A Serbian monastery presents some of the most precious sacral monuments of Serbian Orthodox culture. The monasteries we have selected are but a portion of Serbian rich heritage, and came into being over a long period stretching from the 12th to the 20th centuries. Among the monasteries are some that have already become part of world cultural heritage in terms of their beauty and artistic merit, and some that have yet to be revealed to the world.
Monasteries are the fruit of a specific monastic spirit, rooted in medieval religiosity. They were – and remain today – small social communities profoundly devoted to the quest for God, and to special Christian aims. The center of Orthodox Christian monastery is the church (known as the “temple”), where religious services are performed. The most beautiful works of architecture, painting and applied arts are generally associated with the church area, as it is the focal point of daily life. However, it is the beauty of the monastery facilities – too frequently surrounded by massive walls – which invite admiration as well. Monasteries were built on the most picturesque sites, on mayor routes, and almost always near rivers and springs, so that pilgrimage to these holy sites offers travelers the unique pleasure of enjoying nature. The church, quest quarters, library, treasury, and refectory all form a circle within this mystical and divinely-inspired world.
The story about Serbian monasteries begins with the oldest Christian church – St Peter’s Church, in what is today southwestern Serbia. It is believed that the church was built sometime in the 6th or 7th centuries, and it is an established fact that it was an important spiritual center at the time of Stefan Nemanja (12th century), the founder of the illustrious Serbian Nemanjic dynasty. The most beautiful and precious monasteries were built while this dynasty was in power, so that these stylistically specific monasteries and the region in which most of them are located bear a common name – they are known as monuments of the Raska School. The most significant endowment of Stefan Nemanja is the Studenica monastery. In terms of architecture, this monastery – like the majority of others from this area – has features of the Adriatic Littoral Building School. Serbian monasteries bear witness to the interlacing of the distinctly beautiful Eastern and Western styles, and they also reflect the harmony of Byzantine and Western Christian art. The architecture of the Studenica Monastery Church is one of the most beautiful examples of this congruity. Paintings in the interior of the Church of the Mother of God also bear witness to supreme artistic achievements. One of the most famous frescoes is the Crucifixion – a monumental and moving composition. The Studenica monastery is a magnificent example of Serbian building and painting mastery, resulting in the fact that it has been listed as one of UNESCO’s monuments of World Heritage.
Medieval Serbian monasteries are an extraordinary example of the synthesis of the Byzantine and Mediterranean religious cultures. Nonetheless, the Byzantine culture had a decisive influence, which continued on as part of Serbian culture even after the decline and definitive fall of the Byzantine State. The chief spiritual source of medieval Serbian culture is Chilandar Monastery (dating from 12th century) located on Mt Athos in modern day Greece. The founders of Chilandar exerted a crucial influence on all areas of religious, political and cultural life in medieval Serbia.
The period between the 12th century and the latter half of the 14th century was an age in which the Serbian state flourished and became strong. The reigning Nemanjic family, and later patrician families, devoted great attention to setting up endowments. Deeply devoted to Christianity, and by way of building churches and monasteries, they spread the faith among the people, encouraged literacy and learning, enhanced Church organization, and eventually found their eternal resting-place in the endowments they themselves had built. One of the most treasured sacral buildings of the Nemanjic era is the Sopocani Monastery, and endowment of King Uros, who reigned in the 13th century. The mural at Sopocani ranks among the most magnificent and beautiful in European medieval art. The monumentality of Sopocani frescoes, the harmony of colors present, and the refinement of expression on the faces of the figures all contributed to its being granted a place on UNESCO’s World Heritage list. The most famous frescoes of the central section of the church are those of the Assumption of the Most Holy Mother of God, the Descent into Hades, and the individual figures of the Saints. Apart from the architecture, painting and applied arts, book publishing was perhaps the most significant – albeit today less visible – thread running through and decisively influencing the spirit of medieval art and culture.
Medieval Serbian books reflect the development of Byzantine greatest culture. All mayor authors of Christian Orthodox books since the schism between the Eastern and Western Churches of 1054 are represented in great number, as are some original texts. Works of the greatest Byzantine Christian authors were translated into Church Slavic. To mention but a few: Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, Gregory of Nyssa, Athanasius the Great, Maxim the Confessor, John the Scholastic, etc. Serbian cultural heritage is best represented by books from the collections at the Chilandar Monastery, the Decani Monastery, and the Pec Patriarchate. Written by a master’s hand, these books were also the proving ground of Orthodox Christianity’s lofty achievements in miniature painting.
Mileseva Monastery is another jewel of the Nemanjic period. It was built by King Vladislav in the early 13th century. The church is dedicated to the Ascension of Our Lord, and is one of the most beautiful and gracious sacral buildings. Mileseva’s mural is world-renowned. This church boasts Serbian best-known fresco – a masterpiece of late medieval painting – the White Angel from the scene of the Holy Chrism Bearers at the Tomb of Christ. The figure of the Mother of God, which is part of the composition named “The Annunciation”, stands apart due to its beauty.
The monasteries in the region Kosovo and Metohija are of exceptional value. During the late middle Ages, this region was the center of the Serbian Church and State. The most monumental building in medieval Serbia is the church devoted to Christ the Pantocrator at Decani Monastery, whose construction was initiated by King Stefan Decanski. It was his son, the famous Emperor Stefan Dusan who completed his father’s work during the 13th century. The Decani Church boasts the richest and best-preserved sculpture in the Romanesque-Gothic style: a lavish portal, sculptures, and decorative windows. In addition, the Decani Church frescoes bear witness to the royal origins of the Nemanjic dynasty, and of the founding families. What makes this monastery exceptional is also its treasury, which is the keeper of precious old icons and other objects of superb craftsmanship.
Also noteworthy from among the Kosovo and Metohija monasteries is Gracanica – the monastery church devoted to the Annunciation. It was built by King Milutin in the early 14th century, as an endowment. Gracanica’s architectural structure represents the peak of building mastery in Serbia, following the spirit of Byzantine tradition. However, it also stands apart as a work of harmonious proportions and of extraordinary beauty. Furthermore, the complex of the Pec Patriarchate holds its own too, with its four wonderful churches. The oldest, dedicated to the Holy Apostles, was built in the mid 13th century, while the last, devoted to St. Nicholas, dates back to the first half of the 14th century. The Pec Patriarchate plays a mayor role in the history of Church and State in Serbia. In the very center of Prizren is another pearl of medieval Serbian building mastery – the Church of the Mother of God of Ljevisa. The great builder, King Milutin, had it constructed as an endowment in the early 14th century. The church was designed in the Byzantine style, while its murals belong to the Byzantine Renaissance. Of the frescoes from the oldest layer, The Feasts in Canaan and The Healing of the Blind are particularly noteworthy.
Art historians and medieval art aesthetics specialists have ruled that Russian icons, Byzantine mosaics and Serbian frescoes stand unrivalled in Christian Orthodox art. The renowned, and less known Serbian frescoes are also of outstanding value, not only to Eastern Orthodoxy, but also to European and world art in general. At the root of this beauty lies the artist’s ethic and aesthetic ideal to bring into this world the splendor of the Son of God – Christ.
The beginning of the end of the Serbian medieval state commenced in 1371, when the Serbian army suffered defeat at the hands of the Ottoman Turks during the Battle of the Marica. It was in this battle that the last ruler of the Nemanjic dynasty was killed – Emperor Stefan Uros I. A regional lord, Lazar Hrebeljanovic succeeded in consolidating parts of the Serbian empire. He, like his successors – Despot Stefan Lazarevic and Despot Djuradj Brankovic – continued the thriving tradition of Serbian rulers and noblemen of setting up endowments. The center of the Serbian State shifted to the central and northern parts of the country. Despite facing an unrelenting Turkish military threat, the country developed culturally and spiritually. It was during this era – which lasted for almost a century – that many original works of exceptional quality were created. The style of this epoch has some common characteristics, and was termed the Morava School. Morava style architecture had elements of the Greek trefoil base, specific facades were built alternately of stone and brick, and it boasted examples of Romanesque decorative plastics. Churches in the Morava style were pronouncedly decorative and vivid, while at the same time revealing an undisturbed harmony. One of the first edifices of the new Morava style architecture is the Lazarica Church, built in Krusevac, the new capital of Prince Lazar Hrebeljanovic. The most beautiful monasteries of this epoch and style are Ravanica, Kalenic, Ljubostinja, Manasija and Naupara.
A decisive spiritual influence during this period was exerted by Hesychasm, pointing out prayer as the road to sanctity. For hesychasts, the motive of Christ’s mystical Transfiguration on Mount Tabor, and the motive of Holy Warriors were of singular importance. The essence and climax of Orthodox Christian religious mystique is transfiguration by way of the Divine Light. The frescoes of this period strongly advocate these ideas, which also reflected on both the motives and on the specific style, characterized by a unique transparency and an uncanny mystique of colors. It was under the influence of hesychasm that the frescoes of the Kalenic Monastery were painted, representing the highest achievement in wall painting of this period. Of the frescoes from this period, we single out that form the Monastery of the Church of the Holy Trinity in Manasija. This period, in which people lived and worked under conditions that were out of the ordinary, immediately precedes the definitive fall of the Serbian medieval state in 1456. It appears that this epoch – although under continual threat and unrelenting pressure form the Turkish military – accumulated the old and created new values that served as the driving force, lending vitality to Serbian culture so that it would survive the long period of Turkish occupation in the centuries follow. A conquered people, without a state or a military, drew its strength from its faith and its Church, as this was the sole remaining organized institution. This is the reason why monasteries were of singular importance, as they sustained the spark of spirituality that enabled the Serbian people to definitively rid itself of Turkish occupation in the 19th century. Time spent under the Turkish occupation was unequaled in its hardship. Even in such circumstances, new churches and monasteries were built, and those destroyed were restored. A large number of them were built in the second half of the 16th century, and in the early 17th century. The founders of these monasteries were no longer rulers or the nobility, but priests and ordinary people – mostly craftsmen and merchants. Tronosa Monastery, and Blagovestenja Monastery, located in the Ovcar-Kablar Canyon, is both examples of such monasteries. In memory of the golden age of Serbian building monastery, the monastery churches were built using as examples the oldest churches of the Raska School.
There is literally not a single monastery that has not suffered minor or extensive devastation. Orthodox Christian churches were frequently turned into Moslem houses of prayer. For example, the Church of the Mother of God of Ljevise in Prizren was converted into a mosque, and its frescoes covered with plaster for centuries. Churches were turned into stables and storerooms for gunpowder. Roofless, they were exposed to the elements, torched, their most valuable items looted and lost forever. The cult of holy relics – the veneration of the earthly remains of rulers and saints – is very strong in Serbian tradition. One of the greatest cults was the cult of the relics of St. Sava, and undoubtedly the most tragic loss occurred in the late 16th century when the Ottoman conquerors burned this holiest of Serbian holies. During the centuries of occupation, a part of the Serbian population migrated northward in waves. Their destination was the Pannonian plain. Imbued with strong religious spirit, the fleeing monks, priests and Serbian refugees built a large number of monasteries and churches in this region. An Orthodox Christian missionary center was set up in what is today the northern province of Vojvodina, to preserve religion and strengthen the national spirit. The monasteries and churches of Vojvodina are a specific world that transmitted old patterns, blending them with the styles of the new age. The most numerous colonies were created on Mt. Fruska Gora, where, according to some records, there were as many as 35 monasteries. A total of 17 are still standing in this region.
Uprooted from their ancestral lands, the Serbian people began creating lore about the founding of the monasteries on Mt. Fruska Gora. In these legends, the illustrious Serbian rulers of old were identified as monastery founders. There is a tradition, according to which the Vrdnik Monastery was founded by Serbian Prince Lazar. Despot Djuradj Brankovic – the last of the Serbian rulers – was said to have founded the Staro and Novo Hopovo Monasteries., as well as Fenek and Krusedol. As tradition has it, there actually may be some traces of historical proof to support these claims, but all these romanticized stories testify more to an overwhelming desire to establish connections with a distant and glorious past, thus enhancing the spirit of an exiled and conquered Serbian people. Documented history offers evidence of the existence of a large number of Orthodox Christian monasteries in Vojvodina in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. As regards architectural style, it is not easy to pick out all the influences contributing to the present day appearance of monasteries in Vojvodina and on Fruska Gora. In the beginning, most of the monasteries were built after models of the Morava and Raska Schools, but the spirit of the Baroque effected a strong influence in the 18th century, resulting in a blend that may best be seen in the tall Baroque church steeples subsequently built next to the original churches. A strong impact on church paintings and applied arts was also made by the Baroque and Neo-classicist styles.
Pokajnica Church, which was built as a token of repentance for the assassination of Karadjordje – the leader of the First Serbian Uprising – is of historical interest. It is an extraordinary example of the style of log-cabin churches, of which there are many throughout Serbia. The St. George Church at Oplenac was the endowment and mausoleum of the Karadjordjevic dynasty. Copies of all the most beautiful frescoes of Serbian medieval painting are displayed as mosaics in this church. From the artistic point of few, the most significant monasteries and churches were built during the time of the Nemanjic dynasty (12th – 14th centuries), while the other important period was the reign Prince Lazar and his descries. Up until the 19th century, monasteries – both old and new – were the only educational institutions. During the Ottoman occupation, it was they who safeguarded the spirit and memory essential to preserving the Serbian religious heritage, as well as meeting the challenges of the new age. Despite the occupation, most monasteries functioned in continuity, and today there are in excess of 200 of them in Serbia. By presenting the monasteries of Serbia, Serbia present most precious cultural monuments, as well as the turbulent history of the Serbian people.