St John of Rila, the greatest Bulgarian saint, regarded as the Heavenly Protector of the Bulgarian people, was the founder of Rila Monastery—a famous and at the same time majestic monument to the Christian religion in Bulgaria. According to the saint’s hagiography, he was born circa 876 and died on 18 August 946. His native place was the village of Skrino, located in the Osogovo Mountain near the Struma River. He inherited his love for God from his parents and, in his later years, he devoted himself entirely to serving Him, preaching the doctrine of Christ.
The image of the saint is frequently depicted in Christian art, but it has also been reproduced in works of secular art such as ‘St John of Rila Building a Monastery’, carved by the renowned Bulgarian sculptor Ivan Lazarov, which is included in the exhibition at the Ivan Lazarov House Museum. In the early 1940s, Lazarov produced a series of easel reliefs executed in the majolica technique—a type of ceramics characterised by colour contrasts and a bright, fulgent glaze. The artist’s curiosity in using different materials and techniques in the creation of sculptural works was the most likely motive power for applying this less popular variety of ceramics in Bulgarian art.
His majolica works of 1942–43 on religious themes represent the patron saints of the Christian religion, among them a series of three scenes entitled ‘St John of Rila Building a Monastery’. These compositions portray the saint in his earthly substance. In one of them he is bending over a brick wall, with a pot of lime in one hand. The sculptor presents the saint as an ordinary craftsman, a mason building his own dwelling. Only the nimbus around his head and the monastic garments suggest his spiritual mission. Behind the figure of John of Rila, the monastery itself is depicted. Ivan Lazarov did not compose the embossed image in a specific geometric form—a circle, a square, or a rectangle—and thus the outline of the figure and the architectural object become transformed into a compositional frame. Using the decorative value of colour, the sculptor refers to the Bulgarian folk tradition and way of life, to the characteristic hues of our folklore.
Ivan Lazarov is among the sculptors whose oeuvre has left deep traces in the development of Bulgarian figurative art of the first half of the twentieth century. Born in Karlovo in 1889, he grew up in Sofia. He died in 1952. In 1912, he graduated in Sculpture from the State Industrial School of Arts (today’s National Academy of Arts) in the class of Prof. Zheko Spiridonov. In the period 1917–18, he specialised at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Munich, in the sculpture class of Prof. Hermann Hahn. Ivan Lazarov was among the initiators in the establishment of the Native Art Society in 1919; a professor at the Academy of Arts and its director in 1937–39 and 1943–45. Awarded the title of Academician, in 1950 he was among the founders and First Director of the Institute of Figurative Arts of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. His creative legacy includes theoretical studies and articles on various issues of figurative art.
During the First and Second Balkan Wars (1912–1913), the young sculptor created several bronze works on war themes, winning over the critics of the time, and was proclaimed a ‘very promising’ artist. The outstanding achievements in Ivan Lazarov’s career continued and, throughout his long creative life, he produced numerous easel and monumental sculptures, many of which have become emblematic works of Bulgarian art. Ivan Lazarov was among the artists for whom the material and its transformation into forms was of the utmost importance in the artistic composition. The sculptor was inspired by the Bulgarian crafts and traditions in the use of stone, wood and ceramics. The idea of the native in art is interwoven in the thematics of his works and in the images of the ordinary Bulgarian.
Dr Tanya Staneva