The Rila Monastery

The-Rila-Monastery-S is located in 1147 meters altitude in the middle of the fragrant coniferous forests of Rila Mountain.

The monastery is a complex of cultural, dwelling and farming buildings which take about 8800 square meters. The Rila Monastery has an unique architecture. Outside, the monastery looks like a fortress. It has 24-meter stone walls which forms irregular pentagon. That’s why when some tourist enters the monastery’s yard from some of the two iron gates he is surprised by its architecture: arches and colonnades, covered wooden stairs and carved verandas and the 300-400 monastic cells. The Hreliov’s tower and the main church “The Nativity of the Virgin” cohabit at the center of the yard. This tower was created by the local feudal lord Hrelio in 1334-1335. A small church stays next to it and it is only a couple of years younger (1343). A bell-tower was added to the tower in 1844. The main church “The Nativity of the Virgin” was built in these times. Its architect is a master Peter Ivanovich, who worked on it in 1834-1837. The temple has five domes, three altars and two chapels. Maybe the most important thing in the church is the iconostasis which has incredible wood-carving. The wall-paintings were completed in 1846 by many masters from Bulgaria, but only Zahary Zagraph signed his paintings. In the church there are lots of icons created in XIV-XIX.

The monastery has also its own library which is very rich in literally material. There are stored lots of important Bulgarian written records – about 250 manuscript books from XI-XIX, 9000 old-printed books, manuscripts and so on. The museum, located in the monastery has a rich exposition – historical collection of 35 000 exponents, rich collections of icons, wood-carvings, cultural and ethnographical items. The museum has an unique work of art, called the Cross of Rafail. It is made of a whole piece of wood (81-43 centimeters) and it’s called to its creator. The monk used fine chisels, small knives and lentils to carve 104 religious stages and 650 small figures. It took him more than 12 years to complete his work. It’s completed in 1802 – then its creator lost his eyesight.

In spite of the big area which the monastery has, it is not able to show its treasures at the same time – that’s why there are lots of temporary expositions in the monastery and out of it.


The Rila Monastery was founded in the 30-th years of X century on the place of the Old Anchoress in Rila Mountain. While the monastery has been existing, it was many times rebuilt, destroyed and reconstructed. Today the Rila Monastery has had this appearance since the middle of the previous century. It is the biggest and the most respected Bulgarian monastery.

It is considered that the creator of the Rila Monastery is the first Bulgarian hermit Ivan Rilsky (876-946), he chose to live in this way as a method of spiritual perfection and a way to express his protest against the suppression of the high moral rules of the real Christianity. The Bulgarian saint was born in the 70-th years of IX century. He was a witness of the decline of the First Bulgarian Kingdom at the time of king Peter I and Saint Ivan Rilsky became the most respected saint in the Orthodox Christianity in that time. At the time of the Byzantine slavery the established brotherhood was turned into a monastery. At the beginning of the Second Bulgarian Kingdom the relics of Saint Ivan Rilsky was displaced to the capital of the country Veliko Tarnovo as the most important relic for the Bulgarians.

That the monastery has been existed for a millennium and that the Rila monks has been aware of the mission of books are the factors that produced the monastery library which can rival Europeans counterparts. The abundant collection comprise works that have been written in the monastery, works that have been commissioned to eminent men of letters and books and manuscripts that have been donated or bought.

Fot centuries the Rila Monastery has been the centre of intensive literacy activities. Outstanding educators, anonymous copyists, manuscript illuminators and book-binders spent years working there. As a result of their work today the library collection is one of the richest in the Balkans.

Among the men of letters who worked at the Rila Monastery were the grammarian Spiridon, hieromonk Anastasy, Vladislav Grammaticus, Nikifor, Yossif Bradati and the great National Revival educator and champion for secular education Neophit Rilski who brought to light all manuscripts, catalogued the library and invested a lot of effort to make it a public library which was open to the numerous pilgrims visiting the monastery.

The National Revival Period transformed the Rila Monastery into a major educational and cultural centre of the Bulgarian lands. The literary school evolved into an educational institution where some of the most prominent enlighteners of the nation received their education. The library opened its gates to inquisitive pilgrims and this is testified by the numerous marginal notes found in the old books. Thus very naturally it acquired the functions of a public library and paved the way to the community centre libraries which became very common during the National Revival.

The Rila Monastery Library manuscript collection comprises Slavic and Greek records dating from the 11th to mid-19th century. In addition to their literary merit these records have artistic merits. Most of them have illuminations which show the Bulgarian tradition in that art. It is noteworthy that despite the large number of service books in Greek, the monastery churches and chapels never heard service in Greek although it is evident the monks had good knowledge of the language which they could speak and in which they could read and write.

The Rila Monastery collection of printed books the earliest of which date from early 16th century comprises valuable items: a Tetraevangelia from 1512 that was published I Turgovishte, books that were printed in the Venice printing house which was established in 1619, many Russian old printed books, several of very rare editions that were printed in Vilno, of the Kievan-Pechora Laura, Moscow printed prologues.

The long history of the buildings in the Rila Monastery goes back to late 10th century when the monastic community that the Rila hermit had founded put up the first buildings not far from the cave which he occupied.

Since the 15th century and particularly during the Bulgarian National Revival the numbers of pilgrims increased significantly and a large group of service buildings appeared around the monastery. The reception buildings of the metochia and the sketae along the river Rilska where there were places associated with the patron saint’s worship were renovated during the same period. In this way several architectural ensembles appeared whose purpose was to provide shelter and also to prepare worshippers mentally for their encounter with the holiest place in Bulgaria.

The first thing that the visitors of the monastery see as they set foot on the Rila Mountain is the Orlitsa metochion which in the course of almost five centuries has been receiving pilgrims coming from the western parts of Bulgaria. In 1469 the Church of St. Peter and Paul was built to lay the relics of St. Ioan of Rila after they had been returned to the monastery. In 1491 a group of icon painters decorated the church which had been redesigned in 1478.

The next metochion which is closer to the monastery is called Pchelino. It was here that the Church of the Dormition of the Virgin was put up in the late 18th century and decorated with frescoes in 1835 by Dimiter Molerov.

The Hermitage of St. Ioan of Rila is northeast of the monastery and farthest. It stands where the cave in which the hermit lived is and where he was initially buried. For this reason the Church of the Assumption of St. Ioan of Rila was built in 1746. It is a single nave, single apse building with narthex. In 1820 it was rebuilt and became what it is today.

A path leads from the Hermitage to the monastery. Along the path there are several picturesque buildings built down a steep slope. This is the Steke of St. Luke, also known as the New hermitage. The oldest building here is the late 17th century Church of St. Luke the Evangelist. It was painted in 1798-1799 when carvers from Bansko carved wooden iconostasis. The surviving frescoes are a product of the Toma Vishanov's brush , called Molera from Bansko who had studied in the Central Europe and introduced baroque elements in the Bulgarian ecclesiastical art, creating expressive and ethereal paintings which were new for those times.

The second church of the ensemble, the Shroud of the Virgin, was put up in 1805 over the holy fountain by the builders Mihail and Radoitsa from the village of Rila. It has a large semi-open exonartes with an outdoor structure whose walls were painted by Toma Vishanov in 1811.

A small group of buildings that are enclosed by a stone wall is very near to the monastery. It includes the cemetery church and the monastery ossuary, several buildings with living premises and the monastery cemetery. The cemetery church of the Presentation of the Virgin where the brethren served their funeral service dates probably from the early 17th century. Like most medieval ossuaries it is on two levels and is a small lavishly decorated one-aisle church. Its frescoes from 1795 are characteristic of the style of a group of Bulgarian artists who worked on Mount Athos during the 18th and 19th centuries. Its iconostasis is noted for its elegant proportions and beautiful wood encarving.

Between the 10th and 14th centuries the Monastery changed places several times.

In the 14th century Hrelyo Dragovol, a feudal lord whose domain comprised the lands around the river Strouma, transformed the monastery into a solidly fortified and imposing architectural ensemble. This is proved by the remains of solid walls in the southwestern corner of the monastery courtyard unearthed during archeological excavations and also by the prominent tower which still stands in the courtyard and by the paintings in the monastery church built by the feudal lord and surviving until the mid-19th century.

Large-scale building work began some time during mid-18th century and after 1816 the monastery already had high solid residential buildings which enclosed the courtyard in the shape of an irregular quadrangle.

January 13, 1833 was one of the most tragic days in the long history of the monastery. The fire which broke out during the night destroyed almost completely the residential quarters. That was a national calamity and soon people began sending donations for the monastery’s restoration. Thousands of masons, carpenters and auxiliary workers arrived to work and did not get payment for their work. Only for a couple of years the buildings were restored.

Three Bulgarian master builders (purvomaistori) were in charge of the construction works whose scale was unprecedented in those times. They were Alexi from the village of Rila, called Alexi Rilets, who built the northern parts of the east and the west wings, Milenko from the village of Radomir who built the south wing ‘architecton’ Pavel from the village of Krimin who built the church which at the time was the largest in the Balkans. The decoration of the main church, the chapels and the visitors’ rooms was completed by 1870. at that time the monastery looked as we know it today.

The church of the Nativity of the Virgin is the monastery’s main church and the core of the architectural ensemble. Its construction began in 1835. That was an event of paramount importance for the entire Bulgarian nation. The innovative daring and the flexibility with which tradition has been interpreted in the architectural design of its imposing church reveals the nature of art during the National Revival Period.

This church building is unique in the Balkans. It was built by the then widely known master builder Pavel from the village of Krimin who had worked on Mount Athos and from where he borrowed the original spatial design of the church. The compositional scheme includes medieval elements and baroque spatial principles, an approach which distinguishes Bulgarian church architecture and whose features are observed in the art of the epoch.

The wall paintings in the Church of the Nativity of the Virgin were made by the most prominent Bulgarian painters at the time. Most of them were from Samokov where the artists of the Zograph (Painter) family, Zahari Zograph, Dimiter H. Zograph and Stanislav Dospevski, worked. In the 1840s they were joined by Ivan Obrazopissets and his son Nikola Obrazopissets. There was a group of artist of Bansko led by Dimiter Molerov, and many other unknown assistants. In the course of several years, at the cost of great effort, to quote Neophit Rilski, they completed the church interior walls, the domes, the facades hidden under the arcade and its small domes and produced 40 large icons for the iconostases and many other smaller ones.

The central iconostasis is the work of a group of woodcarvers who worked under the supervision of Atanas Teladour. They spent three years working on it, from 1839 to 1842, investing it with experience of several generations of carvers who founded the Bulgarian school of wood carving. The size and composition of the iconostasis are unrivaled in the Balkans. Same as architecture it follows the traditions of the school combining time-honoured element of space and as a unifying element emphasizing the centre of the basilica.

The carving which covers it from end to end is somewhat different from the carving on other iconostases. Here everything is bigger to harmonize with the large space inside the church. The carving differs from filigree miniature and is more like sculpted rather than carved.

The colours of this huge iconostasis are in harmony with the rich colours of the interior. In the dim church space frames by the painted walls, illuminated by the hundreds of candles burning in the candleholders, the iconostases’ gilded carved surfaces glitter and reflect upon the brightly coloured icons merging with the church space forming a complete artistic whole.

The monastery which was visited by many people had to provide accommodation and amenitites to the pilgrims. Some Bulgarian towns had their own guest rooms offering accommodation only to their notables. The Koprivshtitsa, Chirpan, Gabrovo and Teteven rooms have been presented to this day. They are in the north wing which is like an ethnographic exposition.

The monastery kitchen is on the ground floor of the same wing. The food for pilgrims was cooked there. The kitchen is large and has an overhead opening in the shape of the huge stone chimney which goes through all the levels to take smoke from the fire to the roof and out. It is in the shape of a hollow pyramid whose walls are built by octahedrons which grow smaller. The spaces between them have been filled up by semicircular arcs. The result is an ideally balanced self-supporting 22 meter high construction whose lightness and strength have been provided in the course of more than a century.


The prints, graphic impressions upon copper plates of wood, were of special significance for the popularization of the monastery and the history of its founder. There were two common types: St Ioan of Rila with miniature scenes from his life, and the monastery itself with the main sketae and metochia along the rive Rilska. Those prints were available even to the poorer pilgrims and thus popularized the Rila Monastery across the Balkan lands, serving as books for the illiterate who could learn from them the legends about the monastery and St Ivan of Rila. Initially the monastic community commissioned the prints in Moscow or Vienna. However, as demand for such prints was growing during the 19th century, a monk Kalislearn the craft of print-making and in 1856 the monastery acquired a large iron press and opened its own workshop for the production of prints. The output of the latter was large. Nevertheless the prints that it turned out were not inferior and some even could view with art primitives.

The printing press that the monastery bought the 1860s from Vienna is also on display in the monastery museum. The repositories keep most of handmade copper printing plates and prints produced with them.

The Rila Monastery museum collections trace its history over the countries and reveal its role in Bulgaria’s cultural history. In the course of the centuries the Rila Monastery maintained lively relations with the countries of the Eastern Orthodox world; the metochia that were scattered in all Balkan Peninsula lands with Bulgarian population did educational work; the monastery repository holds records, books, church plate, icons and gifts from pilgrims.

The Rila Monastery History Museum possesses a rich collection of extremely valuable exhibits both in the exposition halls and in the monastery vaults. The exhibits are thematically grouped and trace the evolution of the monastery and its cultural, religious and nation-consolidation role.

The exposition includes the early historical and ecclesiastical collection of the monastery, some books of the monastery library and many copies of wall paintings that have been destroyed, icons, prints, vestments and church plate.

In 1980 the International Federation of Travel Writers and Journalists (FIJEST) distinguished the Monastery with Golden Apple, the highest award for familiarization and cultural tourism. Ion 1983 the Rila Monastery was recorded on the List of World Cultural Heritage as a world cultural value. Again at that time it got the status of a national museum, so the government started subsiding the museum collections, conservation and restoration of the wall paintings and the architectural heritage. A decree of the Council of Ministries of the Republic of Bulgaria reinstated the monastic status of the Rila Monastery in 1991, so today it is again the largest religious centre in the Bulgarian lands.

Through „The Rila Monastery”, Prof. Dr Margarita Koeva; Translation: Kostadin Marinov

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