Rila Monastery (1983)
Bulgaria

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Rila Monastery was founded in the 10th century by St John of Rila, a hermit canonized by the Orthodox Church. His ascetic dwelling and tomb became a holy site and were transformed into a monastic complex, which subsequently played an important role in the spiritual and social life of medieval Bulgaria. Destroyed by fire at the beginning of the 19th century, the complex was rebuilt between 1834 and 1862. 

Bulgaria 1921. Aerial view of Rila Monastery. 

Bulgaria 1921. Rila Monastery with the courtyard. 

The monument is a characteristic example of the Bulgarian Renaissance (18th–19th centuries) and symbolizes an awareness of a Slavic cultural identity following centuries of occupation. 

  • Bulgaria 1921. Aerial view of Rila Monastery. 
  • Bulgaria 1921. Rila Monastery with the courtyard. 

Note that the two stamps are different in size. 

Rila Monastery [Rilski] is situated south of Sofia in the Rila Mountains in an altitude of 1.147 meters, and attracting a lot of tourists each year. The architectural contrast between the monastery's outer and inner appearance is enormous. From the outside the complex seems fortress-like and absolutely inaccessible, originally created to keep away highway robbers. But entering the courtyard the picture changes dramatically, and reveals a four-storey building with richly ornamented loggias. The monastery is built of granite, bricks and wood.

Bulgaria 1968. Rila Monastery. First Day Cover cancelled 25th November 1968, at the occasion of the monastery's millennium anniversary. The cachet shows the fortress-like monastery seen from the outside. The cancel depicts Ivan Rilski, the monastery's founder

  • Bulgaria 1968. Rila Monastery. First Day Cover cancelled 25th November 1968, at the occasion of the monastery's millennium anniversary.  The cachet shows the fortress-like monastery seen from the outside. The cancel depicts Ivan Rilski, the monastery's founder, see also the stamps below. 

  • To the right the webmaster's private photograph from the inner courtyard of Rila Monastery. 

Photograph from the inner courtyard of Rila Monastery. 
Bulgaria 1953. Part of set of nine stamps, showing woodcarvings from Rila Monastery. Stamp #1. Bulgaria 1953. Part of set of nine stamps, showing woodcarvings from Rila Monastery. Stamp #2. Bulgaria 1953. Part of set of nine stamps, showing woodcarvings from Rila Monastery. Stamp #3.

Bulgaria 1967. Zachary Zograf, Self Portrait. 

The monastery's church is decorated with cartoon-like paintings by the Bulgarian painter, Zachary Zograf (1810-1853). 

In the 19th century the majority of the Bulgarian population was still illiterate, and the decorations were intended as a help to lead people on the narrow road of virtue ... 

  • Bulgaria 1967. Zachary Zograf, Self Portrait. The painting belongs to the Bulgarian National Gallery in Sofia. 

Zachary Zograf is one of Bulgaria's most famous painters, and one of the few who have gained world reputation; his paintings as such are richly represented in the National Museum of Sofia, and have appeared on numerous Bulgarian stamps

Saint John of Rila (880-946), known to the Bulgarians as Ivan Rilski, was one of many ninth-century hermits and mystics who took to the wooded mountains of Bulgaria and Macedonia in search of solitude and enlightenment. After building a considerable consideration as a wise man with healing powers, he eventually gave in to the pressure of his followers and established a monastery high in the Rila Valley, where he could combine the virtues of an organized monastic community with the ascetic solitude he valued so much.

It is said that he took steps to embalm himself before death by consuming large amounts of herbs and potions, and his dead body was thought to possess miraculous curative powers.  As a result, Rila became famous throughout the Balkans as an important pilgrimage site. 

  • Bulgaria 1946. The founder of Rila Monastery, St. Ivan Rilski. Scan by courtesy of Miomir Zivkovic (Serbia & Montenegro). 

Bulgaria 1946. The founder of Rila Monastery, St. Ivan Rilski.

Bulgaria 1968. Souvenir sheet, depicting a mural showing the reception of Ivan Rilski's relics in 1187.  

In the Middle Ages, however, the bones of saints were important political symbols that added legitimacy to the rule of whichever king could establish control over them.  

Bulgarian Tsar Petâr had John of Rila's remains moved to Sofia some time in the mid-900s, but they were stolen from here in 1183 by the Hungarian King Bela III, who carded them off to the cathedral city of Esztergom (in present-day Hungary) on the Danube.  

Legend has it that the bishop of Esztergom denied that the bones were those of a saint, and immediately became blind as a result.  When the bishop publicly changed his mind, his sight was restored. 

  • Bulgaria 1968. Souvenir sheet, depicting a mural showing the reception of Ivan Rilski's relics in 1187.  

The return of Ivan Rilski's bones to Sofia was secured by the Byzantine Emperor Isaac Angelus in 1187; in so doing, he hoped to win local support against the anti-Byzantine rebellion of Bulgarian nobles Petâr and Assen, who were based in Veliko Târnovo. 

Assen captured Sofia in 1194, and immediately had the saint's remains removed, with much pomp, to his new capital at Veliko Târnovo.  The bones went back to Rila in 1469, although his remains retained their symbolic importance.  His right hand was taken to Russia in the 16th century in the hope that it would help raise funds for the restoration of Bulgarian Monasteries.  The left hand, encased in a silver casket, is occasionally put on display by the monastery authorities. 
  •  Bulgaria 1968.  Procession bringing home the relics of St. Ivan Rilski. 

Bulgaria 1968.  Procession bringing home the relics of St. Ivan Rilski. 

Bulgaria 1968. St. Ivan Rilski. Bulgaria 1968. St. Arsenius. Bulgaria 1968. St. Michael torments the Rich Man's Soul. Bulgaria 1968. St. George, the national symbol of Bulgaria. Bulgaria 1968. The Prophet Iona.

Bulgaria 1977. Souvenir sheet. Millennium of Bulgarian Icons. "The Twelve Feast Days". 

In 1977 Bulgaria issued a set of 8 stamps in connection with the celebration of the millennium of Bulgarian icons. 

The single stamps in the set are unrelated to Rila Monastery, but the souvenir sheet, shown on the left, depicts one icon named "The Twelve Feast Days". 

It was created in the 18th century by an anonymous artist, and belongs to Rila Monastery. 

  • Bulgaria 1977. Souvenir sheet. Millennium of Bulgarian Icons. "The Twelve Feast Days". 

As the best known of Bulgaria's monasteries, justly famed for both its architecture and mountainous setting, Rila receives a stream of visitors, most of whom now arrive by bus or car rather than on foot or by mule, as did pilgrims in the old days. Arriving on October 19, you can enjoy the celebrations for the feat day of St. John of Rila. 

The monastery's ethnographic collection on the second floor of the north wing is most notable for its carpets and silverware, while bneath the modern east wing there is a wealth of objects in the treasury. These include icons and medieval gospels; Rila's charter from Tsar Ivan Shishman, written on leather and sealed with gold in 1378, the door of the original monastery church; and a miniature cross made by the monk raphael during the 1790s. Composed of 140 biblical tableaux containing more than 1500 human figures (each the size of a grain of rice), this took twelve years for the monk to carve with a needle, and cost him his eyesight. 

There are so many stamps and philatelic items related to Rila, that it is virtually impossible to show them all on one web page. I have chosen those that -- in my personal view -- are the most characteristic for this splendid Balkan monastery. 

Sources and links:

Media: 

Other World Heritage Sites in Bulgaria (on this site). Please refer to the UNESCO-listing, Bulgaria-section,  for further information about the individual properties. 

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Revised 18 aug 2007  
Copyright © 1999 Heindorffhus 
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