Ohrid: The Mecca of Macedonian Orthodox art

Perched on the shores of Lake Ohrid, the eponymous Macedonian town is where the Slavic literacy and culture originated from. The medieval town is also host to the world’s oldest Slavic monastery in addition to its legendary 365 churches – one for each day of the year. The churches themselves are Ohrid’s biggest draw. Plastered with Byzantine-style frescoes and studded with icons dating from the 11th to the 14th centuries, these churches are jewel boxes of Eastern Orthodoxy.

Stylistically, the bulk of Ohrid’s assortment of religious art is classified as Late Byzantine. Historically, this period began after the sack of Constantinople in the Fourth Crusade of 1204 and continued until the fall of Byzantium in 1453. Created either in Constantinople and Thessaloniki or in Ohrid, the icons have formed part of each iconostasis they had been painted for. These special screens for icons were introduced into ecclesiastical practice during the Late Byzantine period as well.

The handful of churches in Ohrid that receive the heaviest tourist foot traffic also provide a complete anthology of Macedonian fresco and icon painting. The grandest of them, 11th-century Sveta Sofija is famous for its navy-blue, if somewhat faded, Byzantine frescoes with an iconic enthroned Virgin holding Christ in a shield-like mandorla in the apse. The church has made it both onto the coat of arms of the Macedonian Orthodox Church as well as the country’s 1000 denar banknote.

Another Ohrid icon, Sveti Jovan at Kaneo, is a 13th-century Armenian-style church set on a cliff above the lake. It’s said to be the country’s most photographed sight. The frescoes behind the altar are low-key but the Christ inside the dome is a hit, notwithstanding the damage it has sustained from the Ottomans. The best frescoes in town are to be found at the Sveta Bogorodica Periplebta. With the entire biblical cycles covering its every surface, this 13th-century church is the Sistine Chapel of Ohrid!

Surveying Ohrid’s religious art on location brings home a few points about Orthodox icons in particular. They are not just artworks but sacred images that are used in religious devotion and some are credited with the performance of miracles. With their depictions of Christ or the saints being generic rather than portrait images, little room is made for artistic license. As a result, icons show a continuity of style and subject matter that is far greater than in the Western religious art.