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Book Review:

Bulgarian Church Woodcarving, 14th-19th Century
by Valentin Angelov

Reviewed by W.F. (Bill) Judt


Let's get this straight from the start: this is not your regular book on woodcarving. No patterns. No color pictures. No step-by-step illustrations. No sketches. No light humor. No source guides for carving tools and products. It is not written by a carver for carvers. This is a SERIOUS academic study of Bulgarian Woodcarving in the 14th-19th Centuries.

So what does this book have in it? It has a short treatise on Bulgarian carving in the first half of the book all text and no illustrations. This is followed by about 64 pages of black and white photos of ancient carvings in old churches all photos, no text. Many of these photos are close-ups. Some of these photos are wide angle to show the entire front of Medieval Bulgarian sanctuaries, carved wall to wall and floor to ceiling.

The book explains the structure, composition and characteristics of Bulgarian carving in various centuries and in various carving traditions. There are pictures of carved doors, carved pillars and carved panels. There are pictures of "iconostasis" which are wooden panels, similar to a pierce relief screen, carved to hold painted pictures (icons). These are unbelievably complex, and so foreign to the North American mindset as to come from another planet. This is "old school" carving. This is carving from antiquity.

The images and the symbols are strange to the modern eye. Some of them, in my humble and western opinion, seem to come out of nightmares, the rest out of inflexible tradition. I'm sure though, that the ancient religious mind viewed these carvings quite differently, and that they inspired reverence in the worshipper.

The ornamental carving is wonderful to study and enjoy, offering even the American carver some design ideas. What amazed me about the carvings pictured in this book is their complexity, and the fact that they were done without the aid of modern power tools and a nearby lumber store. The amount of hand crafted labor is remarkable. The craftsmanship is excellent.

The academic portion of this book might appeal to a few (very few) carvers who delight in the intricacies of history and tradition. But for most of the others, the academic treatise will feel dry and stilted. I tried to read the text and soon found myself struggling to focus on the subject at hand. My fingers reached for the pages with the photos, where I was able to concentrate better.

I passed this book around to a group of carving students gathered for a year end barbecue at my home, asking for their comments. Most felt like I did about the book, but a couple of carvers (whom, I discovered, were also history buffs) found the text portion of the book even more interesting than the images themselves.

Would I buy this book? Perhaps. Especially if I wanted to "mine" the riches of this rich, though foreign, carving tradition. If I had a project
involving a pierced relief screen or requiring ornamental foliage, this book would be a solid resource. Might some of the styles and techniques illustrated in these ancient carvings appear in my own carvings? I can't tell yet. I'll have to wait and see.

Hardcover, 150 pages, 66 plates with B/W photos
Co-Publishers, Pensoft and Prof. Marin Drinov Academic Publishing House.

Bill Judt is a professional carver, author of two books on relief carving, owner of the Woodcarver List, and original publisher of Woodcarver Online Magazine, to which he remains a frequent contributor.

W.F. (Bill) Judt,
46 Harvard Crescent,
Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada

See Bill's work at his web site,