Intriguing 13th Century Church with Surviving Frescos of Jesus Christ Discovered in Trapesitsa Fortress in Medieval Bulgarian Capital Veliko Tarnovo

For the first time well-preserved 13th century frescoes depicting human figures as well as Jesus Christ have been discovered in the Trapesitsa Fortress in Bulgaria’s Veliko Tarnovo. Photo: Yantra Dnes daily

A previously unknown 13th century church has been discovered in the Trapesitsa Fortress, one of the citadels of medieval Tarnovgrad (today’s Veliko Tarnovo), capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396/1422), with the temple featuring surviving frescoes of Jesus Christ.

The newly discovered church is the 23rd medieval church to have been found in the Trapesitsa Hill Fortress.

It is also the 5th previously unknown medieval church to have been found in Trapesitsa in the past 10 years.

The church is unique for a number of reasons: the surviving murals depict human figures, in addition to frescoes of Jesus Christ the Pantocrator (Pantokrator), i.e. Almighty, the first time such medieval frescoes have been found in the Trapesitsa Fortress, and the church itself is adjoined to the fortress wall of Trapesitsa, on the inside.

Togehter with the neighboring Tsarevets Hill Fortress, the party recently restored Trapesitsa Hill Fortress was one of the two main citadels of the medieval city of Tarnovgrad, the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396/1422) for 208 years (until 1393 when it was conquered by the invading Ottoman Turks).

Of the two citadels of Tarvnograd, the Tsarevets Fortress has been researched more, was restored partly between 1930 and 1980, and presently ranks number one among Bulgaria’s cultural tourism landmarks.

Most of the Trapesitsa Fortress, on the other hand, is yet to be researched by the archaeologists, and the archaeological restorations there have been small compared with those on the neighboring Tsarevets Hill.

In 2017, the archaeologists discovered another previously unknown church in the Trapesitsa Fortress in Veliko Tarnovo, church No. 22, where they also found a hidden hoard of bronze engolpion crosses and other Christian artifacts.

An aerial shot of the Trapesitsa Fortress. Photo: Georgi Hristov, Yordan Raychev / National Institute and Museum of Archaeology exhibition

The newly found Church 23 has been discovered by a team led by Prof. Konstantin Totev from the Veliko Tarnovo Office of the National Institute and Museum in Sofia.

It is adjoined with the western fortress wall of the citadel, next to what was a fortress tower or a bastion that is still being excavated, reports local daily Yantra Dnes.

The surviving fragments of richly decorated frescoes and murals date back to the 13th century when the church was erected, the height of the Second Bulgarian Empire.

The murals are of exquisite quality, and demonstrate features typical of the medieval Tarnovo School of Painting.

“The frescoes are very beautiful. In terms of quality and artistic value, they surpass those found in churches No. 13 and No. 2, which have been deemed the most beautiful in the Trapesitsa Fortress so far," explains lead archaeologist Konstantin Totev.

“So far we have discovered three human figures painted monumentally, with halos," he adds.

The surviving murals of are exquisite quality and artistic value, according to the researchers. Photo: Yantra Dnes daily

The newly discovered church is 4 meters (12 feet) wide, and 10 meters (30 feet) long. Totev notes that it is adjoined to the outer fortress wall of the Trapesitsa Fortress.

Only one other similar church adjoined to an outer fortress wall has been found in the late medieval Bulgarian capital Tarnovgrad so far, Church No. 10 in the neighboring citadel, the Tsarevets Fortress.

Totev reveals that he discovered the unknown church in Trapesitsa during the excavations of a 40-meter (120-foot) long section alongside its western fortress wall.

At first, his team encountered burials and construction rubble, and then the foundations of church No. 23 were exposed.

Totev has found that a necropolis began off the northern wall of the church, and has already excavated six graves from it.

“This was probably a parish church that served the merchants and craftsmen who lived in the [nearby] quarter [with their families]," the archaeologist hypothesizes.

Of the five medieval churches discovered in the Trapesitsa Fortress in Bulgaria’s Veliko Tarnovo over the past decade, Totev is the discoverer of churches No. 19 and 20 in the northern section of the fortress, and now of Church No. 23.

Church No. 21 has been discovered by Assoc. Prof. Mirko Robov in the southeastern section of the fortress, while church No. 22 with its hoard of engolpion crosses has been found by Assoc. Prof. Deyan Rabovyanov in the southern section.

The team of archaeologist Konstantin Totev also includes Plamen Karailiev, Director of the Museum of History in the town of Radnevo; Nadezhda Boteva, head of the excavations of the Hotalich Fortress near the town of Sevlievo; and Reni Petrova, Director of the Museum of History in the town of Botevgrad.

Lead archaeologist Prof. Konstantin Totev demonstrates the findings from the discovery of the previously unknown church in the Trapesitsa Fortress. Photos: Yantra Dnes daily

Assoc. Prof. Diana Toteva from the Veliko Tarnovo Regional Museum of History is researching the newly discovered frescoes and murals.

The teams of the two other lead archaeologist continuing the research of the Trapesitsa Fortress are active, with Rabovyanov excavating the southern section and church No. 22, and Robov expecting funding to start digs in the southeastern section.

All three teams are working based on a long-term program for Trapesitsa of the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology, and are coordinated with a project for its restoration and exhibition in situ authored by architect Plamen Tsanev.

In 2015, a 3D model of a late medieval residential quarter from the Trapesitsa Fortress was produced based on the research of archaeologist Deyan Rabovyanov.

A 3D model showing what the neighboring other citadel of Tarnovgrad, the Tsarevets Fortress, looked like, was produced in 2016.


Relevant Books:

Biblical Archaeology Review

DK Eyewitness Travel Guide Bulgaria

Lonely Planet Romania & Bulgaria (Travel Guide)

Bulgaria History, Early Settlement and Empire: Pre-Bulgarian Civilizations, Communism, Society and Environment, Economy, Government and Politics

The Middle Ages

Ancient Worlds: A Global History of Antiquity

The Myth of the Strong Leader: Political Leadership in the Modern Age


Background Infonotes:

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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