Saint John Bigorski Monastery

Sveti Jovan Bigorski Monastery – Saint John Bigorski Monastery is medieval Orthodox Monastery located in west Macedonia, on the road connecting Gostivar and Debar, in the vicinity of the tiny Rostuse village, at elevation of some 750 meters in wonderful eco environment of the Radika River Valley. The present Sveti Jovan Bigorski Monastery – Saint John the Baptist Bigorski Monastery is the 19th century monastery positioned on the foundations of the earlier shrine, on the slopes of the picturesque Bistra Mountain, within the area of the Mavrovo National Park, above the banks of the gorgeous Radika River. This is the historical area of Stara Srbija – Old Serbia widely renown for extraordinary skilled local masters – woodcarvers who accomplished marvelous wood-carved iconostasis in the shrines and monasteries of the Balkans. The present Monastery of Sveti Jovan Bigorski – Saint John Bigorski was constructed in the unique Miyak-Debar style of architecture over the remains of an older /much earlier destroyed/ church dating from 1021, which by some historical records was the endowment of the Serbian King Holy Jovan Vladimir – Sveti Jovan Vladimir. Slatina is one of the important settlements in the Srednja Debarca area at the foot of the Ilinske planine mountains. It is believed that once at the site of Bigor there was the Sveti Jovan Bigorski Monastery, which was in inexplicable way transferred to the present location in the Radika River Valley.

At the entrance to the church of the Sveti Jovan Bigorski Monastery is outer narthex with marble partition – a tryphora which closes approach to the central part and fulfills the space with unusual quietness and semi-darkness. Interior and outer narthex of the Saint John Bigorski church are fresco painted by local fresco painters – from the nearby Lazaropole village – with scenes of the Christ life and passions while in the outer narthex is painted row of the Serbian Medieval kings until the Kosovo Battle in 1389. In the dome of the large central cupola is depicted Christ Pantocrator who blesses with his right hand the faithful and holds a Gospel in his left hand. In the 16th century during the reign of the notorious Sultan Selim I – 1512/1520 Turks destroyed to the ground the Sveti Jovan Bigorski – Saint John Bigorski Monastery when only a small church remained, that had been quickly restored afterwards. The Saint Jovan Bigorski Monastery – Sveti Jovan Bigorski was restored in 1743 by the monk Ilarion and local Miyaks, when several monastic cells were added. At the beginning of the 19th century, during the management of Abbot Arsenius, the Monastery of Saint John Bigorski – Sveti Jovan Bigorski was expanded and enjoyed support of numerous Serbs of the Mala Reka area – Mijak benefactors, being the center of spiritual life of the local Mijaks /Miyaks/.

The ornamented wonderfully wood-carved iconostasis of the Bigorski Monastery church was elaborated in the 1830s and belongs to the most fascinating work and highlight of this monastery. The iconostasis of Saint John Bigorski Monastery is divided into six horizontal bands. The first iconostasis zone is basically composed of rectangular fields that feature ornaments of flora and fauna. The second zone of the iconostasis holds the throne icons and ends with a figure of an eagle with spread wings. The third area of the iconostasis is divided into three smaller horizontal parts that are symmetrically distributed angels, grapes and vines, etc. Above them are two rows of icons with depictions of apostles. In the center of the iconostasis of the Bigorski Monastery is the large cross with the Christ Crucifixion. Besides the iconostasis of the Sveti Jovan Bigorski Monastery, the arch priest’s throne and the prior’s chair had been manufactured by the wood-carvers group of Petre Fylipovic-Garkata from the Gari village, with the help of his brother Marko and with active participation of a number of distinguished Miyak wood-carvers. The zographs Michail and his son Dimitar from Samarina, Epirus village, at that time painted the throne icons, the festive icons and the icons of the holy apostles for the iconostasis in the Bigorski monastery. With the accomplishment of the Bigorski iconostasis, Miyak wood carvers have acquired a reputation of the best and the most wanted wood carvers in the entire Balkan Peninsula. Many scenes, compositions and individual figures have been engraved in the iconostasis, being presented in movement and with an expressed dramatics in some scenes, like the scene with Beheading of Saint John. The beauty of the Bigorski Monastery iconostasis is enriched with many animals and birds, interwoven with floral ornaments with a realistic presentment of a grape vine, flowers of narcissus, garden roses, oriental fruits, as well as the favorite motif of the Miyak wood carvers, cracked pomegranates. It may be rightfully stated that the creations of the Mijak wood carvers on the iconostasis of the Bigorski monastery are in-suppressed either by the ones on the Holy Mountain or the works of the Epirus wood carvers, not to mention the Samokov and Treven wood carvers.

Mijaci – pl. Miyaks are the Serb tribe which settles the area of western part of the present North Macedonia – in the course of the Radika River, the right tributary of Crni Drim River – Black Drim River, that is known as the Reka region. Locals of the Reka region are known in other parts as Rekanci, but also Debarci for the fact that the nearest settlement is Debar, which they administratively belonged to during the Turkish reign. The term of Galičanci is also used, after the once largest Miyak village of Galicnik. The area of Mala Reka in West Macedonia is covered with typical and pure settlements of Miyaks, that are for long time famous in the art history as sources of construction, painters and woodcarvers : Galičnik, Sušica, Tresonče, Lazaropole, Gari, Osoj. Kopaničarstvo – woodcarving of Miyaks is one of the most significant phenomenon of traditional heritage and art of the South Slavs. Works of the Miyak woodcarvers feature prominent floral ornamentation in which human figures were woven with great artistic skills into figurative compositions of Biblical scenes. The Serbian tribe of Mijaks – Miyaks in present north-western Macedonia in the Dolna Reka – known as Mijacija – is the Serb ethnic group that for long time resisted Bulgarization and communist movement of Macedonization. Mijaks are organized in tribal communities similar to the original Serbian tribes in Herzegovina, Littoral, Old Crna Gora – Old Montenegro, Brda – Hills, Metohija and Raska areas. Mijaks are also very similar to the Serbs on the other side of the Sar Mountain, in the Sirinic Zhupa of Metohija area, around Strpce and Brezovica settlements. The largest settlements populated by Mijaks are Lazaropolje, Gari, Bituse, Selce, Osoj and Susica. However, today among Mijaks only minority declares themselves as Serbs, while majority declares them the Macedonians, and those who would consider themselves as Bulgarians almost do not exist.

Built on a steep mountain slope and surrounded with vast monastic hospice and dormitory and with dense woods and rocky hills of serene West Macedonia, the Sveti Jovan Bigorski Monastery is reminiscent of the cliff top monasteries of Mount Athos in Greece. Given that this monastery is dedicated to Saint John the Baptist, the faithful people believe that icons with his image are blessed and feature miraculous healing power. The monastery of Sveti Jovan Bigorski also houses a small silver coffin containing alleged relics of Saint John and other saints as well as remarkable collection of handwritten manuscripts and books. On the outer walls of the Sveti Jovan Bigorski Monastery are frescoes painted by the famous Miyak fresco-painters from Lazaropole village, which depict only the Serbian rulers and kings of the Nemanic Dynasty until the Kosovo Battle. The Sveti Jovan Bigorski Monastery complex includes a dining room and old monastic dormitory, a tower, a charnel house and two fountains spilling over with fresh water.

Saint John Bigorski Monastery – Sveti Jovan Bigorski is one of the most beautiful monasteries in the Balkans and comprises the unique altar masterly wood-carved in deep carves. The chief master was Petar Filipov from then village of Gari, a representative of the Debar woodcarving school, who, in cooperation with his brother Marko and several other assistants, worked for six years on this masterpiece. The icons in the iconostasis of Sveti Jovan Bigorski Monastery were painted by icon- painter Michail and his son Dimitar. Besides the iconostasis, the wood-carvers also elaborated the prelate’s throne and the abbot’s chair in the church, whose northers features marvelous mural paintings of St. Clement of Ohrid, Saint Naum, Saint George and other Orthodox saints. The Serbian tribe of Miyaks in the present northwestern Macedonia are the Serb ethnic group that for long time had resisted the Bulgarization and the Communist Macedonization. The Miyaks are organized by the tribal system and clans, likewise the tribes in Herzegovina, the Littoral, Old Crna Gora, the Brda – Hills, Metohija and Raska. The Miyaks have many similarities with the Serbs living on the other side of the Sar Planina Mountain, in the Sirinicka zupa of Metohija, in Strpce and Brezovica settlements. The largest Miyak settlements and villages are Lazaropolje, Galicnik, Gari, Bituše, Selce, Osoj and Sušica. Nowadays among the Mijaks-Miyak population only a small minority declares themselves as the Serbs, as the majority are Macedonians, while those who declare themselves as the Bulgarians – almost do not exist. Every Miyak family greatly respects and maintains the unique custom of celebration of the Patron Saint – Krsna slava or the Sluzba, while the center of spiritual life is the Monastery of Saint Jovan Bigorski. Miyaks local population had preserved their unique customs and dialect that origin from the Nemanjic Dynasty realm.

Saint John Bigorski – Sveti Jovan Bigorski Monastery is the shrine frequented by numerous visitors to Macedonia and the Balkans from all over the world.