Boyana church a UNESCO World Heritage

BOYANA CHURCH

The Boyana church is a UNESCO World Heritage. It is a very famous Medieval Bulgarian Orthodox church situated in the outskirts of Sofia. 

The east wing of the two-storey church was originally constructed in the late 10th or early 11th century, then the central wing was added in the 13th century under the Second Bulgarian Empire, the whole building being finished with a further expansion to the west in the middle of the 19th century.

The church owes its world fame mainly to its frescoes from 1259. They form a second layer over the paintings from earlier centuries and represent one of the most complete and well-preserved monuments of European mediaeval art. A total of 89 scenes with 240 human images are depicted on the walls of the church. The name of the painter is recently discovered during restoration. The inscription reads: “Zograph Vassilii from the village Subonosha, Sersko and his apprentice Dimitar”.

18 scenes  depict the life of Saint Nikolas. The painter here drew certain aspects of contemporary lifestyle. In The Miracle at Sea, the ship and the sailors’ hats recall the Venetian fleet. The portraits of the patrons of the church — Seabastocrator Kaloyan and his wife Desislava, as well as those of Bulgarian tsar Constantine Tikl and Tsaritsa Irina, are thought to be among the most impressive and lifelike frescoes in the church, and are located on the north wall of the church.

Besides the first layer of 11th-12th century frescoes, of which only fragments are preserved, and the famous second layer of murals from 1259, the church also has a smaller number of later frescoes from the 14th and 16th-17th century, as well as from 1882.

The monument was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1979. 

HISTORY

During the Middle Ages the strong Bulgarian fortress of Boyana (Batil) stood on the lower slopes of Mount Vitosha in what is now the Sofia suburb of Boyana. This name is mentioned for the first time in 969. Boyana was one of the 35 fortresses and settlements that formed the fortification systems of the city of Sredets (Sofia). Boyana Church was built within the fortress and is a magnificent example of medieval architecture and monumental art.

The church has undergone many transformation and extensions, and thus its present complex volume differs considerably from the original. New buildings have been added to the First (East) Church, architectural transformations have been made, and the decoration has been changed. At present Boyana Church consists of buildings from the 11th, 13th and 19th centuries.

The oldest Boyana Church, the so-called East or First Church, was designed and used as a chapel. It had a typical Greek cross plan with a dome, and a concealed internal cross without free-standing support and without a narthex. It is built entirely of brick. The north and south facades are articulated on the outside with three blind arches, each with the central arch higher than the side ones; the arches are not related to the structure of the building. The brickwork decorations are figural: archivolts with ‘wolf’s tooth’ and concentric rows of bricks above the arches.

The entire interior surface of the walls and dome was covered with murals. Some larger fragments have been preserved in the apse. As the First Church was painted again in the mid-18th century, traces of the original paintings are noticeable only where the upper layer of murals has been destroyed.

In the 13th century the feudal ruler of the western region of the Second Bulgarian State, Sebastocrator Kaloyan and his wife Desislava, who were closely related to the royal family, commissioned the extension of the church. The builders added a new two-storey building to the western wall of the First Church. The ground floor has direct access from the First Church and was intended as a narthex. It is rectangular, covered with a cylindrical vault. On the inside, the walls are decorated only with two niches , probably for a family tomb.

The upstairs floor of Kaloyan’s Church has an almost identical architectural composition to the older building, in the shape of a Greek cross, and it was used as a family chapel. It was dedicated to the martyr healer St Panteleimon. Access to the chapel is by an outside staircase along the southern wall. It is possible that the stairs connected the chapel with the house of the nobleman. There are grounds for believing that in the event of danger, the mobile staircase was removed, thus, the upstairs chapel could also be used as a defence tower.

The eastern facade of Kaloyan’s Church rises above the roof of the First Church. The western entrance facade is the most representative and has a pronounced monumental character. The new church, extended and renewed by the family of the Sebastocrator, was decorated with paintings and consecrated in 1259.

The Boyana frescoes are an early example of the icon-painting style which later on was adopted in mural painting . The icon-style murals that became widespread in the Serbian, Russian and Mount Athos monasteries during the 14th to 16th centuries are closely related to this innovation.

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