Sunday, 20 August 2017

Bulgaria’s Most Contested Monastery, St Ivan of RIla

Text and photographs by Albena Shkodrova   
The Rila Monastery keeps contradictory relics behind its magically painted walls

A gate with large antlers hanging on it and beyond it – a quiet courtyard, fenced in by filigree-decorated walls, even more surprising with their colours and details against the background of the raw mountain that rises sharply behind.

The stately calm and the weight of time here are a context in which one can hardly imagine people exchanging blows and priests trampling on their black hats in the dust. And still – the Rila Monastery – Bulgaria’s holiest and most architecturally impressive religious complex, has been the scene of all kinds of violent outbursts for a long time. The last occasion was in 2004, when the two wings of the Bulgarian Orthodox church, which split in 1989, went as far as engaging in hand-to-hand combat over it.

Maybe these historical twists and turns aren’t so strange. Religious wars are among Christianity’s most natural fruits, as Schopenhauer remarked long ago. After all, the Rila Monastery is Bulgaria’s most important and largest monastery. The last conflict is only the latest of an endless series of battles for control over it through the ages. In the tenth century, its treasures were plundered, in the early Middle Ages it had spiritual power and in the late Medieval Period it gained political might. Later, Bulgaria’s communist regime was afraid of its ability to bring together the opposition. Now, the monastery unites an impressive cultural heritage, an influence over the rebirth of Christianity in Bulgaria and an opportunity for a nice income.

The Rila Monastery is always among the top five sites recommended by tourist guides. And with good reason: For visitors who are not familiar with the Eastern Orthodox Church, it is exotic; For those who are, it is important; For both kinds, it is beautiful. And it is also popular – during the day, its internal courtyard comes alive like a city market with hordes of Greek, Macedonian, Bulgarian and Serbian tourists.

Its church, decorated with an obvious Byzantine influence, has in its possession valuable artefacts of Bulgarian material culture. Adorned with icons painted by the best-known family of Bulgarian icon-painters, Zographski, with rare woodcarvings by masters from the nearby towns of Debar and Samokov, it also possesses a few dozen extraordinary relics.

This is Bulgaria’s largest monastery. It spreads over 8,800 square metres. Currently, the nearly 300 monastic cells are occupied by only six monks, who travel dozens of kilometres in order to run their daily errands. One of them acts as a hotel administrator at the service of visitors who would like to make a donation to the monastery in exchange for spending the night in it –10 leva (5 euro) per person.

The experience is worth it, as it includes slipping through the cat door after the main gate gets locked at 10pm and the opportunity to wander around the courtyard in perfect silence under the moonlight.

1,500 rice-grain-sized figurines

One of the curious attractions of the Rila Monastery is the wooden crucifix, which took the monk Rafail 12 years to carve during the eighteenth century. The relic has a place of honour among the artefacts displayed in the smallish museum.
Engraved on the half-a-metre tall cross, there are 140 Biblical scenes with over 1,500 participants, some of which are the size of a rice grain. The microscopic figures cover both sides of the entire cross. The monk, in an inhuman display of patience, carved out the relic with a needle and, as a result, lost his sight.
The monastery’s museum also contains interesting church plate samples, documents certifying donations from Tsarist Russia and personally from Ivan the Terrible, as well as a fingerprint machine imported from Vienna. The images of devils trying to spoil people’s good deeds may not have great artistic value, but they are quite fun to look at.

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Bulgaria’s Most Contested Monastery, St Ivan of RIla
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