THE ZEMEN MONASTERY ,,ST. JOHN THE DIVINE”

The monastery is situated next to the town of Zemen, at about 40 km south of Sofia.
During the Second Bulgarian State (1186-1396) it was part of the mediaeval fortress Zemenrad. It is first mentioned in 1189. Researchers date the main church to the end of the 11th c and the beginning of the 12th c. In 1970-1974 were discovered remains of mural paintings which confirmed that the monastery had existed at that time.
At the time when the Velbuzd Principality was ruled by the boyar Deyan (second half of 14th c) the church was renovated and painted again. This is proved by the donor’s inscription and the beautiful portraits of the donor Deyan, his wife Doya and their children. Although subject to religious canons, they present some characteristic features of the faces, the age and typical clothes of the figures.
Only the church is preserved from the monastery complex, which is valuable mediaeval monument of Bulgarian architecture. Its proportions are perfect and it is unique in Bulgaria. It has a cubic form – the height, width and length is 9 m each. The walls are built of well cut stone blocks. The eastern wall consists of three semi-cylindrical apses at the level of the cornice under the roof. The other sides are formed with three flat alcoves of which the middle one stands higher. The roof is of four layers and cannot be found in any other place in Bulgaria. In the middle rises a cylindrical drum on two levels each of which includes eight alcoves. Four of these on the lower lever have windows.
The mural paintings in the church of the Zemen monastery date from its last decoration in 1354. They are exceptionally valuable as an example of mediaeval painting in Southeastern Europe. Although many of them have been destroyed, the rest inspire admiration. The classical scenes from the Gospel are depicted with pictorial details which is extremely rare.
Among the images of the saints in full figure we can see the faces of well known monks and hermits. Particularly expressive is St. Ivan Rilski depicted as a saint with ascetic face and black monastic cloak. The attention is attracted by the Apostles Peter and Paul and the saint Teodor Stratilat.
We have only a few scenes preserved intact. Among them is ,,Prayer in the Gethsemane Garden” which represents very well the condition of sleep. In ,,The Eucharist of the Apostles” the painter has preferred the more complex variant and has represented Christ as a double image choosing thus an extremely rare approach.
Unique in Bulgarian painting tradition of that period and extremely original in its concept and performance is the scene ,,Forging the nails for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ”. It exists neither in the Gospel nor in the apocryphal literature. It exemplifies the imagination of the author and his attempt to depict an ordinary activity of the people of that period. He has painted an ordinary village smithy but what is special here is that the bellows is operated by a woman.
Most remarkable about the Zemen mural paintings are the images of people who, with their simplicity and humaneness, are completely different from the Byzantine tradition and official painting of Turnovo. The originality of these paintings and their influence on other artists justify the distinction of a ,,Western school of painting” during the period of the Second Bulgarian State.
During the recent restoration of the Zemen church were discovered traces of murals of an earlier period, probably dated 11th-12th c. They are also pieces of art of high distinction but they are too fragmentary and do not allow profound analysis.
There is no doubt that the Zemen monastery practiced a lively literary activity but we have no written proofs about that.

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