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Insight: Legacy of Medieval Serbia Volume 52 Number 5, September/October 1999
by James Wiseman

(Lynda D'Amico)

In 1960 I traveled across Yugoslavia on the Orient Express with my wife and two sons following a year of study in Greece. That fleeting visit was followed by numerous longer stays, especially during the 1970s and early 1980s when I was co-director of a Yugoslav-American archaeological project at the ancient site of Stobi, south of Skopje in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Following fieldwork at Stobi, I continued to travel in Yugoslavia, visiting acquaintances, friends, and archaeological sites in all six republics: Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, Macedonia, and Serbia (including its provinces of Kosovo and Vojvodina). Although those travels have been more limited since the break-up of the country in 1991 and the civil wars that ensued, I have kept in touch with many scholars and friends I had known in happier years for Yugoslavia and have followed with increasing dismay the disintegration of the country and the deterioration of civil society in those regions that continue to be ravaged by ethnic and religious hatred, murder, and war.

These conflicts are centuries old, and through the ages each renewed conflict has added to the intensity of differences and rendered their understanding ever more complex; real events and their mythic portrayals in literature, art, and political symbolism have become intertwined. Cultural identity in the Balkans has been defined both in ethnic and religious terms; attempts to create a federal union of "southern Slavs" (Yugoslavia) never fully overcame the sharp differences and historical enmities of Roman Catholic Croatia and Slovenia; Orthodox Serbia and Macedonia; and Muslims, whether Slavs in Bosnia or ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. Ethnic and religious differences, sharpened over centuries by real and perceived aggression, have repeatedly provided bases for radical political action and mortal conflict. The rest of the world recoiled in horror not only at the human slaughter, but also at the clear evidence in Bosnia that all sides suffered from attempts to obliterate even the built heritage marking their cultural identity: mosques, orthodox churches, and catholic churches, as well as monuments of all kinds, including the magnificent bridge at Mostar.

It is not yet possible to determine to what extent Serbs and ethnic Albanians have targeted each other's cultural heritage. NATO's bombing raids, in any case, are a significant additional component in the destruction of monuments. As of this writing, I have seen reports of damage to a large number of ancient and medieval sites, mainly Serbian, but there are few details available. The April newsletter of the United States Committee of ICOMOS (the International Council on Monuments and Sites), notes that "damage to...heritage sites of the ethnic Albanians is still unknown, but assumed to be of catastrophic proportions," adding that ascertaining the extent of such damage is particularly difficult because the "built heritage of Albanians in the Kosovo region," in particular "vernacular compounds, traditional villages and religious centers," is little known in the West. There are masterpieces of art and architecture among the medieval monasteries of southern Serbia and Kosovo, but these, too, are poorly known outside scholarly circles, although their locations, including Pech and Prishtina, have become familiar through media reports on the war.

The province of Kosovo is part of the heartland of medieval Serbia, which for a time rivaled the Byzantine Empire in Europe, and at its greatest extent in the mid-fourteenth century stretched from the Danube River to the Corinthian Gulf, and from Thrace to the Adriatic coast. Beginning with Stefan Nemanja, founder of the Nemanja dynasty, which ruled Serbia from the third quarter of the twelfth century to the late fourteenth century, the Christian (Serbian Orthodox) church grew in authority and prosperity along with the evolving Serbian state, as rulers and other nobles built scores of monasteries and churches in the towns, valleys, and mountains of southern Serbia and Kosovo.

[image] Fourteenth-century Church of the Assumption at Gratchanitsa (Yugotours) [LARGER IMAGE]

Of all these monuments, my favorite is the Church of the Assumption in the monastery of Gratchanitsa, some six miles southeast of Prishtina. The church, completed in the last year of the reign of King Urosh II Milutin (1282-1321), is to me the most graceful building of medieval Serbia. Its plan is that of a Greek cross inscribed in a rectangle, with small domes above the ends of each arm and a larger central dome supported by four columns and double cross-vaults. The view of the exterior is of walls broken by arches, domes, and vaults rising in stages to the central dome. There are numerous large frescos, their compositions drawn from both the Old and New Testament. One of the most impressive, in my view, is the prophet Elijah fed by a raven. The scene, based on the story in I Kings 17.1-6, shows a contemplative Elijah, resting his chin on his hand and looking up at a raven that is bringing him food during the time of drought he had predicted to the sinful king of Israel, Ahab. The pose and the facial expression impart a spiritual intensity to the scene that I have found particularly memorable, perhaps partly from nostalgia. I visited the church in 1987, when I was leading a tour group of Archaeological Institute of America members through southern Serbia, Macedonia, and Dalmatia. The breakup of Yugoslavia was only on the horizon then, and the recent, gloomy war in Kosovo was unimagined. Perhaps, too, the raven, that great black bird, evokes thoughts of the battle at nearby Kosovo Polje, which means "The Field of Blackbirds." There the Serbians were crushed by the Ottoman Turks on June 15, 1389, putting an end to two centuries of remarkable political, economic, and artistic achievements.

The earliest sanctuaries founded by the Nemanja dynasty are the Church of St. Nikolas and the Church of the Virgin near the town of Kurshumlija in the eastern part of medieval Serbia, both built in contemporary Byzantine style by Stefan Nemanja between 1158 and 1166 while he was still only zhupan (a regional chief or prince) of that district. The following year, Stefan became Grand Prince of Rascia, centered on the Rashka River, with his administrative and residential center at Ras (near modern Novi Pazar), and in gratitude to St. George, whom he credited with his rise to power, he founded a monastery and built a church to him near Ras. This church, known as Djurdjevi Stupovi or Towers (literally, Columns) of St. George, was the first construction in the Rashka architectural style, which combines features of the Byzantine east and the Romanesque west, of which King Milutin's church at Gratchanitsa is perhaps the crowning achievement. The full Rashka style is also seen in one of the last foundations of Stefan Nemanja, the Church of the Virgin in the monastery on the river Studenitsa (from which it draws its name).

[image] The Church of the Virgin at Studenitsa [LARGER IMAGE] and its magnificent fresco of the crucifixion [LARGER IMAGE] (left, James Wiseman; right, Yugotours) [image]

The exterior walls are Romanesque both in structure--dressed blocks of limestone faced with marble--and in the handsome sculptural decoration of the wall faces, doorways, and windows. In plan and section it is Byzantine: there is a vaulted single aisle, surmounted by a dome, and lateral vestibules that form a transept. Original frescoes are preserved in several areas of the nave, including a magnificent scene of the crucifixion, considered the work of a great master (name unknown), possibly from Constantinople. The composition is characterized by calm grief and dignity, and the painting by great technical ability, including long, clean brushstrokes in red and brown that outline the faces of all the figures. I admire also the serene blue background, splashed with golden stars. The paintings, sculpture, and architecture served as models for later churches, which, like Studenitsa and the other foundations of Stefan Nemanja, were endowed with income-producing estates and adorned with rich gifts by Nemanja's successors.

It was at Studenitsa that Nemanja took orders as the monk Simeon after renouncing his throne in favor of his second son Stefan in 1196, and where his body was buried following his death in 1199. Because the smell of myrrh was said to exude on occasion from his tomb, considered a sign of divine grace, he was canonized by the Serbian Orthodox Church as St. Simeon Myroblitos ("the Myrrh-Giver") and Studenitsa became the center of his cult. His youngest son, the monk Sava, served as the head of the monastery until 1213/14, during which time he oversaw the creation of yet another monastery, Zhitcha near the Morava River, commissioned by his brother, Grand Prince Stefan. I hope readers of this article will have the opportunity to visit Studenitsa as I did, in a time of peace, to enjoy a stroll through the historic monastery grounds and admire the stunning architecture.

In 1217, Grand Prince Stefan received a crown and the title of king from Honorius III, the Pope in Rome, and so came to be known as King Stefan the First-Crowned. Two years later he sent Sava as ambassador to the Byzantine Patriarchate at Nicaea to request that the bishopric at Ras no longer be subject to the Archbishopric at Ohrid (in Macedonia). The Patriarch complied, appointing Sava Archbishop of Serbia and decreeing that successors should be appointed and confirmed in Serbia itself; the Serbian church thereby became self-governing, with its seat at Zhitcha monastery. Both Stefan the First-Crowned, who became the monk Simon just before his death in 1227, and Sava, who died in 1235, were canonized as saints by the Serbian church, and like their father remained the subjects of artistic portrayal throughout Serbia.

[image] The Patriarchate at Pech [LARGER IMAGE] and frescoes in the narthex [LARGER IMAGE] (left, James Wiseman; right, Yugotours) [image]

During the reign of King Stefan Urosh I (1243-1276), the center of the Serbian church was moved to the Church of the Holy Apostles at Pech, completed about 1250, because Pech, close to the center of the Serbian state, was less exposed than Zhitcha to invasions from the north. The king began the exploitation of mineral resources, including rich silver mines at Novo Brdo (about 24 miles east of Prishtina), and strengthened commercial and political alliances with other nations, including Italy and France. His policies brought great prosperity, in which the Serbian church shared directly.

Church of the Holy Trinity at Sopochani (James Wiseman) [LARGER IMAGE][image]

He founded the monastery at Sopochani near the source of the river Rashka (ca. seven miles west of Novi Pazar); its Church of the Holy Trinity is considered by many to have one of the most splendid collections of thirteenth-century frescoes in Europe; they were completed in 1263-1270. The exterior of the church is simpler in decorative forms than others cited here. Its walls are covered with a light ocher-colored plaster instead of marble, but it is still imposing with its lofty dome and King Milutin's exonarthex and three-story bell tower.

[image] Frescoed wall below the dome at Detchani (Yugotours) [LARGER IMAGE]

If Gratchanitsa is the most graceful Serbian church, the Church of the Ascension at Detchani (about ten miles south of Pech) is the most monumental, befitting the outsized ambitions of the man who finished it. It was begun as a mausoleum church by King Stefan Urosh III Detchanski (1321-1331), son of Milutin, jointly with his son and designated heir, Stefan Dushan, who oversaw its completion. The building has five aisles separated by marble columns, and a central dome rising 90 feet above the floor rests on four massive piers. The interior, with numerous separate rooms and relatively small, sometimes poorly illuminated spaces, ruled out large compositions of the kind found at Sopochani and Gratchanitsa. The walls, vaults, and piers are covered with more than a thousand works, making Detchani the largest gallery of medieval painting in Yugoslavia.

The completion of Detchani coincides with the high point of power and territorial extent of medieval Serbia, in the reign of Stefan Dushan (1331-1355). Through a series of successful military campaigns Dushan extended his rule first over Macedonia (except Thessalonica), then Albania, Epirus, Aetolia, Acarnania, and Thessaly. On Easter Sunday, 1346, he was crowned in Skopje as "Emperor of the Serbs and the Greeks." The Archbishopric of the Serbian church at Pech became the Patriarchate of imperial Serbia. The monastery at Pech had already witnessed significant growth, as three churches had been added to the Church of the Holy Apostles in the century since its founding, creating a single ecclesiastical complex, united on the west by a massive narthex adorned with fine frescoes.

Stefan Urosh V, last of the Nemanjids, succeeded to the throne upon the death of his father, but he was a feeble ruler and the empire collapsed during his reign (1355-1371) into independent feudal units. In the year of his death, the Ottoman Turks made their first major incursion into the region, and the attacks became stronger and more frequent, culminating in an invasion in 1389 led by Sultan Murad I. He was opposed by armies led by Prince Lazar and Vuk Brankovich, who ruled the region around Kosovo. Although Murad I was killed early in the encounter by a Serbian noble posing as a deserter, his son Bayezid led the Turks to an overwhelming victory at Kosovo Polje.

The battle, ending with the execution of Prince Lazar, was mourned and celebrated in Serbian song and story. The Turks, according to legend, offered Prince Lazar the choice of surrender or death in battle. Prophet Elijah then appeared as a gray falcon to Lazar, bearing a letter from the Mother of God that told him the choice was between holding an earthly kingdom and entering the kingdom of heaven; he chose the latter, and died with all his warriors. Prince Lazar was canonized and his feast day set on the anniversary of the battle, June 15 according to the Julian calendar, celebrated now in Serbia on June 28 (in the Gregorian calendar). The glorification of St. Lazar was accelerated in the nineteenth century when art and literature even depicted him as Christ and Kosovo as a "Serb Golgotha," in the words of Michael A. Sells, who explored the role (and pernicious use) of the Kosovo legend in Serbian nationalistic aspirations and the portrayal of Muslims as "Christ-killers" in his 1996 book The Bridge Betrayed. But however much the Kosovo legend has been manipulated and abused by unscrupulous politicians, we should understand that Kosovo remains a significant and honorable symbol to Serbs; it is a perception that is not likely to be changed by this war. That said, such feelings cannot serve as a justification for the expulsion of ethnic Albanians from their homes in Kosovo, nor for any criminal act by any state or individual. There is no justification for atrocities.

War Damage

According to US/ICOMOS and the Society of Conservators of Serbia jointly with Yugoslav ICOMOS, the following cultural monuments have been damaged or destroyed in Kosovo and southern Serbia; it does not include sites in other parts of Yugoslavia. In Pech, the nineteenth-century Tcharshija commercial district and eighteenth-century Tabatchki bridge were destroyed, as was Lochane, a traditional village near Detchani monastery. Both the twelfth-century churches built by Stefan Nemanja near Kurshumlija were damaged by bombs. In Prizren, the Churches of the Virgin Ljeviska, Church of the Savior, and the Sinan Pasha Mosque have all suffered damage. Bombs fell repeatedly near Gratchanitsa monastery, on one occasion within 650 feet of the church, causing cracks in the walls and damaging frescoes. Damage is also reported at the fourteenth-century monastery at Devich. The area around the monastery at Pech suffered repeated bombing; damage includes cracks in frescoes, portions of which were shaken loose from the walls. Damage, but no details, is reported by the Serbian Orthodox Church to the monasteries of Djurdjevi Stupovi, Zhitcha, Detchani, and Sopochani.

James Wiseman is a contributing editor to Archaeology and is professor of archaeology, art history, and classics at Boston University. The author thanks Virginia and Dragan Stojanovic in Pennsylvania and Lazar Sumanov in Skopje, Macedonia.

Kosovo Web Sources

There are many web sites with information about Yugoslavia, Kosovo, and the war. Many are partisan. Included in this list are those with substantial (or whole) content in English. Inclusion of a site does not indicate endorsement of the views expressed on it.

Official accounts can be found on web sites run by the United States' State Deparment, the United Kingdom's Foreign Office and Ministry of Defence, NATO, the United Nations, the Serbian Ministry of Information, and the Yugoslav government.

Western European and U.S. media sources on Kosovo include the BBC (report and timeline), CNN, and MSNBC . Independent news/opinion web sites include the Insitute for War and Peace Reporting and Common Dreams News Center. For local news organizations, see sites maintained by Borba, an English-language Serbian newspaper, the independent radio station B92 in Belgrade, and Kosovo's Radio 21. Information about historic sites and buildings in Kosovo is available from the Institute for the Protection of Cultural Monuments of Serbia. The web site of the Serbian Orthodox Church has photographs documenting damage and destruction of churches and monasteries in Kosovo and Metohija (this supercedes an older listing that had the URL http://www.spc.yu/Svetinje/svetinje_e.htm).

The University of Texas offers maps of the region and a pro-Serbian web site has a map of churches and monasteries in Kosovo.

General pro-Serbian sites include Serbia Now!, Kosovo and Metohija, and Kosovar Albanian perspectives are carried on Kosova Home Page and the Kosovo Crisis Centre.

© 1999 by the Archaeological Institute of America