Bulgarian icons have a thousand year’s history and many of them belong in the treasury of world art. Icon painting in Bulgaria must have originated officially with the adoption of Christianity in 865.
Numerous churches and monasteries were built in the Bulgarian capitals. All these places of worship were decorated with murals and icons. Since then the Bulgarian icon, a symbol of the Christian cult and church ritual, has developed as a fundamental part of the art of the country.
Preslav ceramic icons, the oldest Bulgarian icons found so far, were also very interesting examples of medieval Balkan art. The icon painting tradition was enriched in the 13th- 14th c.
The few preserved specimens from the time like several double-faced icons are works of a high class and testify to the level of art in Bulgaria.
In the years of the Ottoman national and religious domination, the icon was the only link with the cultural traditions of the past. For the enslaved Balkan Christian people, religion was the consolidating factor in saving them from the assimilation policy of the conquerors. Interesting icons of the 15th-16th c. are preserved in Kremikovtsi Monastery and Bachkovo Monastery.
An important centre of icon painting throughout the Ottoman rule was Nessebar.
In the eighteenth century there were established national schools of art in towns such as Samokov, Tryavna, Bansko – all with their own style characteristics and several generations of artists. These artists have transformed the strictly didactic painting into vital art.
The harsh, severe tones gave way to bright colors. The Bulgarian icon painters were involved in the fate of the people and their struggle for independence of the Church and for political freedom. The figurative language of art was turned into an active factor for preserving the national spirit and culture.
Zahari Zograf is a name known to every Bulgarian as one of the greatest icon painters of the time. He created a new style in icon painting by introducing the portraying of ordinary people.
Bulgarian iconography left deep traces in the general development of the art of the other Eastern Orthodox people. It also takes a well-deserved place in European cultural history.
Despite of the religious and mystical aspects of Bulgarian icons, left to us from the centuries, they show the purest aspects of the spiritual feelings of the Bulgarians, their world of goodness and faith, their eternal striving towards perfection and freedom.