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Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Serbia’s Medieval Monasteries — Beauty Draped in Frescoes

The ancient monasteries of Serbia and their historic frescoes preserve a culture and faith buried under centuries of change.

In the dark hollow of the church, the light of white candles vaguely outlines the few worshippers. At the back of the narthex sit two nuns, each wearing a black, fez-like hat to which a large shawl hangs, covering their shoulders and merging with their floor-length habits. On one side sits an old monk, his white beard standing out in the dark. While he sits, he bows repeatedly, always very low. Were it not for the cane in his right hand, he would lose his balance.

A wrought-iron gate closes off the main hall. In the feeble light it throws a fine shadow on the large stones that cover the floor, smooth and shiny from centuries of footsteps. The voices of young nuns, hidden from view, respond to the liturgy read by the priest. In Serbian monasteries old priests or monks sometimes spend their last years in nunneries, reading the liturgy for the nuns who, in turn, take care of them.

Hundreds of Serbian monasteries date back nearly a millenium to the early days of that kingdom, now part of Yugoslavia. Some say three hundred of them exist, ranging in size from majestic churches to tiny chapels just a few feet square. They can be found strewn all over the landscape. Only a small number are still inhabited by monks and nuns, many of whom are strikingly young.

Regardless of size, Serbian monasteries recall a rich medieval heritage in which art, spirituality, and learning thrived. The ruling Nemanjides family founded many of them and, in turn, encouraged the growth of sacred art. Peculiar to this region are magnificent frescoes, dating from the eleventh through the fourteenth centuries, which cover monastery walls both inside and out. Serbian architecture also takes on a characteristic beauty from the rolling hills and woods of Serbia. Local stone masons usually built the monasteries with the native rock, so the buildings seem to grow naturally from the landscape.

These monasteries developed as cultural centers which reflect Serbia’s enduring social structures as they were influenced by Christianity. In the seventh and eighth centuries, the Slavic Serbs moved into the area which until then had been inhabited by Illyrians and Thrakians. Large family and tribal units spanning several generations lived in zadrugas, a kind of commune, under the leadership of an elder, the Domacin. Occasionally, some of these zadrugas united under the selected leader, the zupan. An early form of Serbian aristocracy emerged from this leadership around the turn of the millenium. In 1183 the Grand Zupan Štefan Nemanja founded the Serbian state when he managed to unite some of the autonomous tribes around the Raška area in Kosovo and free them from Byzantine sovereignty.

During the period which led up to a unified Serbian state under Štefan Nemanja, Christianity here also was moving toward a national identity. In 379, when the Roman Emperor Gratian used the Drina and Zeta Rivers to mark the division between the eastern and western parts of the Roman Empire, the future Serbia in the Eastern Illyricum region was increasingly defined by Byzantine culture. Although they were in communion with the Rome Patriarchate, that cultural influence led to their switching ecclesiastical allegiance to Constantinople in 732. A monastic tradition gradually developed under the influence of Greek monasticism and the disciples of Saints Cyril and Methodius.

By the time Štefan Nemanja made Serbia a sovereign state, monasticism here was ripe for establishing its own cultural identity. In a telling move, Štefan Nemanja relinquished his throne, took the name Simeon, and joined his youngest son Rastko in founding the Serbian monastery of Chilandar on Mount Athos. Their family would be as influential in establishing Serbia’s monastic tradition as it was in establishing the state. During this fertile medieval period they established the monasteries of Žiča, Studenica, Visoki Dečani, Mileševa, and Sopočani, among others.

Rastko, who took the name Sava as a monk, exemplified the leadership which developed the Serbian Church, especially its monasteries. After establishing the monastery of Chilandar, he eventually left to organize the Serbian Church. Clever, modest, and clairvoyant, Sava used his skills as an excellent organizer and capable diplomat. Highly educated and pious, he realized that a national church was as essential as a unified Serbian state for Serbia’s cultural identity to survive and flourish.

The longstanding competition between the episcopacies of Rome and Constantinople for Serbia finally was resolved by Sava. Even though his brother Stephen had been crowned ruler of Serbia by the Roman pope, Honorius III, Sava negotiated with the Byzantine Emperor and the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople for permission to erect an archiepiscopate with independent authority over the internal affairs of the Serbian Church. In 1219 he became Serbia’s first archbishop and chose Žiča as his episcopal seat. This Serbian Orthodox Church still exists.

Serbian monasteries created environments where the Christian community nurtured Serbian culture. Medieval monastic life flourished by providing communal centers with schools, art workshops, libraries, and bishop residences.

Today the sight of an old monk turning the hay outside Studenica merely suggests the traditional monastic ways. The high walls surrounding the complex once offered protection against marauding bands of warriors and bandits. Three churches stand in the large area within Studenica’s walls. Among them, the Church of Mary is distinguished by its wall-to-wall frescoes painted in 1209. They are representative of the monumental Serbian style that has come to be known as the Raška school.

The frescoes of Serbian monasteries are magnificent artistic achievements which testify to the patronage afforded by the medieval Serbian Orthodox Church and Serbian rulers, such as the Nemanjides family. This sacred art also points to the distinctive spirituality of the region. The icon, so prevalent in the Eastern Orthodox church, plays a subordinate role, and mosaics are unknown. Among distinct schools of church architecture and fresco painting, the Raška school, the earliest, prevails in the area where the Nemanjides ruled during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Mileševa, Sopočani, Žiča, Studenica, and Gradac are its best examples.

The Nemanjides family ruled the Serbian kingdom until 1389, when the advancing Ottoman army defeated the Serbs in the battle of Prijepolje. Without these rulers’ support, Serbian artists could not survive being totally devoted to their work. A period of intense creativity came to an abrupt halt. During 450 years of Ottoman rule and again through the subsequent Communist rule that followed some 70 years later, the vitality of the Serbian Orthodox Church has suffered. This loss is seen particularly in their monasteries. No longer thriving cultural centers, they either stand empty or house few monks. Special care is given to preserving their structures and sacred art, but this is done as if they are relics, not as if they are alive.

Today in the monastery of Visoki Dečani on a Sunday afternoon in warm weather, families from the nearby town enjoy the shady grounds inside the walls. They picnic under a huge plane tree or amid old gravestones at the side of the church. Inside the church, with its high dome, are walls covered with frescoes. In the prayerful stillness a tiny woman appears statuesque as she worships clad in local traditional garb: white trousers tucked into knee-high stockings, a vest over a white, ample-sleeved blouse, and a white cone-shaped hat, similar to those worn by the nuns at Žiča. A scarf reaches down from the hat and envelops her shoulders. The thick walls of the Byzantine cross-shaped church entirely shut out the heat and any hint of modernity. The peacefulness of the surroundings remains complete.

Margot Granitsas is a freelance writer and photographer.

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