The Art of Decani Monastery


Part 1

At the very end of his life, King Milutin allowed his elder son Stefan - who, after rising up against his father and being blinded, lived in exile with his family in Pantocrator Monastery in Constantinople - to return home to his country. Even though before this he had borne the title of young king (heir to the throne), Stefan had not received a place in the scene of the Family Tree in Gracanica Monastery, painted, judging by available facts' shortly before this. In the unrest resulting from the death of Milutin, however, Stefan, aided by some of the landowners and rumors of a miraculous return of his sight, succeeded in seizing the throne. These events have also left a direct trace on the shrines that he built. In Banja near Priboj where due to ill health he resided from time to time for its medicinal waters, a church was dedicated to Saint Nicholas, to whose aid his cure was attributed; and in Metohija, south of Pec, he undertook the building of Decani which he dedicated in remembrance of the years of banishment, to Christ the Pantocrator. In gratitude the King also richly endowed the famous Holy Site in the capital city of Byzantium.

Archangel Gabriel
Archangel Gabriel, 1st half of the 14th century - Decani monastery

The excellent location of Decani Monastery near a river with wooded hillsides on one side, a gorge cut into the mountain behind and fertile land before it, was already described with rapture by Grigorije Camblak, a gifted writer and head of a brotherhood, at the beginning of the 15th century in his Life of Stefan of Decani.

Most of the information, however, on the construction of this great endowment is found in the founding charter itself. Its first, original version - officially written on a roll of parchment over five meters in length with the ruler's signature in red ink and a seal of gold - in cultured language, presents the motives which moved the benefactor to undertake this work, emphasizes his royal birth and in a special, moving way describes the unfortunate misunderstanding between father and son.

The document furthermore calls to mind the King's great donation to the monastery in expensive items, and the lists the numerous lands and the people on them by name, which, alongside the estates of Hilandar Monastery, made up the greatest landholding of this type in medieval Serbia. All of this, one learns from this Act, was ratified at an assembly which met most likely at the palace in Nerodimlja where the Charter was written. Some time before this, it is also noted, while the Document was being put together, the country was attacked by Bulgarian Czar Mihailo; at the battle on Velbuzd on 28 July 1330 he was defeated and also lost his life. The result of this great battle in which young King Stefan Dusan proved himself, permanently affected a change in relations with the neighbor to the East.

The famous Decani Monastery Foundation Charter
written by St. King Stefan of Decani, beg. 14th century

The detailed Charter of Decani - also preserved in other versions allowing the life of the monastery and its large land holdings and changes to be subsequently followed - includes excellent topographical and onomastical material of 14,000 names; and also offers, rare for an act of this kind, information on the state of building project and the experts who took part in them. Thus the overview of estates verifies the village of Manastirica, granted already by King Milutin to Protomaster Djordje with his brothers Dobroslav and Nikola "for their work in the adornment of many churches throughout all the Serbian lands." It adds furthermore that in the "home of the Pantocrator" - as the entire monastery is called here - they built a refectory and a ureas tower over the entrance gate, and in the "city" (the monastery complex is surely meant) and "around the church" (on buildings no longer extant today) they also carried out many other jobs. The refectory, thus, was finished before the great church, whose construction - the charter mentions - was underway when the conflict with the Bulgarian Czar broke out; and at the same time certainly, the ramparts were built which provided solid protection for the complex in the valley.

Decani Monastery is known for its variety of decorative sculptures
(a lion on the Central Portal in the narthex)

The refectory, whose primary appearance is, fortunately, known to us, and the tower with an open area facing the interior through which even today one enters the monastery, bear witness that the builders - as their name also suggest - were born there and raised on the local tradition. The refectory, as is often the custom, was situated west on the church, its placement adapted to following the outside walls. In later centuries, however, its appearance changed numerous time. A primary room with tables for monastic meals and a wide semi-circular apse with the abbot's table occupy the larger, northeastern part of the building; in front of this, in the center, was a so-called mutvak, a kitchen with heart - similar even today to the preserved examples on Mount Athos - with a vaulted structure and raised chimney which became narrower by degrees. The onetime character of the other, western wing of the refectory, as well as its appearance in its entirety could reasonably be reconstructed, so a few years ago it was rebuilt. On the exterior, shallow pilasters along the walls separated the even areas of the facade into fields, but it appears they were without relief decorations. Masterbuilder Djordje and his brothers, judging what is by known, were given jobs which did not require special stone cutting experience.

The construction of the great church was entrusted to builders from the coast, led by master builder Vita of the Franciscan Order, who after the work was completed left an inscription over the southern entrance: Fr. Vita, Friars Minor, from Kotor, city of kings, built this church of the Holy Pantocrator, for Lord King Stefan Uros the Third and his son, the eminent and all-great and all glorious Lord King Stefan. Built in eight years. And the church is finally completed in the year 6843.
According to the Byzantine manner of reckoning time, this would be between 1 September 1334 and 31 August 1335. As the construction season ended in autumn and not in the summer, it is natural to assume that the inscription was engraved in 1334. The work on building the church which lasted for eight years began most likely in 1327 and was continued and completed during the time of King Stefan Dusan (1331-1355).

Manuscripts of the Decani Library

In his inscription Fr. Vita mentions both benefactors of the great church, but alongside Dusan's name lists appellations which unpresumptuously but clearly express changes at the head of the country - as a faithful subject the Master builder from Kotor paid special respect to the King who had in the interim taken reign. Behind all of this lies hidden the deeper tragedy of the first ruler who, because of his great endowment remained the most in memory and even received the name: Stefan of Decani, whose eyesight was taken in his youth, who was imprisoned in Zvecan, and afterwards put to death in circumstances yet unclear. This most unfortunate member of the Nemanjics, however, received a special place as a martyr in the cult, particularly in his own monastery, and for centuries would be glorified in literature and rendition.
The decision of its founder to be buried in the monastery decisively influenced the character of this greatest memorial of Serbian medieval architecture, as it did in Banjska. That understood taking into account the Church of the Theotokos in Studenica Monastery to where the bodily remains of the founder of the dynasty, Stefan Nemanja, were transferred and interred; and expressed itself in its own way in the iconography scheme distinctive for shrines of the Raska school and, especially, in the exterior adaptations in the spirit of western architecture.

Emperor Dusan's family
The family of Emperor Dusan (queen Helen and young prince Uros)

The church in Decani, of enormous dimensions - 36 meters long, 29 meters wide and high - is a basilica with 5 naves, a dome of a rectangular bed and a narthex with 3 naves. In the interior, the central part with a wide and spacious area was divided by massive columns of intricate profiles, with tall arches supporting the dome. On the eastern side, spanning the width of the appropriate naves, is a monumental altar area with semi-circular apses - a large one behind the altar table and lesser ones on the sides. Opposite the prothesis, open by means of an arch of great dimension towards the center and altar table, the diakonikon is totally separated by a full wall with a low entrance in order to house the monastery treasury in safety.

The end naves of the naos make up chapels dedicated to Saint Demetrios on the north, and Saint Nicholas on the south side, with separate altar areas, apses and iconostases. By their placement and function they have repeated the role of side chapels which at one time, in the Raska school, were built separately. Here they are separated from the central part of the unique basilican area only by colonnades and marble columns connected by arches.

From the exterior the three central naves are brought under a common, tow-sloped roofing, while the ones at the end have their own sloped roofs. In that way, the main part of the church, with hidden differences in height, gives an impression of a wide building with three naves. The central naves are also visible from the outside, over the eastern part and the narthex, raised in relation to those on the sides so that each of them has a special roof structure.

The interior of the nartex
The interior of the nartex

The spacious interior of the narthex is separated by four slender columns into sections. From the exterior it repeats the appearance of the eastern, somewhat lower, part of the church by means of which a definite balance is achieved in the interrelation of the architectural masses. On the other hand, the central part of the church - the highest and, at the same time, widest retreats by degree in elevation to its focal point and over the cubic bed ends with a dome with circular drum. Even though of massive dimensions, the entirety is thus to a certain extent divided and lightened.

In the well-lit interior, the lucidity of the area whose size is strongly experienced especially in the area under the dome, is kept in the heights. At the height of the faithful, however, the single space of the basilican area, characteristic for western architecture, is partitioned by parapetic blocks which have adapted it not only to the Orthodox ritual but also to the tradition of Raska architecture. That is to say, railings have partitioned the central nave of the church with its field under the dome and the sections of the neighboring naves on the north and south side, which agrees with the layout of Raska structures (with one nave, a dome and transepts for singers). This type of appearance in the 14th century was also repeated in Banjska as we have seen, due to its purpose as a mausoleum

The building language of the masters of Decani, led by Fr. Vita, reveals a high aptitude for stone cutting, fostered in Kotor, which from the end of the 12th century was not only a center of special importance for the economic life of the Serbian state, but also a valuable connection with the cultures of other regions, especially Italy. Special regal privileges which Kotor enjoyed within its borders prompted the builder of "the church of the Pantocrator" to call it in his inscription the "city of kings."

the engrance into the naos
The entrance into the naos

By its entire appearance and relationship, the great church of Decani above all reminds one of the monumental cathedrals built in the spirit of mature Romanesque in the cities of the Adriatic region, but a number of its forms and structural solutions are distinctive of the Gothic style: excepting the prothesis and diakonikon which have been semi-formed, the entire complex has ribbed vaultings and end side naves, in keeping with the lower and lesser and their double in number sections.

As with other shrines of this region, the church of Decani is roofed with lead plating which most securely protected the interior from moisture and precipitation in the long winter months. They are not, however, in the tradition of Byzantine construction - arranged directly over the vaultings, whose form they repeated - but rather over a wood construction which, as in Gothic monuments, could hide the true height or character of a section.

Certain damaged areas of painted decoration also allow the method of construction to be examined in the interior. The vaultings are made with bricks, as were the ribbings which in some places have parts of crystalline calcium carbonate, while the arches are regularly made by altering these materials. The walls themselves are, on the other hand, built with straight-cut or only chiselled blocks of stone, mortar and rows of bricks, so that during the three to four years - at least as long as the fresco painters had to wait to allow the building to settle - the interior appeared colorful. After the completion of masonry work, the church was consecrated according to tradition, and thus divine services were conducted in it without wall paintings.

The exterior face of the building is built of rows of perfectly cut golden-white and red quader. Here also Grigorije Camblak, describing the beauty of Decani, expressed wonder at the skill with which its facade was cut and all fitted together... so that it appears that the entire face of this church is one stone, so miraculously combined with skill that it is as though it has grown into one... thus appearing in inutterable beauty The great smooth facade is framed with shallow lezens, and completed beneath the roof by a row of small, blind arcades resting on relief-inscribed consoles. Their clean planes have only openings, spaced in a measured and logical rhythm. On all sides of the narthex the only entrances into the church are marble portals, and alongside them, as well as on the areas of the naos and the altar area, single and double windows with semi-circular or interrupted arches and characteristic Gothic profiles. Of large dimensions and well placed, all the openings are enough of a source of light for the interior; in the central area of the nags, light comes in through the dome, and from the western and eastern ends - over the great portal and on the apse of the sanctuary - through wide three-light mullioned windows.

Decani Pantokrator
The fresco of Pantokrator - Decani Monastery, 14th century

The fundamental idea of the area, the exterior appearance, structural elements, relief designs and the building material itself moved researchers to look for an analogy among churches, on the Adriatic coast and in Italy, but also in Serbia itself, where masters of western building culture left their works.

The similarity of the endowment Decani to some five-naved churches in the West has long been noticed, especially to Portonuovo near Ancona. The spatial organization, however, particularly in the upper zones, is quite different. It appears that there were certain similarities with the earlier Cathedral of Dubrovnik, which is poorly known, a three-nave basilica with a dome, damaged in the great earthquake of 1667. On the other hand, comparison to the layout of Saint Stephen's in Banjska shows in essence not only the same order or area elements, but also literal repetition of their forms and measures. At first sight, this is not obvious because on the older church all forms are clear, defined by full walls, while in the younger thus only marked by parapet slabs - i. e., in Decani Monastery in the upper levels of the main naves they are immersed within the unique basilica! area. The plans of the two churches when placed one over the other, assuredly show an unusual similarity, and so it is possible that at least one of the masters took part in the construction of both of these churches.

The window on the eastern facade
The window on the eastern facade

No less interesting is the similarity with the Cathedral of Saint Tryphon in Kotor, for which, in consideration of the origins of the builder of Decani, should first be considered as serving as an example. Fr. Vita, however, remembered a somewhat different appearance of the church. Certain parts of it had to be changed after a number of quakes hit not only the region of Dubrovnik but also of Kotor. Valuable information is therefore offered by recent excavations of its foundations where, in the northern nave, parts of walls and supports were found whose order and mutual relationships in great measure match those of Decani. This is not a question, it should be understood, of the limited experience of local builders, but rather the respect for an example and the fostering of a defined method of work. This is confirmed also by the fact that the width of Decani and main church of Kotor are almost identical, even up to the number of units of measure which the masters made use of in planning.

Further research into the origins of certain structural elements, e. g., the vaultings with ribbings of brick, point to Lombardy from which they could expand to the southern parts of the Apennine Peninsula and the eastern Adriatic coast. Besides others, Decani with its facade also reminds one of the churches of northern Italy, and especially of those of Tuscany built of interchanging rows of red and white cut stone.

Prophet Bileam and an angel
Prophet Bileam and an angel - a scene from the Old Testament

Of special interest for the knowledge of builders' conditions is the person of master builder Vita himself, a member of the order of Friars Minor, who, according to the order of the Monarch, here entirely appropriate to the ritual need of the Orthodox flock, left a work of beauty. The efforts of experts to recognize Fr. Vita among the citizens of Kotor of that time have offered certain, if probably not conclusive, results. In the city archives in much of the plentiful material which dates from exactly the time when Decani was being built, one person of this name is often mentioned. His activity is well-known - he was a priest in the Franciscan church of Saint Mary and guardian of the well-known Monastery of Saint Francis nearby, which was, according to tradition, built by Queen Helen, wife of Uros I, outside the city walls (extra muros). There is not, however, any factual information which would bear witness that the Vita mentioned, a proven member of the Franciscan community, was also a builder.

Indirect witness to the extent of the engagement of masters from Kotor in the construction of Decani Monastery is given by documents of the period. This city, which had many stonecutters, was left without them during the construction season: in its notary books they are mentioned only in the winter months when they returned from the great construction sites in the interior of the country and took care of the jobs awaiting them at home.

The artists also brought to the facade of the "Church of the Pantocrator" experience which they gathered cutting relief decorations in their home regions. Portals and windows with their profiles and reliefs broke up the peaceful outer surfaces, and with a specialized artistic language added to the design which, in any case, richly interpreted the wall-paintings in the interior. Sculpturing in the southern regions of the Adriatic basin was different from the developed and especially rich complexes in the West in the extent of scenes and personages. Iconographically more humble and simple, the compositions in Decani were limited mostly by the lunettes of the portals and windows. On the archivolts and frames of the entrances, the consoles and capitals, however, a world of mythological creatures and symbols lived, illustrating for the faithful in its own way beliefs, warnings and promises of protection.

Decani church
The eastern facade of Decani Monastery church

On the festive western portal, in a semi-circular field, Christ is on a throne with lions and beside him are angels, iconographically unusual - on his left one praying with folded arms, and the one on the right blowing a trumpet. The figure of the patron himself, traditionally over the main entrance into the church, is not, however, named by an inscription which would iconographically more definitely determine him. In harmony with the Apocalypse, not only on the cutfronts of western cathedrals but also on the painted surfaces of Byzantine churches, custom showed angels blowing trumpets as one of the basic iconographical motifs of the Last Judgment. With reason therefore, experts have seen in the relief of Decani the central part of the eschatological vision of Saint John the Theologian. On the other hand, the church of Christ the Pantocrator celebrated the Day of His Ascension into Heaven where, along with others, he was awaited by angels with trumpets. Thematically, the design of the portal, as well as other decorated surfaces, must have been established in agreement with spiritual counselors, first of all with Archbishop Danilo II, who had a great part in the building and decoration of Decani; the iconography of this relief itself was the work of a local artist from Kotor.

The strong and rough lined, thickset figures of Christ and the angels are models in the tradition of Romanesque relief on the Coast, but the drapery of Christ's cloak finishes with broken lines characteristic of Gothic; pointing also to this are the trefoil arches at the foot of Christ's throne, whose contour is also seen at the ends of some two-light mullioned windows.

A window of the church
A window on the western facade

The presence side by side of two styles, in a special local symbiosis here also marked the life both of sculpting and of architecture, noticeable on the eastern shore of the Adriatic as well as on the Apennine Peninsula. Totally in the Romanesque spirit there were also vines on the archivolts and door frames intertwined with scenes of centaurs, horseback riders with spears, lions, dragons, warriors with Phrygian headwear, a wolf with a lamb in its jaws, cherubim, birds which are biting grapes, et al. Many of them, together with the figures on the consoles, by themselves or fighting amongst themselves, personified the forces of good and evil. Great in number, these representations had an apotropeic meaning known to people of the Middle Ages, and in Serbia are found already in Studenica. Monastery in the 12th century: near the openings of doors and windows they protected the interior of the church. It is, however, difficult to determine a sense of the entire decoration, and efforts at foretelling certain meanings and solving messages in all these representations in the belief of respected authorities of iconography and literary sources, are doomed to failure.

The southern, lesser portal has in a lunette a relief of the Baptism, connected with the appropriate rites on this side. The composition itself, both iconographically and artistically concentrated only on the main participants makes a true apposition to the representations on this theme in the wall-paintings, with a great number of figures, details and dynamic action.

Apostle Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch
Apostle Philip preaching to the Aethiopian eunuch

On the northern side, the field above the entrance is filled with a geometrical carefully carved and balanced cross and full-leaved branches, with a vine rising from its step-like base. In exactly this shape it is, almost regularly, painted on the sides of entrances, where it blocked the entrance of evil powers in the interior of a church. At the same time, it also expressed hope in resurrection, for which reason it was carved on the upper sides of the stone tombs, for instance, of the heads of the Serbian Church who lie at rest in Pec.

In the interior, better protected under the roof, the reliefs on the portal in front of the naos have perserved, among other things, excellent figures of griffins and lions on the upper consoles, with a sharply-cut motif of an acanthus on the archivolts, and at the base a strong lion's body on which free-standing columns rest. Both one and the other, the personification of evil, hold in their claws animal and human heads.