The Ivanovo Rock Monastery is situated 21km south of the town of Rousse. In fact, the rock monastery is completely different from the other monastery complexes to be found in Bulgaria. In contrast to the traditional monastery complex which consists of 1-2 churches and a residential part, the Ivanovo cloister represents a network of small churches, chapels and cells hewn into the rocks, 32m above the waters of the picturesque canyon of the Roussenski Lom River. This cloister is the most famous one of the group of built-in-rock shrines around for its beautiful and well-preserved wall paintings.
The caves were inhabited by monks from the 13th century to the 17th century (some of the most popular and preserved ones being the Gospodev Dol Chapel and the Buried-Under Church). As if striving to be closer to God, hermit monks started to settle here in the 13th century, digging cells, churches and chapels into the rocks. During the apogee of the religious complex, the rock churches are believed to have been about 40, while the cells of monks – about 300. Unfortunately, most of these are no longer preserved.
The Ivanovo Monastery owes its unequalled cultural and historic value predominantly to the mural paintings dating from the 13th and 14th century and preserved in five of the rock churches. Talented artists pained them with realistic frescos, exquisite in color and composition, and turned them into a true treasure of Bulgarian medieval painting. The murals abound in antique motives – nude caryatids, columns atop lions, masks. They are an example of the revived attention towards antiquity and its culture, which in the 14th century can be noticed in Christian Orthodox art.
Of the churches still preserved, Gospodev Dol (to be found in a place of the same name) is the richest in wall paintings, while the monks’ cells keep the secret of passionate confessions, carved in the walls. From one of these wall scripts, one learns that Tsar Ivan Terter (1279-1292) spent the rest of his life and was buried in the monastery. Another impressive church, the so-called Buried-Under Church, is to be found in the Letters place. Despite its name and the raids of natural forces, the frescoes of this church still have high quality. One of the church donors was Tsar Ivan Assen Second, who loved to visit the place and spend treasured moments of solitude. This is evidenced by the portrait of the tsar, found in the Buried-Under Church, on which he holds a model replica of the church – a typical feature of church donor’s portraits. The third noteworthy church, called by the locals simply “The Church” is believed to have been founded by Tsar Ivan Alexander (1331-1371). It also has valuable frescoes depicting scenes from the Bible in a locally-modified style of the Emperor Justinian’s Renaissance. Unfortunately, the monastery’s valuables still remain subject of repeated raids of treasure-hunters.
The monastery’s rock churches are included in the UNESCO World Heritage List and are one of the 9 such objects in Bulgaria.