Bulgaria’s Early Renaissance Boyana Church Gets Improved Lighting ahead of 40th UNESCO World Heritage Site Anniversary

Bulgaria’s Early Renaissance Boyana Church Gets Improved Lighting ahead of 40th UNESCO World Heritage Site Anniversary

The new lighting installed inside Bulgaria’s Early Renaissance Boyana Church in Sofia will provide much better views of its world-famous murals. Photo: National Museum of History

The Early Renaissance Boyana Church in the Boyana quarter of Bulgaria’s capital Sofia, best known for its absolutely unique 1259 murals, has been equipped with brand new and improved lighting as it is about to celebrate the 40th anniversary since getting recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Boyana Church “St. Nikola and St. Panteleimon" (St. Pantaleon) is often described by scholars as an example of Early Renaissance art or Pre-Renaissance art.

Its 240 murals date to the mid-13th century (1259), predating the Italian Renaissance by about 100 years.

In a nutshell, they can be described as “Renaissance" in terms of the artistic depiction of the human figures but not in terms of their plots which do not alter or challenge the established religious canons.

The new lighting inside the Boyana Church is the first out of a total of three phases to revamp the landmark ahead of its 40th anniversary as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Photo: National Museum of History

The Boyana Church, one of the most famous landmarks of Bulgaria’s capital Sofia, is managed by the National Museum of History, whose main building is also located in the Boyana Quarter and is a former residence of Bulgarian communist dictator Todor Zhivkov.

“The first phase from the planned improvements in the Boyana Church “St. Nikola and St. Panteleimon" (St. Pantaleon) has been completed with the replacement of the lighting in all three parts of the temple. Now the unique murals from 1259 are shining in a new light," the Museum has announced.

Another improvement in the Early Renaissance church, which is going to celebrate in 2019 the 40th anniversary since its inclusion in the World Heritage Site list of UNESCO, is the addition of transparent walls to protect the precious frescoes from the visitors.

“[The transparent walls] will be protecting the frescoes because very often the visitors are literally tempted to touch these sophisticated murals, and there should be a distance that they should keep in order to preserve them," Kalin Kirilov, who is in charge of the Boyana Church at the National Museum of History in Sofia, has told Nova TV.

“Before [the lighting got replaced] it was considerably darker in the church. The old lighting created a sort of darkness in the temple. A lot of details and scenes which were hard to see in the twilight have now [literally] come to the fore. The church has literally begun to shine in a new light," Kirilov elaborates.

Among the most notable 1259 murals of Bulgaria’s Early Renaissance Boyana Church is the fresco of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ described by one curator as the most impressive in the world of Eastern Orthodox Christianity.

Another world famous of its murals is the fresco depicting the church’s donor, Sebastokrator Kaloyan, ruler of Sredets (today’s Sofia, known as Serdica in the Antiquity period), and his wife, Sebastokratoritsa Desislava, together with the donor‘s inscription from 1259, and with the depictions of Tsar Konstantin Asen Tih (r. 1257-1277 AD) of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185 – 1396/1422) and his wife, Tsaritrsa Irina

(Sebastokrator (pronounced “sevastokrator") was a senior court title in the late Byzantine Empire and in the Bulgarian Empire.)

The portraits of Tsar Konstantin Asen Tih and his wife Tsaritsa Irina have even been recently used by the National Museum of History in order to produce replicas of the crown worn by Bulgarian emperors and the crown worn by Bulgarian empresses during the Second Bulgarian Empire.

Other especially intriguing murals from the Early Renaissance Boyana Church are the oldest known portrait of hermit St. Ivan Rilvski (“St. Ivan of Rila") (876 – 946), Bulgaria’s patron saint, and a fresco of St. Ephrem the Syrian (ca. 306 – 373 AD), whose portrait is drawn in such a way as though the saint’s eyes are always looking directly at the visitor.

The Early Renaissance Boyana Church was located nearly 10 kilometers away from Sofia (Sredets, Serdica) in the Middle Ages, whereas today it stands in one of Sofia’s most prestigious suburbs, the Boyana Quarter. Photo: National Museum of History

The restoration of the murals of the Early Renaissance Boyana Church was completed back in 2006 but a small section has been left untouched to allow the visitors to compare the frescoes from before and after they got restored.

The 1259 murals themselves were painted on top of older frescoes from the 12th century. In addition to being deemed a precursor to the Italian Renaissance from the 14th century, the murals from the Boyana Church are deemed comparable with late medieval Byzantine art from the so called Palaiologos Renaissance (under the Palaeologus Dynasty, r. 1261 – 1453).

Learn more about the Early Renaissance Boyana Church in Bulgaria’s capital Sofia in Background Infonotes below!

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.

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