ottoman Yoke (1396-1878/1912), as the Second Bulgarian Empire had been conquered by the invading Ottoman Turks in 1396 AD.

The numerous and richly decorated small churches indicate that the Trapesitsa Hill harbored the homes of the medieval Bulgarian nobility, the boyars, and the supreme clergy. More recent excavations, however, also indicate that the imperial palace of the early Bulgarian Tsars from the House of Asen (the Asen Dynasty, r. 1185-1257 AD) was in fact located on the Trapesitsa Hill, and the imperial seat was possibly moved to the nearby Tsarevets Hill only later, during the reign of Tsar Ivan Asen II (r. 1218-1241 AD). In the recent years, the Trapesitsa Hill has been excavated by Prof. Konstantin Totev from the Veliko Tarnovo Branch of the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, and by Prof. Hitko Vatchev from the Veliko Tarnovo Regional Museum of History.

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