Rila Monastery is one of the most famous Bulgarian symbols. Not only is it the biggest monastery in Bulgaria, but also it is the most influential spiritual centre in the country and the second biggest monastery on the Balkan Peninsula.It was founded in the 10th century by the monk hermit John, who was later named Bulgaria’s patron saint and his disciples. John of Rila, popular in Bulgarian language as Ivan Rilski, was raised to sainthood by grateful Christian Bulgarian people in a sign of tribute to his life work. He lived in the Reign of prominent Bulgarian kings such as Boris I, Simeon and Peter I. At the present, his relics are being kept in the monastery’s main church « Nativity of the Virgin ».
The present-day appearance of Rila Monastery dated back to the beginning of 19th century. Rila Cloister includes complex of religious and residential buildings spread on an area of 8800 square meters in the shape of an irregular quadrangle and they form an enclosed ensemble. The inner courtyard is encircled with 24m stone walls which form irregular pentagon.
A high stone fortress tower built by the local feudal Sebastocrator Hrelyu in 1334-1335 and a small church dated back to 1343 are rising in the middle of the courtyard. The four-storied residential buildings, in which there are about 300 monastic cells, four chapels, an abbot’s room, a refectory, a kitchen, a library and guest rooms for donors give the irregular quadrangle shape of the enclosed monastery courtyard. Actually, Rila Monastery was built as a fortress so it was connected with the outside world by two gateways with sturdy oak ironbound wings, which suggest an access to an intimate and enchanting world filled with unique specimens of architecture and art.
In the middle of the monastery yard stands high the Hrelyo Tower – a powerful stone fortification, the oldest preserved building in Rila Monastery, dated back to 1334-1335. According to the title on its entrance, it’ was a piece of art of local feudal Hrelyo and it was dedicated to St. Joan of Rila and Virgin Ossuary. On the top floor stands a small chapel, named after God’s Transfiguration. The five-storey stone tower is high 23m, but the most interesting is a small chapel, named after God’s Transfiguration, which stands on the top floor. The chapel is richly decorated with murals and authentic icon paintings of great artistic value. The earliest of them dated back to the 14th century and represent three scenes of the life of St. John of Rila. The oldest preserved icon of the saint also dated back to that time. Murals in the chapel are highly valuable monument of Bulgarian Medieval art.
The four-winged residential area houses more than 300 monk cells, decorated with rich wood-carving ornaments, colourful paintings and wood furnishing and four smaller chapels. Guest rooms are more than 30, as most of them are lavishly decorated with wood carved ceilings and some of them even with murals The Monastery’s murals and wood carved ceilings are the work of Bulgaria’s foremost icon painters and woodcarvers, amongst whom are the names of Zacharias, the Icon Painter, Stanislav Dospevski, and Dimitar and Simeon Molerov stand out.
Source : Rila Monastery « St. Ivan of Rila »