UNESCO-listed Boyana Orthodox Church reveals identity of its medieval master
The 13th-century master who painted what has been listed by UNESCO as one of the world's finest collections of medieval frescoes at the Boyana church on the outskirts of Sofia has finally been identified.
"We now know the painter with certainty," the director of the National History Museum Bozhidar Dimitrov told AFP, as the church reopened Thursday to the public after undergoing restoration work for almost a century.
The final stage of the renovation revealed a rare inscription under a layer of plaster on one of the church walls: "I, Vasiliy inscribed."
Historians had argued earlier that Vasiliy might indeed be the mysterious "Boyana master", as he was the only painter among the kings and nobles whose names were read out on a regular basis during sermons at the church, Dimitrov said.
"The Christian Orthodox Church forbids the painter from manifesting himself, as in the eyes of the priests it is God who guides his hand. But this painter inscribed his name, knowing that the believers could not see it," said restorator Grigoriy Grigorov.
Other historians and archeologists were less certain that the inscription belonged to the church's fresco master, suggesting that it could also have been the work of one his assistants.
The small church on the outskirts of Sofia has featured on the UNESCO world heritage list since 1979, as "one of the most complete and perfectly preserved monuments of east European medieval art."
While respecting Byzantine religious norms, the frescoes painted in 1259 possessed rare freedom, realism, harmony in the proportions, liveliness and warmth that already foresaw the birth of the Italian Renaissance, according to a UNESCO review of the site.
The master even went as far as to depict two commoners next to the saints: the church patrons, Sofia governor Sebastocrator Kaloyan and his beautiful wife Desislava.
The faces of the saints and martyrs were created by applying multiple layers of paint to give them life-like looks and expressions that were highly unusual at the time, Grigorov also noted.
The painter even introduced elements of Bulgarian cuisine in the painting of the Last Supper, such as onions and turnips.
The oldest part of the church, dedicated to Saint Nicholas, was built at the foot of Vitosha mountain in the late 10th and early 11th century.
In the mid-13th century, Kaloyan and Desislava commissioned a second section to the initial one-apse cross-vaulted church, this time dedicated to Christian martyr Panteleimon.
The church fell into disuse with the advance of the Ottoman domination in the 14th century and it was only in the mid-1800s that its third and last section was built using donations from the local community.
Candles and humidity had badly damaged the frescoes and the church was closed to the public in 1954, to be only partially re-opened in 2006.
With restoration complete, the Boyana church has now been equipped with an air-conditioning system to keep the temperature at 17-18 degrees Celsius (62-64 Fahrenheit).
The special lighting system emits no heat, which could damage the frescoes, and groups of visitors are only let in for fifteen minutes at a time.