Structure / Architecture
Architecture of Rila Monastery

The main church in the monastery's yard.

In addition the importance of the Rila’s monastery like a busily and famous in the whole Christian East centre of spreading religious activity it adds its work of art – a material environment in which these activities are possible through the ripe and late Medieval and especially in the epoch of the Bulgarian Renaissance.

Since the Medieval time there were build roads to the monastery by pilgrims from all over the world. As an acknowledged “holly place” for the Orthodox world the Rila’s monastery became a pilgrim's center of paramount importance. It is a crossroad for several of the main pilgrim’s roads on the Balkans: one from Vlajko through Vidin, Sofia, Dupnitsa and Rila’s monastery to Holy Forest; second from Kazanluk, Karlovo and Pazardjik through Samokov and the monastery to White Sea; third from the west Bulgarian lands, leading pilgrims in the Rila’s monastery from Middle Europe, Dalmatia and Serbia.

The richness of spiritual and religious manifestations and busily activity “in favor family” of the monastery’s confraternity in mainstream of few centuries, insuring a shelter and catering its numerous inhabitants and incoming believers clamps performing major construction activity as in the time of its foundation on the last place as in the first two-three centuries of Ottoman rule. This activity intensifies itself peculiarly during XVIII-XIX century, when the pilgrims became so numerous that round the monastery popped up a whole bunch of service buildings. In this way were found series of little architecture ensembles which purpose was not only to give shelter but also to prepare psychological the pilgrims for their meeting with the biggest Bulgarian sacred place.


The nunnery "Orlica" - a wall of a medieval building.

The nunnery “Orlica”. The nunnery “Orlica” is the most remoted and compacted architecture monument around the Rila Monastery. It is created about the 15 century, located on 22 km south-westerly from the monastic centre. Nowadays the nunnery is a compilation of cultural, residential and economical buildings from the 15 and 18-19 centuries. It shows the basic characteristics of independent economical complex, servicing the big monastery’s community. “Orlica” was the place, where in 1469 the procession of movement of the relics of St. Joan Rilsky stayed overnight.

The nunnery “Pchelina”. It is closer to the monastery, located on 4 km south-westerly. It consists of a not big residential building (18 century). Also, a not big church “The Assu of The Virgin Mother”, built with the money and the work of monk-apiarists in the farm.

The nunnery “Pchelina” is closer to “Orlica” in the way how it was built, its architectural forms. It distinguishes with the rectangular form of its altar and other elements. In the church has been kept icons from the period of the Bulgarian national revival, made in 1784 and its frescos are later (1834).

The Old Hermitage.

The hermitage “St. Ivan Rilsky”. It is the most remoted place from the monastery. It is also popular with the name “The Old Hermitage”. After the buildings before the beginning of the 19 century it was remarkable with the original combination of natural and values made by man as the Cave of the saint from the 10 century and the church “The Assu of St. Joan Rilsky”, built in 1746. It is the only one nature-architectural landmark on the Balkans.

The biggest ensemble of the hermitage “St. Luka” is located easterly on the monastery, on the path that leads to “The Old Hermitage”. The church “St. Evangelist Luka” is located here.

A whole settlement has been form next to the monastery which has been serving to the monastery and the people who are coming to visit the monastery. It was wormed fully in the 18-19 century.

The main buildings are the economical buildings, from which most appreciable is the big stone bakery which is built with a good architectural taste – a decorative fresco on its outside and an exquisite building, turned to the Samokov’s gate, which was built by master Marko from Vran. It is the last valuable building before the Liberation.


The Rila Monastery located at the heart of the Rila mountain.

The main monastic centre is the biggest cultural, historical and architectural place in the whole monastery’s complex. It is the core of that huge reserve.

The medieval church of Hrelio (XIV-XIX). It is connected with the work of the Struma’s feudal Hrelio Dragovol, who did much to develop the place and the monastery and to make it independent feudal possession. He built the old church of the monastery (XIV), which was  broaden in 1770-1790 and exested to 1834 like a main monastic temple.

In spite of the absence of drafts and exact architectural description of that church, the story of Neophit Rilsky about its vision before its destruction gives us very interesting information that shows it was a typical example of the Bulgarian and monastic church building from the 14 century.

Also, we can suppose that the iconostasis in the South chapel was taken from the old church, where it was its main one. The traces of replacements and levellings in a purpose to make it suitable for its new place prove that supposition.

The Hreliov's tower is the main part of the monastery's yard even today.

The Hreliov’s tower. However, the Hreliov’s tower gives us full notion of the character of the fortress building trough the whole period of the mature Bulgarian feudalism. It was built in 1334-1335 and devoted to St. Joan Rilsky and The Virgin Mother Osenovica. It is an evidence for the technical and artistic skills of the medieval masters.

The access to the inside of the tower is only to the first floor, where is the only one entrance – now you can get in there only with wood stairs, which firstly were step-ladder. The access inside is realized by wide stone stairs, built in thick walls. In that way each of the four floors has united cleared room. They were obviously considered for temporary living in defense from attacks. There were some convenience of the life as wood floors, a little day-light, place for sink (on the second floor).

The chapel on the fifth floor is the biggest interest of the scientists. It has lots of very beautiful and colourful frescos. The chaple “Transfiguration of God” is part of the oldest monastic chaples. Its frescos are dated from the 14 century and they are very valuable monument of the Bulgarian medieval art. What the other elements of the chapel were and in what purpose it was used we won’t know, because it was destroyed by a fire. However, we could consider that it wasn’t a place for a big religious services and it was accessible only for the monks and there was no effort it to be painted again.

Built as a fortress, the monastery relies to self-protection and has only two entrances, which are well safeguarded with thick and iron gates, which in case of attack make the monastery’s yard unreachable. However, its function is well hidden with beautiful decorations and the national purpose of the monastery is shown in these frescos. The gates of the monastery are widely opened for the people who believe and call them to get into the fireplace of the true Bulgarian faith and promise deliverance and happiness. 

The monastic apartments close the monastery's yard and make it to look like a fortress outside and beautiful inside.

The Monastic apartments. The monastic apartments are about 300. They have unique architecture – spacious verandas, wood-carving decoration, paintings and furniture. They are organized and grouped in a way to satisfy the needs of the visitors of the monastery.

The best place for the different levels and different wings is found to ensure their best functions for: about 110 monk’s cells, each of it consists of a small anteroom, kitchen and bedroom and workroom; over 30 drawing-rooms, more of them are well-appointed and decorated with wood-carving roofs, frescos, colourful tapestries; a big dining-room, a room of the Father Superior, consisted of some rooms, a hospital, a sexton-room with library, a store for dishes; four big floor-chapels; lots of warehouses and kitchens (water-mill, kitchen for guests, small and big bakeries, dairy farm, wine-growing); the rooms of door-keepers are an arrest for the guilty people.

The main church "Nativity of the Virgin Mother, built instead of the medieval Hreliov's church in1834-37г.The church takes the central place in the monastery's yard.

The main church “The Nativity of the Virgin”. The main church “The Nativity of the Virgin” is located in the formed frame of the monastery’s frame. It is in an unique symbioses with the medieval Hreliov’s tower. It has five domes which are a special architecture decision, taken by the master Pavel Ivanovich, who wanted to break up its size and built it in some follower wings. That was done, because the new church was bigger than the previous one and it didn’t fit with the other architectural forms.

The church is covered by lots of paintings and frescos which show Biblical stories about the Day of Judgement, Adam and Eva, the Baptism of Issus Christos. Inside there are also lots of frescos. The church consists of two chapels – the iconostasis of St. Nicola and the iconostasis of St. Joan Rilsky. The first one is considered to be taken by the old medieval church, built by Hrelio Dragovol. It is smaller then the iconostasis of St. Joan Rilsky and there are lots of traces of replacement and adaptation of the old one.

The wood-carving of the iconostasis in the chapel “St. Joan Rilsky” is exceptionally detailed and rich. The architectural composition consists of a line of the down tables, a line of the up icons, divided to tree parts.

Through „The Rila Monastery”, Prof. Dr Margarita Koeva
Translated by Kostadin Marinov and George Amudov
Certificated for the translation: Marina Rulioko

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