Christian Art in churches and Monasteries

One of Bulgaria’s hidden treasures is its artistic heritage. Already in the 13th-12th centuries, the Palaeologian Renaissance appears in Bulgaria, called the Renaissance before the Renaissance, in which painting deviates from the rigid religious rules and expresses human feelings, individuality, treats nature and the human body with respect, and restores the classical naturalistic and humanistic tradition to a certain extent.

Bulgarian painting reaches its peak during the Second Bulgarian Empire, and you can see his amazing works of art in places like the Boyana Church near Sofia or the Ivanovo Monastery near Ruse (both World Heritage Sites).

During the Ottoman occupation, several Schools of painting developed in Bulgaria in different places throughout the country. It should be understood that painting until the 19th century found its expression mainly inside the religion and was to do with Frescoes and Icons. The place where European influences of the Renaissance and Baroque and other artistic innovations reached was Mount Athos, and from there the light spread to the rest of the Balkans, and thus a man named Hristo Dimitrov arrives at the end of the 18th century from the Bulgarian Monastery of Zograf on the Mountain to the town of Samokov, and establishes a School of painting that is responsible, among other things, for the beautiful paintings in the Rila Monastery.

The School of painting in Samokov produced three generations of painters who also decorated mosques, synagogues, and private homes. It was responsible for wonderful art works of Icons and murals in various places in south-west Bulgaria. Some of the Icons and paintings are displayed in the Museum in Samokov, and some in the Icon Museum in Sofia.

In addition to the School in Samokov, there were also painting Schools with local characteristics in Bansko, Tryavna and Veliko Tarnovo. Bulgarian painting was in dialogue and influenced by Serbian, Russian and Ukrainian religious painting.

Painting in Rila Monastery

Painting in Rila Monastery

Church paintings – Frescoes

Orthodox Churches are characterized by many wall paintings – Frescoes that tell us the Christian story in a different way. The paintings are like an open book that has several levels of understanding, and with the help of the appropriate key one can gain insights and enlightenment from them. Some of the Frescoes that are found across Bulgaria are very old, from the time of the first and second Bulgarian empires.

There is are  a few ways of deciphering the painting in a Church, one way is to follow them from the doorway to the altar, a second way is to follow them from the roof to the floor. Let’s start with the second way: Jesus usually appears in the dome as the Pantocrator – the ruler of the universe. He is drawn so that his eyes look at the believers from everywhere. In the words of the sages it is said: “What is this Icon, which a multitude of people look at it and it looks at all of them simultaneously”.

Under the dome there is a sort of square resting on four supports, forming triangles in which the four apostles usually appear, or four paintings related to the main events in the life of Jesus. In the half domes below the upper dome (if there are), or on the roof itself, in the case of a flat or barrel-shaped Church ceiling, additional events from the life of Jesus will appear.

Fascinating cycles of paintings will appear on the walls of the Church. We often find painting cycles of the life of Jesus, or painting cycles of Mary’s life, including events not known from the New Testament, and many times we find painting cycles of the saints associated with the Church. The paintings are related to each other and develop a story that has a message. Sometimes there are two or three cycles of paintings in the same Church. And it is worth mentioning in this context the wonderful cycles of paintings in the Church of Boyana near Sofia.

When you go further down the space of the Church, you reach the saints, who are the link between the believer and the heavenly world. Paintings of the Church fathers will appear on the walls of the Churches and especially on the pillars (if there are any). In Orthodox Churches, there will usually be paintings of the three fathers of Orthodox monasticism: Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nazianzus, headed by Basil the Great characterized by a black beard. In addition, paintings of the fathers of the Bulgarian Slavic Church: Cyril and Methodius, St. Clement and St. Nahum, and especially the monk Rilski will appear in Bulgarian Churches. In addition to them, in many Churches there are paintings of the great Bulgarian kings, paintings of important figures from Bulgarian Christian history, and sometimes also of people who contributed to the Church or are locally important.

Drawings of different characters will have specific characteristics; In addition to the “attribute” which is a sort of “symbol” of the figure, artistic and religious traditions will appear in the representation of each figure, for example: Mary is usually dressed in a garment called a Mephorium, a cloak that shows only her face and on it three stars symbolizing her being a virgin before, during and after giving birth Jesus. John will appear as a wild man dressed in green goat skin. Many times he holds a tray with his head cut off by Herod on it (his attribute).

In the Churches in the Balkans there are many paintings of angels, and especially of the Archangel Michael fighting and defeating Satan, many times while stepping on him and waving a sword in his hand. The angels are characterized by the wings on them and are usually depicted on the higher parts of the Church.

If we follow the order of the Church’s paintings from the entrance to the apse, the so-called “sacred axis”, we will usually find in the inner part of the western wall (the entrance) a scene of Judgment Day and the trial, or a painting of Mary’s ascension to heaven. On the south side of the Church there will often be a painting of a scene related to the resurrection or birth, while on the north side there will be a painting of an scene related to the crucifixion or death. North south axis is considered to be the life and death axis, or the circle of life axis in a Church.

In the apse there will often appear a painting of Mary and the child Jesus sitting on her knees, holding in his hands the globe with a small cross on it. In the paintings of the Orthodox Church there is no emphasis on the suffering of Jesus, and instead the emphasis is on the life associated with his appearance and the miracles he performed. The resurrection is more important than the crucifixion, and there are a number of Churches where you can even see Jesus willingly ascending the cross (Maria Perybleptos Church, Ohrid, Macedonia). The west east axis in a Church is considered to be the axis of Sacredness, transferring people from mundane life to the sacred.

Iconostasis in Rila Monatery

Iconostasis in Rila Monatery

Icon worship

The Icons are the holy images of Orthodox Christianity. Unlike fresco paintings, Icons serve as objects of worship and are important by themselves. They appear on the Iconostasis screen that separates the holy from the profane in the Church, and sometimes independently, by themselves. Usually there is a special holy Icon that is presented on a stand in a way that the believer can approach, touch and kiss.

Icon worship appears in Eastern Christianity in the 3rd century, initially in cemeteries and private rooms, and later with the development of the cult of saints also in Churches. Some researchers of Byzantine art believe that the origin of the Icon is in the art of wooden coffin paintings in Egypt. When you compare the pictures of the deceased from Egypt with the Icons of Santa Katrina Monastery in mount Sinai (the place of the oldest Icons in the world), you see that they are very similar. Other researchers claim that the origin of the Icon art is in the painting tradition of the pagan-Roman world.

In any case, in the 3rd century worship of Icons began, and they were also used for processions. The main reason for this was the belief that there is continuity between the Icon and the character it represents. The Icon was seen as an organ of the divinity itself. Just as Jesus was embodied in matter, so the subject of the painting appears through the Icon. Icons were considered bringers of blessing makers of miracles and were carried to battle, they were used to heal the sick and as a talisman to bring success into life.

In the 9th-8th centuries AD, a civil war broke in the Byzantine Empire over the issue of the sanctity of the Icon, between the Icon worshipers and those who opposed the practice. In 717, the Byzantine Emperor Leo III forbade the use of Icons and painting, claiming that they violate the prohibition “You shall not make yourself a statue or any image” that is one of the 10 commandments. The great defender of Icon worship was John of Damascus, who emphasized the continuity between the material and the spiritual: “How can you, who are seen, worship invisible things?” He asked.

The arguments for the sanctity of the Icon were that Jesus was initially invisible, but following the incarnation, he became visible, thereby canceling the biblical prohibition on making an image. “Those who claim that an image of Jesus cannot be made deny the reality of the Incarnation” argued John.

Finally the Icon worshipers won, and to this day Icons are considered to be receivers of divine energy; they restore the eternal time and allow communication with the divine. “As long as they were alive, the saints were full of the Holy Spirit, after their death the grace of the Holy Spirit is close to their souls, to their graves, to their holy Icons.”

So Icons today are an important and essential part of every Church in Orthodox Christianity, and sometimes also they give the Church its sanctity. They appear on the Iconostasis that separates the altar area from the body of the Church. In addition to this, we can also find many Icons in other places in the Church. Usually there is a holy Icon that is placed in front of a prayer platform and is related to the motif of the Church or a holiday in the calendar.

Iconography is theology in line and color. The form of the martyrs and the description of the events are fixed and archetypal. The Iconography depicts the saints not as they were in their everyday lives, but as they are in eternity. The Iconographer conveys his vision of the heavenly world through symbols, mystical forms and colors. Iconography expresses spiritual forms that come out of natural phenomena, a world that is beyond the world of phenomena, a spiritual world.

The Iconographer must be a man of prayer and live a life of prayer and fasting. “The Iconographers painted while praying.” One of the most striking things in the paintings is the unnatural shape of the clothes. The folds of the clothes create geometric shapes that show a heavenly order. The faces are not realistic either, they are stylized and show the human nature changing to the divine, the hands are usually thin and expressive and sometimes are shown in greeting positions, the aura is always a perfect circle or other geometric shape around the head (Halo) and the body (Mandrola). Buildings, plants and animals are depicted schematically and simplistically. The Iconographer distorts the order of time and space, events that happened at different times can appear to be happening at the same time. The size often depends on spirituality.

“Even if the Iconographer saw some saint in his life, he does not paint him naturally, but spiritually, illuminated by heavenly grace.” Each saint has his own unique representation, it is called an “attribute”, and sometimes the attribute is an object or something that symbolizes his essence and his life. In many Icons the saints hold a scroll that quotes their words, or a saying that illuminates something essential from their lives.

The most important father of the Orthodox Church – St. Basil said: “What the Gospels say in words, the Iconographer says in his work of art.” The purpose of the Icon is to elevate man: “Icons lift the soul and thought of the believer, who sees in the Icon the imperishable spiritual realm of the Kingdom of God, in the closest way that can be reached by material means.”

Monastery near Sofia

Monastery near Sofia

The process of creating the Icon

The creation of an Icon imitates the act of creation and turns the inanimate material into spiritual, and for that reason it is important that the various stages in the creative process are done in the right way by the right people with the right preparation. The painting of the Icon begins with the meditation and intention of both the person ordering the Icon and the  Icon painter, who learns about the required figure (for example, an Icon of Mary) and looks for traditional forms of painting this figure (for example, the child Jesus sitting on her knees).

After a preparation period, the painting process itself begins. An Icon is traditionally painted on a wooden board. Initially, the tree is covered with several layers of crushed marble or gypsum mixed with egg and bee wax as a background. The egg is a symbol of Jesus, the wax is a symbol of the spiritual light (in the past it was used to produce candles). The crushed marble forms a white background for the painting and symbolizes spiritual purity, the spiritual light behind the world of phenomena. Since the colors of the Icon are partially transparent, it shines, albeit unconsciously, through the colors.

After preparing the base layers (the background),  the painter outlines the general shapes is done, draws the figures with a pencil and engrave its lines so that even with coloring they will remain clear. The painter marks the aura around the head with a red pencil, and begins the coloring process. Initially, the areas where gold appears (for example the halos) are painted first. For this, real gold leafs are used, the gold symbolizes the divine. Then the figures are painted, starting with the dark background color, and adding the light colors where needed. The painter moves from the dark colors to the light ones, for example when they paint the areas of the body, they first paint them with a dark olive green and then start to lighten them. The dark colors in the background give depth to the figure.

The Icon painter is called the Icon writer, because he creates a language. There is a special prayer he says when he approaches his work, asking God to guide him in the process of painting as faithfully as possible, and lead him to the right ideas. The colors that are used are made on the basis of mixing natural materials with egg yolk. There are rules of proportions, colors, configurations, representations and so on in painting. For example: the length of the nose should be a third of the length of the face and equal to the height of the forehead and the height of the chin with the beard, and so on. Everything has a meaning – colors, shapes and numbers.

There are various recurring motifs in the Icon paintings, and especially in the representation of the figures. For example, it is possible to distinguish three types of Icons of Jesus, three prototypes: the head only, a complete figure, and a standing man. Another example: there are four types of Icons of Maria, from which developed two hundred types known today: Maria on the throne; Maria the mother of mercy – pressing her cheek to the baby’s, Maria praying for humanity – depicted with her hands up, and Maria the guide – Jesus sits on her and she points to him.

Icon painting is a 1,500-year-old tradition. Different Schools of Icon painting existed throughout Bulgaria and the Balkans and some of the ancient and holy traditions still exist today, especially in the spiritual center on Mount Athos. This is a big and fascinating topic that will are not able to cover fully in this book.

Frescos in Rila Monastery

Frescos in Rila Monastery

The importance of monasteries in the Balkans

In medieval Europe in general and the Balkans in particular, monasteries were centers of culture and government, economy and education, agriculture and settlement. This is evidenced by the names of places named after monasteries, such as the City of Monastir (Monastery) in Macedonia.

The monasteries were the most advanced places culturally, materially and spiritually. To this day a good wine is called “Monastery wine” and a good cheese is called “Monastery cheese”. Agricultural cultivation methods, crafts, learning and art were preserved and cultivated in the monasteries. The Orthodox monasticism encouraged a life of work and agriculture and the monasteries owned a large part of the land, sometimes up to 20-30% of the land of the state, the monks worked the land themselves or leased it to the villages under their protection.

The rulers of the Balkans were tied by their navels to the monasteries. Boris I, the Bulgarian king who became a Christian, retired to a Monastery at the end of his life. Simon I, the most important Bulgarian Tsar, grew up as a boy in a Monastery. The Serbian kings retired to monasteries at the end of their lives, founded monasteries and were even buried in them. The capital cities of the Balkan countries were built around monasteries and in connection with them. The capital of the Bulgarian Empire, Preslav, was built around the Preslav Monastery.

The relics of saints were preserved in the monasteries and they became pilgrimage centers. But not only relics of saints but also state treasures, books and legal documents were kept in monasteries. The law in the Middle Ages was a religious law that the monks wrote and collected in codices based on the legal tradition of Rome, and with adjustment to Christian morality. The monasteries were centers of learning. In some of them, like in Ohrid for example, big universities were established where thousands of students studied. Not only Christianity was taught in these institutions, but also the seven sciences recommended by the Church: rhetoric, logic, grammar, mathematics, astronomy, geometry and physics. In addition, the national history and mythology of the nation was studied and written down in the monasteries, classical writings were copied, studied and preserved in the monasteries (some of the Church fathers recommended studying the classical writings of Plato, Aristotle, Cicero and others as preparation for religious studies).

It is interesting to note that each of the Balkan nations had, and still has, a Monastery on Mount Athos, the center of Orthodox Christianity and Orthodox Christian mysticism up to this day, a Monastery where the cultural treasures and national traditions of the nation are kept, a Monastery that serves as a kind of beacon for the people to which it belongs. The Monastery of the Bulgarians is called Zograf and it was established at the end of the 10th century AD.

Beyond the historical aspect, it is also interesting to note the physical structure and layout of the Balkan monasteries complexes: similar to Western Europe, the monasteries are a City in itself capable of sustaining itself. Usually there is a peripheral row of buildings that creates a kind of wall to the outside and inside there is a large area with a Church and other public buildings. The peripheral buildings are used for monks’ residences, workshops, specialized homes for the poor, Schools, and more. The Monastery is mostly built on a prominent place with an impressive view or in sacred location; nevertheless, many of them are close to cities and are used by the local population.

It is important to note that the structure of the monasteries is often of a deliberate and symbolic nature, and the location and manner of construction of the buildings are not accidental. The Monastery came to present the human body, the whole body of Jesus, therefore the Church in the center of the Monastery is in the place of the heart in the human body, structures related to various functions, such as eating and studying, were placed many times according to their location in the human body. In the architecture of the monasteries, directions are important, similar to what is customary in Churches. And in addition, they were established in the most beautiful places in nature, where you can feel God, because according to the Orthodox Christian concept, God is in nature.