The Balkan Heritage Field School / “Fresco Hunting” Research Project 2012

Since 2010 CSMO has been affiliated with The Balkan Heritage Field School (BHFS) a non-profit, non-governmental organization which is the largest archeological field school in Eastern Europe.

In 2012 the “Fresco Hunting” Research Expedition offered by BHFS assisted by CSMO (A Gabov) expanded the existing iconographic schemes of imaging the Medieval Churches in Western Bulgaria by adopting Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI), Multi Spectral Imaging and Orthophotograhy (Tamaki Suzuki, Japan Centre for International Cooperation in Conservation, National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, Tokyo).  The objective of this two-week module of the “Fresco Hunt” was to introduce the new and affordable techniques of Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) and imaging from UV-induced visible fluorescence to near infrared in order to document rapidly decaying and damaged frescoes in Medieval Churches in Western Bulgaria. In the RTI technique a camera is focused at a surface and series of photographs are taken each with a different light position. A free software package originally developed at Hewlett-Packard Labs is then used to combine the information from the sixty or so images to produce a single three-dimensional rendering of the surface. To learn more about RTI see the movie filmed and edited for an RTI project at the Cataraqui Cemetery, Kingston:

Multi Spectral Imaging uses digital camera and various light sources and filters to record reflectance spectra of the painted surface and augment the surface information gathered by Visible Light Imaging and RTI. All these digital techniques are non-invasive and non-destructive and are regularly used by CSMO for our artifact documentation.


Sveti Nikola May 2012 / half of the students with 3 of the instructors

RTI, MSI and Orthophotograhy were used in the medieval church of “Sveti Nikola”, located in the Divina hamlet at the outskirts of Kalotina village.

The roof of the old church was torn down in 1905 leaving the structure exposed until a local resident rebuild the roof. In 1938 the rebuilt roof was additionally renovated. The roof was once again renovated in 2011-12.

The church is one-nave basilica with a narthex in which you enter through a door on the south wall. This wall has a small window, which lights the apse. There is significant deformation of the building: the north wall is 20 cms longer then the south and the west wall is 30 cms longer then the east. The original, long missing roof, was probably in stone semi-cylindrical style.

The murals in the narthex appear to have two layers of frescoes. In this area the most notable are the images of the donors. These portraits are series of images of two women, two men and five children. The second group of donors takes the entire width of the north wall of the narthex, depicting two men and a woman standing behind their three children. This mural is in very bad condition. The faces of the depicted are much alike. The bottom portion of the Fresco is missing. Rectangular white flags next to the heads of the donors originally had an inscription of names, these are now almost completely illegible. RTI and MSI were successful in documenting the current condition and identifying long lost information.  The main donor is the man on the proper right on the eastern wall, who is depicted gifting the model of the church in the hands of the Sveti Nichola. The image of Sveti Nichola on the east wall is almost completely destroyed.

Of the remaining images in the church the image of Jesus Christ (at the entrance to the nave) and scenes of torture of the sinners, are damaged almost beyond recognition.

KL_2012_NR_E_C2_1064_AG_FC_IR_910 KL_2012_NR_E_C2_1064_AG_UVE_FC KL_2012_NR_E_C2_1067_AG_UVF (False Colour IR; False Colour UV Reflectance and UV Fluorescence © A Gabov & BHFC 2012)

Unlike the narthex, in the nave few fragments have survived: in the apse part of religious scene (oranta); on the south wall only a single figure is preserved; next to the east are the saints warriors, and above them are a group of saints (all the way to the western wall); the west wall has lost almost all frescoes; on the north wall are saints and warriors along with “Pilate washing his hands” scene.

A. Grabar originally proposed that the frescoes in this church date from the end of XV century. This preposition can be corrected taking into account the commemorative inscription originally located above the window of the church (which is no longer at the church). In 1947 this inscription was removed by Professor Asen Vassiliev and is now stored in the Archaeological Museum in Sofia. It reads: ” Izvoleniem and … finished village, holy spirit, built and painted by…t / it / our Father / car / in this day of the great Yoa / n Alexa / ndar / …day …”. This wording makes it clear that the church was built and decorated during the reign of Ivan Alexander (1331-1371).

The church “Sveti Nikola” is another important medieval Eastern European building. Although it is not in a good state of preservation, it is one of very few XIV century churches that remain. In addition to the on going preparation of a full visual record of the frescoes and documenting the condition of the structure in an effort to publish a ‘Corpus of Medieval Frescoes from Western Bulgaria’ this church will need stabilization and the frescoes will have to be conserved.

REFERENCES: (Accessed January 2012)

Miyatev, Kr-royal crown in a village hut, IEM, t.XIV, 1943Vasiliev, Assen, Churches and monasteries in Western Bulgaria, Excavations and proichvaniya, t.IV, 1950

Vasiliev, Assen-Donor portraits izd.BAN, 1960