Medieval Monuments in Kosovo and Metochia


UNESCO's Committee for World Heritage, at a July conference held in Vilnius, Lithuania, decided to include the Church of Our Lady of Ljeviš, the Gračanica monastery and the Patriarchate of Peć on the list of world heritage sites, by which their universal value as cultural monuments was recognised. Serbia had prepared their official nomination and created the nomination file prior to the session of the Committee that subsequently decided to include the monuments on the List. One session was enough to approve the inclusion of three monuments on the List because they were nominated as a group. The Monastery of Dečani, incidentally, has been on the List since 2004.

The inclusion means that some of Serbia's most valuable medieval monuments in Kosovo and Metohia are now to be found on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites under the common name: "Medieval Monuments in Kosovo". This was not the name that Serbia, as a member country, had suggested. Actually, the nomination file was named "Serbian Medieval Monuments in Kosovo" but given that no monument on UNESCO's list has a national designation, "Serbian" could not be included. The problem arose because the monuments were nominated as a group. Individual monuments are cited by their own name, as was the case with the Studenica Monastery or Old Ras at Sopoćani, both of which have been on UNESCO's list for many years.

BogorodicaAt the same time, this group of monuments was also included on UNESCO's List of World Heritage in Danger, as they are constantly under threat. The inclusion of the monuments on the List of World Heritage, and especially on the List of World Heritage in Danger, entails mandatory monitoring i.e. the presence of UNESCO missions to follow the development of the situation and to suggest possible changes to improve the situation that is causing their endangerment, with the goal of eventually removing them from the list. In any further work on these monuments, Serbia will cooperate with UNESCO, UNMIK and the provisional institutions of Kosovo.

As regards the inclusion of these three monuments on UNESCO's list, we should point out that the significance of this achievement considering that nominations by more influential states were not accepted.

The Church of Our Lady of Ljeviš in Prizren (built in about 1306/07) is the oldest foundation that King Milutin (1282-1321) built during the first two decades of the 14th century. Our Lady of Ljeviš is the only preserved Episcopal urban church in generally rural medieval Serbia. Although built on older multilayer remains, a master builder succeeded in constructing the church in a new style - the Renaissance of the Paleologus - the first of its kind in Serbia. The church has a cruciform plan with five-domes and an outer narthex in the form of an open portico with a bell-tower above the entrance, the work of a master builder Nikola, probably from the region of Epirus.

In addition to its high architectural value, Our Lady of Ljeviš has outstanding wall paintings, which was the work of Mihailo from the well-known Astrapas family in Thessaloniki and, most probably, his assistant Eutihus. After being commissioned by King Milutin, they both remained in Serbia until the second half of the 14th century and their work can be followed on signed frescoes during the course of a quarter century, which is a unique case in Byzantine art.

The paintings in Our Lady of Ljeviš introduced many innovations in iconography and style. The influence of liturgical poetry is visible in the selection of themes, the frescos became distinctly narrative so that compositions diminish while figures and architecture increased in importance. These changes also made it possible to include a larger number of compositions and figures, all of which characterise the new style that was inaugurated during King Milutin's reign at this Prizren church. The colossal figures of the most distinguished members of the Nemanjić dynasty are painted in the narthex, on a red background as a symbol of royal dignity, with a splendid portrait of King Milutin dominating among them. These paintings also clearly confirm the high position of Serbia in the Byzantine community of states.

During a pogrom against Serbs in March 2004, Albanians burnt these portraits, sending an unambiguous message to their descendants.

The church was converted into a mosque during Turkish rule, during which time a minaret was erected and the frescoes were chipped by a sharp instrument to make a better foundation for mortar. The walls were whitewashed as required by Islamic faith. During conservation-restoration works in the 1950s, the frescoes were brought to light but it appeared that only a third of the total wall paintings survived.

After March 2004, when many valuable and old Serbian churches and monasteries in Kosovo and Metohia were damaged, the percentage of the preserved wall paintings in Our Lady of Ljeviš was further reduced. All of Prizren's medieval churches were badly damaged in 2004 but the burning of Our Lady of Ljeviš was the heaviest crime inflicted upon Serbia's cultural heritage in Kosovo. We only hope that it is the last.

In the succession of the many monasteries founded by King Milutin, Gračanica comes at the very end - its decorations were finished in 1321. In terms of artistic value, it is one of the masterpieces of the late Byzantine period. The Church of the Gračanica Monastery belongs is a masterpiece of five-domed church architecture. Its exterior appearance achieves ideal symmetry between its proportions and volume, and a three-part vertical division of the facades with gradually rising arches, vaults and cupolas in the upper zones, dominated by a central dome, splendidly emphasizes the pyramidal structure of the building. The typical Byzantine method of construction with alternating layers of red bricks, a thick layer of whitish mortar and gray stones, lend dynamic warmth to the facades. The narthex, added later, once had a bell-tower.

The interior of the church was most probably painted by the same masters who painted Our Lady of Ljeviš. The relatively well preserved paintings allow for the study of iconography topics of the so-called Renaissance of Paleologus, as well as the Serbian royal ideology strongly influenced the wall paintings of the royal foundations. In this sense, a composition depicting the Nemanjić dynasty, which appears in Gračanica for the first time and which traces the dynasty to Christ's genealogy, seems quite explicit. The beauty of the figures and the skillful composition of the picture show that the style of the Renaissance of Paleologus had entered a mature phase.

The Patriarchate of Peć is unique for its architecture and paintings, and is the spiritual centre of the Serbian people. Attacks by the Kumans in the late 13th century forced a temporary relocation of the archbishopric seat from Žiča to its "metoh" (today meaning a branch), the church of the Holy Apostles in Peć, which had been built and painted several decades earlier.

During the first half of the 14th century, the Church of St. Demetrius was added to the northern side of the Church of the Holy Apostles, the Church of Our Lady Hodeghetria was built on its southern side as was the Chapel of St. Nicholas. All three churches were connected with a large joint narthex with large openings and a bell-tower on the western side.

The buildings of the Peć Patriarchate, in terms of their exterior decorative features, can be said to include the expected features from the Raška and Byzantine styles, but also some features that belong to the Romanesque-Gothic style. All three are quite simple single-domed constructions. The oldest church of the Peć Patriarchate, the Holy Apostles, was painted in about 1260 and its frescoes are a superb example of the deep spirituality of Byzantine holy paintings, for which reason they are almost always included in studies of Byzantine paintings, as are the frescoes from Our Lady of Ljeviš and Gračanica. The Church of Our Lady Hodeghetria (Our Leader of the Way) is the tomb of the archbishop Danilo II (1324-1337). The fresco decorations of his foundation from the fourth decade of the 14th century reveal that the founder was a learned person, but he did not wish to make this too obvious. This is not a painting of great beauty but more a search for new artistic ways. The painting in the joint narthex dates from the same period. The Church of St. Demetrius painted at the middle of the 14th century belongs to the dominating style of the Paleologus period, though not in as sophisticated a style as was seen in the first two first decades of the century. An interesting detail in the church is a Greek inscription in the apse in which the painter expresses his own attitude toward talent, typical for the Middle Ages, that reads, "God's gift by Jovan's hand."

The special value of the paintings of the Peć Patriarchate is that they span a period from the 13th century to the last quarter of the 17th century. Heavily damaged paintings in the narthex were mostly reconstructed in the 16th and 17th centuries by local painter Georgije Mitrofanović, who re-painted the greater part of the Church of St. Demetrius: he preserved what he could and repainted what could be seen.

The Patriarchate of Peć represents a rich resource for the study of painting, especially its development, in this part of the Balkans. During the Turkish occupation, painting workshops from Peć worked in numerous medieval monasteries to restore wall paintings.

Source: JAT review