The sculptor carved a relief of a majestic horseman 23 m above ground level in an almost vertical 100 m high cliff. The horseman is thrusting a spear into a lion lying at his horse's feet, while a dog runs after the horseman. In antiquity the Thracian tribes inhabited the plain. There was an ancient Thracian sanctuary in the large open cave under the rocks, which is known today as the Nymphs' Cave.The fortress and a large farm (villa rustica) prospered at the foot of the cliff for more than three centuries during Roman times, until it fell into disuse with the decline of the Roman Empire. The pitched towers of the fortress were rebuilt when the first Bulgarian capital, Pliska, was established nearby.
Bulgarian state foundedDuring the difficult times at the end of the 7th century the relations of the young Bulgarian state and Byzantium were very complex. The Bulgarians won the right to establish their state in a victorious battle, but Byzantium considered itself an heir to the Roman Empire and never gave up its claim on this territory. When the dethroned Byzantine Emperor Justinian asked for help from the Bulgarian Khan Tervel, he was obliged to accept the Bulgarian conditions. The Emperor was reinstalled on the throne in Constantinople thanks to the Bulgarian army. These events took place in the year 705: thus, only a quarter of a century after the Bulgarian state had been founded, it was not only recognized by but also received tribute from Byzantium.
The Madara Horseman was carved at the very beginning of the 8th century, about three decades after the foundation of the Bulgarian State (681). The sculpture marks a triumph: the Byzantine Empire had recognized the new state. The relief is not an abstract symbolic scene but presents a particular image with its own historical background and profound symbolism. The place chosen is such that the bulge of the rock allows some parts of the relief to project more than the rest. Other elements of the composition are almost flat because they had to be accommodated in the slope of the rock surface.
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The sculptor used three methods for the carving of the figures. First he outlined the images with a 1.5 cm wide and 2 cm deep groove in the rock (only the lion is not surrounded by such a groove). Then he chewed out the surrounding surface so that the figures project from it. The third method used was to cover the figures in red plaster so as to outline them even better against the rock. Most of this plaster has been destroyed by the elements, but some traces are still visible. The letters of the inscriptions were also filled with the same plaster. The sculptor worked carefully on the composition in order to ensure that the relief would be seen clearly from a distance. The elements of this skilful composition are arranged in such a way as not to distract but emphasize the impact.
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The sculpture offers an original combination of dynamic and static character, of formal gestures and realistic details. The image is of a particular event but it implies a sense of triumph beyond the limits of time. However, although this monumental work of art combines the concrete with the abstract, the inscription cut in the left and right sides of the composition provided curt, precise and simple information about the event and some of the circumstances related to it. The profound historical meaning of the relief is further clarified by the inscriptions around the figures. These inscriptions were made in three consecutive stages and are related to important events. They are the earliest proto-Bulgarian inscriptions and the earliest written data on Bulgarian history.
However, these traditions began with the texts on the Madara relief. These three texts not only mark the beginning of the historic annals but are also related to the images and meaning of the relief, of the victorious scene presented. The existence of a state acquires its complete meaning only through its international recognition, and these texts mark precisely the events connected with the international recognition of the state, with its introduction into international relations as a respected partner.