Restorer Elena Kantareva Rescues Ancient Mosaics from Oblivion

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Elena Kantareva

By Elena Kantareva-Decheva

Assistant Professor Elena Kantareva-Decheva is the deputy director of the Ancient Plovdiv Institute. She is a painter-restorer and lecturer at the Faculty of Fine Arts at the Academy of Music, Dance and Fine Arts in Plovdiv. Since 2015, she has headed the team that restored the mosaics of the Bishop’s Basilica of Philippopolis.

Fate connected me with the Bishop’s Basilica of Philippopolis back in 1988, when, as a student majoring in restoration at the National Academy of Arts, I chose a piece of mosaic for my dissertation. A year later, after graduating, I started working as a restorer at the mosaic studio of the then National Institute of Cultural Monuments in Plovdiv. The Institute’s main fieldwork was at the Great Basilica, as it was then known. At that time, only the southern half of the Basilica had been discovered, and only the mosaics from the nave were covered with a temporary protective building. Unfortunately, during the years of post-communist transition, all activities for the restoration and preservation of the Basilica were suspended, and it sank into ruin and oblivion. The same fate befell the Small Basilica along with many other sites in the city.

Launched in 2015, the project for the construction of a protective covering, restoration, and exhibition of the Bishop’s Basilica of Philippopolis was a natural continuation of the successfully completed restoration and exhibition of the mosaics from the Small Basilica in Plovdiv, initiated and funded by the America for Bulgaria Foundation. From 2011 to 2013, I supervised that restoration.

The initial plan was to complete the project within two years in the southern half of the Basilica, discovered in the 1980s, but later the partnership between Plovdiv Municipality and the America for Bulgaria Foundation led to the historic decision to fully uncover, research, and exhibit the Bishop’s Basilica of Philippopolis. The site was to be completed and opened in 2019, when Plovdiv was European Capital of Culture.

Elena showing the Basilica to members of the ABF board and guests

I headed the restoration team, which was first on site, since May 2015, and it has been six years already! Although I knew the site, its condition and problems, after commencing work, I was taken aback by the sheer scale and poor condition of the mosaics. I said to myself, unamused, “Lord, what did I get myself into!” After the initial shock, we got a grip, made a work plan, and got going. Some of the mosaics were in such a bad condition that they could not even be cleaned; we had to be very creative and make a lot of effort to stabilize them.

During our work on the site, the restoration team went through many trials and challenges, both personal and professional. We realized that working on a site of this scale happens once in a lifetime. We had many difficult moments, but also many exciting and satisfying experiences. During these six years, two children were born in the team, with a third one on the way, and, unfortunately, two people left us for good.

On a personal note, my whole family was professionally involved in the project: my husband, Associate Professor Dechko Dechev; my daughter, Rayna Decheva-Uchkunova; my son, Mihail Dechev; and my nephew Nikolay Nyagolov. During these six years, our lives were fully dedicated to our work on the Basilica. My son inspired his classmates and friends to volunteer on site. With the help of those 16- and 17-year-olds, in the summer of 2019, we moved and returned to the site more than 800 square meters of mosaics from the upper layer of the Basilica, which are currently on display on the second floor of the visitor center. We couldn’t have done it without their help!

Also invaluable were the efforts of the countless volunteers brought on site by the Foundation, who helped remove the protective sand cover and reveal the mosaics!

Arranging mosaics on the second level of the Basilica Visitor Center

I will never forget the white dove that landed and walked on the mosaic shortly before we found the inscription with the bishop’s name on the lower mosaic floor. I will always remember the hot summer of 2017: the mosaics from the Basilica were fully uncovered, we worked on their restoration in situ, and the people who passed by from the north and could freely observe our work greeted us with applause. Then, on the day of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, August 15, when bells were ringing from all sides for the feast, we found the coin of Licinius at the base of the bottommost floor of the Basilica. It was really exciting; we took the discovery as a sign “from above.”

On a more serious note, here’s why the Basilica is so significant:

The Bishop’s Basilica of Philippopolis is a monument of extremely high historical, artistic, and scientific value. The building is impressive in its scale, architectural solutions, and decoration and is a carrier of invaluable information about the history of early Christianity and the formation and development of church art in the Balkans and Europe.

The floors of the Bishop’s Basilica of Philippopolis are covered with multicolored mosaics with an area exceeding 2,000 square meters. The stratigraphic study during conservation revealed the presence of three floors—one mortar and two mosaic layers, laid on top of one other. They are multicolored and differ in scale, composition, and decoration. They are dated to the 4th–6th century.

As a professional working in the field of mosaic restoration for more than 30 years, I can say that no one has been happier by the completion of the Small and Bishop’s Basilicas than me. Over the years, seeing them abandoned, crumbling, and forgotten was disheartening; I thought we would lose them forever. These exceptional sites’ return to life is important for Plovdiv, Bulgaria, and Europe. It is critical to remember, appreciate, and preserve our rich heritage and to pass it on to future generations.

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