Evil spirits stare at believers in St George's church in Golyamo Belovo
Crooked, horned and large-toothed, happily dragging sinners to Hell: demons make some of the most interesting, if slightly unrefined, characters of 19th century Bulgarian religious art. You will mostly see them in moralistic murals painted on the exterior walls of churches.
According to the inscription, the expressive mural of soldiers flogging Jesus was painted by a Nacho from Sestrimo village. Is he also the author of the demons the church is famed for?
At the St George's church, in the little-visited mountain village of Golyamo Belovo (not to be confused with the Belovo a mile down the road), you will see another take on demons – inside the church, in the role of guardian devils (pun intended).
To people familiar with ancient and medieval religious art this is hardly news. The images of evil creatures have been used as symbolical protection for private and public spaces since the dawn of civilization. The demon Pazuzu protected Mesopotamian homes from other evil powers, Medusa heads were placed in ancient Greek and Roman houses and temples to repel malign spirits, and Gothic churches were covered in gargoyles.
More macabre art from the St George
In old Bulgarian churches, spiritual protection is usually entrusted to the dragons carved on iconostases (the screens that hide the altar), pulpits and other furniture. St George's is the outlier – it is the only church in Bulgaria where demons painted on the capitals of columns play this role.
None of them are alike – each has its own unique face – sometimes scary, sometimes funny with their rolling eyes and mouths twisted into wicked smiles.
The St George has one of the most exquisite painted wood iconostases in Bulgaria
Who painted these demonic faces and when? The short answer is, we do not know. The St George's was built in 1806-1813, a time when the Ottoman Empire only allowed construction of non-Muslim places of worship reluctantly and with many limitations, such as the height the building. As early as 1806-1808, the St George's got a splendid carved and painted iconostasis, considered now as one of the most exquisite in Bulgaria. The church was painted twice, in 1844 and 1921. When exactly the demons appeared on the capitals is not clear.
The rarity of these images is why some outsiders who have visited the St George's church interpret them as something strange and supranatural, an ominous sign that real evil is lurking around. On the Internet you will find stories about the dark powers hidden within what their writers call the Demonic Church, expounding on the wicked ones's ability to ruin your life and soul if you venture outside the strict confines of piety. A legend is told about a painter commissioned to decorate the church. While working on the site, he fell in love with a beautiful woman, who happened to be already married. Golyamo Belovo's demons turned the painter's unrequited love into a dark passion that led to a grave sin (at least in the mind of the legend's narrator): he depicted St George as a beautiful woman, the woman he loved. Soon afterwards the painter disappeared and his love interest suddenly became ill. As for the blasphemous icon, it is nowhere to be seen. The legend claims that it disappeared as well.
Another painter of the church, Petraki Kostovich from Samokov (right), left not only his name in the church – he also painted himself, dressed in fashionable Western style clothes, next to a donor in more traditional attire
In 1978, the St George's was listed as a site of national significance. In 1992, restoration started and lasted, on and off, for two decades. In the early 2020s the renovations caused a scandal. The Belovo History Museum accused the church priest of unauthorised and unprofessional renovations that were destroying the atmosphere of the church – such as replacing the old chandeliers and stone flagged floor with new, flashy ones.
In the St George's yard you will find another spiritual site, a cave church dedicated to the healer saints Cosmas and Damian. According to local lore, it was the abode of two medieval Bulgarian nobles who also dabbled in medicine.
If you are ready for more religious sites in the vicinity and do not mind some hiking, you can go to the so-called Belovska Basilica – a late 5th century church that used to serve a fortified town, Lefke. It survived, as the centre of a large monastery, until the 17th century, when it was destroyed by the Ottomans. According to local lore, this happened as the result of the mass forcible Islamisation of local Bulgarians, but many historians disagree.
The nearby Belovo basilica is an early-Christian ruin that deserves the two-hour trek through the forest