Surrounded by old pine trees that seem to hover protectively over it, Boyana doesn’t look much like a church. Boyana looks downright anonymous, perhaps like the workplace of a medieval craftsman with a low door and few windows. Its exterior walls sport row upon row of alternating bricks and rocks, a characteristic Bulgarian building style. It’s only when I entered Boyana that genuine amazement began. Its interior is tiny so no more than 8 people are allowed inside at a time to stay for only 10 minutes. Photography is strictly forbidden. Of all the fine sights I saw in Sofia, this was the best.
On UNESCO’s World Cultural Heritage List, Boyana dates from the 11th century, and was reworked in the 13th and 19th. Its true glory is its original frescoes that were completed by an unknown artist known only as the Boyana Master in 1259. Master is definitely the appropriate word for him. A couple of centuries before the Renaissance occurred in Italy, he was painting in its style. His faces remain warm and human, not stylized and similar like most medieval church art. His 240 realistic human figures show Bulgarian life at the time, and the subjects aren’t all saints and depictions of God. They include historical figures like Tsar Konstantin Assen and his wife Irina.
Boyana seemed even more remarkable to me when I learned that it’s practically within walking distance of the fenced-in, very private residence of Bulgaria’s last Communist leader, Todor Zhivkov, and the lavish National History Museum built on the same grounds during the Communist years.
Why did committed, non-religious party members who either turned places of worship into museums or destroyed them leave this remarkable Christian church untouched? Perhaps they were distracted by Boyana’s pretty placement. Both it and their upscale living quarters were at the bottom of 7,550+ feet Vitosha Mountain, which contains the oldest nature park in The Balkans. Sofia, Bulgaria, has one of the most spectacular natural settings of any city. Sofians can literally be skiing, hiking, or soaking in a mineral spring minutes after leaving their city.