ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Still a Fortress for Contemplatives

An ancient spiritual center and artistic treasure, Batshkovo Monastery is kept alive by Bulgaria’s Orthodox faithful.

Batshkovo, an Orthodox monastery in southern Bulgaria, lies tucked among the foothills of the Rodope Mountains some twenty miles south of Plovdiv, the Philipopolis of Alexander the Great’s time and the Trimontium of the Roman’s. Barely forty miles as the crow flies from the Greek-Bulgarian border, Batshkovo is crowded with pilgrims on feast days. Unlike other monasteries which have become relic-like as museums, Batshkovo is still much as it was conceived, built, and inhabited more than 900 years ago.

Batshkovo was built in a remote location in mountainous terrain. Hard to reach, it offered both solitude and protection. Its beauty comes from its environment. Built with local stone, the monastery follows the land’s natural contour. Batshkovo thus has its distinct character, shape, and scale, like other cloisters fashioned from its local setting.

Approached on a steep secondary road going into the Rodopes, Batshkovo’s outside walls suggest a fortress more than a place of quiet meditation, prayer, and charity. High walls surround the monastery complex. Two equally forbidding fortified gates are the only access to the interior. These barriers show how monks were protected from marauding warriors and bandits common in the Middle Ages.

Within these walls, however, the mood changes dramatically. Monastic stillness creates a homey atmosphere, a serene and peaceful quietude. The mellow, weathered stone, patches of greenery, a flower garden, arcades overlooking the courtyard, and southern light all combine to create an enchanting place.

Batshkovo’s origins go back to the year 1083, when two army generals from Georgia, now in southern Russia, founded it with the approval of the Byzantine emperor. One of the initiators, Gregorios Bakurian, envisioned entering the cloister only as his final resting place because, he mockingly said, he had done no good from his birth to his old age. Within a few years he got his wish. When he was killed in battle, he was buried next to the monastery’s original church, which contained altars dedicated to Mary, to John the Baptist, and to Saint George.

Over the centuries the monastery has experienced the tribulations endured by Bulgaria itself. In 1199 it was taken over by the Bulgarian Bljar Ivanko, a member of the feudal nobility during the First Bulgarian Empire. In 1205 it came under the rule of the Bulgarian Czar. Then followed a century of Byzantine supremacy. Its most illustrious period arrived during the latter part of the Second Bulgarian Empire. In the 14th and 15th centuries, Batshkovo developed into a center of learning. Scientists and scholars met in the walled compound and exchanged ideas, worked on manuscripts, and copied Scripture and ancient texts. When Ottoman rule enveloped the major part of the Balkans, most of the monastery’s original buildings were destroyed. Only the most remote monasteries escaped major destruction during the period because Turkish occupiers were reluctant to venture beyond the relative safety of the plains and urban centers they controlled.

Batshkovo, like most of the other monasteries, had long cultivated a close relationship with the monasteries on Mount Athos. Wandering monks from the Holy Mountain came to Bulgaria; pilgrims from Bulgaria visited there. Ancient texts were kept and copied again and again. Artists found inspiration in each other’s work. A spirit which connected them with antiquity prevailed in the region.

Batshkovo and the monastery in Rila are today the most important of Bulgaria’s cloisters. Few monasteries are tolerated by the Communist government there. Once there were more than a hundred. Rila is grandiose while still being representative of the folk-art style of the last century, the period of national renewal. Batshkovo, by comparison, is far more intimate, cozy, and “lived-in.” Furthermore, in its mixture of styles both in the buildings and the decoration of the churches, it more clearly represents the long church history of the area. Today, though no longer housing the scores of monks of bygone times, Batshkovo is home to approximately a dozen monks. Often they are joined by scores of visitors and pilgrims who journey here for spiritual renewal.

In addition to being a spiritual center in Bulgaria, Batshkovo is an artistic treasure. The monastery uniquely illustrates the development of Bulgarian painting. Most of the buildings now standing date back only to the 17th century. The one exception is the old burial church. The so-called “Bone House” was once part of the original monastic settlement but now stands at a distance outside the present walled compound. Though temporarily closed to visitors while its walls and foundations are strengthened, the Bone House contains the monastery’s oldest wall painting, an image of Mary dating from 1084. Its fresco portrait of Czar Ivan Alexander, from the middle of the 14th century, was painted in the classical Byzantine tradition by Georgian artist Ioannis Iberopoulos, who inscribed the work in Greek.

In the early 1600s some of the older buildings were rebuilt and others were replaced. The central church of today’s monastery complex, the Church of the Trinity (also called the Church of Mary), dates from 1605. Its wall paintings, completed in 1645, cover both the entrance arcade as well as the entire interior wall. The magnificent refectory on the northern side of the courtyard was built in 1601. Its interior wall paintings were completed in 1643.

Two hundred years later Zacharij Zographos covered the outside courtyard wall with a wonderfully detailed panorama of the whole complex and its surrounding landscape. The Church of the Holy Archangels dates from the 14th century, but its paintings on the lower floor were done much later, again by Zacharij Zographos, who left such an important imprint on the monastery.

Zacharij Zographos, Zacharij the Painter, was a member of a group of artists known as the School of Samokov. Their fame rests in the fact that their paintings’ style and content offered social commentary.

In the small chapel dedicated to St. Nicholas is one of Zographos’ most famous paintings. Revolutionary in concept and in execution for its time, his depiction of the Last Judgment fills every inch of the outside wall of the small church. Including a full-size self-portrait with portraits of the abbot and another high church official, the artist employed striking realism in the scene of the sinners being judged and then entering hell. To one side are the citizens of Plovdiv in all their finery. Those condemned to hell stand naked, a daring concept for that time and place. His inscriptions are not only in the traditionally used Greek but also in Bulgarian.

The Orthodox faithful keep Batshkovo alive. Monks live prayerfully, just as their predecessors had. Pilgrims regularly come to experience, if only for a short time, total immersion in the centuries-old monastic spirit still alive in this cloistered world. Here they can find profound quietude in its holy environment. The art and architecture, along with the monks themselves, are humbly inspirational, giving Batshkovo a timeless quality among these rugged Balkan mountains.

Margot Granitsas is a freelance writer and photographer.

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