It’s 1840 and the monks at Rila Monastery have a problem: how to communicate Biblical stories to the faithful who can’t read.
Christians faced this literacy problem from its earliest days, and the solution was art. Drawings, paintings, sculptures, and stained glass windows – all did the job. But at Rila the art form of choice was vibrant, detailed frescoes.
The Nativity of the Virgin Church dominates the courtyard of the monastery, and vivid frescoes cover every square inch of the wall and ceiling of its wrap-around portico, These brilliant, technicolor murals rival even the most lavish holy shrines around the world, and their state of preservation is remarkable.
Beginning at floor level, and extending into the domes overhead, the complex artwork tells Biblical stories, as well as cautionary tales, about what “Un-Christian behavior” means for one’s soul. The Orthodox Church has a Sunday service, but even before the priest arrives, this intense artwork is a visual reminder and the opening act for the official service.
Unlike much of the Christian art in Europe, the frescoes at Rila put abundant emphasis on the demonic side of the battle – and a battle it is.
A bat-winged demon whispers in the ear of an attractive maiden, causing her to spit snakes to the ground – it doesn’t take a Biblical scholar to interpret this message.
Demons tug sinners into the flames of hell, weird animals munch human limbs, and angels slay Satan’s minions at the scales for the weighing of souls.
All are graphic reminders of the penalties for straying off the Christian path – salvation or damnation, the choice is yours.
Obviously, the paintings were carefully planned and the interwoven symbolism is cleverly crafted. For instance, it’s no accident that images of Hell are painted at the lower levels, while interactions between humans and demons occur at eye level. But all it takes to escape these gruesome scenes is gazing up in a Heavenly direction where the domes and arches are resplendent with images of Jesus, Mary, and the Orthodox saints. From bottom to top the mood of the paintings change from darkness to light, from hopeless to hopeful.
From the first petroglyphs and cave paintings humans have used art to pass on spiritual messages. The fantastic frescoes at Rila Monastery are a perfect example, and there’s no escaping the religious message – just what the monks wanted.
James & Terri
Last updated January 5, 2020
The artwork is remarkable as well as the artists’ interpretation of the stories. Great stuff. ~James
Amazing artwork with a very clear message!
Laura, I just loved all the different types and looks of the demons. I particularly liked the “leaping gnomes” flying through one of the panels. I wished that I knew more about the stories they were telling, but in the end, I guess there’s only one story. ~James
Love your eye for detail. It comes across in so many of your posts.
Thanks Fi. This was the perfect place to look for details and I really needed a 19th century art scholar at my side. What do you think is up with the strange, curly-nosed pigs (?) with human arms sticking out of their mouths? 🙂 ~James
The first thing that comes to mind is Holy Cow!! It could take a visitor days – weeks – months to properly explore all the detail in these stories!
I had never stopped to consider that the purpose of the frescoes were to tell stories for the illiterate… and what stories they tell. That winged devil-centaur thing is pretty ghastly. Can you imagine the impact it would have on uneducated people to think those things walk among them?
All the artwork at Rila is incredible Joanne, but I was most fascinated by the Hell, devil, and demon paintings. I have to be careful here, don’t want to be disrespectful, but the demon characters had a fantastic comic book look that was so interesting to see. I’m sure each type of demon was painted by a different artist given the various interpretations. And the monks were serious about the sinner message, because there were demon panels on all three sides of the portico. Great stuff! ~James
The sinner message couldn’t be clearer than spitting out snakes! Yikes … I shuddered just thinking about it.
I suspect I’m one of those suggestable people that can be scared onto the straight-and-narrow path 😉
Wonderful! I love these colorful, and even disturbing, frescos. They’re so colorful and graphic and your photos really are fantastic. Thanks for taking us here! 🙂
Thanks Cathy. I’m not sure who was in charge of the fresco project, but they seriously wanted to communicate the “what happens when you’re a sinner” message. And ultimately, who knows what the best motivator is – the carrot or the stick. ~James
That’s for sure, James! I think both can be equally motivating. Anyway, it isn’t pleasant to see pictured the possible horrible consequences of our actions.
These are truly captivating! The colors seem so much brighter than the usual frescoes, but maybe that’s because some face the outdoors. You must have spent hours and hours at this special place!
Thanks Lexie. It definitely took a bit of time to digest the paintings. I came back three times – once for each side. I’m not sure if they’ve been restored or just well cared for, but the frescoes high on the wall and in the domes seemed to be more brightly colored and in better shape. And the good news is that the monks have been here all along to watch over them. ~James
I’m thinking some sunglasses might be in order for gazing at these frescoes. Definitely the message gets across with my favorite being the tugging of the young women’s foot by the devil. Yikes talk about a snake in the grass.
Not trying to belittle the message Sue, but some of these demons and devils are so gruesome to look at that they’re almost comical. I think the demons that seem to be leaping rather than flying are particularly funny looking, but I’m sure they scared the bejesus out of folks in the 1840s. ~James
James growing up Catholic I’m a bit tainted I admit. Anything that conjures up the fires of hell sets long forgotten neurons in my brain like a fireworks display. 🙂
This place just keeps getting better and better. These frescoes are amazing. A forerunner of picture book I guess. How do they keep the colour so intense? Do they redo them on a regular basis? Thanks for taking such great pictures to share with us.
Darlene, as I said to someone else: I’m not sure if they’ve been restored or just well cared for, but the frescoes high on the wall and in the domes seemed to be more brightly colored and in better shape – more protected from the weather. But either way, they’re fabulous and world class. ~James
Frescoes, relief carvings, all those forms of visual arts were indeed mostly created out of religious necessities. But today they’re also a collective testament to the magnificent artistic skills of our ancestors, and those who lived long before us.
Well said Bama. It’s hard to know whether the artists were spiritual people, but there’s no doubt that they were devoted artists. Hindu temples are one of the first things to come to mind when I think of talented artists not afraid to use color. ~James
Wow, those are amazing and unusual. You don’t see them often focusing so much attention on the dark side. Thanks for the wonderful photos. Very very interesting.
Attention to “the dark side.” What a timely phrase to use. I wish I’d thought of it. May the force be with you. 🙂 ~James
And to you! (Very excited about the movie this week.)
Gorgeous frescoes. I have put Rila on the list!
You won’t be disappointed Alison. The incredible combination of interesting and colorful architecture and the wonderful frescoes make it a marvelous destination. ~James
These are just stunning! Thank you for sharing.
Thanks Pam. This is a very photogenic place for both the architecture and the art. ~James
Fascinating! The demons are rather spooky but the art is stunning. It is a dark contrast between the ugly demons and the gorgeous rich colors of the frescos.
Thanks Nicole. In addition to being colorful the frescoes had tons of creative details not often seen in religious art – sailboats on the horizon, livestock in the fields, etc. The artists obviously took pride in their craft. ~James
Yes indeed! Beautiful. Thanks for sharing.
Gorgeous! Such stunning colors!
Thanks Dawn. Not bad for outdoor paintings that are almost 200 years old. The fresco colors also make an interesting contrast with the black and white of the surrounding arches – a feast for the eyes. ~James
This takes OMG to a whole new level, both literally and figuratively. Looks like these tell the story of heaven and hell with a zeal any Pentecostal church could hope for in living (or dying) color. Rila Monastery looks like a must see for us! Anita
And Anita I would add that these frescoes also add a whole new meaning to “Fear of the Lord.” As I’m sure you and Richard have discovered in your travels, there’s lots of religious art out there, and while much of it is impressive, most of it also has the same theme. One of the things that I really enjoyed about the Rila art was that it was very different. Definitely put it on your bucket list. ~James
It’s interesting how the artwork doesn’t appear symbolic – it’s pretty graphic and real. I guess that makes me happy it wasn’t a part of my childhood, at the same time I’m grateful it’s still here in such good condition!
You’re right Susan. It is graphic and real and we all know that the devil looks exactly like that. But I enjoy that lots of this art is also whimsical. The artists used color to make an impression, and the result is a pleasure to see – whether for a religious theme or just as pure art. ~James
I lije the dragons with crowns. Great photos!
Shelley, we loved this dragon as well. We tried to find out what it represented, and the best we could come up with is that it’s a fairly complex Bulgarian myth with a male and female version, both of which are related to agriculture – one a protector and the other a destroyer. Either way, it’s a very cool graphic. ~James
Love the colors and your descriptions of the penalties for sin as seen in the artwork. You have an eye for detail! And for good photography!
Rusha, these gruesome scenes were on all three sides of the portico, so obviously, the artists didn’t want worshippers to miss them. They were Biblical tales, but I think they may have used a bit of myth and superstition to up the creep factor. ~James
It seems that scare tactics go way back!
Fantastic photos of this amazing artwork! Trying to lead people astray (mostly women, I noticed) keeps a devil quite busy!
Your photos of the Palace in Bangkok also show us the spectacular creativity and skill of many artists of the past. I also enjoyed reading all the informative comments.
Thanks Marilyn. Good observation about the abundance of sinning women. What do you want to bet that all the people driving the train on this artwork were men? This isn’t news of course, but it’s certainly a good reminder … in these … ummm hopefully, modern times. ~James
Stunning artwork. Isn’t it amazing how this type of religious painting was designed to really scare people into being good? 🙂
You’re right Sylvia. Christians have used scare tactics for hundreds of years, and it continues today to some degree. And truth be told, this is one of the primary reasons I could never really sign on to the idea when I was young. It just didn’t seem right – then or now. ~James
The church we went to when I was a child was like this. Fire and brimstone preaching. It used to scare me witless. 😕
Some truly beautiful and vivid artwork there both in the colours and the message.
Marie, this monastery was one of our favorite sights on our recent trip to the Balkans. The combination of architecture and art was wonderful. ~James
Thanks. Very illuminating. Such art, of course, has a meditative quality encouraged by repeated viewings. I have thoroughly enjoyed my visits here this year. Regards and all the vest for zz2016. Thom.
Thanks very much Thom and I agree. The level of detail and the complex messages of the frescoes, made it all hard to take in, and certainly in one viewing. Wishing you all the best for a fun, relaxing, and healthy holiday and New Year. ~James
Even though the day we visited was dull and dreary, you couldn’t help but be wowed by the colour on all of those walls and ceilings!
Great little piece 🙂
Thanks Chris. I really was impressed with Rila. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that this is one of my favorite architectural styles, it was a great weather day, the frescoes were brilliant, and there were few tourists. ~James
I guess the paintings are so vivid because it’s 2 centuries old??
Jean, I also think that it has something to do with being protected from the elements. The frescoes in the domes and high up on the walls were much more vivid. Merry Christmas and best wishes for a fun 2016. ~James