The Red church in Perushtitsa

One of the pearls of early Christian architecture in Europe is recognized as the late antiquity and early medieval basilica "St. Mary", famous as the "Red Church", which from the 4th century, all the way to the 14th century, housed the services of the worshippers. This is an architectural and archaeological monument of national importance and is located about a kilometer - two from the city.

The Red Church is one of the most remarkable, partially preserved to this day monuments of early Christian architecture and painting not only in the Thracian lands, but also within the borders of modern Bulgaria. The iconic building rises in the northern parts of the Rhodope Mountains between the town of Perushtitsa and its small Pastusha district. The temple is located probably near a pagan sanctuary in the vicinity or periphery of a large Thracian settlement. In the embankments around and under the foundations of the building are found pieces of tiles and high-quality sculpture. The church is made of red Roman bricks, located on a massive stone base, to which it owes its characteristic red color and popular name. A number of researchers have suggested that its original name of a church was "Virgin Mary", due to the widespread cult of God's mother during the early Byzantine period.

Construction of church began in the 4th century, and in particular after the Edium issued in Serdica in 311 by Emperor Galerius, which ensured the equal status of the Christian religion within the vast Roman State. Convincing grounds for the time of its construction offers, above all, the intricate combination of square and circular spaces, located symmetrically around the main composition axis of the basilica, which is a defining mark of the Roman monumental buildings in the late Antiquity. The prominent Bulgarian archaeologist Stefan Boyadzhiev concluded that the original cult building was built around the middle of the 4th century, but before the reign of Julian Apostat (361-363).

The last surveys of the church prove the existence of three construction periods. The first was started in the 4th century, when the main four-leaf core, crowned with a dome, was built, which is an imposing, step-rising body reaching an enviable 17 meters high for its time. The imposing wasp of the first building is a clear indication of the great material possibilities of the Christian municipality, which took over the care of this cult home necessary for the strengthening of the new religion. On the north and south sides, two circular corridors were additionally built – deambulatories, which were joined to the central space through the six wide openings drilled into the arc walls of the north and south. Inside the rooms were vaulted using the widely popular system of vaults in Thrace in the IV-VI century, known as the "canopy" or "barrel-shaped" vault. The lower parts of the walls, both in the bribery space and in the early rooms, were lined with precious pink marble slabs up to 2 meters high from the floor, which also had marble flooring. Due to the sloping terrain in front of the entrance to the western horse, a site preceded by several steps stretched. The carefully built brickwork is welded from a white mortar with ceramic fragments in it, which reinforce the structure, improve the acoustics of the premises and repel the moisture that is soaked in the walls of the building from its foundations. In this form, the "Red Church" has its close parallels in the Balkans with the church in Hadrian’s stoa (hundred column library) in Athens and partly with the Church of St. Constantine and Helena. Sofia" in Edirne.

There is an assumption that the original building represented a mausoleum in which has the sarcophagus of seven (previously not established) martyrs were placed, who died for the affirmation of the Christian religion during the celebrations in the Roman Empire.

The second construction period dates back to the end of the 5th and early 6th centuries under the reign of Emperor Anastasius (491-518), when the reconstruction probably had to be necessary by the need to create more spacious temples for the growing number of Christians. 

The original building in places was knocked down and new builds were attached to it, characteristic of the basilicas of that period – nartex (limbo), exonartex (outer limbo), chapel and baptistery (baptismal church). That's when the church was first painted. It is assumed that from the west the building had a fenced courtyard (atrium), which had symbolic significance – to house the unenlightened in the new religion. For the new premises, the technique of mixed masonry (opus mixtum) was used – the stone degraded the constructions, and the brick belts leveled and strengthened the structure.

Proof that the was built precisely during this period is its non-constructive bonding to the western side of the original building. In all likelihood, a common terraced roof extends over the antechamber, and the connection between them takes place through a single door. The intermediate wall, which is believed to have separated them, was a styobath on which massive masonry pillars connected by arches stepped. From the west of the outer antechamber was formed a monumental staircase with a portico on four columns. The eastern horse was rebuilt, but this time a little to the east, so that the altar became deeper. For this purpose, the walls were pierced, which cut off the connection between the two roundabouts. The naturally inflated space in front of the apse was formed by the construction of a site ending with a canzel (altar partition) composed of marble columns and large square slabs, debris of which was discovered in 1921. From the level of the site, the floor has dropped, probably by three steps. Thus was the separation of the preapse protransto (presbiterium) from the wasp of the church, which in this case positioned itself under the central dome. In this primary device, the altar did not possess the characteristic parabemi – diaconicon (from the south) and prosthetics (from the north). Their construction took place under the reign of Emperor Justinian I (527-565), when, as it is known, Liturgy was enriched, and with it the architectural environment in which the sacred action took place.

On the south side was built a small chapel, in which the holy powers were most likely exported in the days when the martyrdom of a saint was celebrated, so that the pilgrims who wanted to ask mercy before them would not disturb the worship of the temple.

In the second construction period was created and the square baptismal room on the north side of the outer port with a small cross-shaped pool lined with marble

(Fig. 3).

The third construction period dates back to the end of the X and the beginning of the XI century. At this time, the bypass corridors were not used – on the north side of the building it is noticeable that the passages to deambulatoria were walled with stone thentes to a certain height, where windows were formed. Such a wall is partially preserved in the middle opening of the northern wall, encircling the road from the wasp to the bypass corridor.

During the era of feudalism, the church was painted for the second time, second seco layer, and in some places the new mural followed the system available – in panels, friezes and medalions – of the older of the 6th century – but filled them with other plots and images. In the north, A.Frolov describes Archangel Michael with a scepter in his hand and dressed in an imperial suit. With intense yellow paint, the golden nymb around his head is shown, his wings and hair brown. St. George is also depicted – he rode a white horse, with his hand raised, holding a spear, and an ornate shield can be seen under his left shoulder.

Another type of image is described by Andre Grabar, who worked in Bulgaria in the 1920s. These are a special group of medalions in pearl frames, located mainly on the northern arch. Grabar himself in this place has seen 18 such medals with bust images of winged young women and came to the conclusion that these are not actually angels, but geniuses – personified human virtues and elements of nature.

In the second half of the XI and XII centuries around the church a medieval necropolis arose. The graves are found mainly on the outer north side, as well as south and southwest of the church, and isolated – even below the level of the northern corridor. 

It seems that the armies of the knights of the 4th Crusade, who have been operating in the vicinity since the beginning of the XIII century, directly affected the temple.

Today the site "Red Church" is socialized thanks to a European project under OP "Regional Development". Restoration and preservation of the ruins and frescoes in the temple was carried out and a reception building was built for visitors with a convenient connection to it.

Author: Mario Jassim