The history of Christian art in Bulgaria could be traced in the National Museum of History. Fragments of frescoes, doors, iconostases, church furniture and icons give an idea of the Christian Church interior in different historical periods. But Church plate and liturgical textiles are connected directly to liturgy.
The permanent exposition of the National Museum of History preserves original frescoes that have been removed from the walls of mediaeval and Post – Byzantine churches, as well as replicas of some masterpieces of monumental painting in Bulgaria.
The museum exposition shows mural fragments from the time of the dissemination of Hesychast ideas in the second Bulgarian Kingdom. A fragment with the image of the Archangel Michael was found during archaeological excavations in the Church No. 11 in the mediaeval town of Cherven. This mural fragment dimensions are 142 x 102 cm. It was made in fresco technique and dates back to the 13th – 14th century. At this time Cherven was a metropolitan’s headquarters.
The Cave Church of Saint Marina near Karlukovo in the area of Lovech is another monument that was related to the life of hermits. Its frescoes date back to the 14th century. A triangular fragment with dimensions 351 x 176 cm from the Church interior is shown in the museum exposition. The Old Testament Trinity composition is in the left corner of the fragment. It has the traditional iconography of this subject – matter: three Angels are staying with Abraham and Sarah. The Angels are depicted seated around a round table. Father (the first person in the Trinity) is displayed in the upper part of the mural fragment. The Sacrifice of Abraham composition is in the right corner of the fragment. There is an arched niche in the centre of the fragment. A full – length image of Saint Marina, the Patron – Saint of the Church is in the niche.
The Bulgarian people preserved Christian faith, language and ethnic self – consciousness during the long period of Ottoman rule. A large mural fragment with dimensions 193.5 x 95.5 cm from the Church of the Nativity in Arbanasi is shown in the museum exposition. The Last Judgment composition in fresco technique is depicted. The fresco dates from the 17th century. The fresco covered the whole eastern wall of the women’s section of the Church. The scene is submitted into several horizontal zones without demarcation lines among them. A door and an arched niche are in the centre of the composition. The fresco depicting The Nativity – the Patron’s Feast – is in the niche. The fresco depicting The Last Judgment was removed from the eastern wall of the women’s section of the church revealing a well preserved composition from the 16th century which shows the same scene. The art of painting gradually changed its characteristic features, becoming more narrative and naïve.
The museum collection includes fragments of frescoes from the Seslavtsi Monastery near Sofia. The frescoes from the Church of Saint Nicholas, the Miracle Worker at the Seslavtsi Monastery date from the 17th century and are associated with the name of the outstanding artist Pimen Zografski. He was born in Sofia and painted many churches in the Sofia Eparchy. People rendered homage to the Bulgarian Saints that gave them hope and faith during the period of the Ottoman domination. In the Seslavtsi Monastery the Patron – Saint of the Church – Saint Nicholas is depicted as a full – length portrait side by side with Saint Ivan Rilski (Saint John of Rila), Saint Prohor Pshinski, Saint Ioakim Sarandaporski, Saint Gavrail Lesnovski and Saint Ilarion Maglenski.
The National Museum of History has a rich collection of icons from the 13th to the 19th century, originating from different Balkan centres as well as from Russia. They also differ in function: processional icons, iconostasis icons, altar doors (they belonged to various Orthodox Churches) and home icons. The icons from the 13th and 14th century are especially valuable – they among the masterpieces of icon painting from that period: Double – sided icon of Feasts and Christ Pantocrator (Obverse – The Twelve Great Feasts, reverse – Christ Pantocrator). This icon is a good example of Late Palaiologan art and dates from the 14th century; Double – sided icon featuring Christ Pantocrator from the 14th century and The Deposition from the Cross ( Entombment of Christ ) from the 18th century ( Both with inscriptions in Greek ); Double – sided icon of the Virgin Eleousa and Christ Pantocrator (Obverse – The Virgin Eleousa from the 13th century. Reverse – Christ Pantocrator from the 18th century).
The National Museum of History preserves valuable models of mediaeval Bulgarian woodcarving. Wood is a material that decays when placed under wrong harmful climatic conditions. It easily burns up in fires. Wood is often damaged because is not resistant to some insect pests. That is why the preserved mediaeval woodcarvings are few in number and are important evidence for the history of art.
The museum displays doors from the Church of Saint Nicholas Bolnichki in Ohrid. The doors date from the 14th century. They consist of twenty – two panels carved separately and nailed to an ordinary wooden door. Guardians of the sacred church space – soldier – saints on horseback, griffins, lions and eagles – are depicted on the doors.
The Royal (Altar) Doors from the 16th century were painted by the famous painter Onouphrios. The carvings have the characteristics of the Slepche – Prilep woodcarving workshops. The woodcarvers worked using typical interlacing ornaments. The Royal Doors in the collection are a magnificent model of this woodcarving style from the Post – Byzantine Period, which reproduces ornamental models spread in manuscript decoration, especially in the Gospels.
The iconostasis from the Karlukovo Monastery of the Virgin Mary dates from the 18th century. The iconostasis was renovated by the schoolmaster Urosh in 1792. Urosh drew his name on several places of the iconostasis parts.
The iconostasis from the hermitage church dedicated to Saint Luke the Evangelist, near Rila Monastery is on display in the museum exposition. It dates from the 18th century and is entirely preserved.
IV. Church Plate
The National Museum of History has a collection of about five hundred gold and silver objects from the 14th to the 19th century related to various aspects of religious practice and church life. Most of the objects are valuable evidence of the fine goldsmith’s work and of the work of masters of miniature woodcarving from the Middle Ages and Post – Byzantine Period.
The remarkable works of the masters from the Chiprovtsi Goldsmith’s school are real masterpieces of jewellery art. Their works are connected to the positive influence of the Bulgarian Catholic Community in the important ore – mining centre of Chiprovtsi.
The National Museum of History preserves a crozier (crutch) of the Tarnovo Metropolitan Bishop Gavrail. The crozier was made by the Chiprovtsi goldsmiths Nikola and Kostadin in the town of Vratsa in 1612. It was in the Metropolitan Church of St. St. Peter and Paul in Tarnovo.
Unknown goldsmiths from Chiprovtsi made an ark (artophorion) for the Catholicon of the Holy Ascension of Jesus Christ at the Serbian Monastery of Dechani in 1626. The ark (artophorion) is an accurate precise replica of the above temple. It was made of silver with gilt and decorated with coloured stones. The goldsmiths used the techniques of casing, open – work technique and forging.
V. Liturgical Textiles
Liturgical textiles have a strictly defined function and symbolic meaning. The trends in the field of iconographic compositions and images depicted on the textiles as well as their decorations follow the principles of church painting. Special attention was paid to the inscriptions which were executed with calligraphic precision.
The National Museum of History owns four of the most valuable and representative pieces of Byzantine liturgical textiles produced in Constantinople in the 13th – 14th century. The Ohrid (Andronikos’s) processional aer – shroud is the oldest preserved liturgical textile of this kind. It is made of two layered crimson – red silk lined with light – blue linen, and its dimensions are 180 x 110 cm. It is embroidered with gold and silver threads as well as with multi – coloured silk threads. The composition of Christ – Agnus Dei is displayed. The dead Christ is shown lying on the communion table surrounded by angels – deacons with rhipidia in hand. At the four corners are the symbols of the Evangelists.
In the period of Ottoman domination a large part of the cloths for liturgical textiles and vestments were imported from Vienna, Venice and other West European cities, or the items were made in the monastic and metropolitan centres on the Balkans. In the 17th and the 18th century the textiles became brighter coloured and lavishly decorated with variegated embroidery, pearls, coloured glass, beads and sequins. More and more frequently, the names not only of the donors but also of the makers were embroidered on them.