The Rila Monastery was one of the greatest centers of scholarship and religion in Bulgaria during the National Revival Period which lead to the formation of the Third Bulgarian Kingdom in the middle of the last century. At that time it attracted pilgrims wanting to feel free from the Ottoman invaders, which controlled the Balkan Penninsula. Now it lures Bulgarian people looking to discover their history and foreign tourists seeking breath-taking views. It has become a symbol of the country and a source of national pride, even appearing on banknotes from time to time.

  The monastery is situated in a valley high amidst the southern slopes of the Rila mountain in western Bulgaria. It was founded in the 10th century as a humble ascetic home near the cave of St. John of Rila. He was one of the first monks from the emerging kingdom of Bulgaria to be proclaimed a saint. This was a period when the Bulgarians and the local Slavic population were merging into a new nation under the threat of the Byzantine empire. The Bulgarian king, Boris I, had recently accepted Christianity and had welcomed the students of Saints Cyril and Methodius and opened the first schools to teach and preserve the Cyrillic alphabet in Preslav and Ohrid. Bulgarian rulers who were trying to forge a new nation free from greek influences took great interest in St. John and his monastery. Unfortunately no architectural works remain from these early days. During the Second Bulgarian Kingdom the monastery developed as a great cultural center. It was rebuilt and expanded in 1334 - 1335. A more formal church was built together with a defensive tower and other monastic buildings. Only the tower, built by the local feudal lord Hrelio, survives to the present. Toward the end of the 14th century the Balkan Peninsula was overrun by Turkish invaders and the Bulgarian kingdom fell under Ottoman control. During the Middle Ages the monastery was plundered and burned many times. However cultural and religious work continued. The monastery played a key role in preserving Bulgarian culture and language during these times. In the beginning of the 19th century there was a revival in Bulgarian culture which ultimately lead to expelling of the Ottoman tyrants and the creation of modern Bulgaria. At this time the Rila Monastery became a place of pilgrimage. Many pilgrims made donations which were used to build the monastery to its present state. The designers were local mason masters. The north and west wing were done 1834 by Master Alexis, the Main Church dedicated to the Virgin was erected in 1833 -1837 by Master Pavel and the court yard was closed off with the south and east wings by 1847 by Master Milenko.

  This construction was an attempt to create a regular and more formal complex of buildings, much the same way that the Athenian Agora and the Forum Romanum were slowly molded into shape, from preexisting forms. The Church of the Virgin is aligned with the older medieval tower of Hrelio. Both are oriented in an east-west fashion. The apse of the church is in the east. The position of the north wing is determined by the slope of the mountain ridge next to which the monastery rests and is actually not aligned to the directions of the compass, but runs from north-east to south-west. The west wing, which was designed at the same time, meets it at a right angle. The south and east wings are also perpendicular to eachother. Their orientation is determined by a small river which runs past the site. The river and the steep slope don't meet at a right angle, so the plan of the courtyard, formed by these two components could not be made into a perfect geometric shape. To cope with this problem the north and east wings and the west and south wings were made with the similar length. The result is a kite-shaped quadrangle with a north-south axis of symmetry. This process of working with the topography to regularize the complex was fairly successful in the laying out of the wings. However the fact that Hrelio's tower and the Church had to be accommodated in the middle makes this balance disappear in reality. The visitor sees nothing that smacks of symmetry. Keeping this is mind the masters designed the wings to be simple and similar to one another. The resulting arrangement is very lucid, uncluttered and elegant.

plan of the monastery

  The lack of a visual major axis to focus the attention allows for many different and equally impressive vistas to be formed by the buildings. The most impressive one is encountered directly after entering from the gate in the west wing. The facade of the Church leads the eye to the north, but the view is contained by the north wing which forces the eye up to the tall and ragged peaks of the Rila mountain which seem to be echoed in the arcade of the buildings.

  This brings us to the setting of the monastery. Located at an altitude of 1147 m. deep in the forests of the Balkans, the Rila Monastery is completely isolated from any other buildings. It's a tightly bound complex of structures with similar style. All the wings have decorated facades facing inward, turning their austere, solid, stone backs on the outside. This was originally done to discourage attacks, but it left everything in the surrounding wilderness undisturbed. We, in the twentieth century could learn a lot from such architecture. The designers of the Rila Monastery succeed in creating a work of architecture where the needs of a whole community, from housing to work, from education to cuisine, from health care to entertainment are met by one enclosed complex of structures, with the land outside free for the use by everyone. Monasteries in the west, which followed the example of the St. Gall plan, also provided for many functions to be carried out in a single complex of buildings, however they were usually less tightly and compactly bound together.

  The wings are supported on the outside by heavy loadbearing walls, often reenforced by buttresses. The courtyard facades show a complete contrast to this. They consist of a series of covered galleries and arcades supported by columns of lightening form in higher floors. The first level of arches on all facades are made out of stone, the middle two floors out of brick covered with white plaster and on the top floor of wood. The lowest arcade has short and stout columns with simple octagonal bases and a double red line outlining the curve of each arch. The middle arcade has more elegant white columns and the arches outlined with a more elaborate patterns. In the spandrels of this arcade, which covers two stories in most places, there are smaller arches underneath which there are various decorations. The wooden rails and columns of the top most gallery are the most finely decorated with elaborate carvings. The overall effect is similar to the one seen in the Colosseum and the renaissance palaces, where we see a division into three levels decorated with more delicate forms in upper stories.

  The wings have several other interesting features. The Monastery has two main entrances. One in the north-east corner called the Samokov Gate and one in the west wing, in front of the facade of the Church, called the Dupnitsa Gate. The Samokov Gate is topped by a groin vault, while the Dupnitsa Gate has a pendentive dome. There are three balconies protruding from the higher gallery called kiosks. They take the space of a single arch and have decorated wooden ceilings. Similar balconies are very common in vernacular Bulgarian architecture from the same period. There are also four outer stair cases which protrude out from the facades and are decorated following the rest of the facade. Thus they add some diversity without breaking down the rhythm. In fact they are almost invisible in an elevation. In places there are fire-proof walls piercing the width of the wings to prevent fires from spreading to the whole complex. Unlike the stairs, however, they do break down the rhythm of the arcades despite the attempt to blend them in. This is a good example of how utilitarian features are hard to conceal. Many of the rooms have very elaborately carved ceilings in traditional Bulgarian styles. Probably the best one is the Koprivshtitsa Room. The most unusual room is the monastery kitchen (madernitsa). The floor of the room is on the ground level in the middle of the north wing and the whole ceiling of is one huge chimney rising through all four stories and emerging on the roof capped by a small dome on a drum. The walls of the chimney aresupported by ten superimposed rows of pendentives and squinches. The effect is very psychedelic and captivating. It looks remarkably like the Holy Shroud Chapel in Turin.

the roof of the main kitchen

  The Church of the Holy Virgin is the central piece of the Monastery. It combines elements of different church plans in a very elegant and successful way. There are three almost identical domes evenly spaced along the main east-west axis. Each is a hemispherical dome, resting on a drum. The weight is transferred to four columns using pendentives and the whole structure is supported using bilaterally symmetrical bracing with half-domes or barrel vaults. Thus individually every one of the domes is constructed using the cross-in-square principle seen in a typical Byzantine church. The only anomaly is the western most dome which is supported on one side by the outer wall, so it is only half a cross-in-square. The three domes are held up by a total of ten columns in two rows which in fact separate the church into three aisles. The two side aisles are topped with barrel vaults and smaller domes. In addition to that there are two small chapels on the north and south sides of the central dome which read as a transept and create a transverse axis. Thus the plan is a combination of a three aisle basilica with three domes each of which can be seen as a cross-in-square. All of these components make for a complicated plan, however it has almost perfect symmetry which gives clarity and balance. The symmetry is also matched in the marble mosaics on the floor. The result is a church which compromises the Byzantine ideal of a centralized plan and allows for a long nave along which processions can be held.

plan of the Church of the Holy Virgin

  In the Eastern Orthodox Church both light and darkness are considered holy, so in most churches there is always an unusual semidarkness. This effect is achieved with great skill in the Rila Monastery. Light enters through the drums of the domes and individual windows in the walls. By having individual windows rather than big clumps of them light enters in beams. It is common to look down the murky nave and see three pairs of light rays pouring in through the three domes as if some divinity was about to enter the cathedral. It is easy to see how inspiring this was to pilgrims. At the east end of the nave terminating this vista is one of the largest iconostasis in Bulgaria and probably the Eastern Orthodox world. It is made out of gilded wood and has very elaborate carvings. In obaiance of canon law the main gate into the apse is flanked by icons of the Virgin and Christ Pantocrator.

the iconostasis in the Church of the Holy Virgin

  The church offers another source of inspiration in its frescoes. Every square centimeter of wall and ceiling space is used for paintings. The work was done by the best Bulgarian painters of the time, including Zahari Zograf. The most fascinating frescoes are on the outside of the church. There is a narthex consisting of a series of small domes supported by the walls and an arcade which wraps around the west facade and parts of the north and south walls. Thus sheltered from rain the outer walls and the series of domes are painted with a visual textbook on religion. In the domes and their pendentives, above the visitor, are displayed scenes of Jesus and the Virgin in Heaven using brilliant colors. On the lower part of the walls one can see devils tormenting and tempting the souls of corrupt christians and scenes from hell in darker hues. Thus before entering the church one is reminded of their two alternatives - salvation or damnation.

  The final structure in the monastery is Hrelio's tower. It is a five story, square castle used for place of refuge by the monks when the monastery was being raided. There is a basement with a pendentive domed ceiling which was used as a prison during the middle ages. The top floor accommodates a small chapel and is therefore bigger than the rest. To provide for its support and to help buttress the tall and slender tower there are twelve 1.2 meter wide buttresses, three on each side of the structure. They end in arches just bellow the top floor. Hrelio's Tower, built out of river stones, mortar and some bricks, is a good example of medieval architecture. It is tall, powerful and build to instill fear in attackers and respect among the serfs.

 In conclusion, the Rila Monastery is a very successfull work of architecture. Each of its components has a balanced and symetrical plan and despite the fact that they are not alligned with each other the resulting complex is not clutered and confusing, but offers a chance to explore and discover all the vistas. There is a dramatic and captivating use of lighting in the Church and elegant and appropriate decoration following ancient examples in the wings. The Monastery's relationship with its context, or more acuratly the lack of interfearence the surrounding nature are exemplary and should be emulated. The Rila Monastery should be on the itenary of every architecture student travelling through Europe.

For more pictures from the Rila Monastery and the rest of beautiful Bulgaria you can visit The Bulgarian Photo Album.

This is a paper that I wrote for history of architecutre class as a first year undergraduate student in 1995. Reading it now, it seems rather simple. Non the less I hope that you liked it.


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  • Kamenova, Todorka. Rila Monastery. Septemvri Publishing House. Sofia 1988:11.
  • Prashkov, L., E. Bakalova & S. Boyagjiev.Monasteries In Bulgaria. Spectrum Publishing House. Sofia 1990: 218 - 242.
  • Stancheva, M. The Bulgarian Contribution To The World Cultural Heritage. Technika Publishing House. Sofia 1989.