Glossy Communism: Polite Propaganda from the Eastern Bloc

Secularized Heritage: Old Bulgarian Icons

In 1963, during the depths of the Cold War, the magazine Bulgaria Today, a publication of a communist government, surprisingly published an article showing a small selection of ancient Bulgarian Christian Icons.  At that time a large number of icons from as early as the tenth century through the seventeenth century were being displayed within the National Art Museum, the Ecclesiastical Museum, and the Archaeological Museum, all in Sofia, with others being preserved in Bachkovo, Ohrid, and McInik.  Although the magazine approached their representation from the standpoint of Byzantine art, the Icons themselves do not fail to show forth the spirituality contained within each, even in reproduction.  Stress is laid on the icons and early Church frescos being examples of the originality and independence of the artistic heritage of old Bulgarian art.  The very earliest of the stand-alone icons shown dates from the tenth or eleventh centuries and is a relief described as old Thracian Horsemen transformed into Christian Saints Georgi and Dimiter, two of the most recognizable military Saints of Christianity. 

Saint Georgi (St. George) is generally the most recognizable of the two, almost always depicted slaying a dragon, while Saint Dimiter, better known in the West as Saint Demetrios of Thessalonica, was an Orthodox saint, martyred in the early fourth century and reported to reappear on the walls of the city in subsequent centuries  to defend the city from attacks of barbarians, and preserve the inhabitants from plague and famine. These figures are usually shown mounted on chargers with St. George riding a white horse and St. Demetrios a red one. 

Two of the published icons depict the Virgin and Child in different poses.  An icon of the fourteenth century shows the Theotokos cradling the Christ Child with the Child touching the face of the Mother in a style known as Tender Mercy or Eleusa. The second, from the seventeenth century, is posed in the Hodigrita style, with the Theotokos, framed by the Prophets, holding the Child and pointing toward Him as a guide to God and salvation.

In addition to those icons shown in the magazine, other early Bulgarian icon paintings have been found from the ninth and tenth century churches of Preslav, such as that of St. Theodor, recovered during excavations of 1909-1914 of the ruined Monastery of Patleiena which was destroyed in 971. The icon has become a symbol of medieval Bulgarian heritage and is now kept at the National Archaeological Museum.  The magazine describes the style of these icons as linear and primitive but profoundly expressive and the basis of the folk icon-painting of later centuries  This type of folk icon-painting is prevalent throughout the Balkans and can be seen at such places as the Orthodox Monastery in the small village of Voroneț in Romania. The monastery has icons exhibited on both the interior and exterior, somewhat reminiscent of the earlier twelfth century Roman Catholic Cathedral at Chartres in France with its statuary of both Old and New Testament figures prominently placed on the exterior and the interior flooded with the light of its numerous stained glass windows.  

The magazine, again emphasizing the art aspect, states that early Bulgarian icon painting contained elements of human expression that separated it from the typical medieval Byzantine art of the eleventh and twelfth centuries characterized by abstract, empty and gloomy images.  This allowed the Bulgarians to create images full of humanity, gentleness and even spiritual life.  

Two of the icons in the collection represent occurrences in the New Testament rather than individual figures.  The first is a sixteenth-seventeenth century icon from the Prissovo monastery near Turnovo depicting the Baptism of Christ in the Jordan by St. John the Baptist. The icon is fully descriptive with the Christ figure, the Baptizer, the river, and the witnesses.  Unfortunately the image is truncated and fails to fully show the Descent of the Holy Spirit usually shown as a dove contained within the star ray above the head of the Christ figure.  The second icon shows all the elements of the Lucan portrayal of the Nativity.  Birth within a cave, the Child in a manger with Mary and Joseph, Angels singing on High, the Three Magi bearing gifts, shepherds minding their flocks, and cattle lowing, with the Star from the East standing over it all.  An ancient icon clearly telling an ancient story.  

Fortunately, although this was a period of time deep within the Cold War, the governing bodies of Bulgaria did not neglect, or even worse destroy, these early medieval icons.  Perhaps they recognized their value, possibly through their artistic dimension rather than their spiritual reflection and if so, well and good.  Today the icons are part of the treasures of Bulgaria which, alongside Orthodox Churches and Monasteries, are featured as Bulgaria’s major tourist attractions.  The small number of icons published in the article revealed the existence of a much larger collection which had nourished the spiritual needs of Bulgarian Christians for centuries and continued to exist within a non-religious form of government to survive until a time their spiritual dimension can again be relevant and meaningful in a freer civil society. 

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