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Serbia’s Medieval Monasteries – Beauty Draped in Frescoes

text and photos by Margot Granitsas

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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.

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Tags: Art Monasticism Serbian Orthodox Church Serbia Frescoes