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Disappearing Byzantine Heritage:
The Case of the Medieval Church at Boiana

The Church of Saints Nicholas and Panteleemon in the Sofia suburb of Boiana, one of the best-known medieval monuments in Bulgaria, has been the subject of shifting interpretations reflecting the politics of heritage. The church’s thirteenth-century frescoes have been utilized in the discourse of Bulgarian political elites since the rise of the Bulgarian nation state in the late nineteenth century. This article reviews that discursive history and ties the most recent interpretations of the monument to forces of globalization and to Bulgaria’s recent entry in the supranational European Union. Considering discussions of the relative adherence of the church’s architecture and monumental fresco program to Byzantine models in the context of the complex attitudes towards Hellenism in present-day Bulgaria, this article outlines possible reasons why the frescoes at Boiana have been seen as the unique product of a native Bulgarian genius rather than of a multilingual and probably multiethnic team of artists who were familiar with and painted in the highly prestigious Byzantine visual koine.

The Church of Saints Nicholas and Panteleemon in the neighborhood of Boiana near Sofia (Figure 1) occupies a special place in the imagination of the Bulgarian people. Tucked into a beautiful, lush park on the outskirts of the Bulgarian capital, it has attracted attention from scholars, politicians, churchgoers, and tourists. Since its rediscovery in the late nineteenth century, it has been hailed by some as one of the most significant artistic achievements in the Eastern Mediterranean (Duichev 1972, 478–497). This paper will consider how the visual evidence from the church at Boiana has been reinterpreted in the modern period to serve the agenda of Bulgarian political elites, while its explicit connections with models from medieval Constantinople have been purposefully neglected and even negated. I will show how discussions regarding the church and its painters amongst a small group of Bulgarian intellectuals who [End Page 23] have the ear of the media have turned it in the last two decades into a powerful symbol of national identity and integrity.

Figure 1. Church of Saints Nicholas and Panteleemon in the neighborhood of Boiana near Sofia, view from southeast.<br/><br/>Source: Photo by Rossitza Schroeder, 2008.
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Figure 1.

Church of Saints Nicholas and Panteleemon in the neighborhood of Boiana near Sofia, view from southeast.

Source: Photo by Rossitza Schroeder, 2008.

In order to provide a context for my discussion, I will outline how Boiana has been transformed into a quintessential Bulgarian monument and its elusive painter into a creative genius who not only reworked but also transcended the limitations of existing visual paradigms. I will tie the negative attitudes towards the Byzantine sources in the church to modern rivalries between Bulgaria and Greece and to Bulgarian perceptions of its own cultural output. As I will demonstrate, since the nineteenth century both Byzantium and the Modern Greek state have been interpreted by Bulgarians almost exclusively in pejorative terms; today this attitude colors the ways in which most Bulgarians think and write about the Byzantine heritage in their land and especially in the Boiana church. Finally, I will consider the role of globalization and Europeanization in reshaping the discourse about Boiana at the time when Bulgaria entered the European Union on 1 January 2007 (Smith 2006, 49–50). The relationships I outline of Bulgaria with Byzantium, Hellenism, and Europe through my analysis of the Bulgarian interpretation of the Boiana church allow [End Page 24]

Figure 2. Portraits of Desislava (left) and the ktetor Koloian (right), bearing a model of the church, are seen on the north wall of the narthex of the Church of Saints Nicholas and Panteleemon.<br/><br/>Source: Photo by Vladimir Tsvetkov, 2008.
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Figure 2.

Portraits of Desislava (left) and the ktetor Koloian (right), bearing a model of the church, are seen on the north wall of the narthex of the Church of Saints Nicholas and Panteleemon.

Source: Photo by Vladimir Tsvetkov, 2008.

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me to evaluate the role of Greece and Byzantium in the larger Bulgarian historical narrative. Furthermore, they help to uncover how the stratification of this narrative might have been formed by certain Greek attitudes and notions of Byzantine heritage that identified it as belonging exclusively to Greece and the Greek people (Plantzos 2008).

The Boiana church in context

The Church of Saints Nicholas and Panteleemon was constructed in the tenth century following well-established Byzantine models in its architecture and monumental decoration. While it took its final shape in the nineteenth century when a second narthex was built, its most famous addition was made in the second half of the thirteenth century by a local aristocrat, the sebastokrator Kaloian. At that time, the church was entirely painted over by what appears to be a multilingual and probably multiethnic team of artists who knew well the visual vernacular attested to by contemporary Byzantine monuments. Most, though not all, of the inscriptions in the church are in Old Slavonic, which has been taken to indicate the ethnically Bulgarian identity of the painters. The dedicatory inscription, while emphatically recounting the noble heritage of the otherwise unknown ktetor (founder) Kaloian, celebrates the rebuilding of the church “from the ground” and indicates that it was finished in 1259 (Dobrev 1982). The obscure Kaloian and his wife Desislava make their entry into the history of the Balkans via their portraits painted on the north wall of the narthex (Figure 2; Bozhilov 1995; Pirivatrić 2011). Turning slightly in the direction of the patron saint Nicholas on the northeast pier of the eastern wall (Figure 3, bottom left), Kaloian fittingly presents a model of the church to St. Nicholas. The portraits of the Bulgarian Tsar Constantine Tich (1257–1277), a newcomer to the political scene just like Kaloian, and his queen Irene, a Nicaean princess and daughter of the emperor Theodore Laskaris (1254–1258), appearing together on the opposing, south wall (Figure 3, bottom right), are of interest here (Bozhilov 1985, 115–118; Pirivatrić 2009; Matanov 2011). Painted as stiff figures from a strictly frontal perspective, Constantine and Irene epitomize the Byzantine rhetorical topos of the imperial family as unmovable pillars of virtue (Mavrodinov 1972, 33–34; Maguire 1989, 221–228). The image of Christ labeled Chalkites is seen on the southeast pier of the eastern wall to the left of the royal pair (Figure 3, bottom center right; Mango 1959, 149–169; Frolow 1963; Majeska 1971; Haldon and Ward-Perkins 1999). The life of St. Nicholas is represented on the two sides of the vaulted ceiling of the narthex in 18 scenes, a significant number of which unfold against the backdrop of the imperial city of Constantine. On the templon screen that separates the church’s nave from the sanctuary, the viewer sees another famed Constantinopolitan icon, that of Christ Evergetis (Cutler 1983). [End Page 26]

Figure 3. The partial image of Christ labeled Chalkites (lower center right) is seen on the east wall of the narthex of the Church of Saints Nicholas and Panteleemon. To the right of him on the southern wall are the portraits of Tsar Constantine Tich and his wife Irene (lower right). Above their images is the icon of the Miracle of St. Nicholas with the Carpet, in which the saint purchases a carpet from a poor man so that the latter could celebrate the saint’s feast day (upper right). Opposite them on the north wall and barely visible here are the figures of Desislava and Kaloian (lower left).<br/><br/>Source: Photo by Vladimir Tsvetkov, 2008.
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Figure 3.

The partial image of Christ labeled Chalkites (lower center right) is seen on the east wall of the narthex of the Church of Saints Nicholas and Panteleemon. To the right of him on the southern wall are the portraits of Tsar Constantine Tich and his wife Irene (lower right). Above their images is the icon of the Miracle of St. Nicholas with the Carpet, in which the saint purchases a carpet from a poor man so that the latter could celebrate the saint’s feast day (upper right). Opposite them on the north wall and barely visible here are the figures of Desislava and Kaloian (lower left).

Source: Photo by Vladimir Tsvetkov, 2008.

Elka Bakalova has identified further references in the church to the visual heritage of the Byzantine capital and more specifically to the ways in which religious representations would have been utilized in its churches. Among them are images of hymnographers with texts that comment on the scenes nearby and on the rendition of the Virgin Mary with her parents, Joachim and Anna, in the lunette over the entrance to the naos (Bakalova 1995). The frescoes also reveal Western medieval influences, including the pointed hat of the boy rescued from Arabs or the badge on the ship from St. Nicholas’s sea miracle, but these seem to be of secondary importance (Grabar 1924, 229–243). Even though they do not necessarily generate meaning, their presence clearly indicates how fluent the painters were in the visual koine that was formed and flourished in the thirteenth-century Eastern Mediterranean (Brisby 1995, 20–21). They inevitably pose questions of cross-cultural interactions and medieval globalisms, as well as open up possibilities of discussing Boiana not simply [End Page 27] as a Bulgarian or even a Byzantine monument but as a European one (Walker 2012). Until recently, very few scholars, much less members of the general public, have seized the opportunity to do so (Penkova 2011), indulging instead in discussions about the monument’s innate and unmatched Bulgarian-ness.

Before proceeding to discuss the reasons why the Byzantine visual heritage in Boiana has been neglected in certain Bulgarian intellectual circles, as well as in the popular media, I will first outline the role and significance of the so-called Constantinopolitan references in the program of the church. I aim to reveal their centrality to the monumental program and thus to signal the implications of the absence of these iconographic elements from some scholarly and popular discussions of the church at present. One of the important questions is why they were needed in the thirteenth-century renovation of the church. As I have noted elsewhere,1 the visual references to Constantinople provided a form of legitimacy for the two political neophytes painted in Boiana: the ktetor Kaloian and the Bulgarian Tsar Constantine Tich (Schroeder 2010). For example, Tsar Constantine Tich is represented immediately next to the fresco icon of Christ Chalkites (Figure 3, bottom right). The latter was the quintessential imperial icon, for the prototype image was installed above the entrance to the Great Palace in Constantinople, and its miraculous healing nature was first revealed primarily to the Byzantine ruler and his immediate family. In the thirteenth century, the same image was reproduced on the coins of the Nicaean emperors recording their desire to restore their ownership of Constantinople after the city fell to the Crusaders in 1204 (Hendy 1969, 238, 243, Plates 32.7, 33.9). The important association between Constantine Tich and the image of Christ Chalkites is particularly noteworthy, for the Bulgarian tsar here, just like a Byzantine emperor, appears not to need sainted intermediaries in order to approach Christ (Ševčenko 1994). Furthermore, the images of the ruling couple in Boiana, Desislava and Koloian, are located at the eastern end of the south wall, emulating the traditional association of the southern parts of the Constantinopolitan Hagia Sophia with imperial presence (Mainstone 1988, 223–226; Majeska 1997, 6).2

Another important example of the purposeful use of a visual reference to Constantinople is the image of one of the posthumous miracles of St. Nicholas, in which the saint purchases a carpet from a poor man so that the latter could celebrate the saint’s feast day (Figure 3, upper right; Moran 2007; Penkova 2008). At the center of the representation is the carpet, which is depicted as a lavishly decorated dark red cloth adorned with heraldic animals (Figure 4). The artists apparently knew well what Byzantine silks looked like, since the latter frequently display medallion-enclosed lions and eagles (Trilling 1985). We do not see any interest in visualizing the sumptuous appearance of the carpet in later representations of the miracle (Soloveva 2006, 54–57, 70–74), which should be taken as an indication that at Boiana it was meant to function not only as a narrative device but also as a visual cue that tied the scene [End Page 28]

Figure 4. Church of Saints Nicholas and Panteleemon, detail of the carpet from the Miracle of St. Nicholas with the Carpet, painted in the lower register of the southern vault of the narthex.<br/><br/>Source: Photo by Asen Kirin, 2000. Reproduced with permission from Asen Kirin.
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Figure 4.

Church of Saints Nicholas and Panteleemon, detail of the carpet from the Miracle of St. Nicholas with the Carpet, painted in the lower register of the southern vault of the narthex.

Source: Photo by Asen Kirin, 2000. Reproduced with permission from Asen Kirin.

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to the royal portraits below, as well as to the image of Christ Chalkites on the neighboring wall. As I have shown elsewhere, within the context of the Boiana narthex program the prominently displayed textile participates in a network of authentications—both of the miracle as one occurring in Constantinople and of Tsar Constantine Tich as the legitimate ruler (Schroeder 2010, 125). It is my belief, however, that the carpet was meant to be associated not only with the portrait of the Bulgarian tsar but also with Christ Chalkites, invoking the stories of the healings performed by the icon by means of the veil attached to it (Mango 1959, 132–133; Nunn 1986, 85). Furthermore, the carpet linked the images of the royal couple to that of Christ Chalkites, indicating the important use of precious textiles in both the imperial and the religious spheres (Woodfin 2001; Sterligova 2008, 242). As I have argued elsewhere: “The luxurious figural cloth of Boiana should be considered part of the visual nexus tying the images of the royal couple with that of Christ Chalkites and indicating the simultaneous use of precious textiles in the imperial as well as the religious sphere. It further highlighted and even strengthened the special connection between tsar Constantine and Christ” (Schroeder 2010, 126), reinforcing for the viewer the legitimacy of the Bulgarian tsar and through it that of the donor Kaloian.

Even though it is clear that in order to address issues of social and political status the donors (and the painters) relied on Byzantine visual modes, and more specifically on models that came from or invoked Constantinople, in Bulgarian art historical accounts the church and its monumental ensemble have been discussed almost exclusively as a distinct Bulgarian product. The relatively dispassionate narrative that I have presented above has been superseded by an alternative one legitimized by the discipline of art history and supported by the ideology of Bulgarian political and social elites. Indeed, most Bulgarian art historians of the twentieth century, like Bulgarian archaeologists, were not simply practitioners of their disciplines but also ideologues (Bailey 1998). In the section that follows, I will present how the frescoes in the church came to express Bulgarian originality and to epitomize the Bulgarian national spirit.

The Boiana church as the quintessential Bulgarian monument

Since the foundation of the Bulgarian nation state in the late nineteenth century, the church in Boiana has been at the center of considerable visual and literary production. A brief outline of the significant artistic output that it has inspired will illustrate this point. Almost immediately after the liberation of the Bulgarians from the Ottomans and the founding of the independent Bulgarian state in 1878, an artist from the town of Triavna, Tsano Simeonov, copied some of the church’s frescoes, intending to eventually sell them to the newly founded Bulgarian National Museum (Duichev 1972, 483, nn8–9; Denchev and Vasileva 2006, 37). The building was also represented by well-known Bulgarian [End Page 30] artists, such as Sirak Skitnik (1883–1943) and Dechko Uzunov (1899–1986), who inadvertently turned it into a distinct topographical marker of Bulgarian spirituality and tradition (Pavlova 2014). As I will now discuss, all this eventually turned its painters into a single, iconic figure who embodies the creativity of the Bulgarians and affirms the church’s Bulgarian identity.

The enigmatic “master” (the term maistor [master] in the singular has been used repeatedly in Bulgarian scholarship and popular literature, even though it is certain that there was more than one painter working in the church) who frescoed Boiana was similarly a subject of modern artistic interpretations. He became one of the main characters in two novels—the one written in 1938 by Fani Popova-Moutafova, the other in 1950 by Stoian Zagorchinov. In 1962, Konstantine Iliev composed an opera about the painter, and in the early 1970s one of the leading Bulgarian pop singers, Lili Ivanova, sang about him in a special music video, dressed in an updated folk costume and wandering amidst medieval ruins. The Bulgarian sculptor Dimitur Boikov cast in bronze his slim, ascetic-looking figure, equating him with humble and God-fearing anonymous monks. The statue can be seen today in the sculpture park of the Bulgarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, together with the likenesses of national luminaries, such as the sainted medieval musician, Ioan Kukuzel, and the nineteenth-century revolutionary, Vasil Levski (“Boianskiat Maistor, Dimitur Boikov,” n.d.). In 1981, a motion picture entitled The Boiana Master was produced, in which a scene of feasting seamlessly blends with the representation of the Last Supper painted in the church, turning common villagers into actual participants in the temporally distant events of Christ’s life (Zhandov 1981).

Whether verbal or visual, each representation of the so-called Boiana master mentioned above celebrates the raw talent of a Bulgarian artist who fostered special relationships with ordinary people by capturing their everyday lives in his frescoes. The painter is even given a particular character: he is usually cast in the mold of the quiet, unpretentious, yet revolutionary and unconventional genius, one who is sensitive to the plight of the regular people, not afraid to challenge the traditional order, or to eventually break away from the medieval, that is, the Byzantine pictorial traditions.

As we will see below, the identity of this legendary Boiana master has been an issue of contention among scholars, with the controversy spilling outside of academia and into the popular media. The uncertainties about the ethnicity of the painter have led to varying conclusions regarding the degree to which the frescoes adhere to Byzantine visual modes. The logic is rather simplistic: if the artist was native Bulgarian, then the likelihood that he would blindly and uncritically follow Byzantine models would be very slim; rather, he would transform them, or more importantly, he would even transcend them.

The issue of the so-called Boiana master’s ethnicity has been discussed almost exclusively by Bulgarian scholars. The debates have remained [End Page 31] circumscribed among Bulgarian academics due to the limited readership of the Bulgarian language, as well as to the restricted access to the church until relatively recently. Some sought the sources of the church’s decorative program exclusively in Byzantium, while others argued that the painted ensemble reveals an authentic Bulgarian spirit and a tendency towards liberation from the Byzantine tradition. The beginnings of a national school of religious art have also been posited (Duichev 1972, 490–501; Brisby 1995, 10). The latter idea dominated Bulgarian art historical literature about the church after 1944, when Bulgaria became a member the Eastern Bloc. At that time, scholarship on Boiana was placed in the service of the political agenda of the Bulgarian communist party, which highlighted the unique Bulgarian nature of the church’s paintings. In general, it is not unusual, as Peter Howard has shown, for a totalitarian regime to engage in identity-making by utilizing iconic buildings (2003, 169, 173). Referring to yet another alleged Bulgarian product, the art historian Kiril Krustev suggested, for example, that Bogomil spirituality had something to do with the portrait-like quality of the images in the church (Brisby 1995, 16). Bogomilism was a gnostic, dualistic heresy considered to be a Bulgarian invention. Krustev undoubtedly invoked Bogomilism, which vehemently opposed the teachings of the Orthodox Church, so as to distance the Boiana frescoes even further from their Byzantine sources. Interestingly enough, the cover of a 1971 book by Krustev entitled Nachenki na renesans v srednovekovna Bulgaria (Renaissance beginnings in medieval Bulgaria) displays the angel from the icon of the Annunciation in Boiana right next to a close up of Mona Lisa; Leonardo thus emerges as an heir of this anonymous and endlessly talented Bulgarian master.

By the early 1980s, Boiana had been elevated to a quintessential Bulgarian monument. This was made possible partially because in 1979 it was included on the UNESCO world heritage list, which provided further reasons to treat it as an unmatched masterpiece. On the UNESCO website its outstanding universal value is articulated with words emphasizing its uniqueness: “Whilst they [the frescoes] interpret the Byzantine canon, the images have special spiritual expressiveness,” and “[i]t is one of the most remarkable medieval monuments with especially fine wall paintings” (UNESCO World Heritage Center 1992–2015). The text acknowledges that the images in the church have Byzantine precedents, but it presents them as superior; in a way, it sets them in competition with their Byzantine models. A video made in conjunction with the National Historic Museum and posted on the UNESCO site in 2014 further claims the frescoes’ uniqueness in the light of the Western visual tradition. It states that they are precursors of “the spirit of the Renaissance [which] was already blossoming in the Eastern part of Europe, long before the Italian Renaissance movement actually began” (UNESCO/NHK Videos on Heritage 1992–2015). Below I will discuss this as a particular example of protochronism, [End Page 32] the positing of “the antecedence of local developments that temporarily preceded similar developments” elsewhere in Europe (Ranova 2011, 170), a trope used by elites of post-Soviet Balkan nation-states (particularly Romania) to project their status in Europe; I would like to note here, however, that paradoxically the universal value quoted above as well as the content of the video were turned on their heads to become a distinctly national feature of the church’s monumental program (Anglin 2008; Labadi 2013, 59–75). Indeed, one of the participants in a 2014 roundtable held in Sofia in relation to a project entitled “The Modern City and the Preservation of the National Identity” characterized the church as the material and spiritual symbol of Bulgarian culture (Nauchno izsledovatelski proect 2014).

Boiana’s identification with Bulgarian characteristics is made evident in the ways in which it was used on various forms of Bulgarian currency issued before and after 1989. In 1981, when Bulgaria celebrated its thirteen-hundredth birthday, the portrait of the church’s female donor, Desislava, and its façade appeared on the obverse and reverse, respectively, of a commemorative coin minted by the National Bank. When the wall of the communist Eastern Europe fell in 1989 and the value and design of Bulgarian money changed, Desislava and the exterior of the church adorned the front and back of the newly issued 20 lev bank note. The face of Desislava and the façade of the church also graced the obverse of the platinum commemorative coin issued by the National Bank in 1993, as part of a series entitled “Bulgarian Association with the European Community.” In my view, featuring Desislava on this latter coin is significant, since it relates to an idea promoted by some scholars that the anonymous painter captured her likeness perfectly, bringing it closer to the Renaissance artistic ideal and thus to Western Europe, and therefore away from the Byzantine pictorial idiom (Petrowa 1981). Indeed, this tendency to associate the frescoes of the Boiana church and especially the portraits of its donors—Kaloian and Desislava—with Europe is confirmed by their graceful appearance, together with the church exterior, on pages 14 and 15 of the Bulgarian passports, redesigned in 2010 to indicate the country’s newly acquired membership within the European Union.

The church at Boiana between Bulgaria and Byzantium

Since the early twentieth century, when the church at Boiana became a subject of academic study, it has been common for individuals describing the church’s frescoes to invoke not the art of Byzantium but that of Giotto or Leonardo da Vinci. As Elka Bakalova has recently noted, these invocations of Western European artists were intended to foster competition and convey a sense of Bulgarian cultural superiority (2011, 262).3 In a way, this is not very surprising given the negative interpretations of Byzantium in scholarly and popular [End Page 33] writing alike. I do not consider this issue in detail here, but for the purpose of contextualizing the story of Boiana, I will provide a cursory narrative about the Bulgarian interpretations of Byzantium and its legacies.

Already in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, that is, the time of the formation of the Bulgarian nation, the cultural achievements of the Bulgarians were inevitably yet agonistically entwined with those of the Byzantines, whom Bulgarians tend to conflate with both ancient and modern Greeks. In studying the tendency to associate the Bulgarian national image with that of the Greeks, Diana Mishkova has concluded that “in terms of national ideology and identity projection, the Greek ‘mirror’ was of formative significance for Bulgarian nationalism, and the Bulgarians’ visions of their proper antiquity can only be understood through its dialogue and contest with the Greeks’ antiquity” (Mishkova 2011, 216). Thus, in his 1762 Istoria Slavianobalgarska (Slavo-bulgarian history), the monk Paisii of Chilandar wrote that the Byzantines, whom he saw as the forefathers of the contemporary Greeks, were proud, calculating, cunning, and cruel; he interspersed these and multiple other negative descriptors throughout his text (Paisii Hilendarski 1998). The Bulgarian irredentists of the nineteenth century formulated their ideas about the Bulgarian people’s independence not only by emphasizing the antiquity of their language, folklore, and mythology, but also by specifically highlighting their conflicts with and victories over Byzantium. In the 1840s, for example, Vasil Aprilov wrote that the work of the Patriarchate in Constantinople was dangerous, as its main goal, according to him, was to turn all Bulgarians into Greeks (Danova 2003). Similar ideas were expressed in the works of professional historians, such as Spiridon Palauzov and Marin Drinov, who considered the influence of Byzantium on the Bulgarian state and church as corrupting and decadent (Danova 2003). After 1878, when Bulgaria was already an independent state, schoolbooks presented the negative influence of Byzantium on the spiritual and political life of the Bulgarians, arguing that this influence was one of the main reasons for the fall of Bulgaria under Ottoman rule (Danova 2003). Greeks in fact were thought to be just as dangerous as the Turks in threatening Bulgarian national identity and its authenticity (Mishkova 2011, 243; Trencsényi 2011, 250). Similar sentiments were revived in history textbooks from the 1990s, where Byzantium and the region associated with Greece and people who spoke or speak Greek in general were represented almost exclusively in negative terms: as elitist oppressors and as a threat to the Bulgarian national unity (Vouri 1996). Even in the contemporary Bulgarian language, just as in English, words and expressions such as “Byzantine,” “Byzantinism,” and “Byzantine tricks” have taken on decisively negative connotations, indicating hypocrisy, underhanded dealings, trickery, and corruption amongst others, reflecting the broader current of anti-Byzantine sentiment among present-day Bulgarians (Karaboeva 2007). [End Page 34]

Since the nineteenth century, when historians like Spyridon Zambelios and Konstantinos Paparrigopoulos wrote the history of the newly formed Greek state, Byzantium and its legacy were forcefully claimed and even locked within that country’s national identity (Huxley 1998; Kitromilides 1998). Helen Saradi, for example, has recently pointed out that “national [Greek] resurrection was seen as a resurrection of a hellenized Byzantine empire” (2014, 151). I wonder whether the firm grip that early modern Greek historiography had on Byzantium was not a factor in preventing other emerging nations in the Balkans, Bulgarians included, from considering themselves entitled to the cultural heritage of this medieval empire as past members of its commonwealth (Obolensky 1971). It is perhaps for this reason that since their inception, the art historical and archaeological narratives of Bulgarian humanists have been purged of possible foreign and especially Byzantine references, disturbing the inherent cultural layers of sites and individual monuments, including Boiana (Bailey 1998; Plantzos 2008, 15).

Yet in 1994, against the backdrop of the negative interpretations of Byzantium, a group of Bulgarian art historians and conservators convened to reconsider the significance of the church at Boiana and its relationship to the Byzantine Empire. The proceedings of the conference were published the following year in the foremost Bulgarian periodical for art history, Problemi na izkustvoto (1995). The papers firmly incorporated the church and its monumental program within the Byzantine canon (Bakalova 1995, 20–21; 2009, 250–253). The question about the relationship between the images in Boiana and the Renaissance was rethought, and the frescoes were deemed precursors of the so-called Palaeologan rather than Italian Renaissance (Lazarev 1947, 180–181; Rice 1968, 48; Mavrodinova 1995). Elka Bakalova, one of Bulgaria’s leading art historians, voiced the necessity for careful study of the relationship between Byzantine and Bulgarian art in order to produce a more balanced reading of the church’s paintings and situate it more properly in the artistic developments of the thirteenth century.

An effaced Byzantine heritage

The conference made its mark in certain scholarly circles, and its messages were further elaborated upon in a more recent scholarly gathering entitled Boianskata tsurkva mezhdu Iztoka i Zapada v izkustvoto na hristianska Evropa (The Boiana church between East and West in the art of Christian Europe; Penkova 2011). Even so, the legacy of the two conferences has been for the most part disregarded; appeals such as Bakalova’s have fallen mostly on deaf ears, at least as regards the popular sphere. The media and a host of Bulgarian politicians continued to perpetuate the myth about the unique Bulgarian nature of the monument. The church’s frescoes have been placed at the center [End Page 35] of a discourse with a populist tinge that stripped them of their sophistication to reveal the artistic genius of the Bulgarians. The popular media and several well-connected scholars chose not to speak about the church’s so-called Constantinopolitan and, by extension, Byzantine influences, even though looking at the church frescoes through these cultural frameworks can be extremely useful for situating them within a larger Mediterranean context.

I will explore here some of the more recent developments in order to reveal the further elaboration of the discourse that deprived the Boiana frescoes of their association with Byzantium. I argue that the image of the church perpetuated by contemporary media is a product of resurgent nationalism amongst members of the current Bulgarian political elite. I also suggest that the heavy investment in the restoration and maintenance of the monument has fueled the rising nationalist sentiments and turned the church into a fossilized cultural fixity (AlSayyad 2008, 162–163; Winter 2012, 1–13).

The discourse of national exceptionalism in the discussions about the church undoubtedly reflects the anxiety of the majority of people about the ways in which Bulgaria would incorporate itself and possibly lose its identity within the supranational European Union (Bechev 2006, 9; Ranova 2011, 159). The achievements of the artists who frescoed the church have thus repeatedly been used to offset a deep-seated inferiority complex, as Bulgarians struggle to reach the high socioeconomic, political, and cultural standards associated with the West (Bakalova 2011, 262; Ranova 2011, 156–158). As Ivan Ilchev, a professor of history and the current president of Sofia University, has pointed out, Western Europe has been providing an important example of culture and civilized behavior for the Balkan peoples since the nineteenth century (Ilchev 2000). In Bulgarian revivalist literature of that period, for example, Western Europeans—be they German, French, and very rarely Greeks—are represented much more positively, their culture and government worthy of admiration and emulation (Danova 2003). A similar tendency is observed today in post-1989 history textbooks, where the achievements of Western Europe, which up to that point had been perceived as a negative force that purposefully impeded the progress of Bulgaria, were somewhat abruptly reconsidered in a positive light and conceived of as “the apogee of world culture and development” (Nikolova, Sabeva, and Yakimova 2002; see also Bechev 2006, 16). Against the backdrop of the aspirational Western European cultural and political models invoked in Bulgarian literature, the invocations of Renaissance comparisons in the descriptions of the Boiana frescoes’ style is hardly surprising.

The valorization of the church at Boiana as a monument of singular international importance was possible also because for a long time it was shrouded in mystery, concealed from the eyes of interested specialists and non-specialists alike. On the one hand, its location behind the Iron Curtain kept it hidden, and on the other hand, because the majority of publications on the church are [End Page 36] in Bulgarian, scholarship on the church has reached a very limited readership, even amongst the most sophisticated members of the scholarly community in the West. Furthermore, the church was closed for restorations for a considerable period of time, making physical access to its interior virtually impossible (Koynova-Arnaudova 1995; Vanev 2011). Since the opening of Bulgaria’s borders to the West, local tour guides have been telling stories about the international flair of the thirteenth-century frescoes, comparing the images to the works of Italian Renaissance painters rather than to their immediate Byzantine sources.4 During a visit to the church in the summer of 2011, for example, I heard one of the docents speak with aplomb about the superiority of the frescoes to anything produced by Giotto or Leonardo da Vinci. Byzantium was nowhere in sight, and I and the handful of people who were visiting that day (most of them participants in the International Congress for Byzantine Studies) heard nothing about the Constantinopolitan references cleverly incorporated within the fresco program.

That the church has become a representative example of the Bulgarian past and the creativity of the Bulgarian genius is made clear in a relatively recent internet publication, which boasts that Prince Charles, former first lady Laura Bush, and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited the church in order to pay homage to the beautiful frescoes that “predate those by Giotto, Cimabue … and other titans of the early Renaissance by at least half a century” (Subchev 2012). This statement is a clear example of protochronism, a historical narrative in which Bulgarians appear to have achieved major accomplishments long before anyone else (Ranova 2011, 170). Protochronism generally guides media representations of the frescoes. Thus, images of various saints are discussed as being very different from those seen elsewhere. For instance, on a popular television program called Pamet Bulgarska (Bulgarian memory), Bozhidar Dimitrov, the director of the National History Museum, openly stated that the saints in Boiana are actually portraits of thirteenth-century villagers, a striking innovation unknown at this point in time to artists working elsewhere in the Orthodox oikoumene.5

It is not difficult to see that the media has been distorting the historic evidence about the church to perpetuate the myth of the frescoes’ originality (Brittain and Clark 2009, 23–26). On the occasion of the opening of the freshly restored monument in 2006, for example, a Bulgarian news agency misquoted or rather imaginatively elaborated on the evaluation of the monument found on the UNESCO World Heritage website, stating that “although still subject to Byzantine rules, these frescoes depict a freedom, a realism, a harmony of proportions, a life and a warmth that … already heralded the Italian Renaissance” (Puhaleva 2006).6 The way in which this quote seamlessly but ultimately incorrectly binds the art in Boiana to Italy is representative of discussions about the church in Bulgarian media. [End Page 37]

The insistence that the style of the frescoes relates them to humanist Italy rather than to Byzantium is notable and calls for additional speculation on the ways in which Bulgarians perceive Byzantine Christianity. It is possible that this attitude has roots in the nineteenth century, when the Bulgarians broke away from what most Christians in the Balkans had in common: the Orthodox faith as represented by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Constantinople, the most powerful religious institution of the Byzantine Empire, which while remaining intact through the Ottoman Empire is greatly weakened in the present day (Saradi 2014, 151–152). In 1870, with the support of the sultan, a Bulgarian Orthodox Exarchate was created. It was independent from the Patriarchate and anticipated the birth of the Bulgarian state in 1878, binding Orthodoxy to a specifically Bulgarian identity (Roudometof 1999, 240; 2010, 25–27; 2014, 88). Later, the communist regime picked up on the importance of the relationship between Bulgarian national identity and Orthodoxy and insisted on the independence of the Bulgarian Church from the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul and on its elevation in the ecclesiastical hierarchy (Roudometof 2014, 89, 100). Following this pattern, twenty-first-century politicians exhibited a form of nationalism tinged with Orthodox piety when they willingly and demonstratively participated in the opening of the church/museum in 2006. Konstantin Subchev, in an article in Standart, a widely circulated Bulgarian newspaper, utilized explicit religious wording to describe the end of the restorations: he dramatically stated in the subtitle of his piece that “the Boiana church has been resurrected after fifty years” (Subchev 2006). The monument was momentarily assigned animate qualities, and its newly restored frescoes were placed on the same level with living humans.

What brought about the further Bulgarization of the frescoes was the accidental discovery in March 2008 of a graffito that was quickly identified as the signature of the Boiana master (News.bg 2008a). The inscription had been made with charcoal on the lowermost layer of plaster on what was the western exterior wall of the church; it was later covered, ultimately rendering the name invisible. The graffito is in Old Bulgarian and has been prematurely and somewhat imaginatively described as having been written by “the schooled hand of a literate icon painter with confident language skills” (Popkonstantinov 2009, 12, Figures 23). A careful look makes it clear, however, that the inscription was made hastily by someone who appears insecure in his ability to write. It states: “I Vasilie wrote/painted.” “Vasilie” was quickly assigned the status of the head painter at Boiana, and his identity was said to have been confirmed by another fortuitous discovery of a Vasilie the Painter, allegedly from the village of Subonosha (Nea Souli) near Serres, in a much later sixteenth-century manuscript, the so-called Boiana commemorative list (Stancheva and Stanchev 1963, 15–16, 67).7 The considerable time lapse between the frescoes and the entry in the list sometime in the eighteenth or even nineteenth century [End Page 38] was dismissed as insignificant (Popkonstantinov 2009, 15–16).8 Furthermore, the fact that the name of the painter was inserted in a rather irregular and idiosyncratic manner by the insecure and uneven hand of a person who was probably not well-educated—while noted in certain publications (Stancheva and Stanchev 1963, 16; Gergova 2011, 53)—has been for the most part neglected in some of the newest narratives about the church. Konstantin Hadzhiev, who articulated an opinion at odds with that maintained by the official overseers of the building and expressed doubts that the two Vasilie, the one from the church and the other one from the commemorative list, are one and the same person (Hadzhiev 2008; Smiadovski 2011, 46), was judged particularly harshly by Kazimir Popkonstantinov, a medieval archaeologist at the Veliko Turnovo University, as being pretentious. Furthermore, his scholarship was described as perfunctory, and his attitude towards an important source about the church, that is, the Boiana commemorative list, was made to appear frivolous and unconscientious (Popkonstantinov 2009, 15, n9).

In a preface to the publication in which Popkonstantinov leveled his accusations against Hardzhiev, Bozhidar Dimitrov, the director of the National History Museum and custodian of the church who openly styles himself a nationalist, wrote somewhat gratuitously but no doubt purposefully that the village of Subonosha and the region of Serres were inhabited until the end of the First World War by Bulgarians, who were pushed away and replaced by Greeks from Asia Minor (Popkonstantinov 2009, 7).9 The discovery of the name of the painter thus created an opportunity for Dimitrov to make an underhanded claim on present-day Greek territories. Almost immediately after that, the rather famous archaeologist Nikolai Ovcharov, who works on another iconic site in Bulgaria, the city of Perperikon, opposed the ideas expressed by Dimitrov’s team and suggested that this could be anyone’s signature (news.bg 2008a). In the course of this controversy and perhaps as a result of it, Boiana emerged more than ever as the quintessential Bulgarian monument. In an open letter, Dimitrov attacked Ovcharov and dismissed his scholarly publications and called him a trickster. He claimed that whereas the site of Perperikon lends itself to his intellectual mumbo jumbo, the church at Boiana does not, because it is a World Heritage Site (news.bg 2008b). Instead, Dimitrov authored a volume of his own and patronized the publication of a second volume, produced in an expensive edition, in which the evidence about the Bulgarian identity of the painters (as these books do acknowledge the likelihood of multiple artists) and the frescoes was gathered (Dimitrov 2008; Popkonstantinov 2009).

At the same time, the name of another painter, Demetrios, emerged. He discretely signed his name twice in Greek—once on the sword of his namesake, St. Demetrios, on the north wall of the church’s naos and a second time on the maphorion of Virgin Mary in the scene of her Presentation in the north arcosolium in the narthex (Zhdrakov 2008, 49–52, 59–62). In the [End Page 39] publications patronized by Dimitrov, this painter was identified as a compatriot and an assistant to Vasilie (Popkonstantinov 2009, 89–128, especially 118), even though his signatures, unlike that of Vasilie, were meant to be visible from the very beginning, and at least one of them is positioned in very close proximity to the altar, the most important and sacred part of the church. The possibility that Demetrios was Greek was not pursued, and thus no scenario was allowed for an international, bilingual team to have worked in the church, in which the roles may have been reversed, with the Greek Demetrios as the leading artist and a Bulgarian, perhaps the same Vasilie who scribbled his name on the façade, as his assistant (Velenis 2012, 216).10

Figure 5. Church of Saints Nicholas and Panteleemon, narthex, Minister of Culture Stefan Danailov temporarily assumes the halo of St. Barbara.<br/><br/>Source: Photo by Borislav Nikolov, 2008.
Click for larger view
View full resolution
Figure 5.

Church of Saints Nicholas and Panteleemon, narthex, Minister of Culture Stefan Danailov temporarily assumes the halo of St. Barbara.

Source: Photo by Borislav Nikolov, 2008.

When the church was officially opened with an overtly Christian ritual in 2006, after years of restorations, the Bulgarian political elite hastened to attach itself to its mystique and thus to benefit from the Bulgarian-ness that it had accrued through the years.11 From the anonymous comments that followed the online publications regarding this event, it was clear that the public was shocked to see and did not miss the opportunity to comment, rather negatively, upon the paradox of a group of ex-communists taking the time to go to the rededication of the church at Boiana. In the photograph in Figure 5, which appeared in one of Bulgaria’s leading newspapers Sega (Now), opportunely or not, a political neophyte Stefan Danailov (who is an iconic Bulgarian actor), the Minister of Culture and a member of the then ruling socialist party, [End Page 40] temporarily assumed the halo of one of the saints in the narthex, bringing the relationship between a Bulgarian politician and an established visual mode of cultural superiority full circle. Photographed to appear almost larger than life, gesturing agitatedly, or looking at the images intently (Figure 6), the new custodians of the postcommunist Bulgarian state did exactly what Kaloian had done so many years before them: just like him, they associated themselves with a venerable cultural model, only Kaloian’s was Byzantine and Constantinopolitan, whereas theirs was Bulgarian and national(ist). Thus, they utilized the church to present to the public an image of true commitment to Bulgarian values.

Figure 6. Church of Saints Nicholas and Panteleemon, narthex, the Director of the National History Museum Bozhidar Dimitrov explains the frescoes to members of the Bulgarian government.<br/><br/>Source: Photo by Miro Zlatev, 2006.
Click for larger view
View full resolution
Figure 6.

Church of Saints Nicholas and Panteleemon, narthex, the Director of the National History Museum Bozhidar Dimitrov explains the frescoes to members of the Bulgarian government.

Source: Photo by Miro Zlatev, 2006.


In 2005, under the auspices of the Bulgarian president Georgi Purvanov, a conference was held in the Bulgarian city of Varna. It was entitled “The Cultural Corridors of Southeast Europe—Common Past and Shared Heritage, Key to Future Partnership” and was attended by the presidents of seven other Balkan states, including Greece. The purpose of the conference was to highlight the role of cultural heritage as a way of strengthening the various forms of collaboration among the countries in southeastern Europe. The declaration [End Page 41] signed at the end of the conference considered the cultural heritage of the eight countries as shared and indivisible, as well as a means of overcoming national and regional differences in the Balkans. It states that “the cultural heritage of our countries is a priceless resource for a stable cultural, economic, and social development,” thus providing an official sanction for a dialogue about commonalities rather than differences (Denchev and Vasileva 2006, 188, 348).

Against the backdrop of the decisions made at the forum in Varna, which provided an official space for fruitful discussions about recognizing cultural similarities, the current divisive discourses about the church at Boiana are truly counterproductive. It would appear that unlike the twentieth and twenty-first-century Bulgarian political elite, the medieval aristocrat Kaloian was the one who was farsighted in anticipating the present moment. By commissioning artists who were familiar with the sophisticated and highly prestigious visual language of the Byzantines, he conceived of a monument that seamlessly fits into a much broader, if not even European and global context.

Rossitza B. Schroeder
Pacific School of Religion


I would like to thank Artemis Leontis, Despina Margomenou, Karen Emmerich, and Chad Schroeder for helping me through the different stages of this article and for lending their expertise and sharp editorial eye. I am also grateful to Elka Bakalova, Evgeni Dimitrov, Asen Kirin, Borislav Nikolov, and Vladimir Tzvetkov, who provided me with pictures.


1. See Schroeder 2010 for a detailed reading of the church’s iconography, specifically how the “images of saints and lay people were woven into an elaborate network associations, a meta-narrative, intended to redefine the identities of the donors and the average church goers” (104).

2. For similar royal use of the southeast corner of both naos and narthex in the Byzantine commonwealth, see Gavrilović 2001a, 139–140; 2001b, 173–174; Jolivet-Lévy 1997, 231–246; Nikitenko 2004, 205–207; Sinkević 2012, 121–142.

3. Interestingly enough, in the 1970s there was a turn in the cultural politics of the Bulgarian communist party that emphasized the European nature of the Bulgarian achievement. See Denchev and Vasileva 2006, 165. In this context it is important to note that in 1978 Liudmila Zhivkova, the highly placed daughter of the party leader, Todor Zhivkov, gave a speech in which she recounted the main figures instrumental in transforming Bulgarian culture. Among those listed were Leonardo da Vinci, Goethe, and Einstein; significantly, no Greeks were mentioned. See Trencsényi 2011, 271.

4. A similar problem crops up in twentieth-century scholarship on the church. See Brisby 1995, 16–20.

5. The program was shown on 1 October 2011. The relevant episode is available on the web-site of the Bulgarian National Television: http://bnt.bg/bg/productions/46/edition/16881/pamet_bylgarska_1_oktomvri_2011, as well as on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1N7hqck4a3U and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ysu-uFxzVxk&feature=relmfu. [End Page 42]

6. While the text on the UNESCO website does not mention anything about how the frescoes anticipate the art of the Italian Renaissance, the video that was added later does. See UNESCO/NHK Videos on Heritage.

7. The two authors identified a village named Sobo, which is unknown, and not Subonosha, as suggested by the most recent publications patronized by Bozhidar Dimitrov (Dimitrov 2008, 26; Popkonstantinov 2009, 7, 15).

8. Popkonstantinov’s argument is based on the rather precarious evidence that the commemorative list is copied from an earlier, now lost original.

9. Dimitrov voiced a similar opinion on 1 October 2011 in a much larger, national forum, on his television program Pamet Bulgarska (Bulgarian memory).

10. The Bulgarization of the artists has gone so far that in a recent documentary on the church shown on a television channel financed by the nationalist party, Ataka, the names Vasilie and Demetrios were identified, and wrongly so, as purely Bulgarian.

11. The church was opened twice—once in 2006 and second time in 2008, when all restoration works were concluded.


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