In the valley of the Roussenski Lom River, in north-east Bulgaria, a complex of rock-hewn churches, chapels, monasteries and cells developed in the vicinity of the village of Ivanovo. This is where the first hermits had dug out their cells and churches during the 12th century. The 14th-century murals testify to the exceptional skill of the artists of the Tarnovo School of painting. he period of the history of Bulgaria from the last years of the 12th century, when for the second time the country became independent from Byzantium, until the Ottoman Empire annexation in 1396, is known as the Second Bulgarian Empire.
Bulgarian Orthodox ChristianityIndependence from Byzantium could not be complete until the Bulgarian clergy became dependents of the Patriarch of Costantinopoli. In 1204, the Kaloyan Tsar signed an agreement with the Papacy in order to return as part of the Roman Catholic Church. It was not to be a long-lasting agreement. During the reign of Tsar Ivan Ansen II, Bulgaria once again embraced Orthodox Christianity, but with its own Patriarch, not subordinate to Costantinople.
The first Patriarch was the monk Gioacchino, who shared with Ivan Ansen the plan to expand the Bulgarian church. Before taking over the Patriarchal throne he had lived as a hermit in a cave in the river Rusenski Lom valley, not far from the village of Ivanovo. The monk achieved so high a level of sanctity that Tzar Ivan Ansen entrusted to him the construction of a monastery, something which contributed to strengthen his image as a merciful monarch. The convent was built between 1218 and 1235 and had from the outset a rocky character; all its buildings were dug into the limestone cliff gorge of the river and its contributories.
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In the years between 1331 and 1371 the monastery, thanks to further new royal donations, acquired the best of its artistic patrimony: the splendid frescoes attributable to the painters of the so-called Tarnovo School.
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During the conquest of the country by the Ottoman Turks in 1396, the forgotten monastery of Ivanovo fell quickly into ruins and was abandoned. The solid limestone out of which it was carved and on which frescoes were painted enabled it to resist to the inclemency of the weather. Along the two walls of the Rusenski Lom river gorge there is a labyrinth of cells, of rooms, and above all of churches and chapels dug into the cliff face which were originally completely covered by frescoes, but of which only five are still in good condition.
Bearing in mind the fact that three of these churches go back to the reign of Ivan or immediately afterwards, they constitute remarkable evidence of the revolution in painting during the two centuries of the Second Bulgarian Empire. In the churches of the first period, the human figures are painted in the same realistic style, with oval faces and fleshy lips, and the colours of the clothing are bright. The 14th-century frescoes by contrast are in the classical style of the Palaeologic period.
The five churches and their frescoes are testimony to the Byzantine art influence in Bulgaria. The creation and decoration of these rock-hewn churches is largely attributable to the donations of the Bulgarian Tzars in the 13th and 14th centuries.