Medieval wall painting masterpiece

The Monastery of Zemen features the only European mural depicting the forging of the nails of the Cross

The residential buildings of the Zemen Monastery date back to the 19th century and have been beautifully restored.

The St John the Theologian Monastery of Zemen is situated amid a scenic locality at the foot of the Koniavska Mountain, in the gorge of Zemen on the Struma River and merely 70 kilometres south of Sofia. The monastery is among the earliest surviving sites of Bulgarian medieval architecture, construction building and wall painting.

In the courtyard of the monastery there is a church, two adjacent buildings and a small belfry. The church was built as early as the 11th century along with the construction of the cloister. With its cubic shape it is an unparalleled example of the cross-in-square type. It is made of smoothly hewn freestone laid with mortar. A high cylindrical drum supports the stone dome.

Most of the wall paintings date back to the 14th century and seamlessly flow into each other, depicting biblical scenes and saints. Most of these ingenious murals are believed to have been made by a local self-taught icon painter. The oldest image is that of St Anna, painted as early as the 11th century, and a bit later the images of St John of Rila, St Clement of Ohrid and St Joachim of Osogovo were created. The portraits of the church founders, Despotes Deian Dragash and his wife Doia are among the most ancient ones in Bulgaria and in terms of their artistic importance they almost match those of Kaloyan and Desislava in the Church of Boyana.

The church boasts the only European mural depicting the forging of the nails of the Cross. The mural represents a story in which a Judaean searches for someone to forge the nails for Christ's crucifixion. One farrier refused with the excuse that his hand was hurt, but his wife agreed to get the job done.

The altar of the church is a remarkable stone monolith, while the flooring of the sanctuary is made of coloured pieces of marble and stone. Legend has it that during the Crusades, Knights Templar visited the monastery and administered some of their sacraments.

Over the centuries the monastery has been reduced to rubble and rebuilt on more than one occasion. The church was twice reinforced in the 19th century, but has preserved its medieval look. The Monastery of Zemen has not been functioning as a monastery since the early 20th century. Today, it is a museum with a nice court immersed in lavish greenery. Vestiges of the medieval Zemengrad fortress are still preserved nearby. The gorge of Zemen captivates with its ragged beauty - pyramid-like rocks, caves and tall, steep cliffs.

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