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A SCULPTURE OF A HUMAN HEAD FROM THE MEDIEVAL CASTLE OF BABA VIDA

During the replacement of an eroded stone block on the facade of the Voynitza Tower of the Baba Vida feudal castle (in Vidin on the Danube, NW Bulgaria) in 1992, a sculpture of a human head with neck was discovered. Made of grayish white limestone, it is embedded in the wall 12 m above the foundations of the tower (fig. 1), partially projecting out from level of the masonry. The stone head is made from the same material as the surrounding blocks (figs. 2, 3), but was carved separately and later fixed in the wall. The height of the sculpture is 0.26 m, and the diameter at the base of the neck 0.11 m. In figure I, the head is visible 1 m below the middle window of the Voynitza Tower, underneath which is a solar ring of red tiles, framed by the same red tiles.

The sculpted head was probably added during a rebuilding of the demolished top section of the tower, which, based on architectural evidence, can be dated to the early Ottoman period – between the I5lh -1611′ centuries (Кузупов 1980, 10). A period of construction took place at this time, as witnessed by the Baba Vida feudal castle-fortress and the Sratzimir Tower, as well as several other walls, and is most likely related to the event noted by the Turkish chronologist Evlya Tchelebi that “the fortress was built in the 880 year of the Hidjra following the personal orders of Bayzit, the son of the Сопяиегог.”(Челсби 1972,60)’

The style of the image is primitive and grotesque. The eyes, a long fleshy nose curved in at the bottom, and slanted eyebrows are carved along the oval of the stone (figs. 2, 3). The eyes have round pupils and look straight ahead, creating a certain harshness of facial expression. The hair is arranged in rounds from the

left to the right of the occiput (fig. 4). The mouth and the chin are absent. The slightly tapered lower portion of the face is slanted on both sides up towards the ears.

V. Valov (Вълов 1992, 170-172, figs. 3, 4) considers the sculpture as one of the details of the facade decoration of the Baba Vida castle.

Undoubtedly, judging by the fact that the sculpture is embedded in the tower’s wall, the sculpture must have had some ideological or symbolic significance. In my opinion, the general semantics is that of a talisman – a guard against evil spirits. The head is a materialized token of the belief that, if a person or their shadow were embedded in a new building, it would keep the building and its inhabitants healthy and strong. According to an old Bulgarian practice, masons had to ‘immolate’ the shadow of the first person to visit them. They believed (and frequently so it happened) that the person would soon die. This is a specific type of sacrifice (Арнаудов 1972, 223-236; Фрейзър 1989, 187; Стоилов 1902, 31); Николова 1996). In view of the facts that the head was put in place during the Ottoman period, and, hidden behind a huge stone block it would not have been visible on the facade, the most likely individual responsible for placing the sculpture is someone involved in, or in charge of the building works. The fleshy nose on the face, which contributes to the grotesque expression, is typically characteristic of Turks from that period, and indicates that the person who created it must have been familiar with such features.

It is a well known fact that the Islamic religion banned the depiction of human images in the 9 century and as a result, there is a general hostility towards figurative art in the Arab-speaking Islamic world. This fact casts doubt on the possibility that the sculptor and the mason (possibly one and the same person) was a member of the Islamic religion (Миков 2005, 266-271; Большаков 1969, 144-145; Bo-po-нина 1965, 121). They (he?) were probably Christian. An old Bulgarian inscription on a tile from the Firuz beg Mosque on the Tzarevets Hill in Tarnovo (1493) provides us grounds to conclude via analogy that in the reconstruction of the Baba Vida castle, just as in the erection of the mosque in Tarnovo in the same last quarter of 15 century, the workers were native Bulgarians from the town and its vicinity (Генова 2000, 213-214, fig. 7). The mason who embedded the head in question in the tower of the feudal castle must have been one such individual.

Images of human heads acting as guards and decoration on the facades of buildings can be seen in several monuments in this country. Due to the above-mentioned ban in Islam (which was the official state religion in our lands during the Ottoman period), the examples are dated from the Revival period of the 19 century. Three similar heads (fig. 4) can be seen on the outer western walls of the Rila Monastery (Спространов 1901, 198). There is a local story that one of them is the portrait of Master Alexy, who erected the north and the west wings of this monastery. The expression of the face here is also concentrated and stern, with the eyes looking forward. Another stone head, 0.25 m in height, was embedded during the construction of the southern wall. Like the other heads, this image is also primitive and provincial in style. One can hardly distinguish the features of a distinct face.

On the facades of the Saint Paraskeva church in the town of Troyan, there are over 30 stone reliefs, as well as numerous ornaments of dexterously-arranged tile fragments in various shapes, mainly arranged in circles (solar circles). On both the southern and northern walls, there is a sculpted human head in gray sandstone, built-in between the reliefs on the cornices (Василисв 1959, 15). As in most such cases, the human images here are reduced to simple masks embedded in the walls and are considerably smaller than their natural size. The head in Baba Vida is also placed next to a solar circle of red tiles.

Human images similar to the one from Vidin can also be seen in the Lopushna Monastery (fig. 5), Montana District, in the Ascension Day church in Tchiprovtzi, in the Saint Nicholas church in the village of Targovishte, Belograd-chik region, in the church in the village of Bala-nova near the town of Dupnitza (fig. 6).

On examination of these stone reliefs, we find that they reflect the intention of a local stone cutter to accomplish forms that he seemingly does not completely achieve, and does not have enough skills to express in a more sophisticated mode. This fact can be placed within its correct context by bearing in mind that three-dimensional figural sculpture – the human head and face in particular – were not a priority in Bulgarian stone plastic art. The Bulgarian tradition developed in the Middle Ages within the scope of the Byzantine style, noted by the characteristic flatness, the mostly low profile of the relief, and, with respect to ornamentation, by a prevailing animal imagery. There are, however, quite a few three-dimensional human images within the secular tradition: the three well-known small marble heads from Tarnovo, as j

well as various heads and busts on capitals and corbels. They all resemble the relief masks from the facades of cult and public buildings engraved in the specific style of the Roman iconography of human images (Силяновска 1976, 210-213), but when compared to the masks in monuments such as the cathedrals in Reims, Notre Dame de Paris (fig. 7), which are examples of developed art, they can be seen as predominantly cut in a primitive style. This may be due to the absence of a long tradition. Eastern Orthodox Christianity also condemns the portrayal of figural and particularly human sculpture as idolatry. This however, is specific for Roman Catholic religious art. Both Bulgarian and Byzantine art tfere to a certain extent , influenced by art fronf countries where Roman Catholicism was practiced, due mainly to the crusades, morganatic marriages, and trade. As a result, the human figure emerges more complete and sophisticated in relief rather than in the art of sculpture itself.

The head from the Baba Vida castle can be laced in this category of sculpture as an example from the first century of the Ottoman period in Bulgaria. Its stylistic details do not differ from other similar cases dating to the 14″ -15lh centuries (such as the heads from Tarno-vo), and may be considered as evidence that, although rarely encountered, the human head had its place in the work of Bulgarian artists. The head discussed here is the earliest of its kind known so far found in-situ in a construction. It is evidence of a Catholic trend in Bulgarian sculptural art during the Middle Ages (14,h-15

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Olya Milanova, Vidin

Tags: Baba Vida, danube, NW Bulgaria, stone block, Vidin, Voynitza Tower

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