There were many surprises on my river cruise through Europe–one was the Orthodox Churches I saw in Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania. I am familiar with Eastern Orthodox Churches in the United States, but in Eastern Europe, Orthodox churches were on steroids.
Every surface in these churches was covered with paintings, walls, ceilings, porches, and some times exterior decoration. I noted that a lot of gold was used in the church, not just for decoration, but as part of the art work. The crosses on top of the church were gold, or something that looked like gold, backgrounds of paintings and mosaics were also gold. The walls and ceilings were covered with painting, like an picture book telling Bible stories and the history of the early church. There are no statues in Orthodox churches, only paintings are allowed. All the churches have a screen in front of the altar, which symbolizes the division between heaven and earth. This is the iconostasis, and it is covered with icons. It has three doors, the largest is in the middle which is opened only during services. Often the ceiling over the altar area is painted sky blue with angels symbolizing heaven.
If services were being conducted, I couldn’t go inside the church, but from a peak through the door, I could see the paintings of Christ, his mother and the saints. In Romania, unlike in the United States, worshipers stand for the entire service, which lasts for over an hour, often longer. The churches in Romania had “porches,” covered entries, which also had every surface, including the ceiling covered with mosaics or frescoes. When I was in Constanza on a Friday, a holy day was being observed, the church was full and a choir, located in a loft, sang responses with the priest during the service. There were quite a few people outside the church, and people were coming and going even though the service was in progress.
Many of the paintings were illustrations from the life of Jesus or stories from the Bible. Some churches had mosaic portraits of saints on the exterior.
The Rock Churche of Ivanovo in Bulgaria was the oldest church I saw on the trip. It was also the most unusual. After climbing a steep hill using a stone staircase, passing through a lot of vegetation, we reached a hole in the rock, which leads into the cave, divided into two rooms. The cave is dim, the light comes in from two windows in the rock wall, the ceiling is low, but not low enough to require person to stoop. This church, and many others in the area was carved into the limestone cliff by Orthodox monks in the 13th and 14th centuries. The monks lived in nearby caves and used this church for services. It is small, and probably could accommodate about 25 worshipers. The walls and ceiling of the church are covered with frescoes, painted on the rock walls and ceilings, illustrating the life of Jesus. There was vandalism over the years, but in this church most paintings are well preserved. Instead of the flat and stiff figure painting usually seen in Orthodox Churches, the figures in the paintings are lifelike, like figures in Renaissance paintings. The painters used perspective, something missing in Medieval painting. Most of the paintings have retained their color, thought some have faded and others have disappeared. This church is one of many rock churches in the area, since it is the best preserved and accessible, it is the only one open to the public.
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