For the third consecutive year, the project #RILA gave us the opportunity to admire one of the most magnificent representatives of the Bulgarian Renaissance architecture – the Rila Monastery. The experience enriched us all with something and we all contributed to the creative workshops, where we shared our impressions. Visiting this holy and beautiful work of art, we cannot help, but wonder how was it built with such precision and perfection during some of the darkest years of our history. That is why this year I decided to present some information about the person responsible for this deed, which may not be brought to the attention of many of us during the visit to the monastery. The task that I assigned to myself was not to list the events, the chronology and the detailed facts around the monastery’s construction, but to inspire thought to the perpetuation of the creative talent preserved between the stone walls of the Rila Monastery over the years. I wondered what gave this man the power and the wisdom to devote himself to his work and to give us the pride to inherit it. In 1816 architecton Alexi Rilets is invited to lead the next reconstruction of the Rila Monastery and this is the beginning of, perhaps, the most ambitious work of his life.
During the construction of the Rila Monastery, Master Alexi faced a number of difficult to solve problems. He had to deal with them by himself – to consider and realize a construction that is not only compatible with his ideas of beauty and harmony approaching the spirituality and the nature, but can also fulfill many functions necessary for the monastic life, as well as to be adjusted to the remnants of the monastery which had been rebuilt during different ages and in different styles. All this poses the inevitable question – how did this man who lived in the age of cultural isolation, without education and away from the secular life, managed tasks unbearable for many others at the time? And why did the next generations allow his name to be forgotten? It is unlikely for him to have had access to information about the creative decisions of the Italian Renaissance artists and about the use of the monumental order that conquered the European architecture in the 16th century. Still, in the Rila Monastery we see a very similar solution to some of the structural problems under the construction. This unique, one-of-a-kind genius, invented a structural system that had transformed the distant Renaissance world. Adapting the idea of the monumental order to the needs of the Rila Monastery, he applied it not on the exterior but on the inside of the monastery’s façade, making it possible for the foundations to withstand the 5-storey building. Despite the fact that the Bulgarian Renaissance lagged behind significantly from the Western movements, it isn’t less significant and impressive, and Alexi Rilets’ work and ideas remain forever innovative and unusual.
One of the most impressive additions that he makes to the monastery remains the 24-meter magernitsa, or in other words, the cookhouse. The writer Lyubomir Konstantinov called it: “a lesson on ecology”. The way it is built makes it a unique creation, conceived in the best possible way for the occasion. Its pyramidal shape is achieved with 10 rows of eight arches, each of which gradually decreases to reach the roof. On the last row, the master decides to place 4 large arches (instead of 8 even smaller) to take up the weight of the top of the magernitsa. Between the rows he introduces, for greater stability of the construction, stabilizing belts. At different levels of the magernitsa vents are built-in for better ventilation – another brilliant invention of master Alexi. Many other monasteries can envy its magnificent smoke-free qualities. (Special thanks to Clara Al.-Daskalova-Obretenova and Alexander Obretenov Obretenov and their book “The journey of master Alexi Rilets over the centuries” for the comprehensive information on the matter.)
It is known too little about the creative life of architecton Alexi Rilets, before he was invited to head the reconstruction of the Rila Monastery, but there are many hypotheses about the sites he has worked on. His very title says he had a lot of experience and was widely recognized. According to Prof. Arch. G. Stoykov, master Alexi Rilets was the first in our history of architecture to be awarded with the title “architecton”. Perhaps he received his title somewhere in Greece or in the Near East. His unique style of work makes it recognizable and it is believed that he has worked on many of the monasteries on Mount Athos and especially the Hilandar Monastery and the Zograf Monastery. It may be assumed that this was the reason he was invited to head the construction of the Rila Monastery in 1816. Another work, which is sure to have been created by Master Alexi, is the bishop’s throne which he donated to the St. Archangel Michael Church in 1819. Many of the houses in the beautiful nearby village of Rila, including his own, resemble the style of the Rila Monastery and have similar distinctive features. They are believed by many to have been built by Alexi Rilets, but there can only be hypotheses and guesses on the matter.
The life and talent of this self-taught architect have inspired many literary pieces through the centuries, which have been devoted to his work. Among many writers, who wrote prose and poetry about Alexi Rilets are: Dragomir Shopov, Evstati Burnanski, Stancho Lazarov, Lyubomir Konstantinov – Felix, Stefan Poptonev, Matey Shopkin, Timothey Mihaylov, Bilyana Kavada and others. All of them express the general idea of the late recognition of Alexi Rilets’s talent. His name should be known not only by specialists, but at least by the Bulgarian community as a whole, like Italian Renaissance innovators are known all over the world. Two stone sculptures with the images of Alexi Rilets and his wife Maria are mounted on the outer wall of the west wing of the monastery, symmetrically on both sides of the gate. Another image of Master Alexi is also mounted on the inner firewall of the northern wing. The authors of the sculptures are unknown but they are believed to have been made by the people involved in the construction of the monastery. It is possible that the image placed on the inner wall was created by Alexi himself, immortalized to contemplate his greatest creation forever.
After all, we may never know why so much information about the life and the work of this great Bulgarian has been kept a secret. Perhaps like many artists before and after him, the burden and the responsibility to remain in the history have proven to be too demanding and the fear of failure was too strong. As they say, the greatest minds remain often in the shadows because they were not confident enough.
“The inscriptions with the name of Alexi Rilets are preserved only on the memorial tablets of the Rila Monastery and on the bishop’s throne. He himself is partially to blame that not all of his works are well-known. […] Was he not too critical of himself, therefore we didn’t find his name on any of his other works?” – The journey of master Alexi Rilets over the centuries
Because the facts about the life of Master Alexi that we know of are so few, all we have left to touch his personality is what he created with his hands and the legends that are still being told in the village of Rila about the various events of his everyday life. And although, he himself has done a lot to conceal his identity from us, memories of him, from those who knew him are still preserved nowadays.