Bulgarian Monasteries

Rila Monastery
Rila Monastery

When Christian monastic community emerged as a spiritual vanguard of the new Christian world, it was as early as the 4th - 5th century that monasteries began to be built in the Bulgarian lands. Written documents and archaeological excavations from that time testify to the existence of several dozens of monasteries raised on territories that would later be inhabited by Bulgarian people. The construction of the first monasteries followed a Near East scheme that had already established itself in some places in Europe but as early as the 6th century Byzantine plans began gradually to make their influence felt only to turn later into a major standard of constructing Eastern Orthodox monasteries.

The adoption of Christianity as a state religion in 865 gave new scope to monastery building. The excavations in the old Bulgarian capitals of Pliska and Preslav are a convincing proof of the fact that it was in the monastery complexes that the new Christian culture in Bulgaria came into being. From the very beginning the monastic community was called upon to fight for the establishment of a coherent ethnic structure by joining the Proto-Bulgarian and Slav population to common rites and religious traditions thus creating and developing an all-Bulgarian culture.

After the adoption of Christianity in the second half of the 9th century the monasteries built near Pliska and Preslav and bearing similarities to the Byzantine ones, carried out, apart from their church-and-ritual functions broad cultural, educational and economic activities. There appeared art studios for ceramic icons. scriptoria in which liturgical books were trans lated into Slavonic, new literary works were created, literary miscellanies were compiled which satisfied the necessity of propagating and consolidating the new religion. At that time the monasteries near Preslav gave shelter to such prominent men of letters as Konstantin of Preslav, Chernorizets Hrabr and Exarch Yosif who created works of extreme cultural and historical value thus marking the so-called Golden Age of Bulgarian literature.

However, the monasteries were not only literary, cultural and artistic centres. A large-scale construction was carried out there and in their environs. The ceramic, glass and sculptural workshops set up during the First Bulgarian Kingdom (9th-lOth c.) were~ the monastery complexes. At that time the architecture of Central and Western Europe was quite austere and dull while in the Byzantine Empire they were mostly interested in the architecture of inner spaces. In contrast to it Bulgarian architecture created dynamic silhouettes, broken - up colorful facades decorated with plastics. Despite the monastic asceticism the monastery buildings beam with their marvellous architecture - flexible and multicolored, an apotheosis of the organic merger and interaction of pagan traditions and achievements of the Christian culture. Later on, in the l0th-11th century, this pictorial style was adopted by Byzantine architecture and the architectural practices in Russia, Serbia and other Orthodox states.

The creative activities carried out in the Preslav monasteries gave a strong impetus to the development of fine arts. In the 9th-l0th century art studios were set up in some of the monasteries where they painted glazed ceramic icons and decorative canvases. The Preslav ceramic icons are not just unique pieces of the art of painting in the Balkan Peninsula; they are the earliest Slav icons ever to have been painted.

In the period between the 9th and the l2th century the monasteries and the churches were the centres which, during the Byzantine rule, managed to preserve the Bulgarian language, written culture, habits and national self-consciousness.

During the Second Bulgarian Kingdom the monastic communities in Bulgaria made good progress. In the l3th-l4th century the construction of monasteries grew in scope. Ever more donations came from rulers and noblemen. The monasteries acquired wealth and a number of new churches, fortress towers, residential and farm buildings sprang up within their borders. The pictorial style in architecture reached new heights of perfection. It became an East-European analogue of the "burning Gothic style" of Western Europe. Striking examples of this are to be found in Nessebur, Veliko Turnovo, Cherven, Nikopol, Lovech, Ochrid, Kyustendil, Melnik.

During the Second Bulgarian Kingdom (13th-14th century) the churches and monasteries played particularly great role for recovering the past glory of the Bulgarian literature and arts. In the period between the late l2th - late 14th century the monasteries near the royal city of Veliko Turnovo which were supported by the Court, the Bulgarian patriarchy, the clerical and administrative aristocracy, turned into centres of most significant cultural and artistic undertakings.

In the l3th and l4th century scriptural and art studios were set up in the Great Laura of the Forty Holy Martyrs, in the patriarchal monastery of the Trinity, in the Kilifarevo and Preobrazhenie monasteries where books were decorated, murals and icons were painted. The remains and the magnificent monumental decoration in the monastery churches of the Forty Holy Martyrs, of St Demetrius and in the old Preobrazhenie monastery, in the churches of Tsarevets and Trapezitsa, in the Ivanovo and Cherven rock monasteries illuminate the scope and high merits of the famous Turnovo school of painting. The ensembles of mural paintings in the mediaeval monasteries of Rila, Zemen and Bachkovo, remarkable for their high artistic value, have left a milestone along the road of Bulgaria's cultural progress. The Great Laura of the Forty Holy Martyrs, the Batoshevo and Zemen monasteries, the Boyana Church have preserved commemorative inscriptions of extreme historical significance for Bulgaria.

The fall of this country, in the late l4th century, to the Ottoman invaders could not withhold the Orthodox Church and its monasteries from carrying out their activities. Although most of the monasteries in the vicinity of the capital city and other centres were destroyed, the spiritual efforts in these places never ceased. As early as the second half of the l5th century, in Western Bulgaria, simple yet marvellous ensembles of wall-paintings were created in the church of the Holy Virgin Mary of Vitosha in the Dragalevtsi Monastery (1476), the church of St. Demetrius in the Boboshevo Monastery (1488), the church of St. Peter and Paul in the Orlitsa convent of the Rila Monastery (1491); the murals in the church of St. George in the Kremikovtsi Monastery (1493), etc. The creation of these artistic compositions was made possible thanks to the funds allotted by Bulgarian donors, local notables and clergymen. The commemorative and explanatory inscriptions accompanying the images are written in the Bulgarian language. The church plans and their ornamentation carried on the Bulgarian l3th - to-l4th century architectural and artistic tradition.

The process of raising new churches and painting them with murals continued even in the l6th century. Examples of this are the Bigor, Kourilo, Ilientsi, Stroupetski, Podgoumerski, Trun, Malomalovo, etc. monasteries. Fascinating icon-paintings were created across the breadth of the country.

The traditions that had been established in the field of construction and fine arts were carried on in the l7th and the early l8th century. A number of buildings and monumental decorations which arouse interest today, go back to those days - the Karloukovo Monastery (1602); the Alino Monastery (1626), the Belino, Trun, Malomalovo and Bachkovo monasteries (1643), the Rozhen Monastery (1662), the Arbanassi Monastery, etc.

During the Ottoman domination (l5th -l9th century), and particularly during the period of the National Revival (l8th-l9th century), the monastic communities acquired a key role in Bulgaria's public life as the monasteries turned into animated sociopolitical and artistic centres and a field of spiritual and material expression of the reviving Bulgarian nation. Of great importance in those days were the Rila, Etropole and Dragalevtsi monasteries.

During the period of the National Revival (l8th-l9th century) the monasteries acquired ever greater independence as centres of culture and learning. Of particular importance was the role they played for the progress of enlightenment. Monastery schools were set up in many places which, like the one in the Rila Monastery, developed into big study circles. There the most cultured people were given an education and they later became teachers, clergymen, enlighteners. The monasteries treasure the sources of the Bulgarian people's history, the images of Bulgarian saints, commemorative inscriptions dedicated to Bulgarian rulers from the past. They are depositories of historical information, of artistic and language traditions.

During the National Revival not a few of the learned monks such as Zotik of Preobrazhenie, Neophit of Rila, Makari of Troyan, Yosiph Bradati, through their activities, called into being an atmosphere of creativity, of national and patriotic feelings among the monastic community.

The period between the l3th and the l9th century witnessed the upswing of monastery construction throughout the country - in Moesia, Thrace and Macedonia. In the Sofia region alone the renovated monasteries numbered 70 or 80. The new buildings were constructed after the mediaeval building traditions; at the same time novelties were introduced mainly in the architectural detail and interior design. It was exactly in the l9th century that architecture, woodcarving, church- and decorative painting, artistic smithery and stone-cutting prospered and attained a peak development. And that was not accidental. Precisely at that time the Bulgarian nation reached one of the heights of its spiritual progress. The five-century-long Ottoman rule was overthrown and opportunities were held out, and a state of spiritual preparedness made itself felt for giving expression to one's creative abilities. During the period of the National Revival in Bulgaria considerable progress was made by the Rila and Bachkovo, Troyan and Preobrazhenie, Kilifarevo and Kapinovo, Arapovo and Ossenovlashko, Gorno Vodene and Rozhen monasteries and dozens of other monasteries, convents and cloisters.

The late l8th and the ,early l9th century witnessed an unprecedented revival of the art of woodcarving. It became the art form that was present everywhere - in the monasteries, in the cult and residential buildings. The woodcarved iconostases, pulpits, bishop's thrones, lavishly carved ceilings and pieces of furniture imparted solemnity and impressiveness to their interiors.

During the same period there also appeared significant works of the Bulgarian church monumental painting. The ornamentation of the main church and the chapels in the Rila Monastery as well as of the churches in the Troyan, Preobrazhenie, Kapinovo, Gornovodene, Lopoushanovo, Gornolozen and other monasteries is exceptional in scope and artistic merit, created by the most distinguished masters, representatives of the major arts centres in Bulgaria - Tryavna, Samokov and Bansko. It was through their artistry that the Bulgarian church painting came out from the standstill and freed itself from the dryness and rigidity that the canonical rules had imposed. The art of painting was already suffused with the vitality and spontaneity inbred in folklore, its bright colours responded to the high and optimistic ideals and the revived spirit of a nation.

Not a few of those educated in the monastery study circles took an active part in the revolutionary struggle for Bulgaria"s liberation from the Ottoman oppressor along with the struggle they waged for the freedom of mind and religion.

The history and the artistic values of the Bulgarian monasteries are closely connected with the political, spiritual and cultural progress of the Bulgarian people. Therefore they must be treasured and handed down from one generation to another.






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