Blesok no. 15, June-July, 2000

Bogomil Movement and its Implications

Melanija Šerdenkovska

    The end of the IX and the beginning of the X century were marked by major changes in the social structure of Macedonian Slavic tribes. At the time, the territory of Macedonian tribes was a component of the powerful feudal state of Bulgarian Tzar Symeon (823-927). After coming into reign, in order to sustain power, as well as because of the opportunity for quicker and more efficient exploitation, the military and administrative division was spread in this region also in the form that had already existed in Bulgarian Empire. Simultaneously, it meant rapid disintegration of the clan structures. The church too was engaged in this process and it used to receive real estates from the dominant feudal institutions. As an outstanding propriety owner it took the side of monarchy, in defence of the established social order.
    The conditions in which Macedonian Slavs found themselves, really deteriorated in the middle of the X century, during the reign of Tzar Peter (927-969), when he completed his conquest expeditions when the taxes for the great military and administrative apparatus abruptly increased.
[1] In such critical historical circumstances sprang up a strong people’s movement for religious and political liberation – Bogomilism. In the essence, it represents a religious teaching based on dualistic heretic teachings.


    The religious base from which Bogomilism developed is Christianity in its original form. Bogomils called themselves Krstjani and showed extraordinary respect for Christ. Starting from the attitudes at the beginnings of Christianity they believed that in addressing God the individual does not need mediators – people from the church institution who are in deep sins of greed and immorality – nor a church object. At the outset they preached their sermons and conducted their spiritual baptism most frequently in the open in the vicinity of the village i.e. the town.
    At the start of the X century emerged the first written documents dealing with the beginning of Bogomilism. It was a list of anathemas from the provincial synod of Orthodoxy passed between the years of 912 and 925 during the reign of Patriarch Nikola.
    Approximately at the same time appeared the polemics of Jovan Exarch with the dualistic heretics. These documents were supported by St.Clement’s hagiography, concerned with “the bad heresy” in the area of Ohrid, after Clement’s death.[2]
    In spite of such foundation of their teaching, they rejected Christian monotheism and accepted theological dualism. According to them, the entire visible material world is created by two gods, the god of light and the god of darkness, of the good and the evil, which exist as parallel in the world and in every one of us. The world is governed by the permanent dual principle of creation and destruction. This was in fact the way in which they explained social injustice, the existence of wealthy feudal lords, the church, and the impoverished peasantry. “… To tell the world of the ‘holy feudal order’ that ‘it was not created by God’ but by ‘the Devil’, that there is no ‘holy truth’ in it but ‘an eternal battle’ … in which blind Pharisees suffocate the truth of ‘the Word of God’, that man should not believe, but think … that there is sense in people’s life, in having a high and perfect ideal – a battle against anything that is from ’the Satan and of Satan origin’, but not only within ourselves but also in social life… that the world of lords and boyars is the world of the ‘Satan’ and it ought to collapse and only the world of freedom and equality of ‘God’s children’ is the world to be distinguished. In the dusk night of the Middle Ages, at the time of the ’holy silence’, at the hour when our Orthodox believers buried deep the reason and consciousness of the lost and destroyed human being… at that hour and throughout that night, the mystically dark dualist word echoed as human as human can be, epochally historic indeed.”[3]
    At first as a religious opposition sect, Bogomilism mobilised the masses of people into a struggle against the harder and harder feudal oppression. The subdued and dormant revolt converted into an open and tempestuous protest, so the movement turned into a real social reformation movement with uncovered aspirations towards change of social order, and most expressive was their demand for “abolishment of all social institutions introduced by feudalism.”[4]
    The most substantial heretic stronghold of Bogomilism, and simultaneously the first church municipality, was in Macedonia, in the regions inhabited by the tribe Dragovits. From here Bogomilism spread throughout the whole Povardarie (Vardar River Valley), then on the entire Macedonian territory, and from here it was expanded in Bulgaria, Serbia, Bosnia, also in Italy, France, and in some other countries. Dualism left deep traces in the towns of northern Italy and southern France, where it became an ideal of the citizenry. In Italy the dualists were known as Patarens, in France as Cathars, and they all considered the Bogomil municipality of Dragovit as their cradle.[5]
    Some of the most substantial proofs of their impact on the development of dualist movements as well as on its relations with the newly formed heretic church in Italy and France, and for the organisation and functioning of the Bogomil Church in the Balkans, are the acts of Cathar Synod held in 1167 in San Felix in Karaman, near Toulouse in France. This Synod was chaired by Pope Nickita from Constantinople, a devotee to the heretic church of Dragovit, and the decisions of this Synod are known as ‘the seven churches of Asia”, among which were “ecclesia Romanae, Dragumetae, Meliguae, Bulgariae and Dalmatiae”.[6]
    On the basis of the references available, according to Dragojlović, a real continuity in the development of Bogomil heretics can be traced from its initial rudimentary forms to the full authentic and theologically rounded whole. Also there can be traced a true chronological relation between the news from different periods of time, from the beginning of the X until the middle of the XV century, in Macedonia in the districts inhabited by Dragovits alone. In the other parts of the Balkans and Asia Minor, it emerged occasionally and was interrupted many times by longer periods of calm.[7]
    What is very interesting for our further research is the symbolics practiced by Bogomils; also the vestiges in material culture, rituals, and beliefs, which are evident even nowadays.

    They based their disrespect for places of worship as “homes of God” on Mathew’s Gospel (6.6), in which a “secret room” in their homes is recommended as a place for a prayer (according to the Macedonian translation)[8]. Evidence for the existence of prayer rooms are found in the legends of Priest Bogomil, after which his native place was the village of Bogomila, in whose vicinity is his tomb, where a shrine was built, which was a home of prayer for the Bogomils.[9]
    There is sufficient confirmation for the symbolics used by the Bogomils. The first mention is by Aleksandar Matkovski[10], who quotes the conclusions reached by Aleksandar Solovjev[11], that on Bogomil tombstones a recurrent symbol is the crescent, with its angles positioned upwards, and with a star between them. This symbolics is in no conjunction with the Turkish symbol. Solovjev clarified the iconography of the Bogomils, i.e. the profound symbolic implication expressed by the sun and the moon, which were reckoned to be heaven’s vessels, i.e. dwelling places of the soul of the just before their departure for Heaven.”[12]

The sign of the Bogomils

The sign of the Bogomils, a moon and a star with the angles turned upwards.

The sign of the Bogomils

The sign of the Bogomils applied at the entrance door of the house in Krakornica[13]

    Dr. Milos Konstantinov, in his feuilleton in the newspaper the Nova Makedonija[14], by making use of the data found by the author Anton Glogov, in his book, Bogomil Teaching and the History of Bogomilism, says that the symbol adored by the Bogomils was two crossed ellipses, at a ninety degrees angle. The vertical ellipse symbolises the force of creation, whereas the horizontal – the force of destruction. Archpriests had no right to wear this symbol, as they did not have the right to wear other symbols and decorations. The sole thing that made them distinct from other priests was the wearing of a red cassock instead of black, and they had a sceptre with a decoration on its top in the form of a sun. They did not ever move anywhere without the sceptre.
    The clothing of those persons who were at the head of the all-human abbot community was very different. It is very pictorially but imprecisely described. Nonetheless, it reflects the symbolics used by the Bogomils. This person at any time through his garments should “reflect the sunshine, the delicate moonlight, the twinkling stars and the blue of the sky heights, as well as the marvelous greenery of the earth.”
    The ordinary Bogomils were forbidden to wear any ornaments and jewelry. However, there was a decoration that was awarded to individuals for extraordinary merits in the form of a lace attached to a piece of travertine. They could wear this decoration only during the five “dead days”, which after the Bogomil calendar, divided into 36-day months, came at the end of the year. These five days and the rest of the sixty non-working days of the six-day week were devoted to the force of creation.
    Dragoljub Dragojlović[15] mentions a fact by Evtimije Periblepta, that “these non-believers, foundiats or bogomils did not revere icons but that they adorned with icons the houses in which they held the prayer sacraments both from the inside and from the outside.”
    Regarding the symbolics by means of which they illuminated their manuscript gospels, there is data by Kozma Prezviter. Polemising with the teaching of the Bogomils, he writes that the secret of Eucharist was created by God himself and that it represents Christ’s “essential body”, and not his cheek, which the heretics symbolically presented in Mathew’s Gospel with a cherub’s face, in Mark’s Gospel with a calf’s face, in Luke’s with a lion’s face, and in John’s with the face of an eagle.



    The movement of the Bogomils, with its deeply national, religious and political programme became very massive, but it was not in a position to accomplish its political ideal: a Proto-Christian society of equality.
    In the-then insufficiently developed social conditions, they could expand only their own cultural activities, which left a lasting mark in the entire later works. In reference to the influence of Bogomilism on the national being, Racin
[16] wrote the following, “Our national culture, our rich national folklore, the inexhaustive treasure house of our people throughout the many-centuries-old temptation – are more a result of Bogomilism than of Orthodoxy impact… Is there a more exalted phenomenon, ideal, and aim in our national past than Bogomilism? Many people are still imbued with it, thinking that they rely upon the best of the folk traditions although perhaps they are not aware how thoroughly national and simultaneously essentially Bogomil it is.”
    Indisputable heritage of Bogomilism is the strife for spiritual liberation from the church authorities and from the idea of unchangeability of social relations. The instigation of the idea of a personal relation towards God, the exclusion of mediators – clergymen and priests is an aspiration towards reinforcement of person’s individuality, his capacity for creating and living without the constraints of spiritual dependence on the Church. In the core, it is the Orthodox Proto-Christian ideal we learn about from the gospels, and especially through the Gnostic gospels of the rest of the eight apostles whose records haven’t been included in the New Testament and Maria Magdalene’s Gospel. The strengthening of individuality and the organisation of resistance against exploitation, church or feudal, represents an act through which the individual becomes conscious of his potential active role in the world.
    Parallel to the shaking of the restraints, by means of which the order in the Middle Ages functioned, developed the creative and the intellectual potentials of the individual. The ardent human needs for free life and work found their stimulus in Bogomilism. Reaching the bulk of the population and fighting for their dignity it was the keystone for further spiritual, cultural, and political revolutions, not only in our region but also on a larger scale in Europe through the activities of Cathars and Patarens. The different view of the world, opposed to the doctrine of the official church, provided grounds for progress of the thought and ambition of people embodied in Humanism and Renaissance – perhaps the greatest cultural revolution in Post-Christian times.
    We are well familiarised with the disputes about the phenomena and reasons that were the basis for the development of Humanism and Renaissance, among which the basic one was in the bulk of the citizenry, the openly accepted dualism of Cathars and Patarens. With this, the Bogomil thought was positioned as the primary initiation of the development of the free citizen will, i.e. as its true pinnacle – the remarkable development of science and art.
    This is the reason why the fact that the only paintings that were predecessors to the Renaissance paintings, according to the generally accepted Byzantine and Middle-Ages treatises, were created right in Macedonia, in the cradle of Bogomil thought – the frescoes Mourning after Christ, and the famous Pieta in the Church of Nerezi from XII century, 1164, as the most expressive representatives of the new spirit in painting in Macedonia, and also the other paintings from the same church, as the frescoes from the church in Kurbinovo, from XII century, too, year 1191.
    Concerning these works of our famous icon-painters, Dimitar Kornakov wrote: what Byzantium could have done, but had not done was done by our icon-painters in Macedonian churches and monasteries. And while in Byzantine Middle-Ages art there were plays with serene expressions of the characters, without emphasised gesticulations and feelings, our icon-painter overcame those frames and in his own manner conveyed the human drama with dolor and sorrow, in a way not typical of his predecessors…
    As for the quality, the anonymous but great icon-painter took the line of what is crucial. Namely, the icon-painter “stopped” the procession carrying Christ’s body at the instant when the mother of God falls to her knees, leaving her legs unnaturally separated, which is something that occurred nowhere in Byzantium, and so she embraces dead Christ’s body in her lap and kisses his face… Not a single painter before Nerezi had managed to create such an imposing work.[17]
    Aneta Svetieva, recording the activity of the Nerezi masters and the potency of their works, says, “here the masks of St.Sofia are put aside; the unrest of the living people is rendered. St.Sofia’s surrealism loses its purport: it becomes real. The saints’ faces are also varied, personal, specific. Christ’s body is different, even hairy. If dramatics and realism are harbingers of Pre-Renaissance then the master of Nerezi is for a whole century ahead of them…” The Byzantinist Gabriel Mie, as early as in the year 1916, realising the specificity of Macedonian painting, calling it a picturesque treasure house of general Byzantine importance, introduced the term Macedonian School. Its position in the global theological determinations dictated by the capital was made more apparent by the new scientific knowledge.[18]
    In the last decade of the 20th century very modestly and shyly emerged the representation about the meaning of Macedonian frescoes in the overall advancement of the two-dimensional fine art at a world scale. We will probably find the energy and valid arguments to qualify it with the place it rightly deserves – not a predecessor, but a true beginning of Renaissance.
    It unequivocally deserves this with the power of the elements and the artistic expression, it bore in itself. It was the genuine consequence of the revolutionary Bogomil thought, which with the number of its followers in our region, and especially with the strength of its relation towards social circumstances and towards the individual and his inner energy, widely opened the gates so that the creativity of the individual would flourish, released from spiritual confinements as well as from the then commonly accepted Byzantine cannons.


    Speaking of the artistic trades in this area one comes to a conclusion that it was an extraordinary phenomenon deeply stemmed in their being. Therefore, we can talk about the characteristics – a feature, skill, which for a century backward were transferred to the coming generations, most frequently within the framework of a family. Deliberating their achievements particularly in the period between XVIII and XIX century, one realises its specificity i.e. exclusiveness in relation to the works of the families from the other areas.
    Miak builders were founders of building and of the traditional house in the southern part of the Balkan Peninsula and the eastern part of Asia Minor. The origin of the building came from experience gained in these areas (material, construction, and manner of building); the organisation relied upon the individual needs of the user and commonly on people’s mentality in this region and was not burdened by foreign experience. The shaping was original, and possessed own identity. Building, as well as the other art trades, carving, and icon-painting, rose and developed on the basis of personal, deep, inner needs and outgrowth of the distinct, autonomous creative endowment of the individual, unfettered by the laws of artistic and building work at the time. In the investigation into the reaches of this architecture in comparison with the rest of traditional architecture in the quoted region, it was found that certain immanent features distinguished it – particularly for its inclination towards adaptation and transformation thereby not losing its identity – and that spoke of the prominent role of Miak builders. Through their building activity, they fundamentally posed a certain definite object, adjusted to the climate and geography conditions and to the local traditions and people’s needs. Although an identical building procedure in the shaping of the construction and objects was applied all the time, in Miak region the manufacture of material had attained the level of perfection, so it contributed to the creation of a very specific object. Particular attention should be paid to the creative potential of the builders, who infused perfection both in the separate elements and in the object as a whole.
    Through fortune seeking and migration Miak builders transmitted their experience in building throughout the territory of south Balkans and Asia Minor. In all areas where they operated, they encouraged the expansion of building and art trades among local population, so they became centres of headway of building and art in general.
    Tracing the roots of the deep and pristine attitude of Miak tribe towards arts – carving, building, and icon painting, it is necessary to refer back to the main historical events and migrations at the time. The Slavic religious background, which in the form of an archetypal matrix was intensely engraved in the consciousness of the individual, was permanently permeated to a larger or smaller extent in the works of all tribes.
    Nevertheless, what most profoundly and most quintessentially settled the being and work of this tribe was undoubtedly Bogomilism. Although there is a time distance of several centuries, yet we are dealing with the level of reception of Bogomil thought and its primary establishment in the fundamental being of the tribe. The duration of the period in which the tribe lived and existed according to its basic principles as well as the extent of acceptance of its thought will be the subject of further argument.
    The rise of Bogomilism was in conjunction with the Dragovit tribe, from where Miaks originated. The being of this tribe, its yearning for freedom and integrity were the primary characteristics that provided the not only the starting initiative for the rise of Bogomilism, but they were centrally connected to its work and postulates. Soon after the headmost occurrences of this movement, it was widely welcomed by this tribe. All authors who treat the theme of Bogomilism underline that here the first organised church municipality appeared, and especially that the church of Dragovit was the most influental church municipality of the Bogomils. It had notable impact on the rest of the Bogomil municipalities in the southern part of the Balkans, and in the dissemination and organisation of this movement in Italy and southern France. All this undoubtedly left a deep and indelible sign in the life and beliefs of this tribe. Following the vehemently expressed feeling of individuality, peculiarity, and distinctiveness, and the constant yearning for true values – features which clearly distinguished it from the other tribes in the surroundings – and particularly the inclination to artistic work and markedly to master’s building, we unequivocally come to the fact that only a sufficiently firm philosophical and religious system, fiercely involved in the existence of this tribe could have such an impelling force.
    The fundamental postulates of Bogomilism – its pivotal return to the basic ideals of Christ’s teaching – the equality of every individual, not only regarding religion but also in every day life, the rejection of church dogmas, in particular the rejection of the hierarchy feudal lord-peasant, not only presented the cardinal initiative but were the most effective moving agents in the continuous tracing and strengthening of tribe’s own distinctiveness. The steady organisation of Bogomil Church within the framework of this tribe and with its uninterrupted work reinforced the deep individuality, the free spirit, and the constant strife for true values, i.e. what is typical of artistic work. The invariable resistance to church dogmas, and specially to becoming a peasant, fortified these attributes of the tribe, which for century onwards kept the tribal order.
    The single strong and widely accepted revolutionary movement from the period, with its religious and acutely social programme, formed the essence and the work of the tribe and each separate individual. The intense and primeval connection with the aims of this movement was discovered centuries onwards, in the features of the tribe, and in the individual himself.
    In the history, tradition, and in many elements of this tribe’s work, we can find the incessant influence and primary relation with the basics of this movement. Their migration, i.e. the selection of the area for organisation in the villages in the most isolated regions of western Macedonia was absolutely not accidental. The position of the central villages so as to be visible only in the moments when they were immediately approached, i.e. the natural remoteness as well as the accessibility only via horse paths, made it possible for this tribe in the Middle-Ages feudal society to sustain the tribal system and develop its work independently.

    What first and foremost determined the viewpoint to religion was the time of building of the churches in this region. Following the research pursued by Dr. Kosta Balabanov in the monograph Complex Studies of the Mountain of Bistra, i.e. Culture and Art Monuments in the Period from X to XIX century in the wider Bistra Region, the oldest church object in the village of Lazaropole, St.George’s Church, whose frescoe-painting was completed in 1751.[19] In all other villages the churches were built in the middle of XIX century. The church of St.Petka in the village of Galičnik originates from the end of XIX century, whereas the central church of Ss. Peter and Paul was built in 1931.[20] The church of St.Ilija’s Ascension in the village of Selce was finished in 1867[21], and St.Peter and Paul Church in Tresonche village was built in 1844. [22] In the same village, St.Nikola’s Church was frescoe-painted in 1873. [23], while the church of Virgin Mary in the village of Gari, in 1856. [24] In Osoj village, St.George’s Church was frescoe-painted in 1887. [25]
    These data overtly point to the fact that Miaks cherished Christianity, but in a thoroughly different form – through Bogomilism, i.e. within themselves they had constituted a personal relation to religion and God and they felt no need for intermediaries from the institution – church. Therefore, the churches were built so late, in the period of consecutive pressure by Turkish Empire for turning the subjugated peoples into Muslims, at the moments when the strength of Bogomil thought started to decline so that the church would reduce the pressure for converting the people to Muslims.
    The continued existence of the Monastery of St.Jovan Bigorski from XI century till present days is not a negation of the vigour of Bogomil thought among Miak tribe. Its emergence, at least according to written documents found so far, was not linked to the history of this tribe, while at the time of Turkish conquest, the church had a very positive role in the evolvement of national awareness and simultaneously in the opposition to conversion into Muslims, so the Monastery became a centre of religious and national self-awareness of the tribe.
    The fact that, on the contrary, leads to the authority of Bogomilism in this tribe is the existence of a specific place in almost every house – a shrine. It was a small separated space serving for a personal prayer. Sequestered from the other people’s looks, solitary, the man established his relation to God. The first shrine was built on Priest Bogomil’s tombstone, and then following the example and memory of their first leader, they built such shrines in their homes. Apart from that, what the Bogomils accepted according to Matthew’s Gospel was the recommended “hidden’ prayer room in their homes because they did not have respect for God’s temples as places for prayer, nor believed that they needed mediators in spiritually addressing God. For a long time the shrine was a room without any signs or representations, particularly icons, which the Bogomils did not revere, yet in the ultimate century, with the reception of Orthodoxy, people started putting icons.
    It is worth mentioning that except for Miaks houses, the shrine was rarely seen in Macedonian traditional houses, except in some parts of western Macedonia, where the operation of Bogomilism survived longest in the turmoil of the Middle Ages and under the Turkish rule. It is one more evidence pointing to the profound influence of Bogomilism in the development, work, spirit and culture of the tribe.
    Miak flag is also a fascinating element for analysis. We have already dealt with the interpretation of its symbolics so far. The fact that most vehemently denies the hypothesis set by interpreters, about used symbols of the conquerors of this region, about the angles of the flag, is the position of the moon with its angles turned upwards. This symbol is purely Bogomil, and it found its place on Miak’s flag, by which they showed and highlighted their nationality. Much later, the Turks took over the sign, modified it, and put it on their flag as a nationality sign.[26]

Miak Flag

Miak Flag

    All these elements openly speak of and confirm the laid hypothesis about the power of Bogomil thought which for years and centuries inspired the life and work of this tribe. Not only did they recast their inclination to Bogomilism in their work but also they highlighted it, for instance, on the flag. Feeling all the positive influences born by the cherishing of this religion, and perhaps much more a social stream, they found a peculiar way of materialising the few adored symbols.
    The exceptional affinity of Miaks towards artistic trades – icon-painting, carving, and building, was due to the many-century embracing of Bogomil movement, which led to eradication of the restraints imposed by the institution Church, and to liberation of the individual and his topmost creative and intellectual potentials. This is the reason why the key influence on the growth of creative and high intellectual aptitude of Miaks was found in the movement that, liberating the individual, left space for increase of its deep inner potential. The verification of this thesis is found in many elements of the material evidence. Deeply rooted in their being this movement and religion left marks in every element of their work despite the temporal distance between its emergence and its active functioning. In essence, the material evidence shows that within this tribe Bogomilism existed longer than anywhere else and became an inseparable part of their manner of thinking and living, i.e. to a great degree it defined their being.

Translated by: Kristina Zimbakova


1. Stojanovski A. d-r, Katardzhiev I. d-r, Zografski D. d-r, Apostolski M. d-r, the same, p. 24
4. Racin K., the same, p. 146


8. Dragojlović D., BOGOMILSTVO NA BALKANU I U MALOJ AZIJI, p.132, 174, SVETO PISMO, Sveto Evangelie spored Marko, 6.6.
9. Angelov D., BOGOMILSTVO, p.107, Panov B. SREDNOVEKOVNA MAKEDONIJA, kniga 3, p.250
10. Matkovski A., GRBOVITE NA MAKEDONIJA, p. 62
11. Solovjev A., Postanak ilirske heraldike i porodice Ohmucevic, p. 101
12. Dragojlović D., BOGOMILSTVO NA BALKANU I U MALOJ AZIJI, volume 2, p.315
13. According to Slavko Brezovski, REKANSKA KUKJA, BIGOSS, Skopje, 1993
15. Dragojlović D., BOGOMILSTVO NA BALKANU I U MALOJ AZIJI, volume 2, p.88


17. Kornakov D., OD PRVIOT GREV DO STRASNIOT SUD, Matica Makedonska, Skopje, 1999, 47-49
18. Svetieva A., MAKEDONIJA, KULTURNO NASLEDSTVO, SREDEN VEK, Misla, Skopje, 1995, 115-121




19. Balabanov K., KOMPLEKSNITE proucuvanja na planinata Bistra, Spomenici na kulturata I umetnosta na stanati od periodot OD X DO XIX vek vo posirokiot region na planinata Bistra, p. 80
20. Balabanov K., the same, p. 79
21. Balabanov K., the same p.79
22. Balabanov K., the same, p.71
23. Balabanov K., the same, p.74
24. Balabanov K., the same, p.72
25. Balabanov K., the same, p.72
26. Matkovski A., GRBOVITE NA MAKEDONIJA, p. 62

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