Here is a wall painting from the Dormition Monastery Church, the third largest monastery in Bulgaria. The painting dates to 1847. It is of interest because it shows three saints prominent in the Balkans — specifically those primarily associated with Bulgaria.
It should not be difficult for you to translate the title inscriptions, if you having been reading this blog for some time, because though the image is Bulgarian, it is inscribed in the Church Slavic you already know from Russian inscriptions.
Let’s look at the left inscription:
You have seen all of these words but the last before. It means
“Holy Venerable John [of] Rila”
When one thinks of Bulgarian national saints, John of Rila (c. 876-c 946) is the most prominent. The patron saint of Bulgaria (and also of pie makers, oddly enough), he was said to have been first a monk, then a hermit (reputedly the first in Bulgaria). He was considered a saint during his lifetime, and though it is not in the title here, he is nonetheless called a “Wonderworker.” His reputation attracted followers, who camped near his cave, and that was the beginning of the Rila Monastery, the most famous in Bulgaria. Among the peculiar stories told of him is that one day his young nephew, Luka, ran away from home and came to John, wanting to follow his ascetic lifestyle. Papa showed up in a fury, berated John, and dragged Luka off toward home. John was sure that the boy would consequently later take up an evil life, so he prayed to God for Luka. The result was that when the boy and his father had only gone a short way on their journey home, God sent a poisonous snake to bite the boy, who died, but his soul was “saved.” Talk about tough love.
John holds no scroll in this example, but in many of his icons he holds one reading:
Господи, возлюбих благолепие дому Твоего и место селения славы Твоея.
Gospodi, vozliubikh blagolepie domu tvoego i mesto seleniya slavui tvoeya.
“Lord, I love the habitation of your house and the place where dwells your glory”
Psalm 25:8 (26:8 in KJV).
One also may find other texts used.
The middle fellow in the wall painting is identified like this:
His inscription is read across the top, then across the bottom. That gives us:
Dimitriy [of] Basarabov”
Dimitriy (Demetrios) is said to have been born of Wallachian (think Romanian) peasant parents at Basarabov, near the Lom River (it flows into the Danube) in the 13th century, at that time part of the Wallachian -Bulgarian Empire called Târnovo. He is said to have been a pious boy, so sensitive that when he accidentally stepped on a nest of baby birds with his left foot. He was horrified at having done such a thing, and refused to wear anything on that foot for some three years to punish himself, through sun or frost.
Still young, he entered a monastery, then lived as a hermit for a time in the woods, and eventually in a cave above the Lom River, where he died between two pillars of stone. One year the Lom River flooded high enough to reach the cave, covering his body with debris. Another flood is said to have washed the debris away, and the body along with it, which would have been lost except for some unusual events (so the old story goes).
First, if you have read the classic novel Dracula, by Bram Stoker, you will recall that in it there is mention of seeing strange flames at night, which according to Romanian folklore indicate the place where treasure is buried. Well, according to the hagiography of Dimitriy Basarabovskiy, unexplained flames were seen at the place where his washed-out body came to rest. And also, there is the old motif of appearing to someone in a dream. It is said that Dimitriy appeared in the dreams of a girl suffering from epilepsy, telling her that if his body was recovered, she would be cured. Because of the flames and the dream, his body was found “incorrupt” (remember that in Slavic/Balkan thought that can mean it is either holy or evil, depending on events that happen around it) and taken to the Basarabov Church, where it began to work more miracles.
It makes for an interesting story, but as we already know, one cannot take the stories of saints’ lives as historical fact. And in Dimitriy’s case, there is quite a different 18th-century biography of him, written by a monk of Mount Athos names Paisios, that says he was an ordinary person who owned some sheep and lived in a little hut, and died about 1685. His remains were found and taken to the church at Basarabovo, where again they worked miracles. Yet another version of his life says he was at one time married. In general, it is the first version that is favored in telling tales of his life.
There are lots of stories about haggling over his relics and attempts to take them, which is quite in keeping with the history of the cult of the saints’ relics as practiced not only in Eastern Orthodoxy but also in Roman Catholicism.
Whatever the real story, Dimitriy Basarabov became a prominent saint in Bulgaria, and also in Romania, where he is considered the patron saint of Bucharest, the Romanian capitol. There are stories of part of his relics being carried around the city in the early 19th century to rid it of the plague, reflecting the common belief in the apotropaic (averting evil) power of the remains of the bodies of presumed saints.
Today, the site most associated with Dmitriy is a rock monastery in the side of a cliff not far from Basarabov, in Bulgaria, said to be built where Dmitriy had his cave. Because Dimitriy is also called “Saint Dimitriy the New” (Sfantul Dimitrie cel nou Basarabov in Romanian) the monastery is called the “Monastery of Dimitriy the New.”
Now for the third inscription and saint:
ФЕОДОСIЙ (note the “Omega” form of the second O)
“Holy Venerable Feodosiy (Theodosios) [of] Ternovo” (actually “Tarnovo”)
Feodosiy was a 14th-century Bulgarian saint born in Vidin — at one time a monk of Mount Athos — who lived in a monastery at Paroria in Southeastern Bulgaria. He was a disciple of the Hesychast teacher Gregory of Sinai, who came to Paroria after fleeing plunderers on Athos. In 1350 Feodosiy went to Kilifarevo, where he established his own monastery. Feodosiy is generally credited with the establishment of the practice of Hesychasm in Bulgaria. Hesychasm is the “mystical” form of meditation that involves the constant reputation of the name of Jesus, or a little phrase including his name. It is rather like the Pure Land Buddhist practice of repetition of the name of the Buddha Amitabha, in Mahayana Buddhism. Feodosiy (Sveti Teodosiy Tarnovski in Bulgaria) died at the Monastery of St. Mamas in Constantinople in 1363.