#RILA15: LILIA IVANOVA | Architecture /English/

Architectural value of Rila Monastery
Project #RILA15

Project #RILA enables young people from various fields to gather together and experience an expedition to the Rila Monastery. The aim is this monument of culture to provoke in the group of young artists the desire to know and recreate its atmosphere, to inspire their creative activity, to develop their skills for observation and concentration. All this contributes not only to our qualities of self-expression, but increases the success in our education. The observation of such a largе architectural complex that is a symbol of a big part of the history of the Balkans and is famous for a number of traditional Bulgarian crafts, increases the ability of young contemporary artists and researchers for introspection. By getting to know the past of our people, we come to know ourselves. By gathering together and combining our knowledge and interests, we create a complete presentation of the biggest monastery on the Balkans. The monument itself is a symbol of the unification and the reciprocity of a great amount of artists involved in its construction during the centuries.

The architecture of the Rila Monastery represents an authentic combination of structural and decorative styles for a period of nine centuries. Started as a feudal castle during the Middle Ages, after several fires, it was rebuilt a few times following the changes in the architectural styles. This is the most impressive building of the Bulgarian Renaissance. I’ve been in the monastery before, but the expedition was my first visit as a student of architecture. That is why the project is useful, rewarding and interesting for me. Having studied the main European and global architectural trends in Paris, working on a monument in my homeland helped me establish more accurate observations about the authenticity of the Bulgarian architecture. Exploring diverse cultures prompts evaluation of one`s own cultural and folk consciousness. The vast variety of building schools and traditional crafts presented in the monastery, creates a sense of belonging and suggests the human presence and spirituality embodied in every detail. My task was to get to know and describe the architectural value of the monastery. That is why with everything I learned about the monument, I think it is important for the project to aim the popularization both of the Bulgarian spiritual, anthropological and literary heritage and the architectural mastery of the Bulgarian traditions.

Approaching the object, the first architectural evaluation is of the site of construction, the environment around it and its position in this environment. With the intention of making it a difficult to reach fortress, the monastery was built among the forests of Rila Mountain and interacts with one of the greatest treasures of Bulgaria – its nature. These lands were declared holy because of the founder of the Rila Monastery – St. Ivan of Rila. He is the greatest Bulgarian saint and patron of the Bulgarian nation. His work in the early 10th century, set the beginning of the monastery and is a prerequisite for its further expansion in a major complex of buildings. From the outside the monastery we see its 24-meter high medieval stone walls. They form the shape of an irregular pentagon. There are only two entrances to the monastery.

Entering through the main entrance, we see the variety of buildings ornated with decorative elements. The highest and oldest part of the complex is the Hrelja`s tower. This was the first building in the monastery and it`s the only preserved medieval building in the complex. Later on to fit into the newly built Renaissance structure of the surrounding buildings, it had a belfry added to it, which is also decorated with various ornaments.

The central building is the main church in the complex – “Rojdenie Bogorodichno“. It is right next to the Hreljas tower. In its place was the much smaller medieval Hreljas church but it was destroyed in the 19th century. The newly appeared church is quite large in comparison with the entire monastery. It has a Latin cross plan, which is highlighted by the five domes of the church. The plan clearly distinguishes the three naves of the basilica, separated by the internal columns, arches and vaults. This is the main axis of the church, dominated by three of the domes. Perpendicular to the naves and under the other two domes is the transept.

At the end of each nave there is a semicircular apse, the middle of which is larger and pentalateral and the other two are trilateral. The light penetrates the church through multiple windows situated on the walls supporting the domes. Both the inside and the outside of the church are richly decorated with icons, frescoes and carvings – the work of numerous Bulgarian folk artists. The outside stone facade stands out with its semicircular curves on the roof above the painted arcade resting on rows of columns.

This is the main associative link between the church and the other buildings in the complex. This way the decorative system creates a sense of harmony and unity of the monastery. The repetition of these elements is particularly important for the architecture of the residential part of the monastery surrounding the church. The residential buildings follow the shape of the outside walls of the Rila Monastery. The floors are 5, but only 4 of them are visible. Some of the most interesting elements of this part of the complex are made by a traditional material from the Bulgarian Renaissance – the wood. It is strongly advocated by the chardaks allowing access to the residential accommodations.

The chardak is a typical element of the Bulgarian Renaissance architecture. It represents an exterior to the building space, made of wood and resembling a terrace, but with a closed fortified top and sides. On the facade of the residential accommodations there are also many beautiful carvings, also strongly represented in the architecture of the period. Another very impressive part of the buildings is the monastery kitchen. It has unique architecture. Inside it there is a 22-meter chimney with a pyramidal shape. It is composed of 10 rows of arches placed one above the other. Its top is covered with a dome. The rest of the accommodation is covered with a tile roof, except for four chapels located two by two one above the other, which are also dominated by domes. The complex has a number of other accommodations such as a dining room, a library, a household premises, a large number of monastic cells and guest rooms, which have given shelter to many pilgrims.

The monastery is definitely one of the most inspiring and valuable Bulgarian architectural monuments. I am proud that such a vivid representative of the Bulgarian Middle Ages and Renaissance, a symbol of almost a millennium of our history, has a place in the history of architecture. As a team of researchers, we want to show that this object of world cultural heritage of UNESCO is a reflection of the Bulgarian identity.

Ecole Nationale Supérieure d’Architecture Paris-Malaquais


Lilia Ivanova#RILA15: LILIA IVANOVA | Architecture /English/