John Westbrooke goes to Bulgaria and discovers a long and glorious history of art and culture
You thought the Renaissance began in Italy around 1300? Not at all, say the Bulgarians. Their Exhibit A is Boyana church, in the hills outside Sofia.
It’s just a little brick and stone building hidden among trees, but it had powerful patrons who spent money on it. So in 1259 its interior was covered with remarkable frescoes.
Most medieval icons are stiff and emotionless, more holy symbols than individuals. Yet here are Boyana’s looking for all the world like portraits of real people. St Nicholas is balding and white-bearded. St Lawrence, with dark, curly hair, is glancing away, but St Ephrem the Syrian is trying to look right through you.
Then there’s the nobleman who paid for the decoration, Sebastocrator Kaloyan, and his wife Desislava, along with the tsar and tsarina. These four all existed, and the paintings are among the first likenesses of historical figures in Europe since Roman times.
There are 240 human images altogether, mostly saints, evangelists and archangels – and, as our guide was eager to point out as he manhandled us around the room for the best view, “Six years before Giotto born!” He has to be quick: tourists are allowed in for only 15 minutes and aren’t allowed to take photos.
So who was the man who beat Giotto to the Renaissance? Most icon painters are anonymous, as the Church maintained that God was the real artist. But recently the signature Vasiliy was found hidden under a coat of plaster. Nobody knows anything about him, but perhaps he was one of the great revolutionary artists of Europe.
The area around Boyana sounds interesting, according to my old Blue Guide: “Houses are inhabited by spies, foreign arms dealers, various Mafiya figures…” One of them was occupied by the president in communist days, but is now home to the National History Museum. Bulgaria, as we were finding out on our coach tour of the country, has a lot of history. One of Europe’s first civilisations began in Varna, producing the world’s oldest known gold jewellery at about the time of the early Egyptians, 4500 BC or so.
Since then, though, Bulgarian culture has done a lot of starting and stopping. There were Thracians and Greeks, Romans and Huns, Slavs and Byzantines, before the Bulgars arrived in 681AD. For a while they built a powerful nation until it fell to the Ottoman Turks. It broke free in the late 1800s, then suffered from Balkan turbulence for years before vanishing behind the Iron Curtain.
Now they’re independent again, but still the country isn’t quite flourishing. It’s joined the European Union, though it’s hard to see how: its GDP ranks alongside Romania’s as the lowest in Europe. The smart shopping mall near our Sofia hotel may have had a Marks and Spencer, but nearby was a sign barring horses and carts from the carriageway.
Then there’s the motorway flyover under construction west of town. Paid for with EU money, which has gone goodness knows where, it’s actually a millennium project running 10 years late and with no end in sight. Our guide was bemused that anyone might want to invest in her country, much as she loved it: “Maybe in 20 years,” was her advice.
So our tour concentrated on the beauties of historic Bulgaria rather than the ramshackle present. We drove through countryside alight with autumn colours to the barely pronounceable town of Koprivshtica, the scene of the April Uprising of 1876 against the Ottomans. (It was meant to be the May Uprising, but news leaked out and it had to be staged early.) The authorities put it down with great brutality; this backfired, causing international outrage and prompting Russia to declare war on Turkey, for which the Bulgarians are still grateful.
The result was independence and the National Revival movement, an outpouring of art, literature, religion and architecture. We visited several merchants’ houses in town dating from this period, big, symmetrical, comfortable, painted in vivid-to-lurid colours outside and decorated with a kind of folk art inside – floral designs, or murals, for instance, depicting cities the owner had visited.
There are more of these in Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second city. The ancient Greek poet Lucian thought it was “the greatest and loveliest of all cities”, though that might be pushing it a bit today.
From a Roman theatre on top of one of its seven hills, cobbled streets wind down past mansions with projecting upper storeys. These give an idea of how the well-to-do lived 150 years ago (one of them features the town’s first indoor bathroom with hot and cold running water), and many have been turned into museums – of ethnography, icons, archaeology, painting, even pharmacy.
But it’s religious buildings that leave the strongest impression of Bulgaria. Some in Sofia go back 1400 years, but the most striking ones also date from the National Revival, when the Orthodox Church bounced back after centuries of Muslim rule.
The best known is Rila Monastery, romantically nestled in a valley overlooked by a forest. Walk through the gateway in its fortress-like walls and you find yourself in a dramatic quadrangle surrounded by high arcaded galleries, with a church and a medieval tower standing in the middle.
Outside the church are murals showing God and man, saints and sinners – some of the latter being punished very harshly. Many of these were painted by Zahari Zograf, Bulgaria’s most famous artist (and self-publicist: not only did he sign his work, he sometimes even included a self-portrait).
In the dark mysterious interior, you have to adjust your eyes to see the smoky frescoes and the lavish iconostasis. Above all, don’t miss Raphael’s Cross. A single block of wood less than three feet high, it has over 100 little religious scenes carved into it, with tiny figures all created with needles by a monk. It took Raphael 12 years and cost him his sight; and looking at the wealth of detail, you can well believe it.
At the end of our trip we bumped and crawled our way back to modern Sofia, past horses and carts, smoggy towns, traffic jams and industrial dereliction. But somewhere behind it all, in the works of artists like Vasiliy and Zahari Zograf and Raphael in his cell, is a land with a culture as rich as any in Europe.
Voyages Jules Verne run tours of Bulgaria: www.vjv.com/
Bulgarian tourist information: www.bulgariatravel.org