The Message of the Icon-Painters
By the strokes of the brushes, by the paint employed, even more so by the master's skill with one and the other, you can recognise us and distinguish us one from the other, the leaders of the iconists' guild and the whole clan. In any case you can decipher our names on the hems of the saints' garments, modestly inscribed. And when the heathen rises above the belfry and whitewash conceals our craft, when such times come, pray for yourselves, oh you, defilers of the scene in front of us! (Michail and Eutychius)
Fresco-painting. Despite a number of significant achievements, architecture in Macedonia in the early Middle Ages, compared to the accomplishments of Constantinople and Thessaloniki, was largely of provincial character. But fresco-painting in Macedonia in the same period equaled the greatest and most beautiful works of the Byzantine Empire.
The finest works include the frescoes in Nerezi (1164), Kurbinovo (1191), Manastir (1271), the Church of St. Nicholas in Varosh (1290), the Church of St. Sophia in Ohrid (the second layer of the fresco-painting dates from the 13th century) and the Church of the Holy Virgin Perivleptos (1295). Macedonia is one of the richest regions in terms of mediaeval wall paintings, both in the Balkans and in Europe as a whole. Over the course of time, many generations of local painters created works of exceptional skill and beauty.
Deserving of mention were the Deacon Jovan, Rufin, Michail Astrappa and Eutychius, Grigorius, Jovan Theorian, Mercurius, Jovan Zograf and his brother Makarius, Alexius, the monk Gligorius and the monk Yoanakis, all of whom worked in the period from the middle of the 13th to the first half of the 15th centuries.
The oldest fresco in Macedonia (only fragments of it have been preserved) is located in the Strumitsa Church of the Fifteen Holy Martyrs of Tiberiopolis, a local religious subcult of the Macedonian Slavs from the late 9th and early 10th centuries. Fresco-painting was particularly developed during the reign of Tsar Samuil, under the influence of the East. Unlike their teachers, most of them from Thessaloniki, Macedonian artists gave stronger emphasis to the expressions of the face and the compositions of the paintings are more explicit. Wall-painting was especially developed during the time of the Archbishopric of Ohrid (1018-1767), as proved by the frescoes in Vodocha (about 1037) and in the Church of St. Sophia in Ohrid (1040-1045). The frescoes in St. Sophia represent a rare artistic treasure from the 11th century, which greatly enriched the art of the fresco-painting in Macedonia. According to general opinion, the visual arrangement of the sanctuary of this church is the most purely Slavonic in the development of Macedonian art. The frescoes in this cathedral are characterised by the postures of the figures and the archaic forms, united in an artistic and iconographic whole unique to church painting of the time. The fresco-paintings in St. Sophia represent the most significant preserved works of Byzantine painting in general. A different group of painters worked in the late 11th and the first half of the 12th centuries within the framework of the Archbishopric of Ohrid, creating the frescoes in Velyusa (1085-1093), Vodocha (the second layer of frescoes), and taking part in the renovation of the Church of the Fifteen Holy Martyrs of Tiberiopolis in Strumitsa.
The second half of the 12th century was a period marked by the beautiful frescoes in Nerezi (1165-1168), the renovated church in Velyusa (1165-1170), the Church of St. George in Kurbinovo (1191) and the Church of the Holy Virgin Perivleptos (now known as St. Clement) in Ohrid (1295). The frescoes in Nerezi ("The Lamentation", for example) and in Kurbinovo introduce a pronounced expression of the inner feelings of the characters, making these frescoes unique and exceptional. The refined colours, warm hues and the spirituality of the characters elevate the Nerezi frescoes to the highest levels of Byzantine fresco-art. Even in smaller churches, such as the Church of St. George in Kurbinovo, the feeling of the inner experience of the characters is dominant in the dramatic scenes. The pronounced psychological element in the characters is likewise noticed in the fresco-paintings created in a later period, under new conditions.
Dramatic scenes depicted by the frescoes in the Church of the Holy Virgin Perivleptos in Ohrid were expressed by the artists with an almost documentary precision. These frescoes are characteristic of the early period of the two great masters of fresco-painting in Macedonia, Michail Astrappa and Eutychius. The fresco "The Lamentation" reveals the drama of man in general, rather than the drama of the saint. The saints on the frescoes in the church of the Holy Virgin Perivleptos (St. Clement) are depicted as healthy, young people with athletic bodies, full of life. The fresco "The Lamentation of Christ" was painted by an anonymous Nerezi master 140 years before the great Italian painter Giotto painted his master-piece "The Lamentation" in the chapel of Scrovenni in Padua. The mother on the Nerezi fresco is depicted as convulsed by her anguish for her deceased son, the culmination of her distress and tragedy. The new element of expression in the Nerezi frescoes "The Lamentation of Christ" and "The Deposition from the Cross", supplemented by the dramatic fresco "The Lamentation of Christ" in the Church of St. Clement in Ohrid, obliges art historians to consider these frescoes as true heralds of the Renaissance which would spread throughout Europe about a hundred years later — and many art historians consider that the Macedonian school of fresco-painting directly influenced the Italian Renaissance. However, unlike developments in Italy, the Macedonian proto-renaissance was extinguished by the Ottoman conquest which inhibited the bloom of art and caused the art of fresco-painting to stagnate and decay.
The pursuit of fine arts continued during Serbian rule over Macedonia. Many churches are preserved from that period, the most distinguished being the Church of St. Nikita on Mt. Skopska Crna Gora, the Church of St.George in Staro Nagorichane (where the fresco-paintings were created by Astrappa and Eutychius between 1307 and 1318), the Church of St. Archangel on Mt. Skopska Crna Gora, the Church of St. Archangel in Varosh, the Church of St. Andrew near the Treska River and the Church of St. Nicholas in the village of Lyuboten, near Skopje region. During the Serbian period, the monumental exo-nartex, a rare architectural accomplishment both in Macedonia and the world in general, was added to the Church of St. Sophia in 1317.
Portrait painting was also an important art in the mediaeval period. Among the most famous portraits made on Macedonian soil are the portraits of King Milutin and Simonida in Staro Nagorichane, the portraits of Dushan and Helena at Lesnovo, the group portrait of the Paskacha family at Psacha, and the portraits of Volkashin and his son Marko in the church of St. Archangel in Varosh and in Marko's monastery. In view of the popularity of portraits in Byzantium, it would be logical that portraits had long been included in Macedonian churches but no portraits have been preserved from the period prior to the 13th century.
Icon painting. After several visits by the Apostle Peter to Thessaloniki, Christianity began to quickly spread throughout Macedonia. Confirmation of this are a number of early Christian basilicas in Macedonia, including a hundred or so square meters of excellently preserved floor mosaics abounding in iconography and showing a high level of technical expertise, remnants of stone sculptures and 50 recently unearthed icons in ruins near the small town of Vinica. These icons are all made of terracotta, and hence called terracotta icons.
In 1985, during the excavations of the walls of a late-Roman/early-Byzantine fortress at Vinica, archaeologists discovered the foundations of several secular buildings and, their debris, discovered a true archaeological treasure: a number of unique icons of the early Christianity period worked in ceramics and thought to date from the late 4th century. These icons are unlike any others previously known, duplicated by using a mould and standardised painting. The figures are roughly 30 or 31 centimeters high, roughly 28 centimeters wide, and 4 centimeters thick. Inscriptions and signatures are written in Latin, with beautifully modelled letters, and the saints are presented without auras.
The most frequent illustrations are those of Archangel Michael with his wings folded and that of St. Theodore on a horse, dressed in a uniform of a Byzantine soldier. The cross of Emperor Constantine is presented on a number of icons, as well as symbolic animals and floral motifs. Distinguished for their high artistic qualities are the icons "St. Christopher and St. George", "Daniel in the Lions' Den" and "The Fruits of the Promised Land". Excavations have recently been renewed following a three-year pause, and may yet uncover more examples of these intriguing icons.
The high development of fresco-painting had its own reflection on the works created in the field of icon painting. The oldest icons discovered in Macedonia — more specifically, in Ohrid — date from the 11th and early 12th centuries. These include the icons "St. Vasilij and St. Nicholas", "The Forty Martyrs", "The Communion of the Apostles" and the Holy Virgin of "Annunciation with Archangel". Whatever the extent of influence by the Constantinople school on these icons, it is useless to deny their original and high artistic accomplishments.
In the sphere of icon creation, the 13th century abounds in such a great wealth and variety of style that each icon virtually represents a unique style. Art historians stress, for example, that "Mother of God Hodegetria" and "St. Barbara", both dating from the first half of the 13th century, are characterised by their refined sculpture, while "Jesus Christ Almighty on the Throne" unites the elements of the archaic and the contemporary, opening a new direction for artistic expression. Deacon John the painter, in his "St. George" expresses an entirely original conception of the painted sculpture. Experts point to the procession icon "Mother of God Hodegetria with the Crucifixion", dating from the second half of the 13th century as belonging to the emerging 13th century school of sculpture.
The same applies to the icons by Michail Astrappa and Eutychius, "Deisis", "The Resurrection of Christ" and "The Evangelist Matthew", created at the end of the 13th century. In the early 14th century, the two masters of the paintbrush introduced elements of the Palaeologi Renaissance to icon-painting. Their new conception was accepted by many other icon-painters who worked in Macedonia at that time, resulting in a series of icons ("The Faithless Thomas", "The Baptising of Christ", "Holy Virgin Episcepsis", "The Resurrection", and "Mother of God Hodegetria" in the Church of St. Nikita near Skopje), of undeniable contribution to the general wealth of Macedonian icon-painting. These icons were mainly created by unknown icon-painters. However, in the 14th century the brothers Metropolitan John Zograf and Hieromonk Macarius were also active and their icons "Deisis", "Holy Virgin Pelagonitisa" and "Jesus Christ the Saviour and Lifegiver" represent the highest level of icon-painting in Macedonia. But the 14th century was also marked by the Ottoman conquest of Macedonia, triggering a sharp decline in the quality of fresco-painting and icon-painting. A hundred years later, these two arts began to develop again, but under entirely new conditions. Still, fresco-painters worked as icon-painters as well, as in the former periods.
By the middle of the 15th century, Zograph Dimitriya of Leunovo (near Mavrovo) and his associate Jovan created icons in the iconostasis of Toplica Monastery near Bitola. In the early 16th century, Hieromonk Gerasim (creator of the "St. John the Theologian and Prochorus") and Hieromonk Kalinik (creator of "Deisis" in the monastery of the village of Slepche, near Demir Hisar) continued the new tradition of renewed icon-painting, based on the rich traditions of the Ohrid painting school.
Wood carving. It is normal to suppose that decorative sculpture was complementary to fresco-painting and an integral part of the architectural arrangements and the architectural conception. The oldest specimens of decorative sculpture in Macedonia are the wood carvings on the altar screen in the church of St. Sophia in Ohrid. After the Ottoman conquest, the influence of Middle Eastern elements in the Macedonian wood carving became much stronger. The shallow and flat arabesque style of carving dominating until the 17th century began to be replaced by more intricate styles of carving. In the monasteries of Slepche, Treskavec, Zrze, Varosh (near Prilep) and in the Monastery of the Most Holy Virgin of Kichevo, a number of works by Macedonian wood-carvers have been preserved. They reveal the characteristics of the Slepche-Prilep wood-carver's school: shallow and flat carving and rich geometrically interwoven floral and animal motifs.
Wood carving in Macedonia in the 13th century continued its development with new vigour and was enriched by new elements. The members of the Miyak wood-carver's school introduced the human figure in their artistic works and integrated it within the ornamental whole in an amazing way. The art of wood carving was not confined to churches and monasteries only: wood-carvers' tayfi (groups) began to decorate mosques, as well as sarays (mansions) and houses of wealthy merchants. In 1814, Petre Filipovski's "tayfas" from the village of Gari made the Great Iconostasis, kept in the National Library in Belgrade until World War II when it was destroyed by bombing. Petre Filipovski "Garka", his brother Marko, and Makarie Frchkovski from Galichnik worked on the iconostasis in the Church of the Holy Saviour in Skopje from 1824 to 1829 — an iconostasis ten metres long and six metres high. Some of the characters in the Biblical scenes are depicted dressed in Galichnik folk costumes. Art historians are unanimous that the value of this masterpiece lies in the softness of its lines, its arrangement of the forms, its stylisation and its baroque playfulness. In the period from 1830 to 1840, the famous master wood-carvers Petre Filipovski and Makarie Frchkovski carved the iconostasis in the Monastery of St. John of Bigor. They left behind self-portraits among the scenes of this iconostasis and again on the iconostasis in the Church of the Holy Savior. The iconostasis in St. John of Bigor is a grandiose example of Macedonian wood carving, divided into six horizontal squares abounding in floral and animal ornaments.
From Macedonia Yesterday and Today by Jovan Pavlovski & Mishel Pavlovski
Translated by: Zaharija Pavlovska