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Church St. George (Sv Gjorgji) Kurbinovo

Date of Submission: 27/11/2020
Criteria: (i)(ii)(iii)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
Permanent Delegation of the Republic of North Macedonia
State, Province or Region:
Prespa region
Coordinates: N40 59 09 E21 05 06
Ref.: 6492

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The proposed property, the church St. George, Kurbinovo, represents one of the rarest and most valuable testimonies of Byzantine art in the Balkan Peninsula. Its fresco-painting represents an original and a unique peak of artistic mastery in the times of Comnenus, who ruled the Byzantine Empire from 1081 to 1185.

The church is located on the beautiful lower slopes of Pelister mountain (National Park Pelister) with a magnificent view on Prespa lake that connects North Macedonia, Greece and Albania and creates the only triple border on fresh water in Europe.

St. George church was built in the 12th century, in the village of Kurbinovo, during the reign of Isaac II Angelos. The decoration of the church started on 25th April 1191, according to the original inscription from the fresco “Honorary table” (Chesna trpeza) in the north part of the altar which is almost completely preserved.

The single-nave building with a semicircular apse is 17 meters long and 7 meters wide. It is the largest single-nave church in North Macedonia (RNM). The exterior, with its simple and austere architectural style, contains an unsuspected pictorial richness.

The fresco-painting in the interior of the church is divided into three zones. The frescoes illustrate scenes from the life of Jesus Christ and Virgin Mary. In the altar apse, the composition Annunciation is painted, that has made this church exclusive and a part of the annals of the peak achievements of the Byzantine fresco-painting. Interesting and rare are the depictions of Jesus Christ and the patron of the church, St. George, from the north and the south wall, with a monumental size. On the west facade, there are visible remnants of frescoes with depictions of the unknown donor of the church, together with the imperial couple Isaac II Angelos and his wife Margarita, as well the figure of the archbishop Johan Kamatir.

The continuity of the importance of the church is witnessed by some later additions on the southern façade, as well as by the presence of a scene of St. Demetrius, on the north wall, executed at the end of the 16th or the beginning of the 17th century.

It is very likely that the church was abandoned in the 17th century. During the 19th it was rediscovered, and in the first decades of the 20th century, the wooden ceiling of the Kurbinovo church was replaced and a porch was built. The southern and the northern entrances were closed and transformed into two windows. These interventions did not damage the murals.

The St. George church in Kurbinovo is recognized as a national monument of culture in the Republic of North Macedonia and is protected by law. In 2019, The Cultural Heritage Protection Sector of the Ministry of Culture has granted the sum of 1,985,000.00 (38,000.00 US dollars) for its conservation.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

The St George Church of Kurbinovo is an exceptional testimony to the Byzantine art. Richly decorated, the church is one of the rare testimonies, in such a good state of preservation, of the Comnenus byzantine style.

The interior of the Church was probably decorated by a distinctive local school of painters. Their remarkable style is perfectly executed in fresco technique. Their frescos are among the leading works of Byzantine art and provide an outstanding example of Byzantine painting in South-Eastern Europe of Byzantine painting in South-Eastern Europe. Their high aesthetic and technical quality rivals that of the greatest masters of art in Europe.

Interior wall paintings in the naos and the sanctuary are characterized by a new concept of dynamism, mannerism and visionary dramatization, which breaks the classical norms of pictorial expression. The drawing is expressive, dynamic, with accentuated slenderness, vivaciousness and movement of the painted figures.

The artistic freedom of the masters who decorated this church is particularly remarkable. This freedom is reflected in a number of innovations in terms of forms, colors and design, as well as in the composition of the scenes.

One of the peculiarities of the frescoes in this church is the novelty of the iconographic and painting interpretations. According to expert research, the contribution of Kurbinovo's frescoes to the iconography of the 12th century is highly valued, as an ensemble that anticipates many solutions known in the art of the 13th and 14th centuries. In many aspects, the iconographical solutions are reflecting the theological polemics of the middle of the 12th century, anticipating new elements that will become recognizable in later Paleological and postbizantian art. It is known that in Kurbinovo are painted several very complex theological topics whose scientific interpretation is still in the spotlight, which indicates the theological erudition of the painters.

Kurbinovo's style is an expression of liberation from the classical artistic-historical stereotypes in the display of shapes and their internal contents. The evolution performed by the author of the frescoes is a creative act of a painter who, by perfecting the artistic achievements of his time, creates his own expression which is brought to artistic perfection.

Outstanding among the frescoes are the portraits of Ana and her daughter Mary, the Mother of God, painted in the lower zone of the south wall of the naos, as well as the portraits of Cyril and Methodius, in the altar space. The depiction of St. Methodius is his oldest portrait known in the Slavic-Byzantine world. The depiction of st. Marena killing the devil is one of the first representations of this type, introducing the cult of the martir that would initially spread to Macedonia and Epirus, and later beyond.

But what makes this church exclusive and makes it a part of the annals of the peak achievements of the Byzantine fresco-painting is without doubt the composition “Annunciation” painted in the altar apse. The depiction of the Archangel Gabriel stands out in it. He has become a symbol and landmark not only of the church in Kurbinovo, but also of the whole country. More than one artist has been inspired by this exceptional figure, which also appears on one of the banknotes issued by the National Macedonian Bank.

Synthesis of elegance and expressiveness, artistic mastery, and harmony of composition: this is how one can define in short, the key properties of the frescoes of St. George church in Kurbinovo, which makes it of outstanding and universal value.

Criterion (i): The murals of St George Church in Kurbinovo are among the world's finest examples of late 12th century Byzantine painting. Painted in Comnenus byzantine style, the frescoes represent a masterpiece of human creative genius from that time. They are among the most prominent examples of Byzantine Mannerism.

The refined sense of color harmony and the mastery of the pictorial gesture results in unique artistic solutions of a whirlwind drapery of the figures that fill the temple with dynamism and expression. The program abounds with rare and significant iconographic and painting interpretations of complex dogmatic themes, among which figures one of the most beautiful and monumental representations of Jesus Christ Irini.

The complex theological topics, whose scientific interpretation is still in the spotlight, indicate the high theological erudition of the painters, who have introduced innovations that make the church even more precious. One of the scenes that testify this innovation is the one that represents the liturgical service of the hierarchs who worship the little Christ instead of the Hetoimasia.

The scene of St. Marina killing the devil is one of the most ancient representations of this kind in the Christian art. The church also houses some of the oldest portraits of Saint Methodius and Saint Cyril.

The elegance with which the Archangel Gabriel is portrayed is so rare and impressive, that he has become a symbol and landmark not only of the church in Kurbinovo, but also of the whole country.

This so-called “Angel of Kurbinovo” rivals in beauty with the most famous representations of the Annunciation left to our Humanity by the greatest masters who will appear on the western art scene only two centuries later.

The remarkable elegance of the painting leads some experts to believe that it has been probably executed by local artists who worked under the direction of a master from Constantinople.  This point of view is always a subject of debate, but in any case, thanks to their talent and mastery of pictorial techniques, the anonymous authors of the frescoes of the St George Church in Kurbinovo have bequeathed us a heritage of inestimable richness.

Criterion (ii): Research has indicated the importance of Kurbinovo church for the Byzantine-Slavic relations of the Ohrid Archbishopric. The heads of the Ohrid Archbishopric in the period of 11th-12th centuries were in close contact with the Byzantine capital. One of the archbishops, probably John Kamatir, a person close to the highest circles of the Byzantine world, is painted on the west façade of the church, indicating the cultural and artistic ties between Prespa and Ohrid with Constantinople.

Although the existence of any direct influence cannot be confirmed during the 12th century, in the case of the church of Kurbinovo very close relationships can be found with several examples of wall paintings of South Balkan. The painted decoration of exceptional quality has been executed in a unique pictorial style, which stylistic and iconographic features can be related with several churches of the period, such as The Theotocos church in Lagoudera and the Saint Neophytos Monastery, in Cyprus, as well as with SS Cosmas and Damian in Kastoria, and in some aspects, with St. John in Patmos, in Greece. Research also indicates possible links with Mt. Sinai and distant links with Russia, Venice and Palermo.

The paintings of Kurbinovo with it’s remarkable elegance of style, bear an outstanding testimony to the local influences of the cultural tradition or Byzantine civilization at the time of the Comnenus. Thus, there do exist some answers to the question of the ties between the various Byzantine provinces with the state center in Constantinople.

The characteristics of Kurbinovo, seen through the art movements of the 12th century, indicate that the western and central parts of today’s RNM had an exceptional place, with a significant contribution to the Balkans.

Criterion (iii): The St George Church of Kurbinovo is one of the few monuments of the 12th century, which remain in RNM till nowadays, having withstood the vagaries of history and the natural threats. It bears an exceptional testimony to the Byzantine Mannerism in art. As a seat of the local metropolitan bishop, it represents significant evidence of the turbulent politico-social, economic and ecclesiastical history of the region. 

The paintings of Kurbinovo with it’s remarkable elegance of style, bear an outstanding testimony to the local influences of the cultural tradition or Byzantine civilization at the time of the Comnenus.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

The integrity of the church is fairly assured. It has a well-preserved natural environment (buffer zone). The frescoes from the 12th century are almost completely preserved, except for the destroyed part of the representations in the first zone of the north wall and part of the south, as well as the upper part of the third zone. The date of the building of the annex on the south side is not known, nor is the date of the execution of the frescoes on the south façade, the dating of which is still an open question (14th-17th centuries).

The church was probably abandoned in the 17th century and “rediscovered” in the 19th century, when the most important modifications and extensions have been done: the roof structure was replaced, a closed porch was built on the west side, and a flat ceiling was installed. Until 1920, the church was active and then abandoned again. According to the testimonies of the local community, until the 1950s, hunters used to take shelter there for warmth, and children used to go there to play. Professional restoration on architecture and frescoes are done in several phases from 1958 until present days.

The last conservation of the building was done in the late 1980s, when the current roof and canopies were installed on the west and south sides, as well as minor interventions on the frescoes. The last interventions on the frescoes were performed in 1991 (photo and graphic documentation, repair of the damages and toning of the empty surfaces). In addition, archaeological excavations were carried out on the south side and thе surrounding of the church was arranged. Considering the consequences of the inactivity of the church, as well as the consequences of the levelling of the southern plateau in the 1980s, a project for conservation and restoration of architecture and mural painting was prepared. Planned conservation works that involve constructive stabilization of the architecture, conservation of the mural paintings and dismantling of the protective roofing will be pursued to ensure their proper preservation.

The property fully endorses authenticity requirements regarding location, context, concept and tradition. The value of Kurbinovo church is formally recognized in the Republic of North Macedonia and it has the highest level of protection as a monument of culture of national importance since 1952. Professional restoration on architecture and frescoes are done in several phases from 1958 until present day. All conservation and restoration works have been carried out in the original materials and traditional techniques and do not threaten the authenticity of the monuments, except the roofing construction, which according to some professional opinions deviates in structure and materials from the roofing executed in the 19th century. They are accompanied by detailed architectural, artistic, archaeological and historical documentation that justifies their selection and assures their authenticity. The further necessary conservation and restoration works are now in preparation phases. In order to maintain the proper conservation of the church, there is a need to implement a proper development plan of the property. However, the highest level of recognition of this unique monument is essentially needed. In this direction, starting procedure for getting status of UNESCO protected site will not only increase visibility of the values of the church but it will secure future prospects and preservation of this unique peace of Byzantine heritage in North Macedonia.

Comparison with other similar properties

Several monuments from Balkan regions dated from same period (12th and early 13th century) are already on the List on UNESCO protected sites: Monasteries of Daphni, Hosios Loukas and Nea Moni of Chios, parts of Meteori complex in Greece, as well as St George’s Church in the Djurdjevi Stupovi Monastery in Serbia.

It is necessary to admit that this List of monuments is not long enough, when we consider the number of jewels of Byzantine art in the Balkans. Some of them are remarkable masterpieces of architectural work, some incorporate natural surroundings, creating unique landscapes, and some are with specific artistic values preserved in its original form.

Considering that UNESCO protection of byzantine heritage should be more present in the region of Balkans, we think that recognizing the status of church St George of Kurbinovo will be or would be of paramount importance for the preservation of the byzantine heritage in Southeast Europe, for nowadays and future generations.