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