The finest works include the frescoes in Nerezi (1164), Kurbinovo (1191), Manastir (1271), the Church of St. Nicholas in Varos (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 Strumica 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 Vodoca (about 1037) and in the Church of St. Sophia in Ohrid (1040-45). 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 Veljusa (1085-93), Vodoca (the second layer of frescoes), and taking part in the renovation of the Church of the Fifteen Holy Martyrs of Tiberiopolis in Strumica.
The second half of the 12th century was a period marked by the beautiful frescoes in Nerezi (1165-68), the renovated church in Veljusa (1165-70), 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 masterpiece "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 Nagoricane(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 Varos, the Church of St. Andrew near the Treska River, and the Church of St. Nicholas in the village of Ljuboten, near Skopje region. During the Serbian period, the monumental exo-narthex, a rare architectural accomplishment both in Macedonia and the world in general, was added to the Church of St. Sophia in 1317.
From Macedonia Yesterday and Today by Jovan Pavlovski & Misel Pavlovski (www.mian.com.mk)
Translated by: Zaharija Pavlovska