Saturday, July 07, 2007


On our final day, we visited two monasteries – Studenica and Žiča. One of the most important monasteries in Serbia, Studenica is located 11 km from Ušće and 241 km from Belgrade, Studenica was founded by Stefan Namanja. His son Sava established the independence of the Serbian church, became the first prior, and wrote what became the cornerstone of the monastic rules for Serb monks. According to the monastery’s tour guide, there currently are 10 monks in Studenica, six of which are in practice to become priests.

The largest church, the Church of the Virgin Mary, was constructed in 1183-1191 in honor of St. Sava’s father. It was built in a new style termed the Raška style, consisting of a Byzantine church space and exterior in a Romanesque style. This new Raška style became the prototype for subsequent churches. A large ethnonarthex was added by Stefan Namanja’s son King Radoslav in 1233 – a very different look than the rest of the church. Inside was an older baptistery with marble columns and a newer ones with steps up into a large wooden tank. I was told that baptism by immersion was not practiced though. One can also see Stefan Nemanja’s marble tomb (his burned body was returned from Mt. Athos in Greece) and a 19th century walnut casket inlaid with designs of mother-of-pearl and ivory containing Stefan’s son, Stefan Prvovenčani.

The portal above the door entering the main part of the church depicted a carving of Jesus in Mary’s lap, with the archangels Michael and Gabriel on each side. In front was an altar built in 1837, a silver casket containing St. Sava’s mother, and chairs around the periphery of the room that were added just 4 years ago. Prior to then, people had to stand – very typical of Serbian Orthodox churches.

The most important parts though were the frescoes. The oldest ones date back to 1208 and represent a new chapter in medieval Serbia and all of Byzantium. They reflect a development in which there is an increased emphasis on the human form, its physical strength, and its definition of character. For the first time, inscriptions were written in Serbian and not Greek. Sadly, many of the frescoes now have white potmarks, remnants of an unsuccessful repainting job (1569) which were later removed. Attempts at filling in the holes and adding pigment has been unsuccessful, as restorers haven’t been able to get the correct formula of plaster (including a mixture of straw, boar hair, and other materials). Other frescoes, particularly those at lower levels, had the eyes gouged out by the Turks, who were afraid that the saints were watching them. Thankfully, the church’s masterpiece – The Crucifixion – was spared and is in an excellent state of preservation. It contains rich colors of gold, maroon, and Byzantine blue – which has not been duplicated.

White marble for the exterior was taken from the nearby Radočelo Montain. Many of the workers were Italian – hence the Romanesque influence as seen in the elaborately carved leaves, figures, mythological beasts decorating doorways and doors.

Studenica also contains two other churches, the King’s Church built in 1313 and a small St. Nicholas Church built in the 13th century. Although small, King’s Church contains frescoes that rank among the best achievements of the Byzantine world during that period. Frescoes such as “Birth of the Virgin” and “Entering to the Temple” go beyond more symbolism and demonstrate an increasing interest in portraying realism and technique. Portraits of King Milutin, his wife, St. Sava, and St. Simeon, are among the finest portraits of the middle ages. Unfortunately photography was strictly forbidden inside the churches.

Other buildings include a tower from the early 13th century, a nicely restored monastery residential quarters, and a refectory with plain white marble tables. In the hot weather, the refectory’s cool temperatures were welcome. Leaving the monastery grounds, we filled up our water bottles at the fountain known for its excellent water.

No comments: