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Artists - ArtWorks

Name of the Artist / Artwork:

Boyana Church

Country: Bulgaria
Century: 1200 - The 13th Century
Art Period:

Byzantine art - Turnovo art school

Artist / Artwork Description:

The object is the church founders’ portraits – ktitor portraits - at the Boyana Church – the portraits of sebastocrator Kaloyan and his wife Desislava, as well as those of Tsar Konstantin Tikh Assen and queen Irina. The author is currently being identified by researchers – according to the latest research the name of the artist is probably Vasilius Zograf.

Synthetic Chronology:

Period: Byzantine art, Turnovo art school. According to the ktitor inscription, placed on the northern wall of the second section of the church, the second layer art is dated as of 1259. At that time, over the first layer of paintings, an unknown group of artists placed a new layer of frescos and painted both floors of the second section of the church. The Boyana church owes its worldwide fame mainly to the frescos from the year 1259, which present the exceptional achievements of Bulgarian mediaeval culture. In their greatest part, the recreated more than 240 images are with marked individuality, convincing psychological characteristics and vitality. The art follows the canon for decorating Christian temples, established with the decisions of the Seventh oecumenical church council, which took place in Nicaea in 787.

The Context:

During the middle ages – the period of the first Bulgarian kingdom, in the area of Sredets there were 35 fortresses and establishments. The protected area covering the northern and western slopes of the Vitosha mountain included two main fortresses – Sredets and Pernik. Between these two fortresses there was a connection going through Momina skala /lass’s rock/, which was a main part of the Boyana fortress. Sredets was the main center of an important military and administrative area and had a strong communicational importance. Around the city there were three concentric circles with fortress walls. The first included the fortifications on the slopes of the Vitosha mountain. One of these fortifications was Boyana.
In the context of the history of the mediaeval art of the Christian east, the frescos in the Boyana church are the only representative monument from the years of Latin dominion /1204 - 1261/. In the context of the history of Bulgarian mediaeval art, these frescos belong to a period of its development, during which the direct Byzantine influences cease, due to the dropping off of Constantinople as artistic laboratory and the Bulgarian artists take up an individual direction of development.


The Boyana church is well known in Bulgaria and abroad mainly for the high artistic values of the frescos from the year 1259, which generally follow the decorative system and iconography of the Byzantine art of the XI – XII centuries. As a style and mixed fresco-tempera technique the murals in the Boyana church are very close to the murals in Turnovo from the ХІІІ century. The Boyana church murals are created by an unknown for the time being artist – a Bulgarian, who worked in the style of the Turnovo art school. With
their vital, humanistic realism they are a Renaissance phenomenon at its culmination phase in the context of the common-European art. These murals are among the best representatives of mediaeval fine art in Europe during the ХІІІ century.
According to experts, the unknown master from Boyana is related to the art school of the so called Paleolog renaissance (ХІІІ-ХV century). The style of the artists influenced by this tendency, which embraced Greece, Bulgaria and Serbia, gradually broke away from the ascetic images and strived for realism and freshness of the artworks.

National Comparative:

The medieval art of the Christian east was generally named as a Byzantine one. Within its framework equivalently falls the Bulgarian art of the ХІІ, ХІІІ and ХІV centuries. The Turnovo art school is not a “provincial” art school, but it modified a style, within which, regardless of the common stylistic, thematic and technical marks, which relate it to the art of Byzantium, there are significant characteristic differences. The murals elaborated within this style carry elements, characterizing the Bulgarian life, culture and history. Here we find a similarity with the ktitor portraits from the rock-hewn churches in Ivanovo from the previous century.

Artistic Analysis:

The vivid realistic portraits of the ktitors sebastocrator Kaloyan and his wife Desislava and the Bulgarian tsar Konstantin Tikh Assen and queen Irina, elaborated with precision, professionalism and feeling, are among the oldest preserved portraits of figures from Bulgarian history. On the northern wall are presented the ktitors sebastocrator Kaloyan, “cousin of the tsar, grandson of the Serbian tsar Stephan", and his wife Desislava, while on the wall across – the royal couple Konstantin Tikh Asen and Irina, granddaughter of tsar Ivan II Assen and daughter of the Byzantine emperor Theodore II Laskaris. The details of the clothing are very carefully depicted, the faces preserve their individual characteristics, which makes them real portraits, painted from nature during a time when portrait fine arts was in its beginning. Many of the religious scenes incorporate images from the lifestyle of that time. In addition to their artistic value the murals also have historic and documentary value.
The Boyana master managed to work with exceptional for that time realism and new for the middle ages humanistic aesthetics. The focal point is the man – smart, kind, compassionate. He is depicted in the figural scenes “Crucifixion”, "Las supper”, "Transfiguration” and others and especially in the multiple presentations of images of Christ, depicted in a different role, state, age. In the register of standing saints the Boyana master creates a rich portrait gallery of secular, spiritual and military faces where together with the carefully depicted psychological characteristics is also notable the individual physical beauty. Special interest as works of art with historically-documentary importance stand out the portraits of tsar Kosntantin Tikh
Assen (1257-77) and queen Irina as well as the portraits of sebastocrator Kaloyan and his wife Desislava elaborated in the narthex. The figures in the portraits are presented at full height, in official postures and garments, with royal and sebastocrator honorable marks. Kaloyan is presented with a model of the church built by him in his hands. The faces are lively and vivid with psychological depth.

Transnational Comparative Analysis:

The Boyana church has been painted during 1259 – almost a decade before the birth of the founder of the western Renaissance – Giotto. Regardless of this, the frescos of its interior are, if not renaissance, very innovative. This is the reason why parallels between the art of the Boyana master and the later period in Byzantine art called Paleolog renaissance can be made. The murals in the church have signs of three-dimensional representation, very clearly expressed emotions, depth and individuality and not just with the saints but also with the ordinary people. Quite impressive is the mural depicting Sr. Nikola saving the sailors. The sea in this mural is painted in a unique for the mediaeval times way. The waves have depth, as do the faces of the people. We cannot still speak of real renaissance. According to Prof. Ovcharov orthodox art was going in a quite different direction. The Boyana master did not break the canon. The church canon was specifying what to be presented where and he was following these rules. The master however went beyond the limitations of the mediaeval thinking by presenting the man, the saints, the rulers and the entire world in a more modern light.

Development of the artist's work through the years:

The names of the artists remain unknown. The Boyana master expression is collective for the entire team, which painted the church and acquired their artistic skills in the Turnovo art school. The murals have distinguished artistic merits, perfect artistic technique, psychological depth, complexity and realism. Boyana is the only entirely preserved monument of the Turnovo art school of the XIII century. According to the opinions to a number of prominent experts, the well-known murals of the Boyana church have specific importance in the development of the mediaeval Bulgarian and
European fine arts.
Recently the inscription “I, Vassilij, wrote (painted)” was discovered. It has been made with charcoal over the rough coat of the church, which two or three days after its placement is covered by a second layer of fine coat, which remained until the year 1980. This means that the inscription was made by one of the artists and not by someone else. It has been specified long ago that the frescos of the year 1259 have been created by three and not by tens of artists as some scientists were supposing. After the commission for painting the church had been given, according to tradition no one had access to the church until the frescos were done. This means that the signature definitely belongs to one of the three artists. The name “Vasilij Zograf from Subonosha Sersko village” is present in the Boyana beadroll - an official list made by the Bulgarian mediaeval orthodox church containing names of Bulgarian tsars and patriarchs, which should be mentioned during official service. The fact that the name of an artist from a village appears together with the names of great figures, and which is missing from other church beadrolls makes it obvious that the painting of the Boyana church was his merit. Since only his name is present in the Boyana beadroll we draw the conclusion that he was the main artist – the man we call the Boyana master. Vasilij zograf is assumed to also be the author of two other works – an icon from Ohrid /1260/ and an icon from a Seres monastery.


Reason why this artist/artwork was selected: a recognized UNESCO monument. The selected art-objects are examples of innovativeness in interpretation of the canon. This is the only monument of its kind from the time of the Latin dominion. A remarkable interpretation in the portrait genre from that period.


Encyclopedia of visual arts in Bulgaria. volume. І, A - L. Sofia, Bulgarian academy of sciences, 1980, pages. 112 – 114.
History of Bulgarian fine arts. volume 1. Sofia, Bulgarian academy of sciences, 1976.
N. Mavrodinov, Boyana church and its murals, 1943.
K. Miyatev, “Boyana murals”, 1961.

Related Material:

Image available

File name: 114_annex 11 XIII century.jpg

Description of the material:

A fresco depicting Desislava – one of the church patrons

Contextualisation Of the source:

This image has been retrieved from - a wiki article on the church. Other images are also available at /official Boyana church site/ and

Interpretation of the source:

The portrait is vivid and realistic The details of the clothing are very carefully depicted. The face has individual characteristics and demonstrates emotions and kindness. The Boyana master managed to work with exceptional for that time realism and new for the middle ages humanistic aesthetics. The figure is presented at full height, in official posture and garments, with sebastocrator marks.

File name: 114_annex 11 XIII century_1.jpg

Description of the material:

An image of one of the restored frescoes in Boyana church.

Contextualisation Of the source: - other images are also available at this site, which presents the restored frescos – 2006.

Interpretation of the source:

Images of the restored frescos. No comments and no video/audio. However, the images are with excellent quality and the value of the Boyana works is well visible.

File name: 114_boyana church.JPG

Description of the material:

Audio and video. Designer Georgi Genchev has developed this multimedia web-site dedicated to the Boyana church. The visitors to the site have access to a video presenting the interior of the Boyana church. The video is supported by audio in Bulgarian and English.

Contextualisation Of the source:

Interpretation of the source:

The video and the audio, which tells the story of the church provide comprehensive information on the Boyana church and its frescos. No special knowledge is required.

Comments about this Artist/ArtWork

Date: 2009.06.24

Posted by Dr. Elke Schlingel (Germany), Teacher

Message: Very interesting information!
I found a nice website with a lot of information on the Boyana Church that could be used as an introduction to the subject in class:
Kind regards, Elke Schlingel

Date: 2009.02.25

Posted by Gabriela Kurowska Expert of Art

Message: The Portrait of Desislava- 1259- Boyana Church

When looking at the portrait of Desislava, I find all the features witnessing about the exceptional style distinguishing from the Byzantine canon. I am enchanted by the beauty of the projection, however I also see the individual size of the person, its untypical gesture, the setting towards the audience within the measure ¾, the details corresponding to the garment.
With my personal satisfaction I See some correspondence with the elements of the Polish art and its history. My first presumptions concern the participation of the donators, that motive was observable within the Roman Tympanums appearing in Poland. I think it was not widely observed within the Latin Church, and at the larger scale it could be found within the Byzantine culture. However the observable trends seem to stand common to some extent, despite the fact of the schism.

The second Polish presumption concerns the used within the Bulgarian text- comparison of Denislava’s presentation to the portrait of Reglinda in the Cathedral of Naumburg (Germany)- the lady sculptured in the cathedral’s portal, and also at the donation part together with her husband. The fact remains the the smiled Rengilda was identified as a Polish woman ( whether it is possible to use such a category in a correspondence to that epoch). Namely, she appeared to be Piast’s daughter ( the King Boleslaw Chrobry’s actually), the wife of German Herman from Misnia.

Somehow surprisingly within the European art. there are plotted together various histories witnessing about the corresponding influences of the motives despite the fact of the separations in definitions of the Eastern and Western art in Europe.

Michelangelo - Copyright 2008 - This project has been funded with support from the European Commission

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