In the summer of the 2011 archaeological season, the scientific expedition made a stunning discovery – fragments of plaster with the image of Christ and the names of God and the Virgin Mary. Even today, to the question of what is the most valuable find of the Late Antique Fortress at Cape St. Atanas, Valeri Yotov responds without hesitation – the frescoes. But what is so special about these historical artifacts, which makes them so rare? And why does that matter?
by Deyan Yanchev
Finding such monuments of early Christian art, in general, and not just in an archaeological environment, is extremely rare. The reason for this is that very few basilicas from Late Antiquity have survived to this day, and even fewer of those are preserved with their original adornment.
The frescoes from Cape St. Atanas were found buried in the baptistery room which had been built in the northern side of the narthex of the basilica (V. Yotov, 2014). They were part of the decoration of the baptistery and were painted on the wet yet lime plaster. Thus implemented, in the so-called buon fresco technique (wet fresco), the drawings had become an integral part of the plaster, which allowed their long preservation. Some of the colors, especially the blue, were applied a secco after the plaster had been well dried. The blue color was particularly problematic because neither azurite blue or lapis lazuli, the only two blue pigments then available, were durable in wet fresco. All this suggests that the frescoes were painted by an experienced artist with a steady hand and knowledge of Christian iconography (V. Yotov, 2014).
The largest of the discovered fragments depicts the face of a young man with short hair and a blue halo. The halo is from the so-called rayed nimbuses, which expresses the transition of Christian art from pagan artistic traditions to its own iconographic style. The blue color symbolizes the divine nature of the one depicted. We assume that it is the face of Jesus Christ, because originally (until the end of the 5th century) only He was portrayed with a halo in early Christian iconography. The most likely place of the fresco was the ceiling of the baptistery.
There are names in Latin inscribed on two of the other fragments: HIE[S]US and MARI[A]. They were written horizontally on a white background with black pigment. According to V. Yotov (2014) the most possible interpretation of the first inscription is that it means Jesus [Christ]. According to Eb. Nestle, the writing of His name like HIESUS, is considered one of the earliest in Christian culture. Eb. Nestle writes also that the form IHESUS appeared in written sources only in the 6th century. A similar inscription of the name of Jesus, was found but in Greek in one of the Early Christian Catacombs in Thessalonica. There He is depicted as the Good Shepherd and His Name is written as HEICOY (V. Yotov, 2014). About the name in the second inscription – MARI[A] – there is no doubt that it refers to the Virgin Mary, as She is called thus from the age of early Christianity – from 1st to the middle of the 5th century, and afterwards. The two inscriptions with the names of the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ are the earliest from the Bulgarian lands (V. Yotov, 2014).
Special attention should also be paid to the place where the frescoes were found – the baptistery or baptistery No.1 (V. Yotov, 2014). As it was mentioned earlier, baptistery No.1 was built in the narthex of the basilica and was connected to it with another entrance to its northern aisle. The base of the baptismal font was preserved and the steps into it and out of it; two steps from its both east and west side. In its original form, the baptismal font was up to one meter in hight from the bottom and served to perform the sacred ritual of baptism by immersion. Scientists are generally of the opinion that the early church baptized by full immersion. According to A. Khatchatrian’s typology, the shape of the font refers to Type No.9 – a “circle in a rectangle”, which was a common form for the earliest baptismal fonts. This form of the font symbolized the mother’s womb (R. Jensen, 2010), since the early Church was then perceived as the mother of Christians. The catechumen (candidate) walked into the font, stepping down several feet until immersed in the water in the font, and went out through several steps upward, reborn in the faith of his new Father and God. Baptistery No.1 is the only one with such shape and orientation of the font discovered yet in Bulgaria (V. Yotov, 2014). In the middle of the 5th century, it was rebuilt into a chapel; its adornment was taken down and buried with the baptistery font.
All this: the iconographic style of the frescoes, the way of iscribing the names of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary, the characteristis and symbolism of the place of finding, point to a dating from the second half of the 4th century. It is possible, with advancing of technology and improving the quality of analyzes, to reach the “earliest” for dating – the greatest dream of every archaeologist. For now, we will have to cherish the fact that we have discovered very early Christian frescoes, which have survived 1600 years mainly because they had had great sacred significance for our ancestors.
Йотов, В., А. Минчев и др. 2014. Приноси към историята на Бяла (от древността до 1878 г.). Варна, Онгъл, 148-174.
Nestle, Eb. Miszellen. Hiesus-Ihesus und verwandte Fragen. – ZNWKÄK, 8/3, 1908, 248.
Jensen, R. 2010. Living Water: Images, Symbols, and Settings of Early Christian Baptism. Brill, 247-249