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HISTORY OF EARLY CHRISTIAN ARCHITECTURE

Author: Dimitar Vasilev

Editor's Note: The monograph from architect Dimitar Vasilev is an old textbook on world architecture heritage published in the 1940s. It has never been cited as reference in university literature, ditto.

 

History of Early Christianity on the Bulgarian lands from II to VI centuries is not well substantiated. At first glance the disarray is such big that transition from late Dark Ages (Thracian Kingdom) to early Middle Ages (First Bulgarian Empire) looks like a gulf. No Bulgarian scholar or someone else by Slav extraction had managed to give coherent narrative of the above mentioned time-frame. Thus the contributions of the Roman world that developed on these territories are not differentiated to their full meaningful extent, while ecclesiastical treatment of the subject was almost banned to the end of Second World War i.e., year 1947 put an end to the centuries long schism between Greek and Bulgarian churches.

On the other hand the area of distribution of Early Christianity is no less continuous than the sequence of the centuries. Convenience demanded that it is essential first an underlying unity to be recognized. The lengthy introduction material was adapted here for didactic purposes. It does not pretend to give expertise but provides some introductory knowledge on Early Christian Art as was the original scheme of the editors of British Museum. Secondly, the Bulgarian case was presented with St. Sophia Church and its Metropolitan. Here excerpts were made from recent and not so recent research that dates from the beginning of 20th century when conservation activities were initiated on large scale to this almost 2000 years old architectural reservation (cf., works from B. Filov and A. Protich, 1912-1915).

To corroborate the whole story of Romanization on Bulgarian lands is difficult task since only scattered documentary evidence is available and that treating an enclaves of Christian communities, not separate ethnos' of Thracians (thought to be extinct or assimilated by constant influx of marauder barbarians and migrant settlers); Bulgarians or Slavs (whose basic ethnic components were located far away from the territory of the Lower Danube and the Balkans). So who were those early Christians that left traces of continuous development on the territories of present day Bulgaria for almost 600 years before statehood of Asiatic khans. The bewilderment of the reader should become complete as to the compound effect of an autochthonous Christian population habitat vs. late Pagan population whatsoever. Consider, for instance, what emperor Marcus Aurelius (160-180 A.D.) wrote in his "Meditations" concerning the early Romans:

"Take for the sake of argument the times of Vespasian. You will see all the same things: man marrying, begetting children, being ill, dying, fighting wars, feasting, trading, farming, flattering, asserting themselves, suspecting, praying for the dead, grumbling at the present lot ... convening a consulate, coveting a kingdom. Then turn to the times of Trajan: again everything is the same, and all that life too is dead ..."

A gentleman's approach should demand that we give some more factology on those early Christian Antiquities. They belong beyond doubts to the Romans, but we are tempted to share experience and say what here in the Balkans appear to be of significance: 1) As of 1st century B.C. an agglomeration of Geto-Dacians persisted in the North fringes of the peninsula that consistently bothered the Romans with wars. The Dacian Wars ended with success for emperor Trajan in 106 A.D., who exploited the rich gold mines of the region to backing his further expansion in the East and conquer the Parthian Empire to the Persian gulf. His exploits were carved on a column 30 m high standing in central Rome; 2) Emperor Constantine the Great, founder of Byzantium in c. 306 A.D. and legalizing Christianity in c. 313 A.D., was born here on territories of present Nis and spent his childhood in Serdica. The Constantinian dynasty was of Balkan immersion and the rule of Tetrarchy (his sons and heirs) afterwards divided the Empire to East and West. Yet Geoffrey of Monmouth, who lived in the XII century, calls Constantine in his history "King of Britain"; 3) The Byzantine Commonwealth, although a politically dying body in 6th and 7th centuries, asserted its cultural dominance over greater parts of the civilized world. Emperor Justinian I (527-565) was the last Christian monarch of undetermined origin, but probably Roman from Stobi in Macedonia. He let the Antae (Slavs) and Kutrigurs (Bulgars) to make a condominium on the Balkans. That erased many flourishing Roman centres, as Kaliakra, Abritus, Marcianopolis, Serdica, etc. which ceased to exist for Christianity.

The non-belligerent spectator of Romanization at that point should expect the final accords of the story. Unexpectedly, however, the spirit of East Christianity did not die easy; it continued to thrive for another 1000 years albeit under dominance from Islam until the fall of Constantinople in year 1453. The denominations of Syrian, Coptic, Armenian, and Nestorian churches (which left so many ancestral influences in the cosmopolitan Roman world) had until today preserved some of their parishes in the otherwise antagonistic world of non-Christian population. Since their percentages are very low those communities persist only as ambassadors of good will. Obviously, race and religion walk hand-in-hand in the 21st century.

We wish to say last words on literature sources. First choice though a rather late comer is Leslie Barnard's "Council of Serdica 343 A.D." (1983). Eschatological literature from Church Fathers exist in various Bulgarian language translations, and a good source for beginners here is Archimandrite Todor Sabev's work included in the booklist. See also works from D. Tsuhlev, A. Shivachev, I. Snegarov (with included references) but those are difficult to eschew. The architectural and archaeological heritage in Bulgaria from the Romanization period is not systematized. Except for the basilica churches in Serdica and Messembria (which were published in separate monographs), no other early Christian monuments are researched. Romanesque and Gothic influences are underestimated. At least what remained from Medieval Christianity as architectural design on Bulgarian lands has been summarized in two monographs (cf., works from V. Ivanova (1925) and N. Chaneva-Dechevska (1984)). Many prospects and brochures on monasteries in Bulgaria exist in circulation but they seldom give details on early Christianity influences.

 

 

Copyright 2011 by the author.