Boyana Church, Sofia

While visiting Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, I took the opportunity to visit the medieval church of Boyana. A Unesco World Heritage site, Boyana is a short 8 km drive from central Sofia and is a must see while visiting the area. I had read about Boyana while planning my trip, but was not prepared for what I would experience while there. The church is quite small, which added to its overall impact. It is set within a lovely wooded area, replete with many non-native trees including two very large California redwoods, that combined to give it a particularly tranquil atmosphere.

The church was constructed in three different phases which are easily discernible from outside. The earliest, eastern wing of the church dates tom the late 10th and early 11th century.

The middle section, defined by the mix of stone and brick in the walls and “cup” decoration in the arches above the windows, dates to the 13th century. The final, and least impressive phase, is the west wing which was added in the 19th century. This section is very plain and does little but add extra interior space.

As space with the church is extremely limited we had to wait until all inside had exited, and then we were allowed in for a brief, 10 minute visit. I was not prepared for what I would experience once inside. you have to crouch down to enter, walking into the 19th century addition to the church. It is plain, and used primarily as a place where people can gather and leave coats and backpacks before entering the confined space within the older sections of the church.

Stepping through the next door into the Narthex which was added in the 13th century, you are immediately surrounded by hundreds of images stretching from floor to ceiling. Like many churches of the period, there are different layers of frescoes. Boyana’s earliest date from the 11th/12th century, but these are fragmentary and less impressive when compared to the more extensive 13th century frescoes for which the church is most famous. I found there was so much that it was difficult to focus on any one particular scene as there is just so much to take in. 

Frescoes in the oldest, eastern section, include a detailed depiction of Christ Pantocrator in the dome. Below sits a host of angels, and below them sit the four Evangelists. In the middle portion of the church is the story of St. Nicholas (of Santa Claus Fame) depicted in 18 scenes.

The detail is amazing, and many of the figures are represented in the styles current to when the frescoes were completed. In all there are 89 scenes with 240 images, far too much to take in during the brief time allotted to each group. Yet this is a site that you would not want to miss. It is not only for the high quality of the frescoes themselves, but for the overall design and the small space which gives the feeling of being imbedded in the frescoes themselves. If you are a fan of medieval frescoes as I am, or simply interested in experiencing something different, Boyana Church will definitely not disappoint, providing visitors with a small, yet rich, window into the medieval world.