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The Subdued Splendor of Sveti Naum

September 8, 2004


By Christopher Deliso

In Macedonia’s most distant southwest corner, at a place where two nations meet and a river tumbles into a vast lake, stands one of those little miracles of human creation – the Monastery of Sveti (Saint) Naum.

Set against lush verdure on a high cliff, St. Naum has contemplated Lake Ohrid below for more than eleven centuries. Situated barely 1 kilometer from the Albanian border, the monastery is a 35-minute drive from the town of Ohrid, 29 km further north up the lake. Below the monastery, the River Crn Drim rushes cold and clear out of the woods and into the lake, its current rippling the water-top as it miraculously continues to cohere all the way to Struga, 30 km distant at the other end of the lake.

Most Byzantine church designers had a keen eye for detail and location, and Naum himself was no exception. This close associate of the famous St. Clement of Ohrid who lived in the late ninth and early tenth centuries set out to build a church from which monks could contemplate God in tranquility, to feel close to God while also remaining aware of the impossibility of truly fathoming the divine. The magnificent view of the prehistoric Lake Ohrid (at 288 meters, itself unfathomable) enjoyed from the monastery grounds seems to have held such an appeal for Naum and his pious brethren.

The most remarkable thing about the monastery, perhaps, can be detected before even entering it- the peacocks luxuriating everywhere around it, cawing their unearthly, plaintive cries from the branches of trees, strutting on the rooftops, or reclining by rosebushes in the grass. Could they have been there since the beginning? Artwork inside other churches in Ohrid contains depictions of peacocks, among other animals, so it may just be possible.

The monastery has been renewed and enlarged several times over the centuries, and none of its original frescoes have been found. Most of the surviving ones date from the 16th and 17th centuries. The church itself is linguistically important for its preservation of early Cyrillic and Glagolitic inscriptions dating from the 10th-12th centuries. These inscriptions are some of the oldest epigraphic evidence of Slavic literacy.

Traces of the Byzantine Greek ecclesiastical writing also remain visible on the frescoed walls of the church. But numerous orthographical mistakes indicate that Slavic-speaking local monks had transcribed them.

What little we know about the legendary founder comes from three hagiographical works that describe the saint’s life and works. In addition, his memory was preserved by Ohrid Archbishop Constantine Cavasilas.

Considering the past millennia of war and natural disaster throughout the Balkans, and the unfortunately strategic location of the monastery, it is a minor miracle that St. Naum has survived. However, it has not done so unscathed. Ohrid’s archives tell of a February 1875 fire, “…when the largest part of the monastery compound was burnt to ashes.”

Exceptional legends grew up around the monk and his monastery. St. Naum, the faithful believed, could heal the mentally disturbed. Some believe the monastery even had a sort of working hospital in and around 1662. The many miracles associated with St. Naum were immortalized in frescoes painted in 1806 by Trpo, an artist from Korcha, Albania. The article discusses some of these frescoes, which were given evocative (and humorous) names such “Harnessing the Bear,” “The Stupefied Monk Who Tried to Steal the Body of Saint Naum From His Tomb,” “Healing of the Mentally Disturbed,” “Horse Thief Who Was Caught at the Gates of the Monastery Church at Dawn” and “The Bucket Leaves Traces in the Rock.”

Nowadays, visitors to the monastery keep alive a fervent belief in Naum’s healing power, and the throbbing of his heartbeat – there’s no better logical explanation for it – can be heard by pressing one’s ear to the saint’s coffin, located inside the church. It’s just another magical aspect of a truly sublime and ethereal destination, one of the best Macedonia has to offer.

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