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St. Demetrius – Monastery complex Chebren

Sveti Dimitrij Cebren

Monastery of St. Demetrius is located within the second suburb of Chebren medieval town on the right bank of Crna Reka.

It was dated in the first half of the XIV century. During the 14th century in Macedonia, ie from the time of its subjugation under the jurisdiction of the Serbian medieval rulers until the subjugation under the rule of Ottomans, artistic creation (wall painting and easel painting) have one of the most important roles in the history of medieval art not just in Macedonia, but in the art history of the Balkan peoples and Byzantine art in general.
In the period after the Ottoman conquest the art activity in the conquered parts of the Balkans, remained completely unknown with a few exceptions. It is not unusual that the historiography of art gives only generalized and incomplete representation of his condition from this period.
The destiny of artistic production was very uneven and modest compared to the previous period. In the very beginning of the new age it contributes significantly in forming a narrow conception of the cultural development of Christians under Ottoman rule.
Before falling under the Ottoman rule at the end of 14th century in the middle parts of the Balkan Peninsula there were more artistic hotspots, whose work terminated in new conditions, mainly without leaving distinct traces in later times. However, in some of them it continued, or decades later it began to show signs of recovery based on their own tradition, somewhat modified and brought by people with different abilities.

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Church of St. Demetrius from southeast

In the 14th century Macedonia increasingly becomes one of the most important artistic centers of Byzantine Empire. Striving to Thessaloniki, Macedonia, doubtless, was the main transmission point in the process of spread of the Byzantine art to Bulgaria, Serbia and Russia.
First decades of the 14th century, when the monastery church of St. Demetrius is dated, i.e. the period from 1282 parts of Macedonia were under domination of Byzantine and Serbian medieval rulers. Serbian state dominates in the Northeast cities of Macedonia. With the truce reached in 1334 between the Serbian Emperor Dushan and Byzantine Emperor Andronicus III Paleologos, the other cities in Macedonia belong to the Serbian medieval state.
This treaty reduces the territory of Ohrid diocese, without questioning its autocephaly. The Archbishop of Ohrid from that time, Nicholas, was especially censorious in selecting who and how would paint the churches of his diocese.
At that time, major number of churches and monasteries were renovated. This was a period of many known as well as anonymous painting groups, as the one of Michael and Eutychius, their successors, the master George and his group, traveling painting group led by the artist John Theorianus and many other anonymous itinerant masters.
In the second half of 14 century in Prilep region and Pelagonija monastic paining group of the metropolitan Jovan Zograf and his brother the hieromonk Macarius worked. We do have neither data about the artist wall-painting the church nor can we seek chronological analogies, because of the wall-painting from that period has not been preserved.
In the many-centuries-existence of the monastery it was repeatedly renewed due to frequent burnings, looting and destruction. There is an evidence that during the World War I four buildings were demolished that probably were monastery quarters, one barn, facility for brandy distillation, four granaries, two watermills and the Church of St. Salvation, too.
Very little has been preserved from the monastery complex today. Deep central apse renovated in 14 century over the early-Byzantine basilica, with dimensions of 2.40m. and part of the east wall  have been preserved from the original three-nave church.

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Remains of marble from early Byzantine basilica V-VI century, in the interior of the today’s church

In the apse, wall-painting from 16 century has been preserved, when the church had been repeatedly renewed and wall-painted. In the period 15-16 century, under Ottoman ruling, many one-nave churches with small dimensions were built, wall-painted by local masters or monastic wall painters. It is a period of expansion or return to its earlier jurisdiction of Ohrid Archbishopric when the Archbishop Prohor had numerous clashes with the Smederevo metropolitan Paul and Kastorian metropolitan regarding the influence – affiliation or secession of certain eparchies.
But, the Archbishop Prohor’s policy for usage the Slavic language instead of the Greek in the administration and liturgy in the Archbishopric is known. Because it this, it is difficult to determine the exact boundaries of the Ohrid Archbishopric in this period.
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Remains of stone pillars of the early Byzantine basilica V-VI century, in the interior and yard of the today’s church

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Remains of the stone pillars of the early Byzantine basilica V-VI century, in the interior and yard of the today’s church

In the first half of the XVI century the diocese of Ohrid Archbishopric was narrowed to the east and north, while was extended to the west.
In the 30s of the XVI century under the jurisdiction of the Ohrid Archbishopric were 33 eparchies, of which 12 in the territory of Macedonia. The monastery church of St. Demetrius probably belonged to Bitola or Pelagonia eparchy.
Difficult political and economic situation of the Ohrid Archbishopric in the second half of the XVI century led to major territorial secessions especially after the secession of Serbian eparchies and restoration of the Pec Patriarchate.
After the death of Bishop Prohor, the metropolitan Simeon from Rashka had been appointed, but he was soon replaced by pro-Greek-minded bishops, so a new Archbishop, Nikanor, was appointed. After Nicanor the Archbishop Gabriel was mentioned. Due to the difficult economic and spiritual position he and independently on him the Pelagonia metropolitan, probably Gregorius, and Prilep metropolitan  traveled to Russia to seek financial and other assistance from the Russian Tsar Theodore Ivanovich. They requested financial assistance to help the exhausted Christian population as well as to rebuild the churches and monasteries. It would indicate that the monastery or only Church of St. Demetrius was renovated with such a commitment of the local bishops or current archbishop at the time.
Iconography of the preserved fresco in the church of St. Demetrius makes us concluding about its resemblance to the wall painting in churches during the 15th century, as a church dedicated to the Virgin Merciful in the village of Nivica , Great Prespa  from 1451/2, Sveti Ilija in the village of Dolgaec , St. Salvation in the village Vishni, near Struga, Dragalevtzi, Boboshevo. So the issue about the date of the frescos in the apse could be left open, because of the possibility this part of the apse area to date from the period when the church had been built over the early Byzantine i.e. first half of the 14 century.
Time and previous interventions in the church worsened the state. The frescoes are extremely degraded, faded and covered with layers of different type, hence its visibility is very poor.
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Apse with frescoes from XV -XVI century

Lower part of the baseboard is incompletely preserved from the wall painted area in the apse. Several rectangular fields limited with dark gray color are saved, and inside the background of the rectangular fields are whitish painted with flower bouquets in red and light blue tones.
Above the baseboard first zone presents the scene Adoration to the Passion, probably Hierarch retinue of St. Gregory, Basil the Great, John Chrysostom and an angel. The scene Adoration to the Passion was commenced even from the enthronement of the Ohrid Archbishop Leo in 1037, the   period of his Christological disputes with the Roman clergy. Adoration to the Passion in a symbolic way shows the eucharist, an allusion of the Last Supper that established the eucharist or Christos as an eucharistic sacrifice.
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Detail of Jesus Christ from the scene Communion of the Apostles

This extraordinary significant scene had been initiated from the service of St. Basil the Great that later almost regularly has been painted in the lower zone of the apse of the Byzantine churches named Adoration to the Passion. Figures are not fully preserved. Second zone displays the scene Communion of the Apostles where Jesus makes communion with wine from the left side and bread from the right side. In the upper part there is an arch frame that has been painted in red over every saint resembling the iconostasis’ epistyles from 16-17 century.
In the third zone of the apse very small part of fresco-painting has been preserved and the scene cannot be identified. Probably Theotokos with Jesus has been presented.
Zones are separated by a painted strip of 5 cm in deep red color.
Detail of Angel from the scene Adoration to the Passion
Unfortunately, because of the poor visibility we are not able to read any signatures, inscriptions nor more precise analysis of the drawing and colors can be made. Technique of painting probably is fresco. Tones of yellow ochre, brown, orange and whitish have been mostly used for painting clothes and physiognomies; Parisian blue for painting the first zone and ultramarine for upper parts of the second zone, while yellow ochre has been used for the lower parts.
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Detail of Angel

Physiognomies of the saints have been carefully painted, especially the Angel and Jesus Christ’s where the mimics are painted in ochre, brown and tender olive tones typical for the Palaiologos Byzantine style. Clothes are draped in light and dark shades of the selected color with a purpose to present luxurious drapery of the lit and areas in shadow. Preserved fresco-painting is in a phase of continuous degradation having tendency to disappear. Painter or painters that have been painting the church probably were talented masters.
Monastery that was fenced with a stone wall for protection, exists nowadays partially ruined. Entrance gate of the monastery is quite representative. It has been built of precisely cut stone. On the eastern part of the fencing wall there is a painted decoration dating from later period i.e. from 1879. Three niches in rectangular form have been shaped above the portal on plastered area in the stone wall. Central niche is bigger, while two side niches are smaller. Fresco depicting St. Demetrius on horseback defending the city of Thessaloniki has been painted in the central niche.
St. Demetrius was proclaimed protector of Thessaloniki. The Saint is painted in military armor and flying garment riding a red horse. He holds a spear with right hand and the reins of horse with the left.
Background shows part of the architecture of Thessaloniki (defensive wall and most probably the church of St. Demetrius) and sun in the sky. Outer edges of the niche have been decorated with rhythmic floral decoration in light blue shade. Side niches have also been decorated in the same style.
Inner side of arches of the niches has been also decorated with floral ornaments. Above the frieze of the side niches a floral motive in violet-red shades has been painted. Archangel Michael with a sword in the right hand and open scroll in the left has been painted on ultramarine background in the south niche. Inscription has been written with Church Slavic letters. Archangel Gabriel has been painted in the north niche holding a quill in the right hand and open scroll in the left. The background of this niche is also ultramarine. Inscription has been written with Church Slavic letters. On the wall surface between the central and south niche the year of painting, 1879, is preserved as well as fragments of donors’ names. Zographer’s name, if it has been inscribed, cannot be seen. Fresco-painting is in very poor condition close to peel off soon.
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Representative entrance gate to the monastery

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Three niches above the portal: Archangel Michael, left; St. Demetrius, central; Archangel Gabriel, right;

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Central niche above the gate with a display of St. Demetrius, patron of the monastery

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Inscription of year of painting

Residential quarters, located northwest and west from the church are other buildings with minimal debris preserved. They were built of cut and semi-cut stone. Partially preserved are: fencing wall of the monastery, wooden granary southeast of the church as well as new residence quarter built after 1935, south from the monastery church.  New smaller-size church was built in 2006-2007 over a part of the old basilica.

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wooden barn

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Church built in the year 2006-7
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Residential quarters built in 1935 south of the monastery church

Text: Olivera Makrievska

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