August 19, 2010

Three Medieval Monasteries in Serbia

The three most impressive monasteries in Central Serbia – Žica, Studenica and Sopoćani, are the first examples of the energy with which the Nemanjić Dynasty took on the consolidation of an independent Serbian state between the twelfth and the fifteenth centuries.

After having attracted some of the most skilful artists of Byzantium and the best builders of Zeta (contemporary Montenegro), which at the time was developing under the influence of Venice, they financed several masterpieces of medieval architecture.

Frescos with saturated, dark colours; expressive, albeit two-dimensional Biblical characters; façades that shine in the daylight – the monasteries and churches from this early period, known as Raška, already testify for the beginning of a whole new aesthetic époque in the region.

They are considered as evidence that – had the Balkans not fallen under the Ottoman Empire’s rule, a philosophy of art not any less humanistic than that of the Italian Renaissance would have blossomed in this part of Europe.

Žica: As Close to Rome as to Constantinople

With its tile-red façade, this monastery is one of Serbia’s most memorable landmarks.

Žica was built by Stefan Nemanja’s son – Sava, and stands, symbolically, at an equal distance from Rome and Constantinople. Its location is an expression of the desire of the medieval Serbian state to exist independently, by balancing between European Christianity’s two capitals.

In the context of the twelfth century, that was a brave decision. The cooling of the relations with the Orthodox or the Catholic Church at that time often meant not only diplomatic hardships but also wars. It was even more of a challenge to Sava, who built the monastery after returning from a prolonged stay at Mount Athos.

His certainty that the Serbian Church must seek a balance and get as close to Rome as to Constantinople, left a visible trace on the religious constructions of that era – the churches’ exteriors are Romanesque and their interiors are Byzantine. While the iconography remained an expression of Eastern traditions, the façades – like those of Catholic churches, were decorated with animals and floral motifs around the portals.

Žica was the first monastery to be built after the founding of the Serbian Patriarchy and, as such, carries a special significance to the Serbs. According to the legend, Sava – who was canonized as a saint later, reached the place by following a golden thread (or wire, the Serbian word for which is žica[ital]). Intended as to be the crowning wreath of statehood, it was pained dark red as a reference to the monasteries in Montenegro.

The original frescos have been destroyed to a large extent – during a 1290 attack by the Bulgarians and later, during the Ottoman Empire’s rule. A part of them were preserved alongside the dome’s interior, as well as the Crucifixion in the southern part of the church. Even though it is now largely a product of restoration, the Žica Monastery remains one of the grandest in Serbia.

Practical information: Žica is located at about an hour’s walk from the centre of Kralevo in Central Serbia. It is easy to reach by car, as there are sufficient signs along the road. It can be reached by public transportation as well – with the bus for Mataruška Banja.

Studenica: Stefan Nemanja’s Tomb and the First Signs of Serbian Realism

The Studenica Monastery was built, according to Eastern Orthodoxy’s unwritten rule, in possibly the most inaccessible spot. Similarly to the Byzantine monasteries in Mistra, Sumela and Meteora, it used to be reachable only by a long mountainous trek.

High up in the mountain over the Studenica River, it was built at the end of the twelfth century by Stefan Nemanja, founder of the medieval Serbian state Raška, and became the scene of a series of dramatic events of the ruler’s life.

Here, Stefan Nemanja lived for a while after announcing his abdication and before heading to the Hilandar Monastery on Mount Athos. After his death his remains were returned to Studenica and are now kept in a tomb that is among the most sacred ones for Serbs.

The monastery’s three surviving churches were built in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The central and biggest one is that of the Virgin, named as “the mother of all Serbian temples.” The Roman influence on the decoration of the façade is even more visible than in Žica – the carved-marble wall covering is not typical of the Central Balkans’ religious architecture of that time. Polished and decorated with figures and floral motifs, it was obviously borrowed from the Adriatic coast’s traditions, where Venetian tastes and building traditions hardly left any space for the Eastern aesthetic.

All three churches – the Virgin church, the King’s Church and the Church of St. Nicholas, are exceptionally curious with their interiors as well. Here, unlike in Žica, many of the frescos are excellently preserved.

But perhaps the most interesting of them is on the northern wall of the King’s Church – an unexpectedly realistic depiction of the Virgin Mary’s birth. Near the newborn Virgin, two women are visible – both wrapped up in the proceedings with unusual professionalism – one is checking the water temperature with the back of her hand, while the other one stands around a tray of surgical instruments.

Practical information: The monastery can be reached by car or public transportation. Studenica is located at about the middle of the road between Kralevo and Novi Pazar, near Ušće. The regular bus line, which runs at least four times a day, starts from the centre of Ušće.

Sopoćani: Serbia’s Failed Renaissance

From all the medieval monasteries in Central Serbia, this one has retained the most impressive frescos and icons. It is considered as evidence of the potential of Serbia’s fine arts, failed during the Ottoman Empire’s rule.

Sopoćani is located near the ruins of the erstwhile capital of Raška, Ras, in the direction of the source of the river by the same name. Founded by Uroš in the middle of the thirteenth century, it spent the period between the seventeenth and the nineteenth centuries half-demolished, somehow managing to preserve a large part of its interior decoration.

The central Holy Trinity Church, like the other monasteries from the Raška School, has a Romanesque style exterior and was built with the initial construction of the monastery. The only surviving structure from the later additions is the bell tower from the fourteenth century.

Many of the paintings on the church’s interior depict scenes from the life of the Nemanjić Dynasty members, made almost god-like by their contemporaries, alongside the Christian pantheon’s saints. Stefan Nemanja appears as a monk in Mount Athos, not as a king.

The frescos near the altar are considered to be the most precious. Painted slightly before most of the church’s interior, for which painters were summoned from Constantinople, they are – according to art historians, a testament of the extraordinary processes in the local fine arts, reminiscent of the Italian Renaissance with their humanism.

Practical information: The Sopoćani Monastery can be reached by car, but if you don’t have your own transportation, you can do like the locals and hire a taxi from the centre of Novi Pazar, which should not cost more than 20 euro in both directions, including the wait.