On a recent trip to Bulgaria’s capital of Sofia, I set aside some time to visit the area of Boyana, on the outskirts of the city, to visit the not-to-be-missed Boyana church.
Last week I wrote about the spectacular Orthodox monasteries of Kosovo, but Bulgaria’s Boyana church is another impressive example of Balkan Byzantine art that is not to be missed when you’re in the region.
A small village church was built on this site in the 11th century. In 1259, the church was expanded by Sebastokrator Koloyan, cousin of the ruler of Skopje, Constantine Tikh. Kaloyan secured a talented artist to paint the frescoes to conform with Christian orthodox canon.
The church has three fresco layers – from the 11th, 13th and 16th centuries. The 1259 frescoes are the most spectacular, as recognized by UNESCO.
In 1979, the Boyana Church was named a UNESCO Heritage site, noting the several layers of wall paintings to be found in the church, bit indicating that “the paintings with the most outstanding artistic value are those from 13th century. Whilst they interpret the Byzantine canon, the images have a special spiritual expressiveness and vitality and are painted in harmonious proportions.”
Furthermore, the criteria for selection states: “From an architectural point of view, Boyana Church is a pure example of a church with a Greek cross ground-plan with dome, richly decorated facades and decoration of ceramic elements. It is one of the most remarkable medieval monuments with especially fine wall paintings.”
Over 240 frescoes grace the walls of this tiny church. Seeing these beautiful frescoes made me think of the Italian artist, Giotto, who is believed to have been born in 1267, eight years after the creation of this fresco cycle.
St. Nicholas – known as the patron saint of sailors, merchants, and bankers -is one of the patron saints of this church, and many of the frescoes depict scenes from his life, including The Miracle at Sea. The ship and the sailors hats were typical for the time of the Venetian fleet.
One of the frescoes depicts a full-length portrait of Sebastokrator Kaloyan and his wife, Desisilava. Kaloyan holds the model of the Boyana church he financed in his hands. On the opposite wall is his cousin, Tsar Constantine Asen Tikh beside his wife, Tsaritsa Irina. Both are dressed in rich red and gold, jewel-encrusted clothes.
From graffiti found in the church, we know only that the names of the two talented artists who painted the 1259 cycle of frescoes (art historians believe one artist was responsible for the main portrayals of saints and secular people, while the minor saints were undertaken by another). The names of these Bulgarian artists are Vasiliy and Dimitar. It is believed that an apprentice assisted, but his name remains unknown.
Do not miss this church, which can be easily reached by public buses #64 and 107, on your visit to Sofia. The vibrant colors, rich details, and vitality of its fresco cycle make it a visit not to be missed when you are travelling through the Bulgarian capital.