Wood Carving: The Centuries-Long Tradition Is Still Alive

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Wood carving is one of most magnificent artifacts Macedonia can contribute to the global cultural heritage. For everyone visiting Macedonia the deep carved iconostases in the churches of the Holy Saviour (Sveti spas, 1824) in Skopje, St. Gavril Lesnovski  (1814) in Lesnovo, near Probishtip, St. Nicholas (1831) in Krushevo and St. John Bigorski (Sveti Jovan,1835) in the Radika valley, near Debar, are must-see cultural attractions. These pieces had brought the wood carving craft to the level of art. Their exceptional value lies in the high relief and fretwork in which the characteristics of the single material, the wood, are used to their utmost without any gilded surfaces or added colour.

The Mijak wood carvers’ school

The glory of this old cultural treasure belongs to the Mijak wood carvers’ school. They came from Mala and Dolna Reka in the Debar region and from the mountain villages like Gary, Tresonce, Galichnik, Lazaropole and Osoj. They had studied the craft under the master woodcarvers in the workshops of Mount Athos. Among them the most famous were the families of Filipovski, the brothers Petre and Marko (aslo known as the Garka) Ginoski, Madaroski and the Frckovski families from Galichnik with the best known master, Makarie, and the Mirceski family from Osoj.

They introduced baroque elements and folklore motifs in the decoration and integrated the human figure with the other ornaments. In their artistic creations, Biblical characters are dressed in traditional Galichnik folk costumes. Art historians value the softness of lines, stylization and baroque playfulness of the forms. The masters even left their self-portraits in the iconostases of the St. John Bigorski and Sveti Spas Monasteries.

These wood carvers organized in groups called “tayfas”, would leave their villages in the spring time and would work on many churches and monasteries throughout the Balkans, including present-day Serbia and Romania. Having made their earnings they would come back to their villages in late autumn. Using simple tools they carved magnificent scenes using massive several meters long pillars of the walnut trees.

But apart from the scenes of the Old and New testaments in the churches, they also decorated mosques as well as “sarays” (palaces) and houses of wealthy merchants. The wealth of the owner could be demonstrated by the elegant decoration of the wooden elements of the house like the ceilings and the doors. They were usually adorned with circular or octagonal carved wooden centrepieces decorated with complicated geometric designs and sometimes painted. Wooden panels and built-in cupboards and dowry chests were also richly decorated.

Continuity from the ancient to present times

The old decorative technique of woodcarving exists in many regions of the world. The tradition in Macedonia originated a thousand years ago, when this way of decorative sculpturing complemented fresco-painting as an integral part of the decorations of the old Byzantine churches erected throughout Macedonia after Byzantium re-established its rule over the country in the 11th century. The oldest such example are the wood carvings on the altar of the Ohrid Cathedral Church of St. Sophia.

Yet, scholars find connections between the ancient, medieval, 19th-century and present- day wood carving. There is a variety of motives repeatedly used over the centuries. There are fish, deer, lion, eagle, peacock, snake, figs, wine leaves, oak leaves and flowers. Such symbols are found on the burnt carved wood from the ancient site of Bargala, near Shtip, dating back to the 4th century.

After the Ottoman conquest, the Middle Eastern elements became much stronger, and the wood carving became more shallow and with flat arabesques.  The Middle Eastern style also influenced the revived orthodox Christian tradition of the 17th century when the monasteries in the Prilep and Kichevo region were built. Masters from the monasteries like Holy Immaculate Virgin, Slepce, Treskavec, Zrze and Varosh developed their own school with shallow and flat carving and rich geometrically interwoven floral and animal motifs. The churches of St. Nicholas in Slepce and St. Archangel Michael in Kuceviste with their luxurious iconostases are the best surviving examples of this school.

Woodcarving rapidly declined in the period before and after the First World War. Trying to renew the tradition, the academic sculptor Branislav Jovancevic founded an artistic woodcarving school in Debar in 1928. In 1930 the school moved to Ohrid. After the Second World War and the liberation of Macedonia, the woodcarving school was re-established in Ohrid, and subsequently moved to Skopje as a department of the School for Applied Art.

New masters of old techniques and contemporary social media tools

In the recent years, wood carving had its small revival despite the more general negative trend of old handicrafts to die out. It is estimated that there are between 150 and 200 wood carvers in Macedonia, organized in an NGO and having annual exhibitions. The most well known individual entrepreneurs and craftsman families have re-emerged in Ohrid, Bitola and Debar.

One of the most popular wood carver today is the 45 year old Goran Boshkovski from Veles. He is a self-educated craftsman, who complements his state service with the daily work in his wood carving workshop. For more than ten years he has been spending between four and twelve hours a day working with wood. More than a hundred pieces of art of different dimensions are the work of his hands.

Unlike others, Goran Boshkovski has created a Facebook profile and uses it on the daily basis to promote the techniques of this ancient craft and the art pieces he has produced. His list of friends is long and many magazines have already published articles on his craft.

Goran Boshkovski remembers that his accidental first art piece was his own table. He decided to repair and decorate it himself after waiting for weeks for the local carpenter. “Every new piece brings a new challenge but also satisfaction after the work is done. Each time there is an estimation to be made on what tools need to be used according to the depth of the carving and the solidity of the wood”, Boshkovski explains his artistic dilemmas.

He uses the elements of flora and fauna as well as many biblical motifs, the representations of saints etc. He has always been specially gifted in visual arts but his family thought he should make a living from another career. His passion for wood carving was revealed in primary school upon a visit to the church of the Holy Saviour in Skopje. For years the masterpiece of the iconostasis haunted his artistic visions. He is happy that finally his lifelong dream has been fulfilled in the best possible way.

Making a comparison between today’s carvers and their famous ancestors from the Mijak School, Boshkovski explains that there are no monumental orders nowadays. Today patrons are very conscious of the price of their commissions. So, the work should be done in a shorter time and is neither as deep nor precise, or rich as it should be. Very often machines and computer designs are used instead of hand artistic work.

But Goran Boshkovski is very pleased that many carved wooden pieces done by contemporary craftsmen have travelled all over the world carrying Cyrillic inscriptions of the surname of the artist, the country of origin and the year when the piece was made.