All veils and mystery, that is what Orthodox church art must initially feel like to the unacquainted, just like the opening lines of the INXS lyrics. The incense, the icons, the shape of the churches, the priests who wear black and chant strange words (in old Bulgarian) and have long beards, the lack of heating, the candles, the music... What goes on there is a bit of a mystery to the Orthodox church goer himself or herself, not just you, and this is how the church was meant to be...To put things in context, I want to tell of what goes on outside and what goes on inside a 17th century church – the Cathedral Church of the Virgin Mary in the Bachkovo monastery. At 7.30pm on Tsvetnitsa (or Vrubnitsa, from vurba, or willow), a late liturgy had started. Outside, the Sunday is beginning to creep behind the Rhodope mountains that are losing their shapes to dusk, and traders have started to collect up their produce; inside, a church congregation of young men sings music they read out of old books, their lips moving underneath month-old black beards. To their far right, two men sit on a low bench, their outlines draped and hid by their long black frocks. Their peaceful white beards reach their bellies midway and make them look ancient and holy. In accordance with the Bible’s Leviticus 19.27, they are supposed to never spruce them.
All over the church, scattered people pray amid clouds of incense and Orthodox music.
In a couple of minutes, incense will douse the church in smoke even more and tease your nose, and an icon of the suffering Christ dressed in red will float on the hands of four men dance-walking out of the sanctuary. They will land it on a pulpit in the centre of the church, hover around it, bowing low while chanting. You will probably watch transfixed while they are busy looking like thin black holy birds out on a mission; unlike you, who is probably wondering if you are saintly enough to participate in the mission. Indeed, the sanctuary, where the Christ icon comes out of, is separated from the nave (the large central area of the church) by the Iconostasion in order to remind worshipers of their separation from God through sin. Only Divine Liturgy washes away the division and gives worshipers access to the Holy Gifts. They manifest the oneness of heaven and earth through Christ, but the Holy Altar remains inside the sanctuary, only visible if you gaze through the little door, feeling like a sneak.
Amid coats of smoke and light, people lost in prayer or tears walk or stand still, around you, and if you are, let’s say, in the Alexander Nevski Cathedral, the voices of streets and vehicles come muffled through century-thick walls, drowned in eyes that watch you from everywhere, reminding you that they are there. You can wander and be lost, or wander and be puzzled at this 19-20th century old art, or wander and do nothing, or just ask for a guide.
When entering an Orthodox church, one sees rites, literature, customs, canons, creed and dogmas that have existed since the beginning of Christianity itself. The Orthodox Church (with its divisions: the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Oriental Orthodoxy, the Assyrian Church of the East, some other Orthodox denominations, Western Orthodoxy), has kept the same teachings and principles under which the kings of Constantinople of the Byzantine Empire worshipped God in what was then the Eastern Roman Empire. Orthodoxy, in fact, claims to be directly descended from the Apostles, and therefore pure. Orthodox means true or right teaching, from the Greek ortho (‘right’, ‘correct’) and doxa (‘thought’, ‘teaching’, ‘glorification’). There has been no interruption of life in Orthodox Christianity, the way that western Christianity knows it, and some traditions even go back to the Old Testament. Incense, for example, is as old as Moses. When God gave the divine formula of incense to Moses, He told him: “And you must pound some of it into fine powder and put some of it before the Testimony in the tent of meeting, where I shall present myself to you.” (Ex 30:34-38; 37:29 )
The coldness of the church, the songs and incantations, the incense and the ritual under domes smoked black from candles that burn incessantly with thousands of wishes, the candle holders heavy with wax tears - all of these aim to strike the intellect, the feeling and the senses of the pilgrim. So does the Christ with thick eye shadows, more bizarre than splendid, and sometimes more instructing than forgiving, the image of a Virgin Mary that is not as sensual and beautiful as the Western Madonna who is sometimes almost a Venus, and the saints that look ghostly, pale and unfed.
All Orthodox churches are ideally small in order to more easily bring people together in community worship, although community worship is not exactly what it is in western churches, because ours always brings people together in a holy affair in order to separate them again and remind them that what is holy is inside, and what is unholy is outside. Heating is left out to make you feel that the only light and warmth of God comes from the candle, and around that are centered your thoughts. Orthodox churches are generally purposefully constructed in the form of a cross and have three areas: the narthex, the nave, and the sanctuary. Centuries ago the narthex was where catechumens (unbaptized learners) and penitents remained during parts of the services. In many Orthodox parishes today, this is where you make an offering, receive a candle, light it before an icon, and offer a personal prayer. Some church services begin in the narthex and proceed into the nave. This procession symbolically represents a gradual movement into the Kingdom of God. Most Orthodox churches have pews, but some follow the old custom of having an open nave with no seats. And some churches have improvised kitchen chairs in different-coloured upholstery.
That bizarre blend of art and tradition, the Orthodox icon, aims not just to portray images and scenes from the Bible and educate those who could not read in medieval times, but also to bring an otherwise inaccessible God to mankind’s world. Bulgarian icons are the inheritors of 1st- 2 nd century Byzantine religious paintings, as are the Macedonian, Russian, Serbian, Romanian ones. Bulgaria has preserved few icons from before the Ottoman times. Examples of those are a two-sided Christ Pantokrator and a Virgin Eleusa in the Poganovo Monastery (now in Serbia). After the Ottoman invasion, a lot of official art was obstructed and the only art to survive was more or less icon painting. Some examples of famous 15-16th century icons close to Sofia are preserved in the Kremikovtsi Monastery. Among the most famous icons in Bulgaria is the 1310 icon of the Virgin Mary Eleusa in the Bachkovo Monastery that was brought from Georgia and is thought to be wonder-working.
The artistic space of icons is split in three – earth, heaven, and that which is inbetween, which is actually God, the Virgin and the saints. They watch you from your own eye level, making communication impossible to run away from. The biggest part of the icon is taken up by the heavens, earth is minimal.
A blend of earth and heaven is precisely what Orthodox church art wants to achieve. The decoration aims to glorify the material manifestation of God on earth, put it on a par with heavenly beauty and make it appear close to the touch. It is exactly that aspect of Orthodox churches that brought Russians to the Orthodox family. The legend about the origin of the Russian church tells how somewhere in the 11th century Prince Vladimir (958-1015) of Kiev sent some of his people to see how people worshipped God in different parts of the world, so that he could decide which faith to choose for his country. When coming to Constantinople, they were stunned: “We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth, for on earth there is no such splendour or such beauty, and we are at a loss to describe it, and we know only that God dwells there among men.”
Going outside after a liturgy, you feel different and strange. The presence of something has made you duck and face the cobble stones, and silence your heels by tiptoe. You might eventually come to think about noise and how Bulgarians speak about speaking: instead of saying “he said this and I said that,” they say: “I shouted this and he shouted that”. It is slang that mimics the constant noise we create. And inside the church, it’s so cold and quiet that you can see your breath and hear the whispers of people metres away from you, without recognising the words.