by Ed Whelan
Archaeologists have announced the discovery of a golden cross, thought to contain remnants of the Holy Cross of Jesus, in the medieval capital of the Bulgarian Empire. The cross is a striking piece of religious art and is believed to be the only example of its kind in the world. The object holds great significance for the local Orthodox Christian community. But does it contain particles of the Holy Cross of Jesus?
Treasures from recently discovered Tarnovgrad church
Archaeologist Konstantin Totev is leading a large team of experts who are investigating the Trapezitsa fortress in Tarnovgrad, once the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396). Tarnovgrad is now only a series of extensive ruins and is situated in the modern city of Veliko Tarnovo, which is approximately 170 miles (210 kilometers), from Sofia. The Trapezitsa fortress was one of two strongholds in the former capital of the medieval Bulgarian Empire .
Bulgarian archaeologists only recently discovered a previously unknown Church that was once probably the private house of worship of a member of the Bulgarian nobility . The church, which is the 23rd Orthodox Church found so far in Tarnovgard fortress, dates from the 13 th century and is located next to the walls of the fortress, not far from the former imperial palace. It has a remarkably well-preserved altar table and there is a small necropolis in its grounds.
Archaeologist Konstantin Totev with the newly found altar table inscribed with three crosses. ( Regnews)
According to Christian Today , ‘’the cross was dug up near an altar pillar’’ in the church which is inscribed with prayers in Old Bulgarian. This religious artifact is exciting experts not only because of its workmanship but because it is offering an insight into the medieval Second Bulgarian Empire and its links with the Byzantine Empire. It is exciting members of the Orthodox Church too because it potentially contains a relic of the cross of Christ.
The Medieval Gold Cross
The ornate cross is very-well preserved and it is the fact that it is made of gold that makes it a unique find, as typically crosses of this sort from this time were made from bronze and iron. According to Konstantin Totev:
‘It is a gold cross, an encolpion – a work made to hold relics…It is unique because the vast majority of such crosses have been made by bronze and silver.’
The article is only 4 ½ inches (11 cm) long and is actually extremely light encolpion, presumably because it is hollow. The cross has a series of engravings with the one on its front being the crucifixion scene. According to Archaeology in Bulgaria , on the back of the cross is “an image of the Holy Mother of God (Virgin Mary) with arms in upright position.”
The front of the cross bears the image of the crucifixion. ( Regnews)
The cross was made by means of ‘a Byzantine jewelry technique using niello, a metal mixture applied to gold’ reports Archaeology in Bulgaria . It seems highly likely that the cross was made in a workshop in the capital of the Byzantine Empire, during the 12 th century, because of its iconography and style. It was made at a time when Bulgaria was still part of the Empire and before the emergence of the Second Bulgarian Empire.
Huge religious significance
The Medieval artifact is an encolpion (enkolpion) cross, which would have been worn around the neck of a cleric. Totev seems certain it is a reliquary and so it possibly holds some tiny relics of the Holy Cross. If this is found to be true, the item is of great historic and religious importance, as it is believed to be the only golden encolpion cross to have been uncovered to date, anywhere in the world.
However, the experts have not opened the artifact, as of yet, and, “It seems like the cross has not been opened” stated Totev. Even if they do open it up, as is true in of all of these cases, it will be a tall order to establish whether the contents (if any) are a true relic . These crosses were first made in Byzantium during the Macedonian Dynasty and remained popular down to the fall of Constantinople. They are popular items in Orthodox churches around the world. Christian Today reports that these crosses are often known as ‘Russian encolpion crosses’ because of their popularity in Russia in the medieval period.
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Example of an 11 th century Byzantine reliquary cross from The British Museum. It opens to reveal an approximately 1 cm deep space inside which would have held a relic. ( © The Trustees of the British Museum)
Tarnovgrad – Capital of an Empire
The religious artifact was found in Tarnovgrad which was once ‘capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396), one of the biggest countries in Europe’ in the Middle Ages, reports Reuters. The Second Bulgarian Empire was established after the decline of Byzantium and it came to dominate the Balkans. Tarnovgrad was originally a fortress but became a cosmopolitan city and the cultural and religious center of the Bulgarian Empire. The wealth and sophistication of the city can be seen in the many murals and works of art that have been found there in recent years. The capital was captured by the Ottomans and it went into decline in the 15 th century.
The discovery of the cross is very important. It is an amazing work of religious art and is adding to our knowledge of Byzantine art. The find is also showing us the power and wealth of the Second Bulgarian Empire and that it was heavily influenced by Byzantine culture. It is expected that Tarnovgrad will reveal more treasures in the future as archaeological digs are continuing at the medieval city.
Top image: The gold cross found in Bulgaria. Source: Regnews
By Ed Whelan