World’s First Medieval Gold Cross Reliquary with Holy Cross Particle Discovered in Trapesitsa Fortress in Bulgaria’s Veliko Tarnovo

The newly found artifact is the world’s first known reliquary cross containing particles of Jesus Christ’s Holy Cross that is made of pure gold. Photo: Regnews

A 12th century cross, which is a reliquary (engolpion) containing a particle from the Holy Cross from Jesus Christ’s crucifixion, and is the first known artifact of its kind that is made of pure gold, has been discovered by archaeologists in a recently found medieval church in the Trapesitsa Fortress in Bulgaria’s Veliko Tarnovo.

The previously unknown 13th century church was discovered earlier this fall in the Trapesitsa Fortress, one of the citadels of medieval Tarnovgrad (today’s Veliko Tarnovo), capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396/1422).

It is the 23rd medieval church to have been found in the Trapesitsa Hill Fortress. Its discovery made headlines with its 13th century frescoes, which are surprisingly well preserved, albeit fragmented.

The new find, the massive gold cross reliquary, has been found behind the altar table of the church in question by an archaeological team led by Prof. Konstantin Totev from the Veliko Tarnovo Office of the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology in Sofia.

In addition to the gold cross, the archaeologists have also discovered the church’s original altar table, which also features depictions of three crosses, the middle one of which has an inscription in the Old Bulgarian language, saying “Tsar of Glory”.

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.

Engolpions (or encolpions) are religious artifacts, usually in Eastern Orthodox Christianity, worn upon the bosom with inside containers for keeping holy relics.

In 2017, 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.

The gold cross reliquary from Church 23 in the Trapesitsa Fortress contains wood particles which are believed to be from the Holy Cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified.

The newly found gold cross reliquary from Bulgaria’s Trapesitsa Fortress was made in the late 12th century, probably in Constantinople, and was built into a 13th century church in Tarnovgrad, the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire. Photos: Regnews

While the authenticity of the Holy Cross particles technically cannot be verified, it is assumed that all wooden particles used as relics in medieval Eastern churches were derived from pieces of the Holy Cross.

In the Middle Ages, in Eastern Orthodox states such as the Byzantine Empire and the Bulgarian Empire (the division between the eastern and the western church was not formalized until the Great Schism of 1054), it was customary to build holy items such as pieces from Jesus Christ’s Holy Cross and relics of saints into new churches.

The newly found gold cross reliquary as an artifact is dated to the second half of the 12th century AD. At the time, Bulgaria was still part of Byzantium (after the First Bulgarian Empire was destroyed in 1018); the Second Bulgarian Empire was not established until 1185, the end of the century.

The church itself, however, where the gold cross has been found, is dated to the 13th century, the height of the Second Bulgarian Empire.

The gold cross reliquary weighs 75 grams, and is 11 centimeters tall, 5.5 centimeters wide, and 1 centimeter thick. The archaeologists believe it was made in a jewelry atelier in Byzantium’s capital Constantinople.

The gold cross’s front features an image of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion, while the back features an image of the Holy Mother of God (Virgin Mary) with arms in upright position, with Christ enclosed in a circle in her womb, a depiction known as “Oranta”, i.e. “praying", (from Greek), as well as saints or evangelists, and archangels depicted inside images of medallions.

For the time being, the archaeologists abstain from opening the gold engolpion (reliquary) cross which is supposed to contain a particle from the Holy Cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified 2,000 years ago. Photo: bTV

“This is a very rare engolpion cross. It’s no accident it’s been discovered in the altar since at the time of the Second Bulgarian Empire, it was a tradition to embed valuable holy relics into churches,” says lead archaeologist Konstantin Totev, as cited by the Bulgarian National Television.

“This cross is really a world-class find! But it goes hand in hand with [the discovery of] a very interesting church. It was placed in the most sacred place in every temple, behind the altar table. The altar table itself features clearly three crosses. The middle one of them has an inscription, reading, “Tsar of Glory”!” explains in turn archaeologist Nadezhda Boteva.

More specifically, the gold cross reliquary containing a small piece of Jesus Christ’s Holy Cross was discovered inside a small chamber made of mortar right behind the altar pillar, deeper than the layer where other artifacts such as crosses and earrings have also been found in the church in recent days.

“The engolpion cross was built into the church at the time when it was consecrated. We known that the Seventh Ecumenical Council of 787 AD decided that a church may not be built without consecration,” Totev says, as cited by local news site Regnews.

He also revealed further intriguing finds in the newly discovered 13th century church in the Trapesitsa Fortress in Bulgaria’s Veliko Tarnovo: a procession cross was discovered above the gold reliquary cross, in the floor of the temple, and another cross with an inscription “Jesus Christ Wins” was also found but underneath the floor level.

Two more crosses as well as other artifacts such as earrings have been discovered in the floor of the newly found church in the Trapesitsa Fortress, alongside the gold cross. Photo; Regnews

“The gold engolpion cross is Byzantine craftsmanship. Such Byzantine engolpion crosses contain relics [pieces] from the Holy Cross [of Jesus Christ]. In fact, they originated in Asia Minor as as reliquaries for particles from the Holy Cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified. They were very popular during Byzantium’s Macedonian Dynasty (867 – 1056) and Comnenus Dynasty (1057 – 1185) but they continued to be made during the Palaeologus Dynasty (1259 – 1453) as well, in the 13th – 14th century. The type of engolpion crosses such as the newly discovered gold one later became popular in Russia,” the lead archaeologist elaborates.

He points out that the “ear” used for hanging the gold cross is especially interesting because it was decorated through a Byzantine jewelry technique using niello, a metal mixture applied to gold.

“Usually, such [reliquary] crosses are made of bronze or silver. Silver ones are kept in Geneva, [for example]. No such crosses made of gold have been described in the scientific literature. It seems like the cross has not been opened,” Totev emphasizes.

“The Trapesitsa find of the great importance since it is a gold cross and no such artifact is known. This is the only engolpion cross made of pure gold that has been found in the world so far. Most of them were made of bronze, while a handful were made of silver, or of bronze with silver or gold plating," he adds.

“For the time being we haven’t thought of opening it since that is connected with its conservation and restoration.

He also notes the importance of his archaeological team’s other major find alongside the gold cross, the altar table of the 13th century medieval Bulgarian church.

Archaeologist Konstantin Totev shows the newly found altar table with its three crosses and the inscription in Old Bulgarian, reading, “The Tsar of Glory”, a reference to the Psalm of David about the coming of the messiah. Photos: Regnews

“It is great that, in addition to the altar pillar, we’ve found also the actual altar table. It has three engravings of crosses with inscriptions, reading, “Christ”, “Christ”, and “Christ Wins”. Above them, there is an inscription in Old Bulgarian, clearly visible, which reads, “Tsar of Glory”. It refers to Jesus Christ, a formula connected with Psalm 24 from the Book of Psalms, also known as the Psalm of David which mentions the coming of the messiah,” the archaeologist explains.

A dozen archaeologists participated in Totev’s digs in the Trapesitsa Fortress of the late medieval Bulgarian capital Tarnovgrad in today’s city of Veliko Tarnovo focusing on its western fortress wall, with the adjacent newly discovered Church No. 23.

The researchers have also unearthed a necropolis next to the church, and have excavated more than 30 graves.

“This is a small church. The necropolis demonstrates that it was a civilian, not a military church [despite its location close to the fortress wall]… the necropolis is dated to the end of the 14th century [later than the time when the church was constructed],” Totev says.

Another intriguing artifact from his team’s excavations is a gold Byzantine coin of Emperor John III Ducas Vatatzes (technically, Emperor of Nicaea) from the 1260s, which has been studied by numismatist Prof. Konstantin Dochev. A large number of other coins has also been found.

Church 23 is 9 meters long and 5 meters wide, and is attached to the inside of the Trapesitsa fortress wall; the only other church attached to a fortress wall from the medieval Bulgarian capital Tarnovgrad (Veliko Tarnovo) is Church No. 10 in the Tsarevets Hill fortress.

In addition to the fortifications, Totev’s excavations and research have also provided ample information about the urban planning of Tarnovgrad’s Trapesitsa Fortress, a citadel and a quarter, whose streets were oriented in the east-west direction.

Archaeologist Konstantin Totev shows his marvelous finds from the newly discovered church in the Trapesitsa Fortress in Bulgaria’s Veliko Tarnovo. Photos: Regnews

The well preserved though fragmented murals from Church 23 of the Trapestisa Fortress, whose discovery made headlines earlier this fall, have already been transported to the Veliko Tarnovo Branch of Bulgaria’s National Institute and Museum of Archaeology. They have filled up a total of about 250 crates.

They appear to be similar to the Pre-Renaissance iconography (or Early Renaissance) known from other 13th century churches from the time of the Second Bulgarian Empire, the most famous of which is the Boyana Church in Sofia’s Boyana Quarter, which predates the Renaissance art in Italy by more than a century.

“The frescoe material reveals not just images but also parts of scenes, for example, with St. John the Baptist, which indicates that some of the artists who painted them might have also worked in scriptoriums in Tarnovgrad where illustrated codices were produced,” Totev notes.

“Both I and my colleague, restorer Diana Toteva, are certain that there are two layers of murals. One is from the 1230s – 1260s, and the other is from the 14th century. Against the backdrop of what has been discovered in Trapesitsa’s churches over the past 130 years in terms of preserved frescoes, these stand out because they feature preserved faces. Faces had not been before,” the lead archaeologist adds.

“The murals are a rich iconography gallery. It is apparent that the first layer of frescoes is connected with the artists from the Tarnovo Iconography School. It’s very beautiful art. In terms of quality and artistic value, the frescoes here outdo those from churches 13 and 2 which had been the most beautiful to have been discovered in the Trapesitsa Fortress so far. So far we have found three human figures painted monumentally, and a head with a halo," Totev explains.

Fragmented but still well preserved frescoes from the 13th century church in Tarnovgrad where the gold cross has been found depict entire scenes, and appear to have been painted in a pre-Renaissance style also known from other 13th century temples from the Second Bulgarian Empire. Photos: Regnews

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

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.

“With the inscription – here we have a combination between the crucifix of Jesus Christ and Plasm 24 of David which tells us to expect to raise heads and expect the coming of the Tsar of Glory,” the lead archaeologist concludes.

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.

Other jewels from the medieval Bulgarian Empire believed to have been made in Constantinople include, for example, a gold heart jewel discovered in Veliki Preslav (capital of the First Bulgarian Empire in 893 – 970) in 2016, and the Veliki Preslav Gold Treasure, found 40 years ago, in 1978, and presently on display in the Louvre Museum in Paris, France.

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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

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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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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 AD – in 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".

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