Rila Monastery – UNESCO World Heritage Site
The Sublimity of the Rila Monastery
Bulgaria’s Biggest Cloister still attracts thousands of pilgrims.
A stronghold of Christianity high up in the mountain
Surrounded by staggering snow-capped mountain tops and huddled amidst magnificent pine woods, the Rila Moanstery has been the stronghold of Bulgarian Christianity for over 1000 years. It is an architectural miracle established in the late 10th C and has been granted UNESCO World Heritage status. Legend has it that the mountain river went miraculously dry so that the horse-driven carts loaded with construction materials could pass through.
St. John of Rila – the hermit who left a lasting mark
The monastery’s patron-saint and founder is St. John of Rila. Early on in his life John of Rila decided to live as a hermit and retreated in the high and deserted Rila Mountains. But word of his piety spread quickly and even King Petar decided to visit the holy man in his cave in the mountains. John of Rila, however, would not leave his seclusion and greeted the king only from a distance. He also accepted only the food that was offered to him and refused the gold. But despite his reclusive life, John of Rila attracted many followers and was proclaimed a saint while he was still alive. After his his death in 946 AD, his followers built a monastery in the saint’s initial place of habitation.
Present-day Rila Monastery
The construction of the present-day monastery which is the biggest in Bulgaria started around 13th-14th century. The striped black, white and red arches, the murals of saints and sinners and the stunning natural landscape, make the cloister a true spectacle. Its main church, the Holy Mother of Christ is a piece of art in its own right. Its walls and dome were painted by some of the best icon painters of the rime including Zahary Zograf.
The Rila Monastery treasures some of the most impressive icon paintings created in the 14th-19th centuries. The portrait of the monastery’s patron, St John of Rila, is the oldest icon in the monastery (14th C). Some other extremely valuable icons include that of St Arsenius (14th-15th C), the Assumption (15th-16th C), St George Enthroned (15th-16th C), John the Precursor, Archangel Michael and Christ Enthroned (17th C).
The iconostasis at the main altar is one of the masterpieces of the Samokov School of Master Wood Carvers. It is the biggest in Bulgaria and the only one that boasts exquisite gilted woodwork.
The tomb of the Bulgarian monarch King Boris III is also located inside the church.
The Hrelyu Tower
A devastating fire in 1778 destroyed much of the monastery. The only building that sur
vived the flames was the Hrelyu Tower. This defensive structure, built in 1335 by a local feudal lord, still stands tall in the monastery’s courtyard. Legend has it that monks warded off attacks perched on top of the tower by pouring boiling-hot oil over any intruder. The tower has a chapel of its own. The murals and the old icon paintings inside it are superb and well-preserved examples of Medieval art. The earliest mural dates back to the 14th century and represents three scenes of the life of St. John of Rila.
The Monastery’s Museum
The artefacts exhibited inside the monastery’s museum reveal the miraculous story of the place. One of its most exquisite art pieces is the Rafali’s cross. The is the life work of the monk Rafali. For 12 consecutive years Rafaili toiled over his woodwork carving 36 different scenes from the Bible and a number of other figures. His exceptional cross is made from a single piece of wood and by the time Rafali completed it he had gone completely blind.
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