Crna Reka and Sopocani

We attended a beautiful Divine Liturgy this morning at the ancient cave monastery of Crna Reka (pronounced "Chair-na Ray-kah" meaning "Black River"). The Liturgy was served outdoors rather than in the cave due to pandemic concerns. It was quite a cold, early morning high in the mountain gorge. I didn't realize how much the cold sank in until opened my sketchbook and I could barely move the pencil across the paper.

After Liturgy, the monks provided hospitality, serving Serbian coffee, water, loukoum (Turkish delight), and rakia. The hot coffee and rakia warmed us considerably. We were then invited into the cave to venerate the holy relics of Saint Peter of Koriška, who once lived in the cave as a hermit. Saint Peter is a wonder-worker, well known for his miraculous healings, especially of speech impediments. Recently, a Moslem family from Novi Pazar brought their 15-year-old son who had never spoken a word in his life. The boy lay underneath the relics (there is a bed under the casket for this purpose), and he fell asleep. When he awoke, his mother asked him how his sleep was. He replied fluently "I've never slept better in my life," and he is able to speak well now.

The cave has been a hermitage for over 800 years. It is deep into a mountain river gorge, high on a cliff above a rocky river bed. Originally, the river was a typical roaring mountain river. When Saint Peter of Koriška came here as a hermit, the loud river disturbed his prayer. He asked for silence, and the river changed its course, plunging underground near the cave. 

The buildings and catwalks cling precariously to the edge of the cliff. The monks live in the caves and the buildings hanging on the cliff. The only access is a narrow footbridge. It is picturesque and fantastic. It looks like something from Middle Earth.

The cave church has beautiful 16th C. frescoes. As an iconographer, the fathers allowed me to photograph them for my own reference, with the condition that I'm cannot share them publicly. I'll share a quick sketch of the Archangel Michael, the patron of the monastery.  

Drawing is firstly about seeing. My aim in drawing on location is not to produce a beautifully finished product (which I can't do in just a few minutes), but rather to linger and carefully study the fresco during the brief time I have with it. When I sketch, I am forced to slow down and take some time with the fresco, even if it is just a few minutes. I am carefully observing the lines and shapes, the posture and proportions of the figures. During the sketch, I can see things that I can't put on paper, or capture in a photograph, especially the colors, but also the scale, the position on the wall, the size of the room, the temperature and humidity, the acoustics, the ambient light. Drawing allows me to linger and soak in a place. This rich interactive experience with the frescoes is the reason I am taking this pilgrimage. I didn't travel this all this way to circle a church in a minute and snap a handful of photos. Drawing gives me such a rich experience, even if it's just for a couple of minutes, even if the marks on the page don't create a finished artwork.

The monastery also has the relics of the New Martyr Hariton, who began his monastic life at this monastery. He was sent to the Serbian heartland Kosovo to help reestablish a monastery. On June 15, 1999, he was captured, tortured, beheaded, and mutilated by Albanian terrorists. You can read more of his life here.

After a wonderful morning, we had a disappointingly brief stop at Sopocani Monastery. We were supposed to visit yesterday, but road construction prevented us. Traffic in Novi Pazar slowed us down and we only had a few minutes to visit the church, since we had such a long drive to Skopje ahead of us. 

The Sopocani frescoes were painted in 1265 by artists from Constantinople. King Urosh hired the best artists in the world at the time to paint Sopocani, and he also hired these painters to fresco Hilandar Monastery on Mount Athos. 


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