Bulgaria’s Early Renaissance Boyana Church Has the Most Impressive Crucifix Mural, Curator Says

The mural of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ in the Boyana Church in Bulgaria's capital Sofia. A total of 240 of the murals of the church are dated to 1259 AD have been seen as Early Renaissance art by many scholars. Photo: Archaeology in Bulgaria

The mural of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ (left) in the Boyana Church in Bulgaria’s capital Sofia. A total of 240 of the murals of the church are dated to 1259 AD have been seen as Early Renaissance art by many scholars. Photo: Archaeology in Bulgaria

The mural of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ found at the Early Renaissance Boyana Church in the Boyana suburb of Bulgaria’s capital Sofia is the best of its kind in the Eastern Orthodox world, according to a museum curator.

The mural of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ is one of the 240 murals in the Boyana Church dating back to 1259 AD. It is these murals have led UNESCO to declare Sofia’s Boyana Church a World Heritage site, and many scholars to describe it as an example of Early Renaissance art.

The description of the crucifix mural as the best of its kind actually belongs to French-Russian historian and archaeologist Andre Grabar (1896-1990), curator Belcho Belev has told the Bulgarian information agency Focus.

Bulgaria has a total of 43,000 monuments of culture but only 7 of them are UNESCO World Heritage sites. The Boyana Church is one of them; it is only 7 km away from the downtown of Sofia. It is sort-of a business card not just for the Bulgarian capital but also for Bulgarian culture,” Belev is quoted as saying.

“The murals are outstanding. Prof. Andre Grabar, a French archaeologist specializing in Byzantium, says the Boyana [Church] is the most valuable Bulgarian contribution to world medieval art. Its purity and harmonic balance of forms is striking,” he adds.

The Boyana Church, which has been visited by tourists as a museum since 1977, is a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1979. It features construction and frescoes from different time periods starting in the 10th century; its murals were restored several times between 1912 and 2006. It has been operating as a museum as part of Bulgaria’s National Museum of History since 2003, with visiting hours every day between 9:30 am and 5:30 pm.

The mural of the donors of the Boyana Church - 13th century Bulgarian feudal lord (ruler of Sredets, today's Sofia), Sebastokrator Kaloyan, and his wife, Sebastokratoritsa Desislava. Photo: Martyr, Wikipedia

The mural of the donors of the Boyana Church – 13th century Bulgarian feudal lord (ruler of Sredets, today’s Sofia), Sebastokrator Kaloyan, and his wife, Sebastokratoritsa Desislava. Photo: Martyr, Wikipedia

Background Infonotes:

The Boyana Church “St. Nikola and St. Panteleimon” (St. Pantaleon) is a medieval / Early Renaissance Bulgarian church located in today’s Boyana, a suburb of the Bulgarian capital Sofia. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979. It is a two-storey tomb church, with the lower storey designed as a crypt (tomb), and the upper storey – as a chappel for the family of the local feudal lord.

The earliest construction of the Boyana Church took place at the end of the 10th and the beginning of the 11th century AD when a small one-apse cross dome church was erected. It was expanded in the 13th century when it was turned into a two-storey family tomb church by the local feudal lord, Sebastokrator Kaloyan, ruler of Sredets (today’s Sofia, known as Serdica in the Antiquity period), and his wife, Sebastokratoritsa Desislava, as testified by a donor‘s inscription in the church from 1259 AD. (Sebastokrator (pronounced sevastokrator) was a senior court title in the late Byzantine Empire and in the Bulgarian Empire. It comes from “sebastos” (“venerable”, the Greek equivalent of the Latin “Augustus”) and “kratоr” (“ruler”). The wife of a sebastokrator was named sebastokratorissa in Greek and sevastokratitsa in Bulgarian.)

A second expansion dates back to the mid 19th century, during Bulgaria’s National Revival period, when residents of the then village of Boyana funded further construction. After Bulgaria’s National Liberation from the Ottoman Empire in 1878, local residents wanted to tear down the Boyana Church in order to build a bigger one in its place but was saved by Bulgaria’s Tsaritsa-Consort Eleonore (1860-1917), the second wife of Bulgarian Tsar Ferdinand (r. 1887-1918).

The unique murals of the Boyana Church also date back to different periods. The oldest layer is from the 11th-12th century, while the 240 most valuable mural depictions from the second layer date back to 1259 AD. There are also murals from the 14th century, the 16th-17th century, and 1882. The world famous murals from 1259 AD, which have been described by many scholars as Early Renaissnace or precursors of Renaissance Art, are the work of the unknown Boyana Master and his disciples who are believed to have been representatives of the Tarnovo Art School in the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD).

They have sometimes been described as belonging to the tradition of the so called Byzantine Palaiologos (Palaeologus or Palaeologue) Renaissence. In addition to the many biblical scenes, the murals at the Boyana Church feature depictions of Sebastokrator Kaloyan and Sebastokratoritsa Desislava as donors, as well as of Bulgarian Tsar Konstantin Asen Tih (r. 1257-1277 AD) and his wife, Tsaritrsa Irina. Two other small churches preserved in today’s Sofia are also attributed to the donorship of Sebastokrator Kaloyan. The frescoes of the Boyana Church were restored several times between 1912 and 2006. The Boyana Church was first opened for visitors as a museum in 1977.