Lesnovo Monastery

Lesnovo Monastery was built in the tiny village of Lesnovo, close to Kratovo and Zletovo settlements in north-eastern Macedonia. The Lesnovo Monastery is likewise many other Serbian medieval monasteries in present North Macedonia located secluded up a long and imposing mountain road at the elevation of nearly 1000 meters, on the south-western slopes of the Osogovo Mountains. The Church in Lesnovo is dedicated to the Archistrategos Michael and the Holy Archangel Gabriel and has been built built between 1341 and 1349. The Lesnovo Monastery is the largest and best preserved among the Serbian Medieval endowments of the 14th century in the Balkans and one the most visually stunning and culturally significant monasteries of present North Macedonia. The historical importance of the Lesnovo Monastery is above all as a monastic-spiritual, literary and copying center, of equal importance.

The Church of the Lesnovo Monastery was built on the foundations of an earlier/older shrine that existed in the 11th century during the time of the Vulnerable hermit Gabriel of Lesnovo whose ascetic cave cell is set nearby. The Church of Lesnovo is dedicated to Saint Archangel Gabriel and hermit Gabriel of Lesnovo. The older-original Lesnovo Monastery dating from the 11th century was extended and thoroughly rebuilt in 1331 by Despot-duke Jovan Oliver, the prominent representative of the Serbian aristocracy and the master of Ovce Pole and Lesnovo region on which testify the carved inscriptions above the former entrance door. During the Turkish administration the cattle, especially sheep from the Ovce polje area /Turkish Mustafa ovasi/ were transfered to the Kumanovo market – bazaar where traders from Sofia and Drenopolje used to come for trading of sheep and wool. The Duke Jovan Oliver was a military leader of Emperor Dusan of Serbia and one of the most powerful Serbian lords of the second half of the 14th century, and the owner of large estates in what is today eastern North Macedonia. Duke Jovan Oliver was one among many Serbian noblemen who ruled the territory of present North Macedonia in the Middle Ages and sponsored construction of a number of valuable churches.

At the Church Assembly in Skopje in 1347 Tzar Dusan proclaimed Lesnovo Monastery for the seat of the newly established Bishopric of Zletovo. In 1381 the Lesnovo Monastery was granted to Hilandar-Chilandary Monastery as its metochion /church property/. Lesnovo Monastery boasts the rich Treasury with numerous precious sacral manuscripts and liturgical and religious books. The conception of space, similar to that which was characteristic of architecture in Greece, remained constant in the works of Lesnovo Monastery masters. The concept “similar” could also be used for the overall structures of the edifices, and particularly for their exteriors, which leads one to the conclusion that the planning was in the hands of informed patrons who were in contact with each other. It is also possible to assume that a single group of craftsmen was at work here, traveling from one site to the next. Their knowledge and practice originated from somewhere between those trends found in the Byzantine capital /or in Thessaloniki using the concepts existing in Constantinople/ and the architecture style found in the western territories of Greece, primarily in Epirus. Therein, the long tradition of Serbian architecture in the conception of the entire structure of Lesnovo Monastery was respected: the grouping of areas into a closed entirety, and attention to proportions with an emphasis on the vertical aspects of the structure.

The church of the Holy Archangel Gabriel in Lesnovo /built in 1341, narthex added by Duke Jovan Oliver in 1349 who restored and expanded the older the 11th century monastery/ has parts of two different architectural conceptions: a church in the narrow sense and the inner and outer narthexes. The Lesnovo church is done as an enclosed whole, marked by rhythmical series of decorative arches which are two staged and placed in two zones, one above the other. The concept of the semi-circular pillars which are joined to the pilasters, hinted at in the church of the Archangels Monastery in Stip is materialized consistently at Lesnovo Monastery. It originates either directly or by way of Thessaloniki-Salonica, from the Byzantine capital. Without fail, the concept of the narthex of the Lesnovo Monastery can be attributed to a representative source. With its masterfully built structure, featuring the cupola in the center, wide open walls, the bi-fora and other details in the facade-work, Lesnovo Monastery is very close to those works coming from the best of Byzantine workshops. As a whole, Lesnovo Monastery was a model for Psaca Monastery /1358, founded by Sevastokrator – lord Vlatko Paskac/. Along with details that indicate the best of construction workshops, such as the shape of the apse and the semi- circular niches on its external walls, the work on the decorative surfaces is also remarkable, accompanied by colorful traits characteristic of the architecture of the late Byzantine world. The death scene of Saint Gabriel of Lesnovo was painted in a specially constructed shallow niche in the lateral altar wall of the church in the Monastery Lesnovo. The tendency toward decoration, color and ornamentation, construction with the support of brick and mortar, is shown to the greatest extent on the facade surfaces of Zaum Monastery /on Lake Ohrid, 1361, founded by lord Kesar Grguric/. The complex of Lesnovo Monastery was built in the traditional Serbian-Byzantine school. Thus, the Lesnovo church reflects the ideas that came about in the Paleologus Renaissance, and hints the innovations which would be created in the forthcoming periods of Serbian architecture. In 1342 the Lesnovo Monastery was connected directly with Mount Athos which was the time when lord Jovan Oliver has given the monastery under jurisdiction of Hilandar-Chillandary monastery

The fresco-decoration of Lesnovo Monastery is work of four authors. In regard with wonderfully preserved details and variety of scenes, the Lesnovo Monastery frescoes comprise the horizon of the Byzantine painting and rank among the most magnificent artistic achievements at the beginning of the 14th century. The whole interior of the Lesnovo temple is full with frescoes which were painted in two stages: first in the time between 1341 and 1346, and the second in 1347/48 and 1349. Among the Lesnovo Monastery fresco ensemble, the painted portraits of the founder Despot Jovan Oliver and his wife Marija, the portraits of the Serbian Tsar Stefan Dušan and Queen Elena, fresco of Archangel Michael on a horse and of the monk Gavriil /also and the hermits – saints of Joakim Osogovski and Prohor Pčinski/ are outstanding. Portrait of Tsar Dušan dominates by its size as it is larger than the Christ itself and the saints surrounding him. On the ceiling of the inner narthex you can see frescoes of the sun and the moon and 12 animals of people in the sky. Despite they clearly show the zodiac signs, it is believed that they are not designed to depict the zodiac signs. The icon-painters of Lesnovo Monastery have left their signature on small circle fields. The inscription on the fresco of the Lesnovo Monastery on which the landowner Jovan Oliver is depicted provides significant data on appellation this person was attributed in different periods. The precise, clear drawing with reach ornamentation and color is expressed on the frescoes with the figure of Archangel Michael, on the portrait of the donor of the church and the scenes with the “Scab patients”, “Dormition of Virgin”, “Michail saves Constantinople from Saracens” and others. The khetotorial arrangements are depicted in the foundation commissioned by the members on the nobility. From the Lesnovo Monastery fresco-decorations of the inner narthex the ones that stand out are the compositions from the life of Christ and the acts of Saints, as well as the illustrations of David’s psalms. The portraits of Tzar Dusan and Empress Elena are among the most monumental in the medieval fresco-painting. For the first time in this presentation the Son of God appears, unlike the usual one where the angels are the ones playing the role of distributing wreaths. Inside the Lesnovo Monastery, the fresco of a paralytic boy guiding the blind man painted in 1347, immediately draws one’s attention: the spotted skin of the leprous man and the boy is in stark contrast to the divine depictions of saints and angels on the walls. On one of the fresco of the Lesnovo Monastery there is the Serbian Kolo dance painted, with dances whose hands are interwoven. Artistically, the figures of Lesnovo Monastery are modeled with tranquil grace and strong facial features. The flowing and airy fabrics of the figures superimposed on the visual perspective of the background add depth to the whole scene.

One of the highlights of the Lesnovo Monastery is highly rich and beautifully wood carved iconostasis from the 19th century, carved in walnut by Miyak masters led by Petre Filipovski ‒ Garkata. The Lesnovo iconostasis is the oldest of the three preserved iconostasis completed by these masters woodcarvers – the icosnostasis of the Sveti Jovan Bigorski Monastery and the Skopje Church of the Holy Savior – Sveti Spas Church in Skopje.