Old Bulgarian Art
OLD BULGARIAN ART
The exposition of Orthodox art of the National Art Gallery is located in the Crypt of the Memorial St. Alexander Nevski Cathedral in Sofia. Its main goal is to present in a most comprehensive manner the development of Christian art on Bulgarian soil. In this regard, the collection is unique and has no parallel in other national and regional museum institutions in Bulgaria.
The exposition covers a large time span - from the official Christianization of the Roman Empire in the fourth century to the time of Bulgarian National Revival (XVIII - XIX century). This time period was saturated with violent historical events and dramatic twists in our national destiny. Though indirectly, they affected the works of art, which are functions of the cultural and social life in any particular era.
The Crypt Exposition was formed relatively late - in the mid-60s of the XX century. At that time, the elements of doctrinarism and militant atheism became mitigated in the cultural policy of the socialist camp. As a result, the works of art from the Middle Ages were no longer viewed primarily as a form of religious propaganda detrimental to the masses. They were already perceived as part of the cultural and historical heritage of the nation and began to be appreciated as carriers of specific artistic and aesthetic qualities. The change in views made it possible to lay out the permanent exhibition at national level, which enabled the introduction of the viewer to this type of art. The realization of this intention would have been impossible had it not been for the presence of major works owned by previously established museums (the National Archaeological Institute and Museum, the National Church Historical and Archaeological Museum, and the museums in Shumen, Veliko Tarnovo, Nessebar and Rousse), museum collections (Boboshevo), galleries (Plovdiv) and monasteries (Rilski, Bachkovski, and Preobrazhenski / Transfiguration). Thanks to their collegial cooperation the existence of the exposition, where Orthodox art is presented in its integrity and diversity, has become possible.
The main focus of the Crypt exhibition is on icon painting. Monumental painting has been partially presented - only in cases when, for one reason or another, some frescoes had to be removed and preserved in museum conditions. In the Crypt exposition, they illustrate the typological and functional diversity of Orthodox art, without any pretence to fully presenting the development of medieval monumental painting on Bulgarian lands. For the same reason and again without any pretence to completeness, the Crypt exposition includes works of the so-called applied arts, such as prints, manuscripts and incunabula books.
The initial Christianization of the Bulgarian lands began back in the time when they were part of the Roman Empire. In the IV century, Christianity acquired the status of state religion, thus it gave a strong impetus to the new faith-related art. On Bulgarian lands there is a relatively large number of historical records of monumental painting preserved. Most of them are murals from the decoration of tombs, or floor mosaics. There are some extremely rare examples of figure painting. Among them are fragments of frescoes from the early Christian basilica in the village of Khan Krum, Shumen region, one of which is presented in the Crypt exhibition.
In 681, a new country appeared on the political map of the Balkans - Bulgaria. Two centuries later, it was Christianized. The needs of the new cult required the construction and decoration of churches, the translation in Slavonic of Christian religious literature, as well as the creation of new writings, Christian in content. The capital Preslav turned into a major art centre. A particularly interesting aspect of the artistic production there was the ceramic icon. One such icon depicting Apostle Paul, from Tuzlaluka monastery near Preslav, is displayed in the Crypt.
In the beginning of the XI century, after long and exhausting wars with Byzantium, accompanied by numerous casualties, Bulgaria ceased to exist for more than a century and a half. The sixteen decades of Byzantine rule left lasting traces in art and culture on Bulgarian soil. There was full and permanent integration into the Byzantine type of civilization. In the Crypt exhibition that era is represented by a magnificent newly restored icon of Christ from the second half of XI - beginning of XII century, originating from Nessebar and most probably created by a master from Constantinople.
In 1185, following an uprising led by the brothers Asen and Petar, Bulgaria gained its independence again. A major cultural and artistic centre became the new capital - Veliko Turnovo. Other towns such as Melnik, Nessebar, and Cherven as well as monasteries like Rilski and Bachkovo played an important role too. In the Crypt, the period of the Second Bulgarian Kingdom (1285 - 1396) is presented by several high quality icons “St. Nicholas with life scenes" from Nessebar (end of XII - early XIII century)," Christ Pantocrator "from Nessebar (the 20-30s of XIII century), "Virgin - Mother of Life" from Nessebar (the 70-80s of XIII century), “Synaxis of Archangels" from Bachkovo monastery (the 40s of the XIV century), "Crucifixion" (the 70-80s of the XIV century) as well as by frescoes of St. Nicholas from the Church in Melnik and Boyana Church.
At the end of the XIV century, Bulgaria lost its independence again. Under the Ottoman rule, Christianity and its related art had to change and adapt to new realities. The first few decades of the fifteenth century were particularly difficult. Art on Bulgarian lands, which had come to a standstill, was revived in the second half of the century, when some monasteries were restored (Rilski, Dragalevski, Boboshevski, Kremikovski, etc.). The icons of “St. George on horseback" from Boyana, “Christ Pantocrator” from Kremikovski monastery, “Deesis" from Bachkovo and "The Virgin with the Child" from Nessebar date back to this period.
The period XVI - early XVII century marked a new period of prosperity for the Balkan Christian art. It was mainly associated with the works of painters from Crete and the renovation of multitude of monasteries and important bishopric centres. At the end of the XVI century, bishopric Nessebar was reconstructed too. For a short period of time, a great number of icons and a few mural ensembles were painted in the city. Apart from some Nessebar icons, the Crypt exposition presents a part of the murals, which once decorated the church of “St. George Mali”.
Other regions of the country - Plovdiv, Veliko Turnovo, and Western Bulgaria – are also presented with icon-painting works dating from the XVI - XVII centuries. The common trend towards stylization and increased decorativism, characteristic of the era, was realized in a specific way in each of these regions.
The Crypt exposition chronologically ends with artistic works from the Bulgarian National Revival period. While maintaining their Orthodox character and iconographic features, they also reflect the changes in the social environment as well as changes in artistic tastes, which occurred during the XVIII - XIX century. After the "decorativism" of the seventeenth century, the leading icon painters of the first half of the next century aimed at the "revival" of earlier classicist trends. The centre of this "retrospective" trend was Mount Athos. Other painters preferred to combine various elements coming both from the West (Baroque stylistics) and the East (oriental decorative techniques). The so-called "Levantine Baroque” was created. In the second half of the XVIII century, the big Bulgarian Revival art schools began to be established – in Tryavna, Samokov, and Bansko. The Crypt exposition represents the first two particularly well. Works of such masters as Simeon Tsonyuv, Dimitar Kanchov, and Krastyu Zahariev represent the Tryavna school, while Dimitar Zograph, Zahari Zograph, Nikola Obrazopisov and others represent the Samokov school. Bansko school is represented with carved altar gates from 1803, whose panels were painted by the school’s founder Toma Vishanov Molera. The Crypt exposition also includes icons from the XIX century, created by masters from Strandzha and Macedonia.
Orthodox art is a unique artistic world. There, the spiritual dominates over the material, and the symbol and the stylization dominate over the natural visual forms. This art does not aim to achieve a visual delight. It strives for something more important. By means of art the viewer should be exalted and purified so as to get closer to God. Yet, similar to all valuable works of art, the works of Orthodox art have a purely physical, purely visual appeal. The beauty of the line, the brightness of the colour, the decorative elegance of the ornaments cannot leave indifferent even those not familiar with the complex iconographic language and the philosophical and dogmatic principles of this art. The works included in the Crypt exhibition are part of a mystical universe, in which the divine and the human are present in an indivisible unity.
Ass.Prof. Georgi Gerov, Dr.
Head of the department Medieval and Renaissance Orthodox Art/ the Cript
National Art Gallery.