by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

In Boyana Church you will find curious murals, Renaissance hype and forgotten grave

 boyana church desislava

A pair of dark, tender eyes glow in a delicate face crowned with a costly headdress decorated with pearls. The lady's lips are slightly curved, as if she is smiling at a private joke, or perhaps a secret she holds? The woman herself is an enigma. We know that the elegant lady painted on the walls of the Boyana Church was called Desislava and that she was the wife of Kaloyan, the handsome lord of 13th century Sofia painted next to her. But why is Desislava smiling?

This is a question doomed to remain unanswered. Generations of art historians have tried to solve the mystery of Desislava's smile. The most popular explanation is that her amazingly realistic portrait was created by a painter who predated Giotto's revolution of medieval art by a century.

Is Desislava truly the earliest Renaissance portrait in the world, or has she (and the tourists around you) fallen victim to hype?

There is hardly a state in the Balkans that does not claim to possess medieval murals with astonishingly non-medieval features, predating the Italian Renaissance. The so-called White Angel from the church of Mileševa Monastery in Serbia is one of the most famous examples. Others are the striking mosaics in the Chora Museum in Istanbul.

All of them are the product of the so-called Palaiologos Renaissance. This art movement appeared and flourished in the 13th and 14th centuries in Byzantium and neighbouring states such as Bulgaria and Serbia, and even Russia. The artists of the period really did break free of some of the restraints of established medieval art. When looking at murals or mosaics from that period you often stumble upon images of church patrons, saints and even Christ that look incredibly realistic.

The murals in the Boyana Church are the best preserved example of Palaiologos Renaissance art in Bulgaria. They were painted during the second phase of the long and somewhat complicated history of the Boyana Church.

The first church on this site was built at the late 10th or the early 11th century: a humble domed structure of brick and mortar that still exists today. In 1259, Kaloyan, a member of the Bulgarian royal family and lord of Sredets, present-day Sofia, enlarged and repainted the church.

The sequoias at Boyana Church are among the few trees of this kind in Bulgaria. Not native to this country, they were imported from California in the early 20th century

A new brick-and-stone building of two storeys was added to the older edifice, the upper floor serving as a church dedicated to St Panteleymon, and the ground floor as a sepulchre. Ironically, very few of the murals on the upper storey have survived, while those on the ground level are almost intact. There are the famous depictions of Kaloyan and Desislava, and the portraits of the incumbent royal couple, King Konstantin Asen (1257-1277) and Queen Irina.

In the 17th century the murals in the Boyana Church were painted over. Two centuries later the building was enlarged again, adding the space that is now used as the entrance.

In 1854 a stranger entered the church. He was Viktor Grigorovich, a Russian philologist on the hunt for antiquities. Grigorovich left Bulgaria with about 60 valuable manuscripts from the 11th-18th centuries. From Boyana Church, he took two important medieval documents. It seems that his interest in the building did not impress the local people much. Cramped and claustrophobic, blackened by the flames of innumerable candles, in the early 20th century the church was deemed too uncomfortable for the congregation, so the villagers decided to tear it down and build a new one in its place.

Luckily, this never happened due to Queen Eleonore (1860-1917), the second wife of King Ferdinand I (1887-1918). When she learned of the danger to the church in Boyana, she persuaded her husband to give the villagers another plot of land for their new church in 1912.

The old Boyana Church was saved, and in the same year the first restoration of its precious murals began. The conditions inside, however, were so bad that the frescoes had to be restored again in 1934 and in 1944. In 1977 the building was closed to visitors. It joined the prestigious UNESCO World Heritage list in 1979, but restoration lasted well into the 2000s.

Today you can visit it in small groups for a limited time, and under the supervision of guides.

Interestingly, they often fail to tell how Queen Eleonore saved the church or the fact that she is still there, buried in the churchyard.

The queen died in 1917. Her last wish was to be buried by the south façade of Boyana Church. Ferdinand duly obliged. The king also ordered a grove of exotic trees, including sequoias, to be planted around the church. Most of them are still there, creaking and whispering in the mountain wind.

After Eleonore's death her grave became the object of a kind of pilgrimage, as nurses trained by her and soldiers healed by her used to gather there to pay their respects. This tradition died out when Communism came in 1944. In the 1960s the queen's grave was opened, her coffin and her body were taken away and plain stone slabs were placed where the elaborate tombstone had once stood. The remains of Eleonore were reburied at Boyana Church after 1989.

Besides Desislava's smile, there is another mystery that haunts the church: nobody knows who was the Boyana Master?

Not surprisingly, his identity has fascinated many over the years and there are several works of art dedicated to him. The most seminal are The Boyana Master, an opera by Konstantin Iliev in 1962, and the eponymous feature film in 1981.

Historians were also eager to discover at least the name of the artist. According to the most popular theory, he was called Vasiliy the Painter. This name cropped up in a long medieval list of Bulgarian kings, queens and clerics who should be blessed during mass in the Boyana Church. This list was in one of the documents that Grigorovich found and took to Russia.

In 2008 a team of restoration workers uncovered a hidden sketch of a male face and the remains of an inscription that read "I,". Bozhidar Dimitrov, then head of the National History Museum, interpreted the discovery as the self-portrait and signature of Vasiliy the Painter.

Many other historians, however, disagree.

There is another detail that makes identifying the painter problematic. It is very likely that the church was painted by a team of artists, and one of the few established facts about them is that they came from Tarnovo, the capital of medieval Bulgaria.


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