Stone church and blue sky
Architecture,  Bulgaria,  History

The wonders of Bulgaria’s Bachkovo Monastery

Bachkovo Monastery was for sure one of the most stunning of the many sights I saw in my short time in Bulgaria! Despite all the visitors, the atmosphere was one of tranquillity. The buildings looked so photogenic both in the drizzly weather we arrived in and the sunshine when we departed; and there was so much to see that was both interesting and beautiful.

Bachkovo was founded in 1083 by Prince Gregory Pakourianos, a prominent Byzantine statesman and military commander, as a Georgian Orthodox monastery and also as a seminary teaching religion, maths, history and music. It was looted and destroyed not long after the invasion by the Turks and establishment of Ottoman rule in Bulgaria; but it was reconstructed in 1601, while the Cathedral Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary was finished in 1604. There is a full history (in English) on the monastery’s website.

The entrance to the monastery is decorated with paintings of angels attending the birth of Christ. On the left is the Archangel Michael and on the right the Archangel Gabriel.

Arch with fresco of angels
The entrance to the monastery
Fresco of an angel
Detail of the entrance

Once inside the gate we were in the main courtyard. From here we could get good photos of two of the three churches here. Our guide told us that some of the trees planted in this courtyard were gifts from different countries to the monastery, such as the gingko from Japan.

The smaller church is closed to the public but the larger one, the Cathedral Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, can be visited and photography is allowed throughout. Just as well, as it is absolutely stunning and I am glad to be able to share some of its glories with you here.

The Cathedral Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary

Here our guide really came into his own, pointing out loads of details in the frescoes both outside and inside the church. The frescoes in the nave date from 1850. They were cleaned only a year ago and layers of sooty grime from burning candles removed, so we were fortunate to see them like this. Our guide pointed out many of the images and described the iconography of them.

He told us that the three fingered blessing given by Christ in several of the images denotes the Holy Trinity.

Rich coloured fresco of Christ and saints
Rich coloured fresco of Christ in gold robes
The three fingered blessing, above the arch into the main body of the church

On the west wall we saw the Assumption again, as at Asen’s Fortress, but here far more distinct and surrounded by many other scenes. As I explained in that post, this is a traditional image in many Bulgarian churches. In it, a pagan is depicted kneeling at Mary’s bedside trying to drag her down to Hell, his hands chopped off at the wrist by an angel to prevent him succeeding.

Wall painted with bible scenes in rich colours
The West Wall

There are a lot of Bible scenes, from both the Old and New Testaments. I didn’t recognise all of them, but I did spot the Last Supper (near the top left in my first photo below) and Jacob’s Ladder. The two Georgian brothers who founded the monastery, Grigorii and Abasii Bakuriani, are portrayed holding the building. The whole effect is completely overwhelming; not an inch of wall is left uncovered, that I could see!

Click on any photo in the gallery below to see all the images in a fullsize slideshow; that’s worth doing when there is so much detail to absorb here!

The church’s prized possession is its Miracle Working Icon of the Holy Virgin, which has been here since the monastery was founded. According to the monastery’s website:

‘During the early times of the Ottoman rule, the icon was hidden in the territory of Kluviata, where it was found again in the beginning of the XVIIth century and brought back to the monastery. On two occasions the icon disappeared by itself only to be found in the same spot by the perplexed monks. Following a dream of one of them, it was finally brought back permanently and placed in a special spot, created for it in the cathedral church of the monastery, on the right from the central door, in a separate iconostasis and onto a small platform. In this way, it could be accessed by everybody in need. Such tales might be part of the mythology surrounding the holy object, but they undoubtedly add to its fame.’

The devout were queuing at one side of the church to pray to and kiss this icon. It seemed disrespectful to take photos of it under those circumstances, so I kept my distance. Like others in our group however, I was less respectful of the incredibly photogenic monk/priest in the church. I heard later from friends that he showed his displeasure when he realised how many of us were snatching photos; fortunately for me, after I had taken these shots!

Man in black with white hair and black hat, seen from behind
Orthodox priest
Black and white photo of a man with long white hair and beard
Orthodox priest

In the outer part of the church, the narthex, it was naturally lighter and easier to take photos of the frescoes, although the colours were less rich. Here our guide pointed out images of the Holy Trinity and many saints.

Fresco of man in long robes with a book
Fresco in the narthax
Fresco of man in long robes with a book
Fresco in the narthax

The monks’ residences

Beyond the church in the far part of the courtyard are the monks’ residences, with towels and bed linen hanging prosaically on the balconies to air.

Stone courtyard with green trees
The far courtyard
Sheets and towels on a washing line on a balcony
Monks’ laundry day

There is a second church here, the Archangels’ Church. This is the oldest of the three monastery churches, dating probably from the 12th century. It isn’t generally open to visitors, being reserved for the monks’ services.

The panorama fresco

The old refectory building on the opposite side of the main courtyard has a very well-preserved fresco running along part of its wall. It depicts the monastery itself and its surroundings, with an Easter procession emerging through the gate carrying the church’s miracle-working icon.

The procession group includes some people who made donations and provided support for the monastery. Everyone is wearing richly decorated clothes. The two founding brothers are also among those in the procession, dressed in monastic clothes even though neither of them was actually a monk. At one end of this panorama is a circular picture of St. George, at the other St. Dimitar.

Fresco of a large white building in a rural scene
The panorama fresco
Fresco of a procession with religious painting
The Easter procession in the panorama fresco
Fresco of two saints and a white church
The panorama fresco detail: the founding brothers
Circular painting of a man on horseback killing a dragon
The panorama fresco detail: St. George

St. Nicholas church

In the further courtyard beyond the refectory is a third church, dedicated to St. Nicholas. This is only used for weddings and baptisms, so we couldn’t see inside. But we did get a good look at the frescoes in its entrance area, the narthex, which our guide told us were the work of an especially famous painter, Zahari Zograf.

The paintings include a large one of Doomsday above the door depicting Heaven and Hell, with a battle between angels and devils for the soul of one individual whose deeds are being weighed in the centre. On the right the condemned are led away to Hell, while the saved souls on the left include a self-portrait of the artist!

Fresco above a wooden door, with devils and saints
The Doomsday fresco
Fresco with small black devils and scales
Detail of the Doomsday fresco

Around the walls at the top are a series of small paintings telling the story of Adam and Eve. The one in my photo below shows God making Eve from one of Adam’s ribs as he sleeps.

Fresco of God with Adam and Eve
God creating Eve
Circular fresco with Christ and saints
Fresco on the dome of the narthex of St. Nicholas; note the three-fingered blessing again

By the time we returned to the main courtyard the sun had come out, so we were able to photograph the church with blue skies behind it. It gave us a beautiful last view of this atmospheric and spiritual place. I think anyone, of any religion or none, would feel at least a little inspired by a visit here here and stunned by the awesome paintings in its church.

Stone church with red tile roof
The cathedral church
Stone church with red tile roof
The cathedral church

I visited Bulgaria in 2019

27 Comments

  • wetanddustyroads

    So much detail in all of your photo’s … I literally had to stop a minute at each one, because there is so much to see! The cathedral/church doesn’t look like the “normal” churches I’ve seen before – but I do like it! I think without a guide, you will probably miss half of what is described in these pictures – very interesting.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      I’m so glad you took the time to look closely at the photos ☺ This style is typical of the region but it’s a particularly good and richly decorated example. Some time soon I must post some photos of another church we visited, the Shipka church, which was also very interesting and beautiful!

  • Oh, the Places We See

    What an extensive post with some of the best photos I’ve ever seen of a monastery or church interior. You’ve captured the color, the gold touches and the details quite well. I also love how you’ve added information. I might never have seen Mary being dragged to Hell if it weren’t for you pointing this out! Your posts are always grand, but this is one of my favorites.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Ah, thank you so much 😊 I was fascinated by the explanations our guide gave us on the paintings and the details he pointed out. I would never have noticed a lot of them, like Mary being dragged to Hell, had he not told us about them, so I was keen to share them with others!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks Marie 😊 I’ve not been to the Black Sea Region of Bulgaria but I can imagine that it’s a very different side to the country and was even more so in 1985! I can certainly recommend Sofia and/or Plovdiv for a European break.

  • leightontravels

    Loved the history here. Wonderful photos too of this gorgeous structure and its colourful iconography. It reminds me very much of several monasteries Sladja and I visited in Serbia. Funnily enough, we had issues with photography in one such monastery with an exceptionally obnoxious monk who was looking for trouble the moment we stepped into the complex. Your black and white shot of the Orthodox priest is my favourite.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Leighton 😊 I guess these priests quite understandably don’t want to be seen as subjects to be photographed by gawping tourists! Glad you liked the shot however 😀

      • leightontravels

        In our case all I had done was taken my phone out of my pocket to check some online info and the the guy lost the plot. I suspect it was more to do with the monastery’s controversial status and recent bad press. We’d read that the priests there were obnoxious people at war with the locals and boy did we get first hand experience of that.

      • Annie Berger

        Engrossing text and photos. I echo the resemblance to Berat, Sarah. When you have a chance to travel internationally again, I recommend you return to Bulgaria to tour the gorgeous Rila Monastery and also spend a week or more viewing the many UNESCO sights in Albania. We’ve traveled to about 95 countries and Albania remains one of my favorites still.

  • margaret21

    This part of the world has such an interesting and complex history, and some of it seems to be displayed in the iconography of this spectacular building. Thanks for sharing all this, Sarah.

  • Ju-Lyn

    Thank you for this spectacular spread, Sarah! I am so taken by the stonework of the cathedral – it is so unusual in its color & pattern. When you visited Bulgaria, did you see other examples of this type of brickwork?

    The frescos and other artwork are stunning; but I think my favorite image is the Laundry hung out.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you, I’m glad you found this interesting 😊 Yes, that stonework is quite typical of some buildings in Bulgaria, from what I saw. And seeing that laundry amongst all that splendour made me smile. For the monks this place is simply home

  • restlessjo

    Overwhelming is right, Sarah! And so vivid! Amazing to see them in this condition. I had never heard of the 3 fingered blessing and had to look closely at that wonderful depiction of Christ. Love the way those halos were created too.

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