The Zemen Monastery St. John the Theologian hides many secrets – the Bogomils, the Bulgarians and the Freemasons. At least that’s how they will make me believe not only the many writings on the subject, but also the energy of the place itself. As soon as you cross the courtyard of the monastery, the first thing that impresses you is the incredible peace that reigns, even when the visitors are not one and two. The architecture of the dome of the small church immediately stands out – it is in the shape of a square.
It is the unusual architectural solution that is one of the reasons why the monastery, founded in the 11th century, is associated with the Bogomils. According to some, the four sides of the cubic form are a hint at the beliefs of the community, which believe in the dualism of evil and good, which is why the Holy Trinity is complemented in architecture by the fourth, devilish side.
According to others, an octagonal stone in the temple hides the hidden knowledge of the Bulgarians, and on the walls of the temple the Crusaders tried to unravel the secrets of Solomon’s temple. Others are adamant that the old stone altar in the church has the gift of healing torments and fulfilling miraculous desires.
Even if you do not believe in all these statements, you again have a reason to visit the Zemen Monastery, which is not active, but is managed by the National History Museum because of the great importance of the unique frescoes of the church in question. Despite its size of only about 9 meters in length, a little less than 9 meters wide and 7 meters high, the church is richly painted. The first layer of the frescoes is from the construction of the church in the 11th century. Today, fragments from this period can be seen from images of St. Joachim and St. Anne, St. Constantine and St. Helena. However, more visitors are drawn to the scenes on the walls painted in the 14th century.
In the first place for historians, the place is blessed because of the preserved donor portraits of boyars who speak of the era and are ranked in importance immediately after those of Sevastocrator Kaloyan and his wife Desislava from the Boyana Church. In the church of the Zemen Monastery you can see how the donors of the temple looked like – the despot ruler of the Velbazhd principality Deyan, his wife Doya and their children Vitomir and Stoyu. The unknown painter has woven into his paintings both elements typical of iconography and techniques of painting, which makes the murals so valuable..
Among the valuable drawings is one of the earliest images of the Bulgarian saint Ivan Rilski. Undoubtedly, however, two other scenes are more interesting for tourists. The first of them is the scene from the Last Supper. According to seekers of secrets, the Bogomils’ beliefs about dualism in the world are intertwined in it again. Unlike the traditional inscription of the Last Supper, in which the 12 apostles are gathered around a table, and Christ gives them bread and wine, in the Zemen Monastery the Son of God is depicted twice in one scene. In one part he gives bread to 6 of the apostles, and in the other part of the same painting he gives wine to the other 6 apostles.
The second most famous scene from the Zemen Monastery is the one with the forging of nails for the cross of Christ, which is extremely rare. Even more interesting is the fact that the nails are nailed by a woman. According to the legend, this is the wife of the blacksmith, who pretended that his hand hurt so that he would not forge the cross on which the Son of God would be crucified. That’s why his wife took up the job. According to some, this scene also hides many secrets from the Bulgarian hidden knowledge.
Another legend is told about the unusual shape of the church of the Zemen Monastery. According to it, the unusual shape is the result of a bet between a master builder and his student. They argued over who would build a more beautiful church, with the only condition being that no one should look at another’s creation before it was fully completed. As soon as he saw his apprentice’s church, the master silently turned his back and demolished his own temple.
Perhaps one of the witnesses of the bet is the ancient tree in the yard of the monastery.
To reach the Zemen Monastery you have to stop at the village of Izvor on the road between Radomir and Kyustendil, and all the way you will be directed to get to the Zemen Gorge, carved by the waters of the Struma River.
To see the monastery you will have to pay 5 levs for the ticket (approximately 2,5 Euro), and if you are a student – 1 lev. Combined tickets are also available, which are valid for one month. For 10 or more visitors, the price is 3 levs per person. Thus, for BGN 14 (approximately 7 Euro)you can visit besides the Zemen Monastery, the Boyana Church and the National History Museum. Preschool children, people with special needs and their companions enter the Zemen Monastery free of charge.
In case you want to hear the guide’s talk, prepare BGN 5 for one in Bulgarian and BGN 10 for a foreign language. Keep in mind that due to the Covid-19 pandemic, talks are not always available, but the curators are very kind and in case you have any questions they will try to answer you.
You can take pictures in the church, but for 5 leva you get the right to up to 5 pictures. Shooting with a video camera costs 15 leva and allows you to work up to half an hour.