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River of fire, a detail from Last Judgement mural from Pchelinovo cloister at Rila Monastery, 1835 River of fire, a detail from Last Judgement mural from Pchelinovo cloister at Rila Monastery, 1835

What first attracts your attention in a Bulgarian Revival Period church? The architecture? The silver-haloed icons of the Virgin Mary? The elaborate carvings of the icon doors? These may all be astonishing, but have you noticed the river of fire, on the outside western wall of most of the churches, flowing towards the gaping mouth of a dragon-like monster? Have you bent to see in detail the devils in the flames? Have you wondered what were the crimes of the sinners they torture?

Images of Judgement Day and the power of evil over humanity are not unique to Bulgarian religious art. The reliefs carved in Gothic cathedrals and Michelangelo's frescoes in the Sistine Chapel are only a couple of examples. Throughout the centuries, particularly in times of low literacy, images of the Last Judgement and the punishment of sinners have served as moralising comic strips for the general public.

The scenes from 19th century Bulgarian churches, however, stand out in this hellish cacophony because they engagingly combine Mediaeval tradition, naïve artistic style, patriarchal mores, a hint of burgeoning national identity and an odd sense of humour.

The tradition set in Byzantine times and preserved throughout the Ottoman period stipulates that the Judgement Day scene should adorn the western wall of the church, where the main entrance is. The first thing a parishioner sees upon entering, it depicts Christ separating sinners from the righteous, who just flock to the left towards Heaven, while the damned to the right are swept along by the river of fire and overexcited devils, with Hell ready to swallow them up.

Danger, darkness and sin have always intrigued humanity more than piety (taking the wrong path is always easier), so the modern visitor, just like the Revival Period churchgoer, is more interested in the sinners of the 19th century churches. The artists were aware of this and, while they painted the pious with a boring sameness as a compact group, they spared no time, effort or imagination when it came to the frescoes on the right-hand side of the scene. Each person there counts, if not for their individuality, then for their individual sins.

Here they are, dozens of the damned, being led to Hell or already being punished for their misdeeds: the murderers and the adulterers, the thieves, the envious and the misers, the liars and the corrupt judges dying in the webs that they spin, along with the drunkards and the unbaptised, demonstrating to the worshippers the type of behaviour not tolerated in Heaven and thus defining the moral standards of the community. To broaden their popular appeal, Revival Period painters covered a broad spectrum of sins. As a result, the murals can be read as a satirical view of the Bulgarians of the day, and are rich in charming and informative details from the type of clothes to the type of sins in fashion at the time.

Look closely at the figures of the people bound for Hell, and you will see the indulged higher clergy in their expensive robes, guilty of not paying attention to the small folk, and the exquisite dresses of the rich city women damned for their vanity, adultery and love of makeup. As this period saw the emergence of the Bulgarian national identity, Hell was also open for the special sort of sinners who, according to the inscriptions above their heads, "betrayed their nation." Sheep stealers, flour-stealing millers, publicans who dilute their wine with water and cheating shopkeepers, and those who did not bother to wake up early to go to work or to Sunday mass, also have places reserved for them in the inferno. They are punished according to their deeds. Millstones and lambs hang from the necks of crooked millers and sheep stealers, while oversleepers lie on beds of fire-hot iron. Ouch.

In spite of their naïvety and crudeness, or precisely because of them, the 19th Century sinners engage the modern viewer (particularly if you are not an early bird). The demons are fascinating in another way, for their deformed features and general hilarity. We are not aware what the average Revival Period churchgoer thought of them, but today they appear very amusing. The only exception is of course Satan: an ominous, muscular figure embracing a bunch of damned souls.

Revival Period murals Bulgaria

Torture of shopkeeper and tailor who stole from their customers, main church of Rila Monastery

Devils in Bulgarian Revival Period churches escape from the confines of the Last Judgement murals. You will find them all over the place, as in the moralising scenes of desperately ill people seeking help from clairvoyants. The Church did not approve of the (usually female) healers, and so their deeds were denounced with strong artistic language: in murals, these well-dressed women take advantage of the poor sick as they "heal" them with demon faeces.

Demons feature heavily in the scenes of a popular cycle of frescoes dedicated to the wanderings of a dead man's soul in the 40 days after his death. During this period the soul, guided by an angel, has to endure a number of temptations and to witness the punishment for various sins, with demons in a range of colours, shapes and with various attributes representing these.
While devils seem to be having a generally good time in Revival Period churches (including dancing a joyous Horo while clairvoyants do their business), they look truly pitiful in the depictions of St Marina, who is venerated as an able fighter of evil creatures and so is often depicted beating the hell out of a demon (pun intended) with a mallet.

There is hardly a Revival Period church in Bulgaria that does not display at least one Last Judgement scene with its collection of sinners and devils. The most beautiful examples were painted by Zahariy Zograf, the leading artist in Bulgaria at the time, in the main church of Rila monastery, and at Preobrazhenski monastery near Veliko Tarnovo. But while Zograf's frescoes are refined and bordering on the glossy, the cruder creations by ordinary painters in lesser known churches are a true delight. Searching them out in an obscure place turns into an exiting exploration of times past, when damnation was the result both of a major sin like murder, and something as harmful to the community and the soul as having a lie-in.

If you want to see a fuller collection of the best examples of Revival Period devils and damned souls, visit the The Sin, a permanent exhibition in the House of Humour and Satire in Gabrovo.

Revival Period murals Bulgaria

Punishment of a miller who stole flour, detail from Last Judgement mural from St Petka church in Penkyovtsi village, Pernik region, 1867

Revival Period murals Bulgaria

The perils of visiting a clairvoyant, main church of Rila Monastery, 1844

Revival Period murals Bulgaria

The punishment of clergy, St Archangel Michael church, Leshko village

Revival Period murals Bulgaria

Sinners, including a thief, a perjurer and a poor soul who dared to eat before going to church, from Last Judgement mural at St Irina church, Hotnitsa village, near Veliko Tarnovo

Revival Period murals Bulgaria

Punishment of the usurers and thieves, The Wanderings of the Soul scene from Our Lady's Shroud church, Rila Monastery, 1811

Revival Period murals Bulgaria

The devil and the clairvoyant, a mural from St Archangel Michael church, Leshko village, Blagoevgrad region, 1889

Revival Period murals Bulgaria

"St Marina beats the devil with a mallet on the head", from the St Archangel Michael church, Leshko village

Revival Period murals Bulgaria

"The devil holds the mirror to those who make up themselves", from the St Archangel Michael church, Leshko village

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