The Monasteries in Bulgaria - Bulgarian Orthodox Monastery Guide!


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Zemen Monastery "St. Ioan Bogoslov"

Completely different from both the official Byzantine style and the other official Turnovo School, are the architecture and painting of the Zemen Monastery, founded during the 14th century. It is located above the Strouma River, 76 km southeast of Sofia. A solid stone building, it was the only one to survive the monastery's ravaging and depopulation after Bulgaria's subjection to Ottoman rule. It was not restored until the 19th century. Such as it remains today, the Zemen church is an absolute exception to the whole of Bulgaria's mediaeval architecture: a cubic building, with three semi cylindrical upsides with equal height, reaching up to the roof cornice which unites them in a single group. The roof - a four-wall squashed pyramid with a cupola atop a cylindrical drum, decorated by two rows of blind arches - is unique in the entire Balkan Peninsula. The facades, which are broken up only plastically - by means of blind arches and lacking color effects - complete the harsh original appearance. A strange blend is achieved with the impact of the inside murals - also harsh, somewhat crude, as if deliberately archaic. With few parallels in contemporary painting, they continued the traditions of the pre-iconoclastic period in the Eastern Orthodox art. The Zemen master also had a particular weakness for folk-style details, which he skillfully depicted. All this makes this monastery a rare monument of original mediaeval folk art, of that marked trend in religious painting which Andrei Grabar called democratic trend. Even if it is one of the popular Bulgarian monasteries among tourists, St. John the Theologian is relatively small and presently is not run by monks or nuns. Guests are received by an old couple who maintain the complex and retell its history. The monastery constists of two connected dwelling buildings, a small belltower and a church in the middle of a spacious inner yard. No doubt, the church deserves the biggest attention among all buildings in the complex. It dates back to the 11th century AC and is one of the few examples of Bulgarian architecture, construction and wall paintings of the Middle Ages that has survived to date. The church, which is currently not functioning, represents a cubic building with a dome made of stone. Visitors are particularly taken by the altar, which de facto represents a massive stone plane, and the floor, which resembles a mosaic of different-coloured pieces of marble and stone, gifted to the church by local people. Yet the frescoes, which cover all inner walls of the church and represent a masterly merger of biblical images and scenes, leave the greatest impression. Most of the wall paintings date back to the 14th century while the image of St Ana is the only one that has survived since the time of the church's very establishment in the 11th century. The more recent images of St Ivan of Rila, St Kiment of Ohrid, despot Deyan and his wife Doya are also well preserved. The church is declared a national monument of culture while the images of the church donors, Deyan and Doya, are the oldest and most valuable church-donor paintings in Bulgaria, second only to those of Kaloyan and Desislava seen on the walls of the Boyana church.


The Zemen monastery, named St John the Theologian, is situated just outside the town of Zemen, about 15km down off the main road from Sofia to the town of Kyustendil and the border checkpoint of Gyeshevo. It is located in a beautiful area in the skirts of the Konyavska mountain, not far away from the Zemen defile in the valley of the Struma river


The monastery is reached easily as it takes about 5min to get there from the centre of Zemen by car or alternatively, about 30min on foot. The road from Zemen to the monastery is a pretty good, asphalt one.

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