The Millenial Saint Sophia

The cathedral church “Saint Sophia” is one of the oldest and most magnificent Christian temples in Macedonia. Dedicated to Saint Sophia, that is to The Christ embodying the Divine Wisdom, the church which over a millennium, until this day, quietly but proudly defies time, has been constructed over the foundations of an older church. That was in the time when SS. Cyril and Methodius were sent on the great mission, when the Macedonian Slavs accepted Christianity in Slavic language. And when Tzar Samuil relocated his capital from Prespa to Ohrid the church was used as a cathedral temple.

In the 11th century “St. Sophia” was the Great church of the Archbishopric of Ohrid, which had spread its ecclesiastical power over a vast territory, from the Danube to the Albanian shores on the Adriatic Sea and to the Gulf of Thessaloniki. Having in mind the high reputation it had in the orthodox world, in the centuries that followed only the most respectable members of the eastern ecumenism could be ordained archbishop (Teofilakt of Ohrid, Dimitri Homatian), and they always emphasized its Justinian origin.

Architecture: St. Sophia has the shape of a three-nave basilica, it has a dome and galleries in the side walls, an as early as the 11th century it had a forecourt. In 1313/1314 its construction is completed by adding the magnificent forecourt with galleries in the upper floor and towers on the northern and southern side, it is one of the most beautiful constructions in the Byzantine and Macedonian architectural history dating from the 14th century (it represents one of the works of the archbishop Gregory I, who was deeply trusted by the Tzar Andronik II Paleolog. In the second half of the 15th century it was converted into a mosque, the frescoes were covered with lime, the stone sanctuary removed, the dome demolished and instead a minaret was raised. The church defied time and it wasn’t until after the Second World War that it was protected from dilapidation. The frescoes that emerged from under the Turkish mortar are among the most precious treasures of the medieval art.

Wall painting: The origins of the frescoes in “St. Sophia” date from the period after the fall of Samuil’s empire. In that period, the person ordained archbishop of Ohrid is Leon (1037-1056), a distinguished head of church, polemics philosopher, writer and one of the most highly educated people of that time. He renovated and expanded the church and acted as patron of the decorations in the church. He himself chose the subjects and their arrangement on the walls. The older paintings in “St. Sophia” were part of the monumental painting of the 11th century, the authors of which probably came from the more developed painting centers.

The most notable position, which is the altar, belongs to the portraits of more than sixty patriarchs of Constantinople (St. Basil the Great, St. John Chrysostom, St. John the Theologian…) and the side walls represent six roman popes, a placement which reflects the relations between the Eastern and the Western church before the schism in 1054. Among the representatives of the patriarchates from Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem, the Archbishopric of Cyprus and some other Bishoprics, are also the portraits of the Slavic saints St. Cyril the Philosopher and St. Clement, his disciple and protector of the city, as well as the one representing St. Methodius, whose cult of worship increased in the 10th and the 11th century.

The most popular and closest to the viewers are the frescoes on the southern side: “Saint Trinity” (represented as three angels visiting Abraham), “Abraham’s Hospitality” and “Abraham’s Sacrifice”. On the northern side your attention will be drawn by the compositions “Three Jews in a fiery oven” and “Jacob’s Ladder, as well as “The liturgy of Basil the Great” and “Saint Sophia the Holy Wisdom of God”, represented as an angel who appears in the dreams of St. Basil and St.John Chrysostom. The “Ascension of Christ” dominates the semi-circular vault and the entrance hall is covered with a cycle of frescoes dedicated to the most important feast days: “The Nativity of Christ”, “The Entrance into the Temple of the Virgin” and “The Assumption of the Virgin” (which is one of the oldest compositions in the Byzantine art treating this subject in general). What is also characteristic are the two representations of the Mother of God with the infant Christ: on the first one the Christ is represented with bare and crossed legs, and on the second one The Virgin is seated on a low fence, heralding the apparition of the Madonna of humiliation, (dell’ Umilità). These two images are iconographic models of the emotional relationship between the mother and the child, later adopted by the craftsmen of the West.

Some parts of the church have been painted in the first half of the 14th century by the famous craftsman from the workshops in Ohrid, Jovan Teorijan, and his disciples. The upper floor of the narthex, the despot Oliver’s chapel and Gregory’s gallery have been painted in the time of the archbishop Nicola who was a patron of the art. The subjects in Gregory’s gallery concern the “fate of the soul”, represented by the compositions “History of Joseph from the Old Testament”, (this cycle, along with the one in the church “St. Mark” in Venice bearing the same title, is the most comprehensive illustration of this subject in the eastern and western medieval art), the “Canon for separating the soul from the body” (a rare cycle, found elsewhere only in the monastery Hilandar on the Holy Mountain) and the “Last Judgment”.

Because of its exquisite acoustics, the cathedral church “St. Sophia” is the location where traditional musical and cultural manifestations are held, as part of the Ohrid summer festival.

And even today, when entering this rare and remarkable monument of the medieval art, you can feel the thousand years shining from the walls and the memory of an entire civilization engraved there. The time on earth ceases to exist and you find yourself in the timeless beauty of the Holy Wisdom of God, Saint Sophia.


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