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Orthodox Spiritual Sanctuary, Lesnovo Monastery

Lesnovo Monastery on the southern slopes of the Osogovo Mountains possesses a history and spiritual power making it equal to the sanctuaries of St. Naum and St. Kliment on the shores of Ohrid Lake. Lesnovo is Ohrid’s eastern counterpart. As in Ohrid, the landscape around the monastery is magnificent. It is situated on the hilly remnants of a volcanic crater full of naturally sculptured rocks. The beautiful old volcanic crater is compared to the Italian Etna Mountain. The hills around the monastery have many artificial caves which had been made by cutting out large stone blocks for making watermill stones. Lesnovo watermill stones are another landmark of the area. Stones carved by local craftsmen were sold at big markets and fairs in Thessaloniki and Istanbul.

It was in the caves around Lesnovo that the local spiritual history started. In the tenth and eleventh centuries there was a great tradition of hermits who lived in the caves for decades. One of them was Gavril, whose bones were discovered after a Russian monk got a vision of their location. When the bones were found they were deemed miraculous, Gavril was canonised and a monastery was built on the spot. Some historians claim the monastery existed even during Gavril’s time, but it was just rebuilt or renamed after him. Anyway Lesnovo Monastery became a spiritual and monastic centre. The Great Lesnovo Larva (Sinai) was created with more than 200 monks in the monastery and around a hundred more in numerous chapels, caves, and skits (small prayer cells in the rocks). Nowadays, there are remains of over 20 prayer cells. Local guides and enthusiasts say they have even identified the original cave of Gavril. There still survives a scroll written by the monk Stanislav, on request of Abbot Teodosij and dating back to 1330 that describes the life of Gavril the monk.

The monastery church dedicated to Archangel Mihail was built in 1341. It is believed that the monastery was devastated shortly afterwards and that the Duke Jovan Oliver, one of the closest feudal allies of the Serbian Tsar Dushan, rebuilt it. The south portal contains a well preserved fresco depicting Duke Oliver and a page of the charter by which the land was granted and the monastery was established. The big property enabled the monastery to develop into a spiritual and literary centre. The monastery continued to flourish after becoming the seat of the newly established Zletovo Diocese. After the fall of Tsar Dushan the status of the episcopate was repealed and the monastery fell under the jurisdiction (metoh) of Hilandar Monastery on Mount Athos. In the first years of the Ottoman rule the monastery was spared, but in the 15th century it was robbed and destroyed. According to the scroll of a certain Drajko the monastery was repaired with the help of local Christian dukes who still had some economic and administrative power after the Ottoman conquest. The later fate of the monastery was full of ups and downs, with years of destruction, robbery and renewal. The present structures, including the iconostasis in deep wood carving made by the famous Mijak masters Frckoski, Stanishev and Garkata mainly date back to the 19th century.

In the past decades the monastery again played an important role in the revival of the Macedonian Orthodox Church. Namely, the monk Gavril rekindled the life in the monastery and in the 1980s became Archbishop. Today, the monastery complex consists of the bell tower, warehouse facility with several additional rooms and the renovated 19th-century living quarters. Although the stone tower probably dates back to the 15th century, the bell was installed on it only in 1860. The monastery has a chapel dedicated to St. Naum Ohridski. In the monastery yard there is an unusual mulberry tree aged more than 600 years and shaped like a cross. According to the monks, there are only three such trees in the Balkans, two of which are in neighbouring Serbia. It is a monastery with active monastic life. First, Abbot Agatangel and, then, Abbot Ilarion were Bishops of the modern Diocese of Bregalnica.

The frescoes from Lesnovo Monastery are some of the most valuable heritage of the 14th century. The whole interior of the church is covered with frescoes painted by several artists who had left their signatures in small circle fields. Yet research has not revealed the exact authorship of each fresco. The portraits of the founder, Despot Jovan Oliver, and his wife Marija, portraits of the Serbian conqueror of Macedonia Tsar Stefan Dushan and Tsarina Elena, of Archangel Michael and of the monk Gavril, as well as of the monks Joakim Osogovski and Prohor Pcinski, stand out the most.

Lesnovo’s Literary Center

Lesnovo is considered a great spiritual sanctuary of Slavic literacy. Lesnovo Scriptorium founded in the 9th century is one of the oldest schools in Macedonia, and its calligraphic school was started in the 13th century. Lesnovo’s literary centre played a significant role in the Middle Ages being an important source for the major Balkan literatures as well as other Slavic literatures, including Russian. It testifies to the rich ties among Macedonian, Byzantine, Serbian, Bulgarian, Russian and other mediaeval literatures. The earliest scrolls date back to the second half of the 11th century, the time when the monastery was dedicated to the Saint Archangels Michail and Gavril, and the hagiography of the saints as well as the liturgy books were compiled. The monastery got its full affirmation in the 14th century when it was renovated and became seat of the newly-formed episcopate.

The literary heritage of this spiritual centre is ample and varied. The monk Stanislav wrote his first Prologue in 1330. He copied Menaion on the request of the founder, Jovan Oliver. He composed a few more versions of Prologue and Menaion. We also know the names and works of his student Partenij as well as the scribers Tahota and Kalinik. Drajko who came to Lesnovo Scriptorium in 1428 left behind significant books. In the 17th century the literary activity was carried on by monks Kalinik and Konstantin. During the 19th century the manuscript copying tradition was kept alive in Lesnovo Scriptorium by priest Nikola, teacher Hristo, priest Joan Hrstev, monk Makarij, teacher Dimitrie Hristov Kratovec and others, even though the monastery library was rich in printed books. It’s believed that in Lesnovo Monastery Joakim Krcovski, the famous member of the Macedonian Enlightment, developed his literary and spiritual skills. Pavel Bozigrobski from the village Konikovo who was Abbot between 1867 and 1870 was widely praised for his administration.

Lesnovo Monastery Library kept manuscript books of Onufrie Osogovski (15th–16th centuries), Filimon (16th century), Matej Slepcanski (16th century), Kiril Pejcinovic and many others. The list of surviving manuscripts from Lesnovo is long but none are kept in the monastery today. They have been removed by different people, including diplomats, priests, scholars, and are mainly preserved in academies of sciences and national libraries. Lesnovo books and manuscripts can today be found in Sofia, Belgrade, Zagreb, Moscow and St. Petersburg.