by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

Murals in rock churches, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, continue to mesmerise

Ivanovo medieval rock churches-5.jpg

Churches and monasteries hewn into rocks at often precipitous heights were a clever solution that Christians from the Balkans and the Middle East employed for centuries to achieve a crucial goal: the creation of abodes far from the crowds in places where conventional buildings would be hard to construct. Since the dawn of religion they have enlarged existing caves into rooms that resembled church interiors, complete with naves, altars and apses, and murals. They also lived in caves, in cells scattered around these churches, often forming large compounds. Tucked away in isolated spots, often in narrow river canyons, they provided solitude from laymen and security from invaders.

The rock churches are hewn in the precipitous cliffs of the Rusenski Lom river

The rock churches at Cappadocia, in Turkey, are the best known example, but you do not need to travel all that way to Anatolia to see such structures and art. Bulgaria has several sites of this kind, and one of them is even a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Around 20 kms from Ruse, the bends of the Rusenski Lom River embrace about a dozen churches and monastic cells hewn into the rock. In the 12th-14th centuries they made up a monastic complex. As a bonus, the Ivanovo Rock Churches are part of the Rusenski Lom Nature Park. Covering over 5 acres, it is a place of greenery, rock formations and running water, home to a number of rare and endangered species.

A Transfiguration scene

The tranquility of the location explains, at least partially, why monks seeking solitude began settling here in the 12th century. In the following century, the complex grew into a major spiritual centre, and during the reign of King Ivan Asen II (1217-1240), one of the monks, Ioakim, secured a significant donation from the king for the construction of the monastery's first rock church. The king and Ioakim were obviously on friendly terms – when Ivan Asen restored the Bulgarian Patriarchate, he appointed the monk as its first head.

The close ties between the kings in their capital Tarnovo and the monastic complex, which at the height of its existence had 40 churches and 300 cells accommodating up to 800 monks, never waned. At least two other kings, Georgi Terter and Ivan Aleksandar, made donations to the monastery and were depicted in murals there, along with their wives. Georgi Terter is also thought to have been buried there in the early 14th century.

The popularity of Ivanovo's monastic compound was based on its endorsement of the spiritual trend of the times: Hesychasm. Born in Byzantium, it spread rapidly throughout the Balkans. It was a mystical tradition that promoted silence and meditation in solitude as the shortest way to salvation. In the 14th century Hesychasm attracted so many adherents that Serbian kings were forced to forbid nobles to take the vows, as their departure opened significant gaps in the military and the state administration. According to historians, the swift success of the Ottoman invasion in the same century can be partially attributed to the Hesychasm unwillingness to react to the dangers of the physical world.

Judas gets his 30 pieces of silver

Life in the Ivanovo monastery, however, extended beyond the salvation of the soul. The complex had a busy scriptorium, which produced bibles and other ecclesiastical manuscripts for the churches in the region.

The Ottoman invasion brought all this to a halt. The region experienced a number of battles and later the Ivanovo monastery was stripped of its privileges as a large land-owner, thus leaving the already diminished monastic community without the means to survive. In the 15th-16th centuries the monastery was abandoned, and the elements and treasure hunters took over. The wooden stairs that once used to connect the cells and the churches rotted, and the names of the churches were forgotten.

The monastery was not completely obliterated from memory, however. The people from the nearby villages continued to use some of the churches and as they did not remember the names anymore, they gave them new ones: Pismata, or the Letters, Gospodov Dol, or God's Gully, Zatrupanata, or the Buried Church. One of them is known simply as The Church.

The crossroads for the mediaeval Ivanovo rock churches, on the Ruse-Veliko Tarnovo road, is marked with a road sign with a peculiar design. It represents a spiral that symbolises the Bulgarian historical evolution from the Middle Ages to Communism

In 1979, UNESCO included the Ivanovo Rock Churches in its list because of the combination of historical importance, natural settings, architecture and the artistry of the murals. A fine example of Bulgarian medieval art, they follow the trends and canons set in Constantinople, but with a distinctive local twist. The saints depicted in them are more humane and lively, and their creators showed a clear interest in depicting landscapes, drama and emotions, which is why some scholars are eager to see them as a precursor to Renaissance art.

Nameless and devoid of their libraries, monks and memories, the painted rock churches at Ivanovo are now the ghostly remains of a long-gone world of prayer and mysticism.


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