Icons


IconsA considerable share of the Bulgarian cultural heritage accumulated during the Middle Ages consisted in icons. It is a truly stupendous and varied wealth, and many of its works rightly belong in the treasury of world classic art; indeed, the picture of Eastern Orthodox pictorial culture would be incomplete without these icons.

Icon painting in Bulgaria must have originated officially with the adoption of Christianity in 865 under Prince Boris (Mihail). Bulgaria, having adopted Christianity from the Byzantine church, was the first Slavic country to have mastered this significant mediaeval art and taken part in spreading it. Soon after 865 numerous churches an monasteries were built in the Bulgarian capitals Pliska and especially Preslav; in the 9th and 10th century the construction of churches spread throughout the country. All these places of worship were decorated with murals and icons. Preslav thus emerged as an important centre of art, where painted glazed ceramics, a technical variety of ecclesiastical painting, was mass-produced. Preslav ceramic icons, the oldest Bulgarian icons found so far, were also a very interesting manifestation of mediaeval Balkan art.

The icon painting tradition from the First Bulgarian Kingdom was enriched during the Second Kingdom (1187-1396). It was the time when Veliko Turnovo became the new capital, an economic, politic and cultural centre. Some of the most significant Bulgarian icons were painted there in the 13th- 14th c. The few preserved specimens from the time like the double-faced (two-sided) Christ Pantokrator and The Virgin Eleusa, and the Poganovo Monastery charming two-sided icon are works of a high class and testify to the level of art in Bulgaria and the high standard of tastes.

The Ottoman invasion of Bulgaria in the late 14th c. put a considerable obstacle in the way of official art. The only art to continue, through in an irregular and semi-official way, was icon painting. It bore in fact witness to the stability of national feeling and the force of tradition. Interesting icons of the 15th-16th c. are Christ Pantokrator Kremikovtsi Monastery, Deesis of Bachkovo Monastery, Abraham Entertaining the Angels (Old Testament Trinity) (1598) by mast Nedyalko of Lovech. An important centre of icon painting throughout the Ottoman rule was Nessebur, enjoying certain privileges owing to its strategic position.

From its numerous churches and monasteries have inherited a large number of well-preserved highly artistic icon painted in the best canons of official ecclesiastical art. In the 17th century a tangible spread and multiplication of icons resulted in a diversification and enrichment of Bulgarian painters' art. Exquisite samples of that period are John the Baptist with Scenes of His Life (1604) from Vratsa, St. Theodore Thyron and St. Theodore Stratilates (1614) from the Dobursko church, St. Paraskeva and St. Kiryaki from Plovdiv district, Christ Pantokrator with Apostles and Saints from Etropole Monastery. Until then the traditional mediaeval traits of that genre were preserved with little changes. The 16th century though set the beginnings of new quests in that art, which were to develop most conspicuously in the following centuries with the emergence of the Bulgarian Revival, when the aesthetic appearance of the icon radically changed.

Despite of the religious and mystical aspects of Bulgaria's varied icons, left to us from the centuries, they are not unrelated, as an art, to the historic events in our country; indeed, they reflect the spiritual aspiration, talent and responsiveness of the Bulgarian people.