Bačkovo Ossuary

Date: 1083, Twelfth century, Mid-fourteenth century
Location or Findspot (Modern-Day Country): Bulgaria
Description: Bačkovo (Bachkovo) was the site of an important Orthodox monastery founded in Bulgaria in 1083 by a Byzantine general, Gregory Pakourianos. The typikon of the monastery, which was dedicated to the Theotokos of Petritzos (near Bačkovo), permitted only Georgian monks; Gregory himself was of Georgian origin. The sole surviving medieval building is the two-story ossuary, built in the late eleventh or twelfth century to hold the bones of deceased monks. The apsed structure was outside the monastery's walls, adjacent to its cemetery. After the bodies decomposed, the bones were buried under the lower floor. Upstairs was a chapel in which the monks could gather to commemorate their dead.

Such ossuaries have rarely survived, and Bačkovo is the only one that preserves its fresco decoration. The artist was a Georgian, John Iviropoulos (John of Iberia, meaning Georgia). In the upper chapel are Christological scenes and saints, with the Theotokos and Child in the apse conch. In the lower story, the Deesis was depicted in the apse conch above framed and standing saints. Facing it, on the west wall, is Ezekiel's vision of the dry bones (Ezek. 37:1-14). This Old Testament episode was a type for Christian resurrection. Standing saints on the walls include bishops, deacons, and monks, understood as praying for the dead just below their feet . Through the prayers of these saints, the Bačkovo monks hoped their brethren would eventually be resurrected in heaven.

In the fourteenth century the Bulgarian tsar Ivan Alexander (r. 1331–71) walled up the ossuary's two narthexes to insert additional images; Gregory Pakurianos is in the lower story and Tsar Alexander in the upper chapel. In this way, the contemporary and earlier patron could also benefit from the monks' prayers.
Relevant Textbook Chapter(s): 7, 8, 10
Image Credits: Ivan Vanev, used by permission; Richard Mortel, Flickr (C BY-NC-SA 2.0)

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Bačkovo ossuary, lower story, west wall with Ezekiel and the Dry Bones Bačkovo ossuary, lower story, detail of Ezekiel and the Dry Bones Bačkovo ossuary, view east in upper chapel Bačkovo ossuary, upper chapel, walled-in narthex arcade with Tsar Ivan Alexander Bačkovo ossuary, view from the southeast Bačkovo ossuary, view from the west