History of the Holy Archangels'


Holy Archangels Monastery in ruins
The glorious endowment of Emperor Dusan - Holy Archangels in ruins
before the restauration in 1997

In Prizren where he had frequently resided King Dusan set about founding the large monastery of the Holy Archangels in the spring of 1343, three kilometers south of the town. Preparations were extensive and elaborate. The already mentioned charter, issued at that time to elder Gregory from Hilandar, reveals that he left his church with the houses and estate in Korisa to Brother Jakov, abbot of the brothers of the Holy Archangels, to conduct businesses from there and supervise the vast construction site.

The very place on which the monastery was being erected - on the left bank of the Bistrica, on an expansive plateau formed in the gorge by the river's fast course - had previously been the site of a church dedicated to archangels Michael and Gabriel. It was shielded by an old fortress towering above it, standing on one of the lowest slopes of Mt Sara. From there, the small town with towers, a simple church of St. Nicholas and the walls descending towards the river, overlooked and safeguarded the road leading to Prizren, and it is for this reason that it was called 87 Gornji Grad (i.e. the Upper Town), Visegrad and Prizrenac.

Several years later, when the construction of the monastery of the Holy Archangels was well underway, a huge estate composed of 93 villages was formed, including, apart from houses, mills and other properties, summer pastures and artisans skilled in crafts of all kinds including goldsmiths. The majority of the monastery holdings spread over the region of Prizren, but a considerable number of them were situated in a broader area, in the environs of Skoplje and Tetovo, in Albania, and on the coast around Scutary. The extensive founding charter, probably issued in 1348, did not only state a list of assets, but also ascertained the position of the monastery in the social life of the country, its inner organization, and rights having a lot in common with the privileges and obligations of other monastic communities, especially those whose churches served as the burial-places of members of ruling houses. The monastery of the Holy Archangels, for instance, was placed under the jurisdiction of neither the Bishop nor the Archbishop, but of the Emperor himself.

Sinan Pasha Mosque in Prizren
The Sinan Pasha Mosque built from the stones of
the Holy Archangels Monastery

During Turkish rule the Holy Archangels, like other monasteries, lost large estates and struggled on the verge of subsistence level. Their misfortune, however, was even greater: at the outset of the 17th century, Sinan Pasha ordered a large mosque in Prizren to be constructed with remarkable dressed stone taken from the churches on the Bistrica. After that, the monastic complex fell completely into ruin, and, in the course of time, became largely covered with earth deposited from the hill-side.

After all the devastation it had suffered, only the endowments of the monumental monastic complex have survived, triangular in base with outer ramparts running along the course of the river. Their appearance has been uncovered in excavations, and the picture of the former character of the parts rising above the earth is supplemented by data revealed today by Sinan Pa,sa's mosque with its dressed stone, numerous architectural elements of exquisite profiles and rich sculptural ornaments. A careful analysis of all finds gives a complex picture of different ideas and stylistic influences intertwined in a specific manner in the ruler's mausoleum.

The main church, dedicated to the "strategists" and "leaders of the heavenly powers," Michael and Gabriel, was - as evidenced by the ground plan - one of the grandest monuments of Serbian architecture, a display of the sovereign's power in the epoch of the full ascendance of the medieval state. At the same time and in the same fashion, a smaller church of St. Nicholas was erected next to it. With its position and choice of patron it corresponded to the tradition of alloting special space on the southern side - either in the edifice itself (as in the Virgin Ljeviska and Decani) or in the form of an added chapel (as in Pec) - to St. Nicholas, a much revered archpriest and patron whose cult was venerated in wide circles of society.

The investigation of the foundations of the large church has confirmed the statement from the endowment charter that the same site had previously been occupied by a shrine to archangels Michael and Gabriel, demolished before the construction of the new one commenced. In terms of architecture, parts of the old structure have shown that the new church did not stand directly upon it. Researchers have made an effort to discover any special reasons which may have led Dusan to dedicate his great foundation to the leaders of the heavenly phalanxes. Like several great Byzantine sovereigns, the mighty ruler, who only a few months later was to seize a number of important Byzantine towns and add to his title Greek lands as well Serbian, saw the archistrategos Michael as his patron. Besides this, in sepulcher churches the Archangel Michael was held in high regard because of the special role assigned to him to weigh souls on the Second Coming of Christ. On the other hand, it is known from sources that the ruler's health had been seriously undermined before that time. In 1340, news about the uncertain outcome of his illness reached Venice, and Dusan's words in the introductory section of the gift charter in which he thanks the Lord appear to have referred to it ("you raised me fallen and restored me dead to life"). He also expressed his gratitude to the Archangel Michael, in whose old place of worship on the bank of the Bistrica he sought remedy ("you showed me the church of yours as the source of health").

A specific connection between Dusan's main church and the Constantinople shrines he was familiar with and where he spent his youth has recently come to the notice of scholars. It has already been noted that his father, Stefan Decanski spent several years with his family after an abortive uprising in the monastery of Christ Pantocrator, famous for its hospital where he probably healed his blindness, and that he therefore dedicated his endowment in Decani to this cult. The middle church at the monastery of Christ Pantocrator venerated the Holy Archangels under whose patronage, in the interior, were the tombs of Byzantine rulers from the dynasties of the Comnenus and the Palaeologus. The form and volume of the church on the south side coincide with the shrine erected by Stefan Dusan for his eternal rest.

The elevated model that the Emperor harbored in memories of the Byzantine capital was of the renowned, classic cross-in-square type. A large dome resting on tall piers built of stone blocks 160 cm wide topped the central portion of the nags. The numerous remains of its cross-sections - a large number of which have been incorported into the Prizren mosque - indicate that the drum may have had twelve or even sixteen sides. The windows piercing the drum, perhaps double, measuring almost one metre in width, afforded sufficient light to the spacious and clearly articulated interior. The dome, however, after the Constantinopolitan practice which had left but a few traces in Serbia, was of a melon shape. Nevertheless, it is not possible to determine with more precision the height at which it stood, even when the logical proportions of the structure are taken into consideration; in all likelihood, it was not lower than the Decani dome, always referred to as "lofty" (Visoki) in epic poetry.

The upper section of the church, although simply srructured, was not only reduced to a high subdomical area and barrel-vaulted cross-arms. Numerous fragments of carved stone with characteristic profiles suggest that, as in the Virgin Ljeviska and Gracanica, the lower areas, i.e. corners, were crowned with octagonal domes. Finally, one dome, in all probability blind, rose above the central of the three bays forming an open narthex. Between the pillars on the west side, as well as in the north and south, were two-light mullioned windows with parapets in the lower portions, protecting the translucent interior of the narthex on windy and rainy days.

The character of the space and its construction scheme were readily distinguishable on the face of the building in a manner characteristic of Byzantine architecture. In the interior, behind the rhythmically arranged lesenes (pilaster strips), were shallow pilasters supporting the construction, or the walls themselves. The arches on the gables presumably marked the construction of vaults spanning the arms of the cross.

The base of the entire building was reinforced with a tall slanting socle. It prevented water from penetrating the foundations, thus protecting the interior from moisture which especially threatened the murals. The roofs also safeguarded the frescoes with lead tiles whose forms outlined all elements of the upper construction, primarily the vaults, usually the first to suffer damage. Stefan Dusan's prohibition, to which the lessee of the mine in Tregca refers in March 1349, that lead was not be sold to anyone before the needs of the monastery of the Holy Archangels were met is, therefore, not surprising. At the time when this decision of the Emperor was in force, construction work was drawing to an end; it lasted, however, for another two or three years at least.

Like other endowments which rulers erected with the intention of being buried in them, the Holy Archangels echoed stone facing and ornamentation in the spirit of western art, a feature characterizing a church built in Studenica by the Emperor's grandparent Stefan Nemanja. The construction of Dusan's mausoleum was also entrusted to masons from coastal towns chiefly from Kotor, some of whom had probably been engaged on the erection of Decani as well. However, the fa,cades here did not entirely echo the exterior of that monastery. Characteristic Romanesque blind arcades from the 12th century commonly running along the horizontal and sloping terminations of the walls below the roof are not part of this shrine. In all likelihood they were replaced in the subdomical area by cornices containing densly carved slender, stooping stalks whose fragments have been found in fair numbers in the ruins. A novelty worthy of attention were horizontal, simple projecting cornices whose character and position can be determined with more certainty on the basis of the appearance of the church of St. Nicholas. They heralded the subsequent regular occurrence of cordon bands horizontally dividing the facades of churches within the decorative system of the Morava school. On the other hand, western sculptural practice introduced rose windows with radial mullions, tripled arches between them, framed with sculptural decoration. The profiles of their fragments suggest that there were two different rose windows, probably adorning the main fronts of the Holy Archangels and St. Nicholas, as was the case with churches on the Adriatic coast. It is interesting that twenty years later, although carved in a different manner, they became a common feature in stone decoration on the fac,ades of a new stylistic trend in Serbian architecture.

Other elements of architectural ornamentation were executed, as in churches of an earlier date in a restrained manner characterizing Romanesque-Gothic style: some two-light windows, spanned by a round arch, displayed slim mullions with pointed or trefoil arches, and, occasionally, quatrefoil openings in tympanums. The portal, the appearance of which is difficult to reconstruct on the basis of surviving fragments, was executed in mulitcoloured stone and broadly developed with projecting door-posts and archivolts enriched by relief carving, flanked by lions which may have supported free-standing colonettes. The repertoire of ormanents framing the apertures was
also characteristic of the long transitional period from the Romanesque epoch to Gothic. Apart from tiers of stylized acanthus, mazes of tendrils with foliage and flowers, bands with vegetative ornaments in shallow relief carving already announcing the approach of Morava sculpted decoration, etc., the windows were frequently surrounded with billet mullions, typical of Gothic in Dalmatian and Italian towns, particularly fourteenth-century Venice.

The disposition of the windows with corresponding ornamentation cannot be easily reconstructed, because, among other things, the site where these fragments were unearthed is still not known. On the other hand, the method of construction and features of carved decoration indicate that the same master masons engaged on the building of the Holy Archangels erected the church of St. Nicholas and produced all of its stone ornaments. The availabe data render it impossible to provide separate descriptions of sculpted ornamentation adorning the two churches. Neither would they contribute to a better understanding of their character, the more so since towns in the coastal region - Ulcinj and Bar, especially Kotor, and, further to the north, Dubrovnik - treasure specimens attesting to a very specific style and manner of work, previously characterizing the sculptural decoration of Decani in many aspects. In those terms, the capitals preserved in Sinan Pa,sa's mosque, on columns supporting the machvil - a balcony found in Islamic religious buildings placed next to the entrance - are highly interesting. The identical puffy buds with full, bent leaves are encountered in the capitals of Decani and in the Kotor Museum of Stone Ornaments, as well as in the Franciscan cloister in Dubrovnik whose vaults and translucent six-light windows with paired mullions and capitals were being carved during those same years by master Miho Brajkov from Bar. The funerary inscription engraved in 1348 when construction of the Holy Archangels was in progress informs us that this master mason was taken by the "black death," at that time raging throughout Europe.

Holy Archangels Monastery
Holy Archangels' monastery now

The abovementioned capitals from the mosque are supposed to have belonged to the structure rising above the ruler's tomb in the south-west portion of the nags. Their reverse sides were not ornamented which suggests that they may have leaned against the wall corresponding to the consoles and bases of the columns beneath them. It is difficult, however, to conjure up the appearance of the entire entity to which they belonged.

The Emperor's sarcophagus was built up and faced with slabs while his life-size reclining figure (gisant) was posed on the upper stone lid. Regrettably, particulars about his appearance are not known for not all uncovered fragments have survived to the present day. The representation, however, was interesting because it was the first time in medieval Serbian art that a ruler was depicted - after funerary portraits in the West - in high relief.

Several other segments of full sculpture served as the basis for a less probable supposition that the ruler's statue occupied the west section of the same space. His effigy, however, was certainly carved in the narthex, within the large composition in the lunette of the main portal. The Virgin seated on a throne with Christ in her lap, guarded by the Archangels Michael and Gabriel, was flanked by the praying figures of the Emperor Dusan and his son Uros with their arms outstretched. The ruler's head has not been preserved while most of his figure, with the bent knees, in two-dimensional modulation typical of Romanesque sculptural decoration, has survived. Dusan is clad in the imperial divetesion with the loros arranged in an X over the chest, one section falling straight down the front, and one of the ends draped over the right arm on which a peribrachion and a bracelet are clearly discerned, as well as the embroidered motifs (appliquees) on the elbow and the thigh. The front locks of the ruler's hair falling over the maniakis (collar), appearing on his painted representations as well, impart the full portrait quality to this effigy. Of small dimensions and of a reduced form, Dusan's portrait in white marble did not include only some details like a string of pearls regularly adorning the imperial robes. Only small fragments of the wings have been found of the figures of the heavenly "strategists" whom father and son addressed expecting mercy; of Uros's effigy, on the opposite side, the bust with upper part of the right arm has survived.

Depictions of praying Byzantine emperors addressing the Archangels were known from monumental sculptures and coins, while the images of founders from high secular and spiritual circles "above the threshold" were encountered in sculpted decoration and frescoes. It has been noticed, however, that in iconographic terms, the reliefs of the Emperor Dusan and his son in the Holy Archangels were most similar to portraits of King Dusan and his father Stefan above the portal in the narthex of Decani, painted three or four years earlier, bearing, understandably, a different message and meaning.

Visitors were most dazzled by the opulence of the stone pavement in the interior; it remained strongly impressed on the memory of those recollecting it from times before demolition. Praising the beauty of the church, the writer of the geneology of the "Serbian emperors" from the outset of the 16th century stated that he did not know whether any other such church existed "under the sun," and added, making mention of works elsewhere, that such a floor was nowhere to be found. Large tiles were embellished with massive figures of beasts and geometrical designs of broad bands on a mosaic ground. The general disposition of ornaments was determined by the space structure so that the surfaces of the related sections, the naos and the subdomical area in particular, comprised separate decorative units that render it possible to conjure up with more certainty the relationship between individual elements and their rhythm. Thus, it has been noted that triangular fields bore two figures of lions, birds with the tails of snakes, winged animals and dragons, always confronting each other, and that the space between the pillars supporting the dome was paved with alternate rectangular and square slabs. The representations of beasts, occasionally inlaid into smaller fields within tranquil and firm ornaments, were impressed on the smooth surface with delicate cuts not only defining the contours but also supplementing the shapes of bodies, outlining feathers and marking the eyes. After that, the cut-in, hollowed back ground surrounding them was filled with rose-colored mortar (obtained by adding ground brick powder), and into it were laid differently cut cubes of multicolored stones. The slabs were predominantly of light-colored slate, but also of one type of breccia of a magenta color, quite similar to that utilized in the construction of Decani. Thus, the whole attracted attention not only with its nobility of form for which the master had found excellent prototypes, but also with its pictorial richness.

Although not to be found in earlier Serbian shrines, this kind of stone pavement was familiar both to the commissioner and to the ecclesiastical dignitaries with whom he conferred. Such a decorative scheme and fine execution technique were in the tradition of Constantinople workshops which produced several artworks, as the floor of the church of Christ Pantocrator that served as prototype for the Prizren church. On the other hand, the floors in the katholika of the great lavras on Mt Athos - St. Athanasios, Vatopedi, Iviron, Xenophontos and Hilandar itself were very similar. Numerous exquisite examples of the superb artistry of the sculptural and mosaic craft have survived in Italy where artists not only paved floors in such a fashion, but also walls, stairs, ambos and pulpits (the Palatina Chapel in Palermo, cathedrals in Ravello and Amalfi, St. Peter in Sessa Aurunca near Naples, etc.).

The reconstruction of the main catholicon of the Holy Archangels Monastery

The church of St. Nicholas, built in the same manner but with more modest stone paving, is in a better state of preservation, thus enabling us to reconstruct its general appearance with more certainty. A simple naos is separated from the bema by two tall columns which, with corner pilasters, support powerful arches and the dome above them. The narthex with openings and leaning arches was also vaulted with a calotte, somewhat broader but certainly blind. Finally, the apertures on the north and south sides - as well as in the narthex of the Holy Archangels - were in all probability divided by columns with arches while its lower portions were covered by tiles in a manner known both in the architecture of Constantinople and Thessalonica, the latter being closer to Serbia. The parekklesion of St. Nicholas represented a remarkable achievement in the architecture of its kind, intended for special services, and of elegant proportions. Superb masonry work was utilized in its construction.

The monks whose number is unknown to us had their cells in the dormitory riased by the ramparts towards the river. According to the typikon, they gathered twice a day in the refectory which distinguished itself by its size and rather rare cruciform plan. Of its walls, only the lower sections have survived, but the dimensions and character of the structure leave no doubt that the spacious central part with a broad apse was roofed by a wooden structure supported on lateral sides - perhaps somewhat lower towards the spaces - by powerful pillars with arches. The style in which the refectory was built, however, was different - it was Byzantine, with blocks of stones, occasionally semi-dressed, interspersed with layers of brick. It is evident that the construction of this edifice, as well as of the dormitory and subsidiary structures, was entrusted to different artists.

Formerly, the refectory left a strong impression with its forms and volume, natural in the magnificent surroundings of other structures, powerful fortifications and the rocky mountain with steep sides between which, in the ravine, flowed the Bistrica river. This appearance of the monastery became deeply entrenched in people's memory and for centuries they concocted legends about it and lit candles on its ruins. Twice a year, on the feast days of the Holy Archangels, in summer and autumn, they gathered from afar at night, and waited for the sunrise praying with priests. One traveller left an exciting descripiton of this ancient shrine in darkness, with the contours outlined solely by the candlelight of the faithful.