The Bulgarian National Revival in the Museum of Christian Art

The National Gallery of Bulgaria

St. George with Scenes from His Life (18th century) by n/aNational Gallery of Bulgaria

The beginning of the Bulgarian National Revival is considered to date back to the 18th century. During this watershed period, processes were taking place in the Ottoman Empire, broadening the horizon of the enslaved Christian population. The role of the trade and artisanal strata was growing. The need for reforms, modern education and enlightenment was increasingly felt. Well known to every Bulgarian, ‘Istoriya slavyanobalgarska’ [Slavonic-Bulgarian History], written by Paisius of Hilendar in 1762, is believed to be the harbinger of the National Revival. His work had an extremely strong influence on the spirit and decisively drove forward the process of national self-awareness.

THE FORTY HOLY MARTYRS (18th century) by n/aNational Gallery of Bulgaria

It was not long before the struggle for ecclesiastical and political independence began, one that continued throughout most of the 19th century. The Revival period is associated with the renovation and erection of many churches and monasteries. A large number of builders, iconographers and woodcarvers were engaged in the construction and decoration of the temples. In the second half of the 18th century, the renowned Bulgarian Revival art schools developed: those of Tryavna, Samokov and Bansko.

They would play an important role throughout the 19th century when, across Bulgaria, masters from various art schools and centres—Edirne, Debar and others—also found their expression. A characteristic feature of those Revival schools was that they were formed along family principles.

JOHN THE BAPTIST (18th century) by iconographer Dionysios of PhournaNational Gallery of Bulgaria

XVIII Century Iconography

The exhibition presents works from the beginning of the 18th to the closing decades of the 19th century. The main trends in the iconography of the 18th century can be traced. Some of the iconographers continued to work in the spirit of the previous century, while others revived the splendour of the Palaiologan Renaissance.  

CHRIST THE HIGH PRIEST (19th century) by n/aNational Gallery of Bulgaria

Still others turned to the new means of expression of Western art by incorporating rich Baroque ornamental decoration in the icons.

ST CYRIL AND ST METHODIOS (19th century) by n/aNational Gallery of Bulgaria

Specific attention is drawn to a characteristic phenomenon during the Revival period. This was the increased interest during that epoch in Bulgarian saints and those saints perceived as Bulgarian, which became one of the ways of establishing national self-awareness. The exhibition includes images of Sts Cyril and Methodius and their disciple Nahum, whose names, during the Revival, were invariably related to the struggle for the imposition of the Bulgarian language in education and church services of worship.

ST Nahum of Ohrid with Scenes from his Life (19th century) by n/aNational Gallery of Bulgaria

The group of Bulgarian saints presents the images of the new martyrs St New George of Sofia and St New Nicholas of Sofia, St George of Yanina and St Theraopontius.


ST JOHN OF RILA WITH SCENES FROM HIS LIFE (19th century) by iconographer Krastyu Zahariev from Tryavna, provenance SamokovNational Gallery of Bulgaria

Special attention is drawn to St John of Rila, regarded as the Heavenly Protector of the Bulgarian people.

During the Revival, his monastery attained a popularity that spread beyond the boundaries of today’s Bulgarian territory and became one of the largest spiritual, religious and cultural centres on the Balkans in the 19th century.

It was there that the best builders, woodcarvers, icon painters and crafted goldsmiths from the local art schools, as well as masters from Mount Athos, Albania and Macedonia found their means of expression.

ST JOHN OF RILA by n/aNational Gallery of Bulgaria

CHRIST PANTOKRATOR (1798) by iconographer Papa Vitan Tsonyuv from TryavnaNational Gallery of Bulgaria

Tryavna Art School 

The oldest, with the greatest number of representatives, was the Tryavna Art School, which had emerged at the beginning of the 18th century. The iconographers, woodcarvers and builders from the small mountain town of Tryavna left an enormous artistic heritage that encompassed territories far beyond their birthplace. Their works were to be found in almost all the regions of Bulgaria, many settlements in Romania, as well as in some churches in Northern Greece and Serbia. The exhibition includes works of painters from the two largest iconographers’ families—those of Vitan and Zahariy.

ST SOLOMONIA, ST ELEAZAR AND THE SEVEN HOLY MACCABEE MARTYRS (19th century) by iconographer Yoanikiy Papa Vitanov from TryavnaNational Gallery of Bulgaria

THE HOLY VIRGIN ZOODOCHOS PIGI (FOUNTAIN OF LIFE) (1871) by iconographer Simeon Simeonov from TryavnaNational Gallery of Bulgaria

ST PACHOMIUS THE GREAT (1824) by iconographer Krastiu ZaharievNational Gallery of Bulgaria

THE VIRGIN ZOODOCHOS PIGI (FOUNTAIN OF LIFE) (1849) by iconographer Dimitar Zograf from SamokoNational Gallery of Bulgaria

Samokov Art School 

A particular place in the
presentation of the Samokov Art School is occupied by the artworks of
Dimitar Hristov and his brother Zahari. They were the sons of Hristo Dimitrov, considered as the founder
of the school. The elder brother, Dimitar, remained faithful to
Orthodox humbleness and the spirit of Athonite aesthetics.  

ST THERAPONTIUS (1835) by iconographer Dimitar Zograf from SamokovNational Gallery of Bulgaria

THE VIRGIN KYKKOS, ST GEORGE, ST DEMETRIOS AND PROPHETS (1830) by iconographer Zahariy ZographNational Gallery of Bulgaria

The other brother, Zahari, went beyond his time and broke with the medieval humility of the iconographer monk. Aware of his talent, he boldly advertised his skills, becoming one of the most sought-after and valued painters of his time. Zahari created wonderful mural ensembles and exquisite icons, but he was also one of the first to work in mundane genres.  

NEW TESTAMENT TRINITY AND CROWNING OF THE VIRGIN (1864) by iconographer Nikola Obrazopisov, Samokov schoolNational Gallery of Bulgaria

Nikola Obrazopisov belonged to the third generation of icon painters. In his oeuvre, the new trends are more evident.

THE NATIVITY OF CHRIST (1894) by iconographer Nikola Obrazopisov, Samokov schoolNational Gallery of Bulgaria

In ‘The Nativity of Christ’, Nikola Obrazopisov adopted a western iconographic scheme departing from the conventionalism and symbolism characteristic of Orthodox art.

ST Nahum of Ohrid with Scenes from his Life (19th century) by n/aNational Gallery of Bulgaria

Debar Art School 

The art of the iconographers from Debar is presented in the icons of St Nahum with Scenes from His Life and those painted by Avram Dichov and Marko Minov. The two masters were representatives of the second generation of two prominent iconographers’ families from Macedonia. Each family left a lasting mark on the art of the Bulgarian lands, but what united them was the renewal of their veneration of St Clement and St Nahum, through the special place that they devoted to them in their icons and murals.  

THE VIRGIN HODEGHETRIA WITH ST PARTHENIOS BISHOP OF LAMPSACUS AND PARTHENIOS BISHOP OF VIDIN (1890/1892) by Icon painter Avram Dichov from Tresonche, Debar region (North Macedonia)National Gallery of Bulgaria

HOLY VIRGIN ELEOUSA, ST CYRIL, ST METHODIOS AND ST JOHN OF RILA (1881) by iconographer Marko Minov from Galichnik, Debar region (North Macedonia)National Gallery of Bulgaria

They are represented in the exhibition with icons where the emphasis is again on important themes related to national identity, such as the struggle for recognition of the Bulgarian Exarchate and images of Sts Cyril and Methodius.

THE RESURRECTION (19th century) by iconographer Nikolaos AdrianoupolitesNational Gallery of Bulgaria

Edirne Artistic Circle

After the signing of the Peace Treaty of Adrianople (1829) and the issuance of the Gülhane Hatt-ı Şerif edict (1839), changes in the demographic and social status of the population in the Rhodope region and Strandzha took place. The period between 1828 and 1840 marked a boom in ecclesiastical construction unparalleled to that day. Masters from the regions of Plovdiv, Asenovgrad and Edirne gradually joined the teams creating the decoration of the new churches. 

Relatively quickly, they succeeded in making a reputation for themselves. Already in the 1840s, their style had become determinative of the iconography in the region, also influencing the works of icon painters from the other art centres.

inv. NG 2015 (0) by n/aNational Gallery of Bulgaria

Among the iconographers associated with the Edirne artistic circle, the names of Nikolaos Adrianoupolites, Anastas Petrov and Spiros Mikhail stand out.

ST SPYRIDON ENTHRONED (1858) by iconographer Anastas Petrov from Kırklareli (Turkey), Adrianople circleNational Gallery of Bulgaria

ST GEORGE PROM IOANNINA (1839) by iconographer Spiros MikhaelNational Gallery of Bulgaria

THE JUDGEMENT OF PONTIUS PILATE (1829) by iconographer GeorgeNational Gallery of Bulgaria

Icon Masters Without an Established Origin

The exhibition includes
works whose creators were not associated with a particular art centre
or school. Among them, the icons by the painters Georgi and Philip are of high professionalism and in a
style close to Athonite aesthetics. 

The icons of Ioan Popovich and the priest Pavel, who often worked on the territory of the Tryavna iconographers or together with them, but who were not part of the Tryavna iconographers’ families or their guilds.

ST KOSMAS, ST DAMIAN AND ST JOHN THE BAPTIST (1814/1815) by Icon painter Philip ZographNational Gallery of Bulgaria

ST NICHOLAS (1824) by iconographer Philip ZographNational Gallery of Bulgaria

DORMITION OF VIRGIN MARY (1842) by iconographer John Popovich from Elena, BulgariaNational Gallery of Bulgaria

HYMN–PRAYER TO THE VIRGIN (1851) by iconographer Pavel from ShipkaNational Gallery of Bulgaria

ST KYRIAKI (1857) by n/aNational Gallery of Bulgaria

The group of works whose masters are without established origin is enriched with examples that impress with their bold and modern style, interesting iconographic solutions and high-quality painting.

ARCHANGEL MICHAEL TORTURING THE SOULS OF THE RICH (19th century) by n/aNational Gallery of Bulgaria

THE ANNUNCIATION (1895) by n/aNational Gallery of Bulgaria

Ierusalymitika (0/1857) by n/aNational Gallery of Bulgaria

A characteristic phenomenon during the 18th and the first half of the 19th century was the pronouncedly expressed pilgrimage. It was prompted by the desire for personal self-affirmation and public prestige. Visiting the holy places in Jerusalem, the monasteries on Mount Athos and Rila Monastery was also connected with the process of donorship: for health and long life, for the salvation of the soul, and suchlike, pilgrims donated to the monasteries predominantly money, lands, books or craftworks. The Hadjis to the Holy Sepulchre and Mount Athos brought protective veils, miraculous icons, crosses, proskynetaria, prints, indulgences as gifts to their homes and their parish temples. In the exhibition, this phenomenon is illustrated by a magnificent Proskynetarion of 1857. 

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