by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

Creatures of hell are most fascinating if somewhat menacing 'inhabitants' of Bulgarian churches

An Orthodox Satan is about to devour a unrighteous man in the village of Teshovo, western Bulgaria

Guidebooks boast about the beauty and artistic importance of the murals in Bulgaria's churches that date from the later centuries of Ottoman domination. Created by a society that was still deeply rooted in medieval tradition, but which was beginning to look towards and absorb Western European influences, this style of decoration sometimes charms but is sometimes hard to stomach. To the enthusiastic art lover, it embodies the search for new artistic means that defined the work of Bulgarian painters in the late 18th and 19th century. In this crucial period when Bulgarians were opening up to the broader world they created art that combined their desire to stay true to medieval conventions of depicting saints and Biblical scenes, while reflecting in a modern way the world around them, with its fashions, its social conflicts and changes. To the casual observer, the murals from this era can seem crude and even slightly infantile.

Whatever their view of Bulgarian Revival Period clerical art hardly anyone would not stop and ponder the didactic, and often hilarious, depictions of Judgement Day and Hell in churches.

A chain gang of corrupt clergymen are led into the mouth of Hell by two devils in the village of Churilovo, western Bulgaria

A chain gang of corrupt clergymen are led into the mouth of Hell by two devils in the village of Churilovo, western Bulgaria

In keeping with sacred tradition, the Judgement Day story was depicted on the western walls of churches, to the right of the entrance. The left side was reserved for the less interesting images of Paradise.

The treatment of the two scenes could not be more different. Paradise is static: a high-walled garden filled with the egg-like heads of the righteous. The only people who still preserve some individuality here are Old Testament patriarchs.

In stark contrast, the inferno is (pun intended) a pandemonium of devils torturing sinners being herded towards a river of fire flowing into the gaping mouth of Hell. The chaos combines mediaeval tradition, naive artistic style, patriarchal mores, a hint of burgeoning national identity and a very special sense of humour.

Judgement Day at Bachkovo Monastery

Judgement Day at Bachkovo Monastery

Danger, darkness and sin have always intrigued humanity more than piety, possibly because taking the wrong path has always been easier. Artists were aware of this and while they painted the pious with a boring sameness as a compact group, they spared no time, effort or imagination when it came to the frescoes on the right-hand side. Each person there counts, if not for their individuality, then for their individual sins.

Here they are, dozens of the damned humans being led into Hell or already being punished for their misdeeds: the murderers and the adulterers, the thieves, the covetous and the misers, the liars and the corrupt judges dying in the webs that they spin, along with the drunkards and the unbaptised, demonstrating to worshippers the types of behaviour not tolerated in Heaven and thus defining the moral standards of the community. To enhance their popular appeal, Revival Period painters covered a broad spectrum of sins. As a result, the murals can be interpreted as a satirical view of Bulgarian life and are rich in charming and informative details from the type of clothes to the type of sins in fashion at the time.

Death and Hell take their toll, Monastery of the Transfiguration near Veliko Tarnovo

Death and Hell take their toll, Monastery of the Transfiguration near Veliko Tarnovo

Look closely at the figures of the people bound for Hell, and you will see the arrogant higher clergy in their expensive robes, guilty of ignoring the lesser folk, and the exquisite dresses of the rich city women damned for their vanity, adultery and love of cosmetics. As this period saw the emergence of a new Bulgarian national identity, Hell was also open for the special sort of sinners who, according to the inscriptions above their heads, "betrayed their nation." Sheep stealers, cheating millers, publicans who adulterate their wine with water, dishonest shopkeepers, along with those who do not bother to wake up early to go to work or to Sunday mass: all have places reserved for them in the inferno, where they are punished according to their misdeeds. Millstones and lambs hang from the necks of crooked millers and sheep rustlers, while oversleepers lie on beds of red-hot iron. Ouch.

Death and the sinner, Troyan Monastery

Death and the sinner, Troyan Monastery

In spite of their naivety and crudeness, or precisely because of them, the 19th century sinners continue to engage modern viewers. No one knows what the average Revival Period churchgoer thought of them but today they appear amusing or crudely comic. The only exception is, of course, Satan: an ominous, muscular figure embracing a bunch of damned souls.

Devils in Bulgarian Revival Period churches escape from the confines of Last Judgement murals. You can find them all over the place, for example in the moralising scenes of desperately ill people seeking help from clairvoyants. The Church did not approve of the (usually female) healers, and so their deeds were denounced with strong artistic language: in the murals these well-dressed women take advantage of the sick and poor as they "cure" them by feeding them with... demon faeces.

Witches and adulteresses being consigned to Hell, Rila Monastery

Witches and adulteresses being consigned to Hell, Rila Monastery

Demons feature heavily in the scenes of a popular cycle of frescoes dedicated to the wanderings of a dead man's soul in the 40 days after his death. During this period the soul, guided by an angel, has to endure a number of temptations and to witness the punishments for various sins, represented by demons in a range of colours, shapes and with various other attributes.

While devils seem to be having a generally good time in Revival Period churches (including dancing a joyous horo while clairvoyants go about their business), they look truly pitiful in the depictions of St Marina, who is venerated as a capable opponent of evil creatures and is often depicted as beating the hell out of a demon (pun intended) with... a mallet.

Rivers of blood and the dead rising from their graves at Kapinovski Monastery

Rivers of blood and the dead rising from their graves at Kapinovski Monastery

There is hardly a Revival Period church in Bulgaria that does not display at least one Last Judgement scene with its collection of sinners and devils. The most outstanding devil scenes were painted by Zahariy Zograf, the leading artist in Bulgaria at the time, in the main church of Rila Monastery, and at Preobrazhenski Monastery near Veliko Tarnovo. While Zograf's frescoes are refined and professional, the cruder creations of ordinary village painters in lesser known churches, especially in western Bulgaria, can be a true delight. Searching them out in some obscure place can turn into a rewarding exploration of times past, when damnation could be the result both of a major sin like murder, and something as dangerous to the community and the soul as having a lie-in. 

Witches feed a man with devil's faeces

Witches feed a man with devil's faeces


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