Rotunda aka Church of Saint George (Sofia)



Description of Church of Saint George or Rotunda

Church of Saint George was constructed in 4th century AD and was designed as the public building. Over many centuries it served as a mausoleum, baths, church and a mosque. Today it is turned back to Christian Church. It is a round building with niches in its four sides. The frescoes date back to the 13th - 15th century. It is located in the courtyard of Hotel Sheraton. The site is located within a centre of the city, but few tourists and locals ever visit this site so for the most part it is a quiet place. The area around the Rotunda is surrounded by ruins of the ancient Roman Serdika. Even though hundreds of people visited this site over past centuries it still offers surprises. I managed to discover two coins in the masonry of the old walls of some private house near the church. Apparently some servant left his or her money in the crevice of a storage space in hopes to use it one day. For some reason this small treasure remained there for centuries.


History and features
The church is part of a larger archeological complex. Behind the apse are part of a former Roman street with preserved sewers, the foundations of a large three-nave basilica, probably a public building and smaller buildings. One of the buildings has a Roman hypocaust heating system. Floor tiles can still be seen today. Experts define it as one of the most beautiful buildings in the so-called. The Constantine Quarter of Serdica-Sredets, where the palace of Emperor Constantine the Great was located,

The original purpose of the building is subject to various hypotheses and is not fully understood. Bogdan Filov suggests that it was originally a bathroom, considering the installations below the floor as a hypocaust, but later it was found that they were for ventilation purposes. The main contemporary hypotheses are that the building was built as a mausoleum or martyrion or as a ceremonial hall. It was converted into a church in the 6th century.

Later, the holy relics of the heavenly patron saint of Bulgaria, St. Ivan Rilski, were stored here and, according to legend, healed the Byzantine emperor Manuel I Comnenus. The relics were seized by the Hungarians in 1183, during the reign of King Bela III, when allied forces of Serbs and Hungarians invaded Sredets, destroying and plundering the city. After a short stay in the capital Esztergom, where the Catholic bishop became numb after having treated them inappropriately, they were returned to Bulgaria in 1187. The relics of the saint rested here once more when they were solemnly transferred from Turnovo to the Rila Monastery in 1469. d. Initially, the Serbian saint King Stefan Milutin was buried here, whose relics were later transferred to the Church of Saint King (today's Holy Sunday Cathedral).

Outside on the north side of the main apse is the holy tomb of St. mchk Georgi Sofiiski Latest. There are two temples in the capital that commemorate the day of the martyr Sofia on May 26th. One is the chapel dedicated to him in the courtyard of Alexandrovska Hospital, built on the spot where the robber St. George the Most recent was martyred, and the other is the rotunda "St. St. George ", where Christ's Sufferer was buried for the Bulgarian faith. On the eve of the feast on May 25, 2016, at the initiative of priests and doctors and with the blessing of His Holiness Neophyte, Metropolitan of Sofia and Patriarch of Bulgaria, after a 70-year hiatus from 1946, a lite procession was commemorated under the godless communist regime. of the Holy Martyr Sofia and Bulgarian. It begins after the evening worship service was initiated in the chapel at Alexandrovska Hospital and continues along the central streets of Sofia, passing through Pencho Slaveikov Blvd., Vitosha Blvd., Sv. Sunday, Saborna Street, reaching the St. John's Rotunda. St. George, where the relics of the saint rest.

During the Ottoman rule in the 16th century the church was rebuilt as a mosque. In the mid-19th century, along with St. Sofia and the mosque building of today's Archeological Museum, it was abandoned by Muslims. Shortly afterwards, the Christian Bulgarians returned to her the old purpose of an Orthodox church.

Despite its small size, this monument is similar to the St. George Rotunda in Thessaloniki. Carrying the spirit of the early Christian era and the Bulgarian Middle Ages, the Rotunda temple has an impressive impact and is the subject of extensive research and justified interest not only in the Orthodox and Catholic church community and among prominent figures in world scientific and cultural circles, but also attracts many ordinary tourists. . In exceptional cases, ceremonial military ceremonies and concerts featuring Orthodox and classical music are held here.

Vladislav Gramatik is mentioned as a functioning temple in his account of the relics of St. John of Rila from Tarnovo to the Rila Monastery in the summer of 1469. At that time, the church was also the Metropolitan Cathedral, which houses the relics of St. King Stefan Milutin. In the life of Saint Pimen Zografski (16th c.), The church is also mentioned, in which the saint studied icon painting for six years. Then, at Sultan Selim I, the rotunda was transformed into a mosque called Gul-Jamasi. The murals were erased with white plaster and replaced with plant motifs.


After Bulgaria's liberation from Ottoman rule, it was abandoned and neglected. It was not until the death of Alexander Battenberg that it was adapted for a temporary mausoleum in which his mortal remains were placed until it was transferred to a specially built mausoleum in 1898. In 1915, the rotunda was cleared of everything added to it when it was transformed into a mausoleum. mosque. The minaret was torn down, the interior plaster was removed, and a medieval painting consisting of three layers was discovered.

The Roman Rotunda is impressive in Romanesque style, but in keeping with the scale of the city and is part of a large antique imperial complex of buildings from the 3rd century refined and in the beginning of the 4th century by Constantine the Great, it was built in the 6th century by the emperor Justinian the Great. It is built of red baked bricks, with a complicated symmetrical layout with 6 rooms. The rotunda was entered through two vestibules - the first oval (disappeared, today it is a hotel) and the second cruciform (its walls are preserved). Four large pilasters, built in the four corners of the inner almost square space, prove its cruciform half-cylindrical. The second vestibule leads to a durable vestibule, its two lateral lobes - to the flanking rectangular rooms with apices (connected to the main hall with arched entrances, the roof vaults of which have not survived) flanking the main cubic body and the central lobby to the rotunda itself, which represents the central cupola. a square plan building on a square base with 4 semicircular niches in the corners and a square expedition east to the ancient street. The dome steps on a drum pierced by eight cylindrical windows and rises to 13.70 m from the floor. It is 9.50 m wide in diameter.

In the overall architectural composition of the entire ensemble, the rotunda is the highest and most impressive monumental dominant. The interior space is realized with simplicity and bulk of shapes and volumes. The square altar room, the four symmetrically arranged niches, the main entrance of the west wall and several elongated windows enhance the impression of a spatial unit.

The semicircular niches are shaped diagonally symmetrically. The eastern niches are larger than the western niches, but the higher niches are higher. The shape of the eastern niches exceeds the semicircle and is horseshoe shaped. One semi-circular small pool with a radius of 1.40 m is built into them. The bottom of the pool is 50 cm lower than the floor and its upper part is 50 cm raised above the floor. The floor of the rotunda was built on stairs forming the so-called. hypocaust. The hypocaust system consists of quarter pillars, made of almost square bricks (20 by 30 cm large) at a depth of 1.35 m below the floor, stepped directly on the ground at a distance of 50 cm to 1 m, connected above and forming parallel arcades . The hypocaust is also a ventilation system built because of the high soil moisture.

The rotunda dome was demolished twice. Possible reasons for this are: earthquakes due to the high seismicity of the Sofia area, erosion in the years and from the climate or barbarian invasions of the Visigoths at the end of the 4th century and Huns in the 5th century, from which the city and the architectural ensemble were badly affected, but not and when Serdika was included in the Bulgarian state in 809, when, after a brief siege, the keys to the city were handed over to Kan Krum voluntarily by his rulers without being stormed by the Bulgarian ruler.

The spatial composition of the Rotunda has a strong monumental influence on Roman, especially its interior, though with the missing marble finishes today. The suggestion is similar to the Roman-Byzantine temple of San Vitale in Ravenna, despite the smaller, well-sized Serdica, the size of the Sofia monument.


5 layers of murals are preserved in fragments: the first - from the 6th century Roman-Byzantine with plant motifs, a small fragment in the northwestern niche has been preserved; the second - Bulgarian with angels from the end of the 9th or the beginning of the 10th century, consisting of two friezes - upper and lower. In the northern part of the upper frieze are fragments of figures of six flying angels and the head of an angel. Sixteen prophets were depicted in the lower frieze space between the eight windows. Only fragments of the figures of the three prophets and the halo of the fourth are preserved from them. The third layer of murals is Byzantine from the end of the XI and the beginning of the XII century with the images of several saints, a wide frieze with the figures of sixteen prophets under the dome and murals depicting the Ascension, the Assumption, etc. It has a mixed composition, it contains the remains of the first frieze of the X century (the figures of the three prophets on the north wall and the halo of the fourth). The other twelve prophets refer to the time of the Byzantine spelling of the Rotunda, apparently in the 12th century, the walls of the Rotunda were re-plastered and covered with murals. But before the fourteenth century, beneath the dome of the dome, the fresco plaster next to the sites of damage apparently suffered and later began to peel off, revealing the original images of the three prophets. On the rest of the surface below the windows in the space above the niches and at the top of the niches are evangelistic scenes and images of the four evangelists. Zoography demonstrates the qualities of monumental Eastern Christian painting, but not as tall as the previous type of later Byzantine origin. Staticism prevails in it, the figures are with harsh ascetic faces represented in frozen front positions. The fourth layer is a 14th-century Bulgarian made after the restoration of the dome; it consists of two parts: the central image of Christ the Almighty at the zenith, surrounded by four flying angels and four evangelists, and a frieze of twenty-two prophets placed below them in the dome to the line of eight windows in the drum and the bishop's portrait of a bishop north of the entrance. This layer is executed in the monumental tradition of the old painting and at the same time by the great masters. The size of the images in height in this layer is considerable, almost one meter, reduced compared to the images of the first and second layers of murals, which reach approximately three meters. But in return, the frescoes of the third layer are separated by strong movements, saturated with the echoes of the events of that time tragic for the Bulgarian people. The fifth layer is from the end of the sixteenth century, ornamental, from the time of the Ottoman rule, when the old Christian church was turned to a mosque with tiled red ornaments, preserved on the western wall above the window.


The inscriptions of the first Bulgarian and Byzantine layers are in the canonical and in the Bulgarian Patriarchate Greek, while the second Bulgarian layer is in Cyrillic, the dome, which announces a patriarchal visit and a bishop with an unidentified name. the will of Tsar Ivan Shishman, an autocrat of the dynasty who holds Sofia strongly, his Vitosha gold-lettering and the stubborn defense of the city by the Turks, in which his brothers Ivan Asen IV and Michael IV As, are killed by Bulgarian troops. he.

The layers of the medieval painting are arranged in the following way: the highest is the second Bulgarian layer, below is the first Bulgarian layer, and below this is the Byzantine one, which partly covers it in some places, and in others it has fallen and is discovered . Below the lower part there are no murals, so they suggest that it was lined with marble.

In connection with the New Testament scenes depicted above the entrances of the sideways flanking the rotunda, the researchers determine that the north is a chapel dedicated to the suffering of Christ and the south to the Assumption of the Mother of God.

Exceptional among all the murals is the one written in the 10th century, most probably during the reign of King Simeon I the Great, King Peter I or King Samuel. Saved at the top of the niches and above them. It presents the feasts of the Annunciation, the Baptism of Christ, Sretenia, images of the four evangelists and of the five saints (at the western end of the entrance), between which is the image of St. Anthony the Great. From this period is also the round of angels - six or eight figures, moving east from left and right, only parts of their two-meter figures and part of heads are preserved. Unique is the inspired and monumental but human image of an angel head, painted under the dome, which is perhaps, if not the only, the most influential work that gives us an idea of ​​the high mastery of the Bulgarian art school from the golden age of the First Bulgarian country. Some experts have no reason to believe that it goes beyond the models of the much later Boyana Church and the Italian Protestant Renaissance.

Study and restoration
The first studies in the St. George Rotunda were made by Prof. Bogdan Filov in 1915, 1921 and 1932, who also published a purposeful study of the church in 1933. In the late 1980s, the complete restoration was completed and the preservation of the church, and it has its present-day appearance as close as possible to the late antique and medieval primordial species.