Doves, deer and knots in mosaics

The Small Basilica in Plovdiv reveals the secrets of the early Christians in the Balkans

Photo: Adelina Lozanova The Small Basilica's ruins are well-preserved, restored and marvellously put on display.

Rich in mosaics, the Small Basilica fits perfectly into the complex of ancient landmarks in the city of Plovdiv, named European Capital of Culture 2019. Its ruins were discovered by accident during construction works next to the interior part of the fortification wall that marked the eastern outskirts of the ancient city.

It was called the Small Basilica to distinguish it from the other two basilicas adjacent to it that date from the time of the city of Philippopolis, one of them considered the Metropolitan church of the city (the Large Basilica). The Small Basilica was built in the second half of the 5th century in honour of Basiliscus, the chief military commander of the Thrace province. He won the respect of the local population when in 471 he drove away from the city the Goths who had risen in revolt.

The gratitude to Basiliscus was expressed in a six-line church donor's inscription praising the military commander and built into the mosaic in front of the altar. In 475 Basiliscus became Emperor, but only 20 months later he was deposed by his predecessor Zeno (474-491), who ordered for every trace of Basiliscus' presence to be erased. As a result, the first lines of the church donor's inscription in the red-pebble mosaic set against a white background in the centre opposite the altar apse, were removed.

The Small Basilica follows the principles of early Christian architecture. It is a three-nave church with one apse and a narthex and is richly decorated with a marble colonnade between the naves, a marble altar screen, a pulpit and a synthronon. A small chapel was built against the south end of the basilica, and a baptistery is attached to the northern part of the building. The baptistery has a square plan, and contains a cruciform baptising pool and polychromatic floor mosaics depicting deer, doves and other Christian symbols. The floors are covered with colourful Roman mosaics with geometrical motifs such as triangles, circles and lozenges, as well as vases, garlands, and meanders shaped as swastikas.

Particularly interesting are the rosettes symbolising Paradise and the blood of Christ and the Solomon's knots, symbolic of eternity and the power of true faith. The deer is a representation of the soul of the Christian striving for faith and truth. The dove represents the Holy Spirit that appeared at the time of Jesus's baptism in the Jordan River. The vase is an embodiment of the vessel used to collect manna. The swastika is an ancient cosmic symbol, and the meander is a simplification of the labyrinth. There used to be a mosaic workshop in the city of Philippopolis for floor decoration of large public buildings and the homes of wealthy citizens.

Towards the end of the 6th century, the Small Basilica was deserted together with many other buildings located in the lower parts of the city. It gradually turned into ruins, and the local population used it as a source of construction material for a long time.

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