The Monastery of Rila, named after and founded by the hermit Ivan of Rila, is the largest and most well-known Bulgarian Monastery. With its impressive architecture and location in the middle of the Rila Monastery Nature Park, it is a key attraction for those wanting to explore the religious, cultural and architectural past of Bulgaria. This chapter highlights a few other important monasteries that have shaped the heritage landscape of Bulgaria: Bachkovo monastery and Zemen Monastery.

Bachkovo monastery and the patronage of Tsar Ivan-Alexander (1331-1371)

Bachkovo Monastery is the second largest monastery complex in Bulgaria. It's situated in a valley of the Rhodope Mountains near the centre of Assenovgrad, which was a major military stronghold under the Bulgarian rule.

It was built during the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Alexios Comnenos (1081-1118) by the high-ranking military commander Gregorios Pakourianos (Grigoriy Bakuriani), who was governor of the area during the period of Byzantine domination.

In 1344 the Stanimaka region (today's Assenovgrad) was ceded together with Bachkovo Monastery to the Bulgarian Tsar Ivan Alexander (1331-1371), in exchange for his support towards John V Palaiologos in the Byzantine civil war. In order to consolidate his power in the newly acquired lands, the Bulgarian Tsar became a patron of the monastery, donating for its renovation and caring for the prosperity of this intellectual centre.

The full-length portrait of the Bulgarian Tsar Ivan Alexander is depicted in the north-west arch of the upper level of the Bachkovo Ossuary (funerary church). "The garments and symbols of power (insignia), as well as the iconographic schema in the portrait of the Bulgarian King, follow the established formula for depicting the Byzantine Emperor" (Elka Bakalova, The Ossuary of the Bachkovo monastery, Plovdiv, 2003, 118). The Bulgarian Tsar is portrayed as receiving a special divine validation, that immediately recalls a transfer of imperial power: above the ruler’s head the Virgin and the Christ Child bless him, while two angels flutter by his head and touch the crown" (Elena Boeck, Imagining the Byzantine Past: The Perception of History in the Illustrated Manuscripts of Skylitzes and Manasses, Cambridge, 2015, p. 80).

The Church of St John the Theologian in the Zemen Monastery

The Zemen Monastery is situated not far from the city of Kyustendil in south-western Bulgaria. The oldest surviving monument on its territory is the Church of St John the Theologian, built in the late 11th or early 12th c. and decorated with frescoes probably shortly afterwards.

The church was then redecorated during the second half of the 14th c. by a local dignitary, whose name is unknown today. This uncertainty is due to the fragmentary state of the donor’s inscription and of the portraits of the members of the patron’s family, which were painted inside the church.

Some of the inscriptions next to the figures survived, thus we know the names of patron’s wife Doya and of Vitomir and Staya, a young man and a boy, who were probably their children.

These portraits are particularly interesting for their iconography, characteristic of the art style of the 14th century. The clothes depicted are of remarkable historical value because they show the local fashion of that time. The donor’s inscription is partially preserved too, and although the name of the commissioner vanished, it states that the church was decorated during the reign of Despot Dejan. The latter has been identified as the Sevastokrator and later Despot Dejan (1346-ca. 1366), the founder of the Dejanović or Dragaš noble family, who ruled the region of Žegligovo (today Kumanovo) and Velbužd (today Kyustendil) during the second half of the 14th c.

The frescoes of the Zemen Church are of particular interest also because they feature some of the earliest portraits of two Bulgarian saints – St. John of Rila and St. Joachim of Sarandopor.

Their iconography developed in Bulgaria and was based on the Byzantine art models of depiction of anchorite saints. Anchorites are types of religious hermits, vowing to permanently live in the same cell and devote themselves to prayer or the Eucharist.

The wall paintings in Zemen have their own stylistic peculiarities with the principal medium of expression being the line defining the contours of the figures and landscapes. Because of these features these frescoes are considered as the work of an artist who was not familiar with the up-to-date Costantinopolitan painting, employing archaic models instead which retain the imprint of the local traditions.

The Poganovo Icon

The scholars are unanimous in asserting that the bilateral icon from Poganovo Monastery is a unique religious art piece commissioned by a high-ranking donor and made by a well-qualified artist during the 14th c. The choice and composition of the images on this icon are exceptional. On one of the icon sides an eschatological theme is developed – the Prophetic Vision of Christ in Majesty signified by an inscription as the Miracle in Latomos, which connects the image with the Monastery of Latomos (Hosios David) in Thessaloniki. In the Byzantine iconographic tradition, the Vision of Christ at Latomos had clear funerary connotations. On the other side of the icon two saints have been depicted in full size – the Theotokos Kataphyge and St. John the Theologian.

The composition of both figures as well as the epithet Kataphyge (Refuge) are unique. The epithet belonged to the circle of metaphors describing the Virgin Mary as hope and support for the believers emphasizing her role as intercessor for the sins of mankind before Christ the Supreme Judge. The choice of subjects and their arrangement on the two-sided icon testify to its special purpose and function to commemorate the recently deceased donor. The identification of the benefactor was complicated because of the bad condition of the donor’s inscription on the icon.

Many of the researchers considered that the icon was commissioned by Empress Helena, the wife of the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Palaeologos (1391-1425) in memory of her lost father Konstantin Dragaš Dejanović. It should have been donated to the Monastery of St. John the Theologian in Poganovo after his dead at the Battle of Rovine (17 May 1395). According to supporters of this hypothesis, the inscription surviving on a stone plate walled up in the church façade with the names of certain Constantine and Helena should also be viewed as evidence that Constantine Dragaš and his daughter Helena were the donors of the Poganovo Monastery.