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EARLY CHRISTIAN ART IN MEDIEVAL BULGARIA

Author: Kiril Krustev

Editor's Note: We present an omnibus from the vast amount of literature available on bulgarian art and history. Since the topic is very extensive and couldn't be encompassed in a single article or even a series of articles — subsequently, we have decided to give only some short outlines and introductory notes. The core is already written in a dozen of essential monographs which are mostly in bulgarian language, but there is also publications from abroad. Thus we come to the foremost historian on Bulgaria (Medieval) Art, russian émigré Andre Grabar, who left at least two important books (N.B., in french language) on the topic and numerous articles. He is paragon for research with his wide citation index and collaboration with scholarly community from the country and abroad. On the bulgarian side we wish to notify at least four scholars with good international response — i./ from the first half of the past century, notably censored as bourgeois historians but still left unsurpassable heritage to fore-coming community of researchers, Bogdan Filov (Medieval Architecture) and Andrey Protich (Bulgarian Painting); ii./ from the second half of the century, denoted as socialist critiques and theoreticians of art with a large cohort of students and followers, Krustyu Miyatev (Medieval Art, Romanticism and Baroque) and Nikola Mavrodinov (General Art and History), ditto.

 

ART IN THE BULGARIAN LANDS

Prehistory

The sty of pottery making and modeling that characterized the Neolithic and Copper Age in communities in present day Bulgarian territory is one of the high marks of prehistoric European art.

The culture of this period is the culmination of 2000 years of indigenous development in this area when the traditions established by the earliest farmers reached their peak. The fully developed style of painted pottery emerged in the late 5th millennium B.C. from earlier traditions based on repetitive geometrical motifs executed as incisions filled with white paste. The vessel forms became more complex. At the same time, more developed forms of terracotta came into use. They included not only human figures but also items of furniture.

The discovery in 1972 of a large cemetery near the city of Varna on the Black sea coast has put Southeastern Europe in the forefront of early metallurgical technology, especially goldsmithing.

The cemetery is 6400 years old. One grave mound alone contained 1.05 kg of gold objects. Among the royal finds were also a scepter, gold pectorals, animal profiles, plaques, etc. In one of the royal locking grave features were modeled in clay with beaten gold diadem and a mouth cover lying on them. Recent discoveries have revealed very early mining for copper ores. The mines at Ai-Bunar in southern Bulgaria are contemporary to the Varna treasures.

 

Thracian Art

The Thracians, who some scholars say, lived in what is now present day Bulgaria, Romania, northern Greece, and Turkey from 4000 B.C. until being absorbed by the Roman Empire in 46 AD.

The vessels of the Vulchitrun treasure are the earliest evidence of Thracian art. Their exceptional workmanship seems to confirm Homers admiration for the skills of the Thracian masters. During the Old Iron Age, geometrical art continued to exist and the main objects that were produced were cult axes, amulets, and bronze ornaments on horse trappings.

The classical period started with the emergence of the first Odryssean kingdom. Masters gradually abandoned the anachronistic geometrical style and turned their attention to the major players on the world art market — Achaemenid Persia and Greece. The imported objects that have been found attest to direct links between Thrace and Persia. The influence of Greece steadily grew through trade with the Greek colonies on the Black sea coast and the conquests of Philip of Macedon and his successors.

The Greeks considered the Thracians inventors of the Dionysiac mysteries, a semisecret cult of ancient origins. Dionysus, the god of wine, is a deity of Thracian provenance. The vases from Panagyurishte and the Borovo treasure are precious items of ritual sets used in the mysteries of the Kabyri.

Some Thracian monuments afford complex pictorial texts. The appliqués from the Letnitsa treasure represent mythological stories that cover almost the whole of Thracian mythology.

The late Hellenistic era in Thrace (2nd - 1st century B.C.) is represented by precious objects that were executed in the new international style that spread from Iberia to China.

 

Art in the Roman Rule

When the Romans conquered Thrace in the 1st century B.C. the local aristocracy lost their power and no longer needed social insignia. The art retained the old mythological ritual traditions.

On the sites of the old Thracian settlements towns were built bearing the hallmark of Roman architecture and art. New urban centers developed — Abritus, Nicopolis ad Istrum, August Trajana and many others. The portrait genre became popular, especially in memorial sculpture. A remarkable example of cult sculpture is Apollo’s head from Serdica, a copy of Praxiteles, and the statue of Eros from Oescus. Of the portraits of emperors, worth special attention is the portrait of Gordian III, dating from the 3rd century A.D. The mosaics in Villa Armira, Ivailograd district, bear witness to the luxurious life of the important Roman landlords in those remote times.

 

Early Christian Art in the Bulgarian Lands

The period between the 4th and the 7th century was unstable and turbulent in the present day territories of Bulgaria. It was rife with wars, invasions, and far reaching demographic changes. The Slavic tribes settled permanently in this part of the Eastern Roman Empire but did not create artistic culture of any significance. The classical culture of Antiquity was on the wane and gradually gave way to a new culture melting the rich legacy of the ancient past and the sublime spirituality of the new Christian religion.

The extant monuments of the 4th-7th century reflect the whole gamut of artistic phenomena and processes characteristic of other parts of the Roman Empire as well. Construction of Christian monuments in the Bulgarian lands was most intensive in the 4th and 5th centuries. The earliest example is the church in the eastern necropolis of Serdica (Sofia) erected shortly after 313 A.D. The St. Sophia basilica was rebuilt many times after numerous invasions and earthquakes.

Most numerous were the richly ornamented churches (e.g. the Old Metropolis in Nessebur). The structures with a central plan are fewer in number but they display a greater variety. They are either independent baptisteries or martyries. Of especial interest is the so called red Church near the village of Perushtitsa with its four conches and mural fragments. Mural paintings covered not only the walls of the churches hut also tombs.

Most interesting are the monuments created on the borderline of paganism and Christianity. However, they do not easily lend themselves to identification. A good example are the fairly well preserved paintings in the Silistra tomb featuring the deceased and their servants. Over twenty tombs from the Serdica necropolises have mural paintings representing paradise and the afterlife. Lots of richly ornamented cult objects of fine workmanship have also been found on Bulgarian territory.

The establishment of the Bulgarian state on the Lower Danube in 681 A.D. put an end to the period.

 

Art in the First Bulgarian Kingdom

The culture of the first Bulgarian kingdom can be divided into two periods — Pagan and Christian. The Bulgarians created their state and their artistic culture from elements they had brought during the long migration from their original homeland in the Volga region to the Danubian lands. Their notion of the ideal ruler is expressed in the most striking monument of stone sculpture from the pagan period, the Madera Horseman dated back to the 8th century.

The richest and most famous treasure housed in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna is that of Nagy-Szentmiklos. It consists of 23 gold vessels weighing a total of 10kg. The first capital of the young Bulgarian state was situated near the present day village of Pliska. The city was surrounded by earthworks, an exterior stone wall and an interior brick wall. The palaces of the Bulgarian rulers were located in the inner city. The grand palace was 52 m long and 26 m wide. It is in Pliska that the Bulgarian Khan Boris-Mihail adopted Christianity in 864 and declared it a state religion. This opened the second, Christian chapter in the history of the first Bulgarian Kingdom.

With the conversion to Christianity, the first Bulgarian state joined the family of European Christian states. Christian temples began to be built everywhere. The most representative example of this early period is the Grand Basilica (99 m long and 29 m wide) near Pliska. The peak period of the First Bulgarian Kingdom, known as the Golden Age of Bulgarian culture, is associated with the rule of Tsar Simeon (891-927).

In 893 Simeon moved the capital to Great Preslav and decorated it with palaces, churches and monasteries rivaling in beauty and splendor the capital of Byzantium. The most magnificent building was the Rotunda or Golden Church. It was decorated with mosaics, marble facings and painted ceramics. A masterpiece of the Preslav school of painted ceramics is the large icon of St. Theodore.

The rule of Tsar Simeon is above all the Golden Age of Bulgarian letters and manuscript books. The ornaments in the oldest manuscripts, e.g. Savina book, the Supersul collection, the glagoltic Gospel of Assemanius are closely related to the artistic tradition in Preslav.

In 971 the Byzantines captured Preslav and destroyed the heart of the First Bulgarian Kingdom. Its traditions were preserved for a short time in the south-western fringes of the Bulgarian kingdom during the reign of Tsar Samuil.

 

Art in Bulgarian Lands in the 11th and 12th centuries

The death of Tsar Ivan Vladislav in 1018 put an end to the first Bulgarian Kingdom. Bulgarian lands fell under Byzantine domination which lasted over a century and a half. Art was heavily influenced by Byzantine conventions. However, manuscript books in Bulgarian continued to be produced, thus preserving and transmitting the traditions of the Preslav school, (e.g. the Apostle of Enina, the Slepchen Apostle, the Dobromir Gospel, etc.)

Examples of monumental painting of the 11th and 12th centuries are quite fragmentary but they can still be divided into two groups, depending on their relation to the Constantinople tradition. The well preserved frescoes from the Bachkovo Ossuary, the frescoes of the first and second layer in the St. George’s Rotunda in Sofia, and the first layer in the Boyana Church inarguably point to contacts with the Byzantine capital.

The Bachkovo Ossuary is the only Byzantine monastery church with well-preserved frescoes. Their style reflects the major trends in Byzantine painting of the 12th century. The frescoes of the first layer of the church in the Zemen monastery, the church in the village of Kolusha, St. Dimiter’s church in Patalenitsa, and the Church of St. Archangel Michael in the town of Rila, despite their fragmentariness demonstrate the evolution of a trend which was marginal to the art of the large, cultural centers in the Byzantine empire.

 

Art in the Second Bulgarian Kingdom

The uprising led by brothers Assen and Peter in 1185-86 laid the foundations of the Second Bulgarian Kingdom with its capital in Tarnovo. Apart from Tarnovo, there were other important art centers such as Nessebur, Melnik, and Cherven. The church of SS Peter and Paul in Tarnovo is a remarkable architectural monument of the 13th century. The ruins of the Church of the Forty Holy Martyrs go back to the same period.

Dating from the reign of Tsar Ioan Assen (1218-1241) are the famous rock cult monasteries built along the river Roussenski Lom near what is today the village of Ivanovo. They survived until the end of the 14th century. The latest among them is the Buried Church. It is the best preserved example of the late Paleologian Renaissance and goes back to the times of Tsar Ivan Alexander.

The frescoes in Boyana Church are the most representative of the style of the Bulgarian capital. They were commissioned by Sebastocrator Kaloyan in 1259 during the rule of Tsar Constantine Assen the Quiet. He and his spouse are represented in the narthex. The Boyana frescoes provide valuable clues to medieval Bulgarian art and Byzantine art in the Balkans of the 13th century.

During the Second Bulgarian Kingdom, monasteries flourished and construction of new monasteries were in full swing. Among the very few remnants of these complexes stands out Hrelyu’s Tower in the Rila Monastery erected in 1335. The first three decades of the 14th century are attested to by the Church of St. Nicholas in the village of Stanichene (1333), the church in Dolna Kamenitsa (situated on the territory of present day Yugoslavia, although in the 14th century the donors were under the authority of the Vidin Kingdom), the church of St. Apostle Peter in the village of Berende (1331), the Church of St. Nicholas in Kalotina (1334), the second in the church of Zemen monastery (mid 14th century), etc. Dating from the same time is the frieze featuring the apostles in the drum of St. George’s church in Sofia.

The art of the manuscript book during the Second Bulgarian Kingdom reached a peak during the reign of Tsar Ivan Alexander. He commissioned lots of richly ornamented manuscripts such as the London Tetraevangelia, the Chronicle of Manasses, and the Tomich Psaltir. Table and decorative ceramics were emblematic of the art during the Second Bulgarian kingdom.

 

Bulgarian Art from the 15th century to the first half of the 18th century

The Bulgarians were among the peoples that suffered most from the Ottoman invasion in the late 14th century. The Ottomans destroyed the independent Bulgarian kingdom and church together with thousands of art monuments. The Ottoman domination lasted almost five centuries. After the initial shock, art on the territory of Bulgaria ceased to exist for over half a century.

The earliest monuments date back to the second half of the 15th century. Only four churches have survived — the church of the Holy Virgin of Vitosha in the Dragalevtsi monastery (1476), St. Dimiters monastery church near the village of Boboshevo (1488), the Church of SS Peter and Paul in the Orlitsa convent in the Rila Monastery (1491) and St. Georges Church in the Kremikovtsi Monastery (1493).

The frescoes in the small church in the Ilientsi Monastery near Sofia were painted in 1550. Art came back to life in the last quarter of the 16th century. Examples of that period are the church of St. Petka Samardjiska in Sofia, the Kurilo monastery St. John of Rila (1596), the refractory and katholikon in the Rozhen monastery; the first layer of the Nativity Church in Arbanassi (1597), St. Petka church in Vukovo (1598) and the frescoes in the New Metropolis church in Nessebur (1599).

Artistic growth continued until the third quarter of the 17th century when the Turkish brigands, known as kurdjali, started their attacks. Most parish churches were then concentrated in several towns and larger settlements — Tarnovo, Arbanassi, Vidin, and Boboshevo. During that period relatively few monasteries were built but a large number of the existing ones were renovated. In the early 17th century the new katholikon of the Bachkovo monastery was built and in 1740 the southern residential wing with the refractory was added to the complex. The renovation of the Rozhen monastery started at the close of the 16th century and was completed in 1732.

Bulgarian crafts flourished in the 16th and 17th centuries. The Chiprovo goldsmith school played a leading role in the Balkan region and the works of the Chiprovo masters were in great demand everywhere. Even during the Ottoman rule, liturgical books in Bulgarian continued to be copied and executed.

 

Art of the National Revival Period

During the 18th and 19th century Bulgarian art underwent far-reaching changes. The economic prosperity of some portions of the Bulgarian population gave a boost to their self-confidence and spiritual culture. Intensive church building went hand in hand with advancement in painting, woodcarving and the goldsmith’s craft. The texture of the artistic image dramatically changed which marked the transition from medieval to secular art.

In close of the 18th century a number of churches in Bulgaria were renovated and the process reached a climax in the 1830s. The most impressive monastery ensemble from that period is the Rila Monastery. The Main Church built in 1835-1838 is the most remarkable architectural monument of the National Revival period. The most renowned architect of the National Revival is Master Nikola Fichev from the town of Dryanovo who built dozens of churches in Tarnovo, Svishtov, the Transfiguration monastery near Tarnovo, etc.

Characteristic of the National Revival art is the formation of art schools. The Tryavna school is among the oldest of its kind. As early as the beginning of the 18th century a large number of builders, woodcarvers and iconographers worked in the Balkan town of Tryavna and the neighboring villages.

The founder of the most famous family of artists in the Samokov school is Hristo Dimitrov. He was educated in the artists studios in Sveta Gora. His sons Dimitar Hristov and Zakhari Zograph and their successors created a wealth of icons and murals in Bulgaria and Serbia. Zakhari Zograph is not only the best-known representative of the school, but also the most remarkable painter of the National Revival period. He worked in the Rila monastery and the Great Laura St. Athanasios in Athos.

Stanislav Dospevski received his education in Russia and this enabled him to enrich the traditional art of his family with secular elements. Black and white drawing was also quite well developed in Samokov, books were printed, as well as paper icons, and panoramic representations of monasteries and churches, known as National Revival plates. The most representative example of the Samokov school of woodcarving is the large iconostatis at the Main Church of the Rila monastery.

The other major center of art was Bansko. The founder of the largest family of artists, the Molerovs, was Toma Vishanov. They were the first to introduce oil techniques in painting. The Bankso artists were mainly iconographers and gifted master builders.

 

Art of the Third Bulgarian State

After the liberation from Ottoman domination in 1878 the newly established Bulgarian state entered a period of transition in which Bulgarian art began to be gradually institutionalized. In the 1880s and 1890s the first post-liberation artists with academic education began to return from abroad. They were the painters Anton Mitov, Ivan Angelov, Ivan Dimitrov, Ivan Mrkvicka and Yaroslav Veshin from Czechia, and the sculptors Boris Schatz, Mano Vassilev, Zheko Spiridonov etc.

Circa 1900, diverse European trends began to influence Bulgarian art — academicism, art nouveau and impressionism. Impressionism became very popular although the variety that spread in Bulgaria differed from the academic Parisian mode. For example, the works of the most significant representative of the period, Nikola Petrov and the first women artists in Bulgarian art — Elena Karamihailova and Elissaveta Konsulova-Vazova.

The landscape genre was developed by Atanas Mihov, Yordan Kyuvliev, Alexander Mutaffov and Nikola Tanev. The new urban vision is best demonstrated in the compositions and portraits by Nikola Tanev. They were institutionalized and supported by the Society of Modern Art, founded in 1903.

After WWI, Bulgarian art became preoccupied with the expression of the national identity. The Society of National Art was established in 1919. The most brilliant representatives of Bulgarian art of that period are Ivan Milev, Sirak Skitnik, Pencho Georgiev, Dechko Uzunov, Ivan Boyadjiev, Vladimir Dimitrov-Maistora, Boris Denev, etc. The first decade of the 20th century also witnessed the emergence of radical avante-garde trends associated with the expressionist journal “Vezni” edited by Geo Milev. Major contributors to “Vezni” were Max Metzger, Nikolai Dyulgerov, Krum Kyulyavkov, Hristo Kavarnaliev, Peter Dachev, and Mircho Kachulev.

Unlike the decorative twenties, the thirties developed a more plastic vision based on the Paris school and Cezannism. This change is best illustrated in the works of Bencho Obreshkov, Dechko Uzunov, Stoyan Venev, Stoyan Sotirov, Vassil Barakov, etc. After the mid-forties, Bulgarian art became untrammeled by normative Party academicism, characteristic of all totalitarian states.

Around the second half of the 1950s the socialist realist canon became less rigid. From the early sixties to the seventies the young generation of artists tried to reinstall individual expression through chromatic intensity and distortion of form.

The most important development in the mid-80s was the emergence of alternative non-communist art. This was an uneven and multidirectional process, which was completed in the mid-90s. Today Bulgarian art is in the mainstream of world art.

 

Picture 1 & 2: Sample illustrations on the text above (N.B. Our efforts to systematize the cultural heritage of Medieval Bulgaria are running rather slow. Most of the materials on the topic should be re-written under new editorship. Meanwhile, have a look at two aerial photographs recently adopted in our archive which were taken in the 1980s. Conservation and reconstruction on Pliska and Preslav are still going on).

(i). Aerial photo of archaeological site Pliska (VIII - XI centuries). Caption is from the central part — Big Palace, Small Palace and Basilica. This whole plain was once an arable land with no trace of cultural artifacts. 

 

(ii). Aerial photo of archaeological site Veliki Preslav (VIII - XI centuries). Caption is from below right — Round Golden Church and Fortress of Churguboil Mostich. The site is situated on a mountain terrace that was once covered with thick forest.

 

 

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