Corpus of the Late Antique and Early Christian Mosaics of Bulgaria


Project leader and Coordination:

R. Pillinger

Researcher:

A. Lirsch

Fig. 1: Sites of the late antique and early Christian mosaics in Bulgaria

Goal of the publication project is the presentation of all preserved resp. documented late antique and early Christian mosaics from present day Bulgaria and therefore making them available for Western European research. The corpus is the second volume of two regarding the late antique and early Christian wall paintings and mosaics in Bulgaria; the first volume regarding the wall paintings was published by the ÖAW in 1999.

The accumulative publication was initiated by the workgroup for Christian Archaeology under Renate Pillinger together with the Bulgarian specialist for mosaics Vanja Popova from the Institute of Art Studies of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences (BAN) in Sofija in cooperation with Bulgarian regional museums and researchers. The project is highly necessary because most of the monuments are either unpublished or the existing publications are for the most part only available as remote articles and monographs in Bulgarian. Planned is the publication of 81 lemmata of the same amount of mosaics resp. mosaic complexes. The goal of the project is the compilation of a complete manuscript until may 2011.

Fig. 2: Mosaic with the depiction of a menorah and a benefactor inscription

In analogy to the already published wall painting-corpus, the sequence of the respective monuments results from geographical standpoints; the numbering is continuous. For every mosaic the find spot, the finds context with a short description of the building or room in which the mosaic is/was situated and who excavated it at which time is recorded. The state of preservation, the position and form, the technique, the layout as well as the figurative and ornamental motives are also dealt with. 

Auf die ermittelten Vergleichsbeispiele folgen kurz gefasste Kommentare mit dem Versuch einer Interpretation. Am Ende jedes Beitrags steht die vollständige Bibliographie oder der Hinweis „unpubliziert“, der auf eine Erstveröffentlichung hinweist. Soweit möglich, sind Abbildungen und Pläne beigegeben. Von bereits zerstörten oder wieder verschütteten Objekten aus Altgrabungen liegen allerdings manchmal nur alte Fotos in schlechter Qualität vor. 

Fig. 3: Mosaic from the apsed hall in the villa urbana of Stara Zagora

Just as other forms of Hellenistic-Roman artwork the art of mosaics (despite earlier Greek-Hellenistic influences) reached the former Thracian areas in the course of the Romanization. In total, about 130 mosaics and complexes of mosaics from the Roman Imperial and the late antique period are known from Bulgaria, from which many are however only preserved in a fragmentary state. 

More than two thirds of the entire inventory belong to the for the corpus relevant time period from the late 3rd to the 6th century AD, a fact that highlights the economic and strategic importance of these provinces on the Lower Danube in the prefield of Constantinople and Thessaloniki at this time. 

In addition to the already existing mosaic studios in the centers of Thrace (Serdica, Philippopolis, Augusta Traiana, Pautalia) and the garrison towns along the Danube limes (Bononia, Raitaria, Oescus Novae), new ones developed on the west coast of the Black Sea (Odessos, Marcianopolis) as well as in Macedonia Secunda (Sandanski, Nicopolis ad Nestum) in late-Antiquity. In regard to motive and style, the latter are strongly influenced by the Northern Greek-Macedonian region. Additionally, moving workshops also existed.

Fig. 4: Mosaic from the villa rustica of Kalimanica

Most of the mosaics were made in the opus tesselatum technique (Fig. 2, 3, 4, 6); however, often opus vermiculatum was inserted at detailed areas of figurative motives (Fig. 2, 3, 6). A few opus sectile-floors exist as well, e.g. in the baptistery of the church on the Pirinc-Tepe near Odessos/Varna, in that of the bishop’s church of Parthicopolis (?)/Sandanski, in the apses of the early Christian church on the Carevec near Veliko Tarnovo (Fig. 5) and the so-called Basilica No. 1 in Nicopolis ad Naestum/Garmen as well as in several rooms of representative domestic buildings in Serdica, Sandanski and Stara Zagora. 

Findings of singular smalti, sometimes also larger fragments, document the existence of wall- and vault mosaics, e.g. in the church on the Pirinc-Tepe at Varna, in the so-called Basilica No. 2 near Pleven, in the baptisteries of the bishop’s church in Sandanski (Fig. 6) and the so-called Basilica No. 2 in Garmen. 

Fig. 5: Basilica on the Caravec, opus sectile fragments with inscription

Analogous to Asia Minor and Syria, the pavements of the Balkan Peninsula show, with a declining tendency until the second half of the 4th century, emblemata-compositions with image fields that were figuratively adorned and encircled by geometric borders (Fig. 2), which can be traced back to Hellenistic times and had been common in the Eastern Mediterranean during the Imperial period. 

In the middle of the 4th century, however, a new and soon dominating strictly geometric style emerged and brought an abrupt break about. In the older phase of this non-representational style – its end coincides with the invasion of the Goths in 378 – primarily solely geometric compositions were laid. In the second phase which reached from the last decades of the 4th to the middle of the 5th century, floral elements and kantharoi return as filling motives (Fig. 3). About from the 5th century onwards, zoomorph motives were increasingly included into the decoration of the pavements – either as singular elements in a geometric pattern rapport or as multi-figured, emblem-like compositions (Fig. 6).

The findings of the excavations, which however partly stem from older excavations, suggest that the production of mosaics strongly declined in the 6th century. Presently, no mosaic is known that was made after the middle of the 6th century. 

Fig. 6: Mosaic from the so-called Basilica No. 2, room 2

From the 24 late-antique inscriptions on mosaics known to us, 19 are Greek and 5 Latin inscriptions. The wide spectrum includes name addendums (“House of Antiope” in Devnja and “House of Eirene” in Plovdiv), salutations (two representative domestic buildings in Stara Zagora and “House of Eirene” in Plovdiv), benefactors inscriptions (Synagogue and so-called Small Basilica in Plovdiv, Basilica No. 7 in Kjustendil, Basilica No. 1 in Pleven and Basilica No. 2 in Sandanski) as well as three inscriptions related to the Christian liturgy (Basilca No. 1 in Pleven, younger Basilica on the Carevec at Veliko Tarnovo (Fig. 5), oldest memorial church under Sv. Sofija in Sofija).

Just as in the previous era, most of the mosaics from the 4th century stem from secular sites, namely representative domestic and public buildings (especially baths). In the course of the budding Christendom however, the picture changes around the end of the century in favor of early Christian sacral buildings, of which there are about two times as many floor mosaics as in private houses. The first early Christian churches were mainly outfitted with stone floors, but in the second half of the 4th century the mosaic decorations experience an unexpected upturn. The at this time dominating, strictly geometric compositions are well suited for the long rectangular naoi and accompany the entry of the clergy from the entrance of the church up to the altar through their rhythmically repetitive design. Floor mosaics in apses and/or presbyteries are sometimes adorned with figural motives connected with the Christian faith, such as the christogram in the semi-circular apse in the Basilica in Mikrevo and those from the area directly in front of the presbytery of the so-called Basilica No. 1 in Storgosia/Pleven. The area especially for the clergy is furthermore often covered with an opus sectile-floor.

List of figures

Fig. 1: © BAN; Fig. 2: after Kessjakova Philippopolis prez rimskata epoha [Philippopolis in the Roman era] [Sofija 1999] 78, Fig. 92; Fig. 3: after an illustration on a calendar, © Historic Museum Stara Zagora; Fig. 4: Historic Museum Montana, Inv.-no. A 50, after G. Alexandrov, Montana [Sofija 1981] Tab. 99; Fig. 5: Historic Museum Veliko Tarnovonach, after N. Angelov, Kulturni plastove predi izgraschdaneto na dvoreca. Rannovizantijski kulturen plast [Cultural layers before the erection oft he palace. The early Byzantine layer]. In: K. Mijatev (Ed.), Carevgrad Tarnov 1 [Sofija 1973] 295, Fig. 40; Fig. 6: after an illustration on a calendar © Archaeological Museum Sandanski.