If you believe the hype, evidence that aliens visited us in the past, probably inspiring Christianity, exists hidden in plain sight. In a church. In Bulgaria.
A fresco in a 17th century church in Dobarsko village, near Bansko, is said to represent Christ in a space rocket, in the Transfiguration scene.
Even the website of the National History Museum, which features Ss Theodor Thyron and Theodor Stratilatus, embraces the idea. It describes Christ as a "cosmonaut" (the term for astronaut used in Soviet times) who "flies up to Heaven in an object quite similar to a modern space rocket spurting fire. Under Christ’s feet, the outlines of the atmosphere and stratosphere are visible."
The fresco of Christ as an astronaut is the main reason why tourists, mostly those staying in Bansko, visit Dobarsko, a small village at the foot of the Rila mountain.
Dobarsko was not always so small and quiet. In the 14th century, when it was known by the curious name of Gnidobradsko, or Nit-Bearded, it was rich enough for Bulgarian King Ivan Shishman to include it in a large donation of lands and settlements to Rila Monastery. Under the Ottomans, the village prospered through animal husbandry, while its name gradually transformed into Nedobarsko and then Dobarsko (the latter became official in 1912).
The people of Dobarsko were so prosperous that in 1614 six of them had enough wealth to commission the construction of a brand new church for the community, the Ss Theodore Tyron and Theodore Stratelates.
On the outside, the church does not strike as being particularly interesting or ornate. Built in the times when Christians had to observe the regulations of the Ottoman Empire, it is small, low and squat, but what the builders were not allowed to do on the outside they compensated for inside.
The murals have not been restored since their creation in the 17th century. The only intervention through the years was a clean-up of candle smoke sooth, in the 1970s
The floor was dug out to allow for a higher ceiling, and the interior was divided into several parts. Every square centimetre of the walls and arches was covered with vivid frescoes to a dizzying extent.
The frescoes abound with real or alleged peculiarities. Different sources claim that the church boasts the largest number of depictions of donors, or of saints, or of women in a Bulgarian Christian building of the period. Another peculiarity is the preference either the donors, or the anonymous artists had for soldier saints, including not only the patron saints Theodore Tyron and Theodore Stratelates, but also St George and St Demetrius. This might be explained by a legend. After the Byzantine Emperor Basil II won his last battle against the Bulgarian King Samuil, in 1014, he blinded the captured Bulgarian soldiers and, so the legend goes, some of them got lost on their way home and found themselves in Dobarsko. They washed their empty eye sockets in the spring by the local church, and their sight was miraculously restored. They then settled there and established a music school for blind children, which lasted for centuries.
None of the peculiarities in the church of Dobarsko, however, can surpass the Christ-in-a-Rocket picture.
Here He is: a tall figure surrounded by a halo in the shape of a distorted rhombus. Is He really evidence that aliens were behind Christianity? Were Erich von Däniken and his ilk right all along?
Anyone familiar with Byzantine iconography, which was and still is followed by the Bulgarian church and its icon painters, knows that the strange shapes around Christ in Transfiguration scenes have nothing to do with space ships and UFOs. They represent His divine light and are a part of the canon, although the painter was free to choose which shape to give it. Some preferred lenticular halos, other opted for rhomboid ones. The anonymous artist in the Dobarsko church opted for a more untraditional shape, but he was nevertheless following a canon that even in the 17th century was very old.
The "space theory" for Dobarsko's Transfiguration scene might be compelling, but surrounding Christ with strange geometrical shapes is a part of the Orthodox canon's way of depicting what the Gospels describe as "His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light" (Matthew 17:2)
Reportedly, the Christ-in-a-Rocket tale started in the 1970s or the 1980s, when the then Soviet ambassador visited the church and noted that the Transfiguration looked like a rocket with an astronaut (he would have said "cosmonaut," though). This extravagant idea took off and is still making the rounds, thanks to the Internet.
It is somewhat sad, because Ss Theodore Tyron and Theodore Stratelates hardly needs such a type of advertisement. It is beautiful and intriguing enough to warrant a visit without all the fantasies of Christ as an astronaut.
The altar of the church is also a rarity, as it has two doors instead of the usual three. The names of the main sponsors of the construction are written on the main icons. Ss Theodore Tyron and Theodore Stratelates is now a museum. The local community uses for religious purposes a neighbouring church, built in 1860
Dobarsko offers marvellous vistas to the Pirin
High Beam is a series of articles, initiated by Vagabond Magazine, with the generous support of the America for Bulgaria Foundation, that aims to provide details and background of places, cultural entities, events, personalities and facts of life that are sometimes difficult to understand for the outsider in the Balkans. The ultimate aim is the preservation of Bulgaria's cultural heritage – including but not limited to archaeological, cultural and ethnic diversity. The statements and opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and its partners.