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Hidden Marvels of Macedonia

by Michael J.L. La Civita with photographs by Sean Sprague

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In the heart of the Balkans, in a nation with an internationally disputed name, a town of 50,000 souls rises from the eastern shore of the deepest body of water in southeastern Europe. A jumble of orange roof tiles and pink plaster, punctured by cypress and fir trees, Ohrid resembles any number of Balkan provincial towns, quiet centers where nothing extraordinary seems to happen.

Ohrid – the name may derive from the Slavic, na hrid, or on the hill – is deceptive. Ohrid is ancient, predating Rome. Ohrid is sacred. It once served as the capital of a Bulgarian empire – which challenged even Byzantium – and as the metropolitan see of an independent Eastern Church, whose authority or influence stretched from the Italian provinces of Calabria, Puglia and Sicily through Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Bulgaria. The birthplace of the alphabet now used by Belarussians, Bulgarians, Macedonian Slavs, Montenegrins, Russians, Rusyns, Serbs and Ukrainians, Ohrid safeguards some of the greatest, but least known, treasures of Christian culture.

According to medieval chroniclers, Ohrid, known then as the Slavic Jerusalem, had a church for everyday of the year. Today, less than 20 remain, but what survive reveal a confident culture imbued with the spirit of the Christian East and intimate with the essence of the Christian West.

Built in the late 11th century as the Great Church, or cathedral, of the Archeparchy of Ohrid, Haghia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) is the fourth structure built on the site, the oldest of which dates to the Roman period. The cathedral is lavishly appointed with frescoes more than likely executed by monks trained in Constantinople who followed the strict canons of the day and remained anonymous. The frescoes employ iconography typical of the period as well as unusual subjects, such as portraits of patriarchs of Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, Jerusalem and Rome – evidence of an undivided church despite the Great Schism in 1054.

Built at the end of the 13th century, the Church of Our Lady “Peribleptos” (or, all-knowing) became the Great Church of the archeparchy after the Turks captured Ohrid at the end of the 14th century and converted Haghia Sophia into a mosque.

Rededicated to St. Clement, after the disciple of Sts. Cyril and Methodius who reformed the Glagolitic alphabet, the church houses a series of frescoes, unusually signed (Astrapas, Eutychios and Michael), that both follow some Byzantine iconographic guidelines and abandon others. The iconographers depict not abstract saints transfigured by heavenly light, but real men and women, people of Ohrid, encountering the divine. Their feet planted on firm earth, these depictions prefigure the work of the Renaissance masters and the decline of the anonymous mystic masters of Byzantium.

The spiritual heirs of St. Clement and his associate, St. Naum, who founded a literary school in Ohrid some two centuries before the University of Bologna, have reclaimed Ohrid as the spiritual center of the revived Macedonian Orthodox Church.

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Michael J.L. La Civita is Executive Editor of ONE magazine.



Tags: Macedonia Balkans Frescoes Haghia Sophia Macedonian Orthodox Church