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The Church ‘St. Archangels’ in Arbanassi (Part One)

Written by Gaina Nikolova – Ivancheva – PhD on Science of Art and Fine Arts

CONTEMPORARY HORIZON, 4/2010

The village of Arbanassi which is situated close to the medieval capital of Bulgaria Veliko Tarnovo, is famous with its rich cultural heritage. Clear evidences of that fact are all five churches and two monasteries there that survived up to the present days, all of them remain remarkable monuments of the late medieval Christian art since their buildings and frescoes have been executed   for a period of more than two hundred years between the decline of the sixteenth, and the beginning of the seventeenth century.  The church of the ‘St. Archangels’ is one of the most interesting among them with its architecture and its extremely beautiful frescoes, all of them in an excellent preservation.

Strangely enough this remarkable monument had never been an object of a profound scientific research.  All the accessible information regarding this particular church we got mostly from a few different Veliko Tarnovo guide books, but it was too short and quite inadequate.  In the last few years there were made some archeological researches in the church yard that contributed to the creation of some new speculations regarding mostly to the mysterious period the church[1] had been built up and later reconstructed. There were also a few speculations concerning the period the frescoes had been executed too, most of which seem to be very contradictory and inconsequent.

The purpose of this article is to put together all existing facts concerning to that church which shall clarify the period between the church creation and its subsequent reconstruction. We shall try to establish some completely new theories regarding the stages the frescoes had been executed. The second part of the article shall take into consideration some special features concerning the frescoes especially at the church nave and its narthex that are remarkable for their composition and color solutions.

The outside appearance of the ‘St. Archangels’ church does not differ from the other churches in the village which share the same architectural structure. The church was created of one nave, a narthex and a temple devoted to St. Paraskeva which was built at the North side of the church. The architectural plan of the nave is very interesting because it is unusually wide.  At the southern and the northern walls of the nave from the altar side two deep semi circled niches were formed. The church vault was created as a semi cylinder and above the intersection between the length axis and the               nichesaxis a semi circled blind dome was built.  Executed that way, the church interior represented development in Southwestern Bulgarian and Macedonian architectural traditions originating in the three apse orthodox churches of the ninth century[2]. That particular architectural solution was very untypical for the late medieval monuments created on Bulgarian territory (at the the period of Ottoman rule), usually the naves of the churches of that era were planned orthogonally and the vaults had semi cylindrical form. Thus beside the unimpressive outside appearance of the church, the festal and solemn atmosphere of its sacral territory was hidden. The incredibly beautiful frescoes can be seen at the church nave and narthex, all of them showed the increased wealth of the church trustees. The temple ‘St. Paraskeva’ has never been painted with frescoes.

Written documents witnessing the exact year of the church creation have never been found. As a basic document concerning the history of the church building was accepted a donor inscription in Greek that was laid on the East side of the narthex just above the nave entrance. The inscription can`t be read clearly nowadays because it was occasionally damaged which led to the creation of many contradictory speculations concerning the date that was written in the inscription.  According to the explorers of Arbanassi from the beginning of the twentieth century the inscription reads: ‘The divine this church, a holy home of the archangels Michael and Gabriel (was built) at the expenses of Mr. Nico Kolutacius and his wife Kiriaky, may their memory live forever, in the year 1600’. According to some scientists this date concerned to the year the foundation of the church had been built and according to others[3] – to the year the church had been reconstructed years later. Unfortunately we cannot be sure which of these assumptions is the correct one. Some contemporary explorers continue arguing about the correct year of the inscription[4]. The theory that seems to be the most reliable belongs to the archeologist H. Vachev who stated that the date in the donor inscription of the church concerned to a year of the second half of the seventeenth century[5]. This theory could be supported by some archeological evidences that shall be quoted later in this article.

Except that controversial inscription above the entrance of the church nave, there is another one that survived up to the present days and it clearly reads: ‘By the hand of Michael from Thessaloniki and George from Bucharest and under the surveillance of Eustatius h. Nicolas. 1760. 1st of august’[6].

Fortunately up to the present survived also an old gospel that had been printed especially for this church in 1612. From an inscription forged at its golden cover we can read that that gospel was donated to the church in 1648 from a few Arbanassi residents: Mr. Nicolas – a priest, Nicos Lefter and Mr. Stamatis[7].

In the last few years an archeological research was made in the church yard. The scientists found an artificial eminence containing a lot of construction waste and frescoes fragments that date back to the seventeenth century[8]. Which meant that was exactly the time the church had been reconstructed, these evidences corresponded also with the date the gospel mentioned above had been donated.

It is time to mention that there haven’t been found any other donor inscriptions at the church narthex.  And that the frescoes at the nave are completely different from the ones at the narthex. At the altar part of the church at the lowest part of the eastern wall can be found some older frescoes which represent a painted drapery. At the same time we must emphasize that there is a definitive style difference between the frescoes at the nave and the frescoes at the narthex of the church.

These are all evidences we have for this church.  Founding on all mentioned facts we can assert the theory that the church was built further at the decline of the sixteenth century.  That was a period of economical prosperity for the village, the time the other Arbanassi churches building began. It is likely that at those years the church consisted only of one premise – its nave which was frescoed and the old drapery frescoes at the altar part of the church is a clear evidence of that fact. It seems that the church was largely reconstructed somewhere at the middle of the seventeenth century when the narthex and the gallery were additionally built up. He frescoes of the narthex must pertain exactly to that period which can be proven by many iconic style resemblances to another Arbanassi church – ‘St. Athanasius’ which was built in 1667.

All archeological researches run by H. Vachev did not establish any differences between the materials that had been used in the construction of the narthex and the nave of the church and the building methods[9]. One of the strongest evidences that the narthex and the nave were both reconstructed at the same tame is the eastern side of the narthex which was formed as an iconostasis of the women department.  The wall was divided  into a few niches in which there were frescoed the icons of St. Nicolas, St. Mary, Jesus Christ and St. John reminding the masonry altars spread out in the Danube princedoms between the seventeenth and the eighteenth century.

Here it is the time to mention that that in the seventies of the twentieth century when the frescoes were restored, older frescoes layers had not been found neither in the church nave nor in its narthex (except the drapery frescoes at the lower altar part of the church mentioned above). As we already know from the donor inscription, the frescoes at the narthex (its women department) were created by two painters – Dimitrius from Thessaloniki and George from Bucharest.  It is possible that the church narthex was left with no frescoes for some time.  For example, the temple built up to the church was never frescoed. There in 1790 a twelve years old noble boy named Constantinus Brancoveanu, a member of the famous family Brancoveanu was buried.

We should not be surprised by the fact that two painters came from Thessaloniki and Bucharest to work especially at the ‘St.Archangels’ church in Arbanassi. The rich residents and merchants of the village needed representative and richly decorated churches. The painters who worked in the churches of Arbanassi were well educated in art and had enviable theological culture which can be seen from the ensembles they frescoed. In the frescoes of the church ‘St.Archangels’ can be found influences from Wallachia and Moldova which is not surprising because near the church had been situated the houses of rich Wallachia families. The monumental frescoes of the church ‘St. Athanasius’ consisted of very interesting iconic and painting details, as a result of different influences of the Christian art seen from the specific painters view.

The second part of this article will concern the fresco legacy of the church ‘St. Athanasius’ and its frescoes that date back to a very similar period of time but differ with its style and specific atmosphere.


[1] Вачев, Х. Археологически приноси за строителната история на храма „Св. Архангел Михаил и Гавриил“ в Арбанаси. Известия на РИМ В. Търново, ХХ/2005

[2] Марди-Бабикова, В. Арбанашките църкви. С.,1978, с. 15

[3] The explorer D Kostov  stated that this inscription  concerned to the time the church was reconstructed and emphasized that the last two numbers cannot be clarified: Костов, Д. Арбанаси. С., 1959, с. 88

[4] Вачев, Х. Църковният ансамбъл в Арбанаси,  2006, с. 62

[5] Вачев, Х., цит.съч., с. 62

[6] Костов, Д. Арбанаси. С., 1959, с. 88

[7] Снегаров, И. Исторически вести за Търновската митрополия. ГСУ, БФ, т. ХХ/1942-1943, С., 1943, с. 109

[8] Вачев, Х. Църковният ансамбъл в Арбанаси,  2006, с. 62

[9] Вачев, Х., цит.съч., с. 60

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