There are three major monasteries in Bulgaria: Rila in the south-west (a World Heritage site), Bachkovo in the foothills of the Rhodope Mountains to the south, and Troyan in the Balkan Mountains in central Bulgaria.

But aside from these three major sites, there are many monasteries dotted about Bulgaria, in particular around the capital, Sofia, and many of these are inactive or abandoned. The monasteries around Sofia make up what is known as ‘the Little Holy Mountain’, a reference to the Holy Mountain, Mount Athos in Greece, famous for its monasticism.

You can be in Sofia and not realize that there is a different experience awaiting you only twenty minutes by car from the capital. Unfortunately, many people don’t get this opportunity to travel further afield or don’t know about these places. When you leave Sofia, you enter a different world, one of beautiful nature and one of great spirituality. We do not realize that nature has its own language and it takes time to begin to decipher it.

The Bulgarian poet Tsvetanka Elenkova and I visited 140 monasteries from our home in Sofia during the period 2006-2012. The fruit of this pilgrimage was a series of ten essays by Tsvetanka contained in a book published in Bulgarian as Bulgarian Frescoes: Feast of the Root (Omophor, 2013), accompanied by more than a hundred of my photographs. These essays cover different feasts, from the Nativity of Christ to his Resurrection and Ascension. We have made a small selection of the best images to give people an idea of the riches hidden away in monasteries in Bulgaria that are often abandoned and can be difficult to get to.

The best example is Seslavtsi, a district of Sofia 12 km north-east of the capital. The frescoes here are breathtaking. They were painted by a famous iconographer, Pimen of Zograph, a monk from the Bulgarian monastery of Zograph on Mount Athos who was called by St George in a dream to return to his homeland and to build and paint churches, which he did at the start of the seventeenth century, four hundred years ago. The church containing these frescoes was used for target practice during Communism and is next to a uranium mine. The quality of the frescoes is so good that attempts have been made to cut them out of the wall and take them. The frescoes have not been restored, which gives them a lifelike quality. Once frescoes are restored, they lose something of their spontaneity and acquire a sheen.

Other monasteries containing high-quality frescoes in the environs of Sofia are Alino, a village on the south side of Mount Vitosha, the mountain that overlooks Sofia from the south; Eleshnitsa, a village 25 km north-east of Sofia; and Iliyantsi, a district of Sofia in the north.

Further afield, we find the church of Berende, a village 50 km north-west of Sofia in the direction of Serbia, overlooking a disused railway and with wonderful autumnal colours. Not far away from Berende is the village of Malo Malovo, a very difficult monastery to find. Our first attempt was unsuccessful. We were with our year-old baby and unexpectedly came across some young lads hanging out in the mountain. We caught the glint of metal, beat a hasty retreat and returned a week later, this time without our child, successfully locating the monastery, which was hidden away behind an elevation, perhaps deliberately if one considers that a lot of these monasteries were built during the Ottoman occupation of Bulgaria in the fourteenth-nineteenth centuries, when churches were not supposed to exceed the height of a man on horseback and so had to be dug into the ground.

To the north-east of Sofia, still in west Bulgaria, we find Strupets and Karlukovo. To the west of Sofia lies Bilintsi, on the road to Tran, which has a very attractive gorge. Here, we came across a monk who had taken it upon himself to paint over the old frescoes and who kindly offered us tea in the hovel he was living in (which had a large hole in the ground). Fortunately, his work of ‘restoration’ was incomplete and we were able to photograph some of the original frescoes.

South of Sofia, near the motorway to Greece, is Boboshevo, another excellent monastery for frescoes. And then in central Bulgaria, we have Arbanasi, a hill with old churches next to the medieval capital Veliko Tarnovo. One of these churches is the Church of the Nativity, an example of a building that is sunk into the ground, with sumptuous frescoes inside. A little to the north of Veliko Tarnovo, overlooking the river Yantra, with Holy Trinity Monastery on the other side, is Preobrazhenie (Transfiguration) Monastery, which has a wonderful Wheel of Life fresco on the outside.

These are only some of the monasteries we visited, but they are the ones with the most important images. Our aim in presenting these images is to show the high quality, the naivety (we must become like children to enter the kingdom of heaven), the deep spirituality of Bulgarian frescoes. In the West, our attention is drawn to the likes of Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel, considered a high example of religious art. Some of these monasteries – Seslavtsi, in particular – can quite rightly be included in the same canon of European religious art.

English and French editions of the book Bulgarian Frescoes: Feast of the Root are forthcoming. One essay from the book, ‘Resurrection: The Fire of Love’, is available to read on this website.

Jonathan Dunne

(In the album that follows, captions are by Tsvetanka Elenkova, photographs and translation by Jonathan Dunne.)

01 Holy Trinity, Church of the Nativity (Arbanasi)
The Father embraces the Son. The Father represents eternity; the Son, time. His wings resemble an hourglass. His wings with his torso resemble a heart.
02 Christ Pantocrator, Alino Monastery
Christ’s mouth is slightly ajar, because he is the Word. His face resembles an almond; at the top, a crack, where a shoot will appear.
03 Archangel Michael, Berende Church
A very tender image of St Michael. He normally holds a sword. Here he resembles a classical Greek statue.
04 Adam and Eve, Iliyantsi Monastery
Adam and Eve are painted against a background of the Tree of Knowledge and its golden fruit, under which there is darkness. Adam holds up his hand, affirming God’s prohibition; Eve is less sure. Adam even steps on Eve’s foot.
05 Annunciation, Berende Church
The Virgin Mary is with bowed head before God’s will. The dove, by which she will conceive, is aimed at her brain, the rational part of the soul.
06 Nativity, Eleshnitsa Monastery
According to tradition, the Virgin Mary gave birth to Christ without pain. She has turned away, as if aware of the pain that awaits her. Christ in the manger resembles Christ in the tomb, two births, together with baptism.
07 Presentation in the Temple, Eleshnitsa Monastery
The Mother and Child are separated for the first time, while Simeon the Righteous holds the Child and receives a blessing from him. Mary’s hand moves towards her child like a spider, but they do not belong to each other.
08 Christ among the Doctors, Seslavtsi Monastery
The dome under which Christ sits is like an egg shell – Christ is new life. The folds of his hair resemble the folds of his brain – Christ is heavenly wisdom.
09 Baptism, Preobrazhenie Monastery
Christ’s body in the river Jordan is like a child’s – not only because we have to be like children to enter the kingdom of heaven, but because it shows his complete kenosis – emptying of himself – in this world.
10 Healing of the Sick, Seslavtsi Monastery
Christ’s hand is three-dimensional, like the Holy Trinity. His body is almost transparent, because he has overcome the world. There is a bitterness in his features.
11 Transfiguration, Strupets Monastery
There are two lights in this scene – red created light, and white uncreated light. The latter resembles the pendulum of a clock, gathering time and eternity into one.
12 Raising of Lazarus, Eleshnitsa Monastery
Christ raises Lazarus with his two fingers, which signify his two natures. Lazarus’ shroud resembles a snake. With his resurrection, Christ overcomes the snake.
13 Entry into Jerusalem, Bilintsi Monastery
Christ is wrapped in his clothes like a baby in a nappy. He rides a donkey the way a child would ride a wooden horse. He will enter the labyrinth of the city, from where he will emerge as the Risen Christ.
14 Cursing the Fig Tree, Seslavtsi Monastery
Even when Christ curses, he blesses. See how the tree, which resembles seaweed, shines with his light.
15 Last Supper, Alino Monastery

The disciples’ hands are open on the table. This is because the gesture of giving precedes the gesture of receiving. From now on, they will give the Word of Christ all over the world.
16 Washing the Feet, Seslavtsi Monastery
Christ washes the disciples’ feet, a gesture that mirrors Pilate washing his hands on the following day. In this way, Christ pre-empts Pilate’s question, ‘What is truth?’ Truth is service, not self-justification.
17 Arrest of Christ, Iliyantsi Monastery
It is as if this scene has been taken from a play by Shakespeare. Christ is being pushed from all sides. We can see the swords and helmets of the other people, but not Christ’s hands, because he refuses to protect himself.
18 Crucifixion, Boboshevo Monastery
Christ’s body on the Cross describes a figure of eight. Eight represents eternity, and also the eighth day, the Resurrection.
19 Christ in the Tomb, Malo Malovo Monastery
Christ is already in the sky – see the blue behind his halo. He resembles a fish, a symbol of Christianity. His hands are crossed not in death, but for Holy Communion.
20 Descent into Hell, Seslavtsi Monastery
Christ draws us out of the many waters. He holds a cross, like Jacob’s ladder to heaven. The lower left part of his robe draws a heart – his love for us.
21 Doubting Thomas, Seslavtsi Monastery
The cave is like a womb. Christ is born in a cave. He heals the paralytic who is let down through a cave (a roof). He resurrects in a cave. And he allows Thomas to place his finger in the selfsame wound.
22 Sea of Tiberias, Seslavtsi Monastery

As the disciples throw their net into the sea, so Christ on the shore throws the net in which Peter is swimming. Not only did he make the water holy by his baptism in the Jordan, he has promised to make his disciples ‘fishers of men’.
23 Ascension, Seslavtsi Monastery
Christ’s body is in the egg shell of the universe. He is in the centre because he is the one who nourishes. His body resembles a tear, which in the monastic tradition is a symbol of purity.
24 Assumption, Karlukovo Monastery
The Virgin Mary is not dead, she is sleeping. Her body resembles the body of Christ in scenes of the Nativity. Her soul is like a baby in Christ’s hands, just as she herself held Christ when he was a child.

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