The collection of Christian art on the Bulgarian lands (4th–19th c.) numbers some 2,000 works—icons, frescoes, and church plate. The permanent exposition of the Museum of Christian Art, housed in the Crypt of the St Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, presents thematically compact groups of works from Bulgaria’s historical capital cities, metropolitan and monastery centres: Preslav, Nesebar, Sozopol, Veliko Tarnovo, the regions of Sofia, Plovdiv and Vratsa, and Samokov, Tryavna, Debar, Strandzha, the Bachkovo, Rila and Dragalevtsi Monasteries, the Kremikovtsi Monastery of St George, the Etropole Monastery, the Poganovo Monastery of St John the Theologian, the Boboshevo Monastery of St Demetrius, and others.
Chronologically, the earliest exhibit is a fresco fragment of an image of a saint from the early Christian basilica in the village of Khan Krum, Shumen region (4th–5th c.), one of the few preserved examples of figurative painting of that period. A group of encolpions (9th–10th c.) from the capital of Preslav dates from the time of the First Bulgarian Kingdom. The Preslavian painted ceramics are a unique artistic phenomenon: on display in the exposition is a ceramic icon bearing an image of St Paul the Apostle. The earliest icon on wood in the collection, indeed the earliest discovered in Bulgaria, dates from the end of the 11th century. It is two-sided: on one side an impressive image of Christ Pantocrator is depicted and, on the other, the Crucifixion of Christ.
During the Second Bulgarian Kingdom (1185–1396), the new capital of Tarnovo became the main cultural and artistic centre. The towns of Melnik, Nesebar, Sozopol, Cherven, and the large monasteries such as those of Rila and Bachkovo also played an important role. The art of this period is known as the Palaiologan Renaissance. As opposed to the preceding centuries, a greater number of icons are preserved from the 13th and especially the 14th centuries. Their characteristics outline a varied picture both of the local workshops and connections with different Balkan centres, predominantly with Constantinople and Thessaloniki. The exhibition presents works of ecclesiastical art of exceptional aesthetic qualities, originating from different Balkan centres: for example, ‘St Nicholas, with Scenes from His Life’ (late 12th–early 13th c.), ‘Christ Pantocrator’ (13th c.), ‘The Holy Virgin, Sovereign Lady of Life’ (1270–1280), all three from Nesebar; the bilateral icon ‘St. George and his parents, Sts Gerontius and Polychronia’ (late 13th c.), as well as several other two-sided icons from Sozopol and Nesebar (13th–14th c.), ‘Synaxis of the Archangels’ from the Bachkovo Monastery (1340s) , ‘Crucifixion’ (1370s–1380s); fresco fragments from the Church of St Nicholas (1208) in Melnik, the Rock Church of Sts Archangels (13th c.) near Ivanovo, and from the archaeological excavations in Cherven (14th c.).
The period between the 16th and 18th centuries marked a new flowering of Orthodox art throughout the Balkans. The renovation and rebuilding of many monasteries and churches began, for which icons and frescoes were painted in large numbers. Two trends emerged in iconography. The first was imposed by the Cretan School of Painting, which introduced elements of Italian art into Orthodox iconography. The icon painters of this trend were highly scholarly and erudite; their icons were characterised by extremely elevated aesthetic qualities, complicated themes and symbolism. The second trend developed primarily in smaller settlements and monasteries. The artworks were executed in a more primitive and naïve style, but they surprise with their unexpected expression and originality regarding style and subject matter. The varied artistic trends in ecclesiastical art in the Balkans between the 16th and 18th centuries are fully presented in the exhibition of works of iconography and ecclesiastical applied art. Some of the exhibits have not only aesthetic, but also an historical value, as exemplified by the Beadroll of Bulgarian Monarchs from the Poganovo Monastery (in present-day Serbia).
The exhibition ends chronologically with the art of the Bulgarian National Revival. In the second half of the 18th century, the major art schools began to take shape—those of Tryavna, Samokov, Bansko, and Debar. The Tryavna School produced the works of Simeon Tsonyuv, Dimitar Kanchov, Krastyu Zahariev; from the Samokov School came the icons of Dimitar Zograf, Zahari Zograf, and Nikola Obrazopisov, among others. A special section of the exhibition is dedicated to the images of Bulgarian saints: Sts Cyril and Methodius, St Nahum of Ohrid, St John of Rila, St George of Yanina, New martyr Nicholas of Sofia and New martyr George of Sofia, and others. Icons from the 19th century, painted by masters from different areas of the Balkans (Mount Athos, Edirne, Corfu), as well as works related to the pilgrimage to the Holy Sepulchre, are on display.
Additionally, the collection preserves Russian icons (17th–19th c.) and works of Ethiopian ecclesiastical art.