Visit to the Church & Embassy

On Thursday 2nd June a sub-team from the Bulgarian group and our language teacher, Yordanka, went to South Kensington to visit the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, St. Ivan of Rilski, and the Bulgarian embassy. Our main purpose was to capture the story of our chosen character, the priest of St. Ivan of Rilski, through a portrait to be exhibited as part of the UCL Festival of Culture exhibition entitled ‘A Sense of Belonging: Mosaics from a New Portrait of London’.

We spent the first hour observing our setting and interviewing the priest to better our understanding of his migration to London from his native Sofia. Through his eyes we gained an appreciation for his sense of belonging in London and his view on crossing borders. Employing the techniques we learnt from our workshop on ‘Looking at strangers’ with Richard Morgan, we experimented with portrait photography.

Finally, we selected and made subtle edits to the photo which best represents the priests’ identity for the display at Waterstones. Our experience was enriched by chatting with Bulgarian families queueing in line for the embassy about their integration into London’s society.  Below reads the individual reflections of our group members:

”What struck me most about the Orthodox Bulgarian church was the intensity of the artwork on the walls. A work of religious art from the eastern Orthodox tradition is referred to as an icon, and is generally stylized as a depiction of a biblical event or person. The image is designed to accompany an atmosphere of worship, and with this there prevails a feeling of stillness – no open mouths, and generally no sense of physical space. Walking around the church the quantity of these images gave a strong visual impression to what was essentially a small windowless room, quite in contrast to the grand scale of protestant churches, with their plain walls. The process of icon painting is heavily ritualised, and artists are meant to fast for several days before creation, obeying numerous visual conventions when constructing their image. This can be seen in how similar Jesus looks in each image. Always his right hand holds a bible, and always his left hand’s thumb and index figure are curled into a ring, his stern face looking straight out ahead at the church worshippers” ~ Tim

”During our visit to the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, it was clear it represented an integral part of the community due to the friendliness of the priest, the visitors who came in during our time there and due to the number of candles that were alight inside. Visitors light separate candles to pray for both the living and the dead and it was interesting to see how Bulgarian churches differ slightly to Russian Orthodox churches due to having a separate space for the candles commemorating the dead. Those candles are put in soil, representing a graveyard, whereas in Russian churches you may put them next to any icon. I have always found this to be a powerful way of remembering those you have lost.

The priest, V. Revd. Simeon Iliev, was the main reason for our visit and was very open about his experience in London (despite not being fluent in English) – I was amazed by the lengths he had gone to dedicate his life to the church when he described his desire to return to his home country. The inside of the church was very intimate with many icons and a large mural depicting the churches of Bulgaria and, although it did not look ecclesiastic on the outside of the building, the atmosphere inside was very peaceful”          ~ Lina

”The visit to the Bulgarian church and interview of the priest impressed me a lot since the church not only hosts religious services but provides an intimate environment which brings Bulgarians in London together. The priest greeted his parishioners fervidly in Bulgarian. This shows they are quite persistent in using Bulgarian and are keen on preserving their language. There was a lot of Orthodox religious literature on display which is evidently well used by many visitors. The layout of the Church has been maintained since 1981 and this brings a sense of familiarity and belonging to those who visit frequently. Unity and peace reflect the way in which Bulgarians in London live” ~ Xing

”Outside the entrance to the Church stood a blossoming tree from which hung delicate threads called martenitsa often woven into the form of two dolls. The mixture of red and white threads used evoke feelings from life and death to good and evil, culminating to portray the balance of human life. These are traditionally worn on Baba Marta (1st day of March) to mark the coming of Spring and more generally for good health. They are given as gifts to loved ones and it is symbolic to display them outside the church; a place where parishioners go to feel close to their fellow Bulgarians. I was warmly welcomed upon my first visit to an Orthodox Church and there seemed to be a strong sense of comradery. What struck me most was the contrast between the unassuming nature of the Church’s exterior and the highly decorative interior. The church housed multiple icons of St. Ivan of Rila and created a spiritual space that although small, served as a vital centre where Bulgarians in London gather to celebrate weddings and baptisms. Beside the tree was a bench with a plaque engraved with the words ‘’In Memory of Plamen D. Petkov QCM who gave a life to save his child. 10.12.1979 – 26.05.2012’’. Petkov was a British citizen of Bulgarian origin who drowned whilst trying to save a five-year old off West Wittering beach. He was awarded the highest civilian Bulgarian distinction and a statement by the Bulgarian embassy (which is beside the church) praised Petkov for ‘’upholding the prestige of the Republic of Bulgaria.’’ For me this aquatic tragedy and act of bravery is a metaphor for the way in which the Danube builds bridges between the people of the East and the West as it channels through the heart of Europe” ~ Yashil

We all thoroughly enjoyed this project and are looking forward to seeing our creations at the exhibition on Wednesday.

Yashil from Team Bulgaria

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