Saint Stephen's Church

Nessebar, Bulgaria


Positioned on a rocky peninsula jutting into the Black Sea, the ancient city of Nessebar was originally a Thracian settlement called Menebria. Over the centuries the site changed hands as geopolitical boundaries shifted: it was a Greek and then Roman colony, then a Byzantine stronghold that was twice captured temporarily by Bulgarian emperors before succumbing to Ottoman invaders in 1453, ultimately breaking free from Turkish control in 1878 and joining the fledgling Bulgarian principality in 1886. The surviving city monuments range in date and include a Greek acropolis and temple to Apollo as well as a number of Byzantine churches. St. Stephen’s Church, located within the UNESCO World Heritage boundary, contains sections that date to the eleventh century, but it was extended and enlarged in the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. The interior mural paintings, completed in 1599, depict over 1,000 figures from the New Testament.

How We Helped

In the 1990s, emergency conservation work was completed at the site and concentrated on the most heavily damaged sections of wall paintings on the southern aisle and western walls of the church. In 2003, WMF, through the Robert W. Wilson Challenge to Conserve Our Heritage and the A.G. Leventis Foundation, supported a conservation program at the church. In preparation for the conservation activities, detailed architectural, geological, and archaeological surveys were completed, resulting in the development and implementation of a project focusing on structural repairs to the masonry walls and foundation. So as to reduce interior water infiltration, the wooden doors and windows were upgraded and restored, and the roof was repaired. The entire structure was subsequently waterproofed. The poor condition of the structure had been responsible for the deterioration of St. Stephen’s paintings, which have now also been restored.

Why It Matters

The Nessebar churches are important relics of the town’s importance in the medieval period. The entire historic center was placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1996 for its value as a medieval Byzantine city along the coast of the Black Sea. Saint Stephen’s is the most frequently visited of the town’s churches, a testament to its importance as well as its need for regular conservation care and maintenance. Saint Stephen also contains important artistic details, such as glazed decorative bowls at the corners of the cornice of the east façade, which were introduced for the first time in the region at this site. Although these became typical for the decoration of churches from the later medieval period, their use at Saint Stephen’s during the church’s construction in the eleventh century is unique. In addition, the interior frescoes are rare, outstanding examples of wall paintings in central Europe.

Last updated: June 2018.

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