The Art of Decani Monastery


Part 2

A special place in the entire relief decoration is taken by excellently proportioned Romanesque three-light windows, with narrow mullions, richly sculpted archivolts, and frames alongside which were free-standing columns and consoles. On the western facade, in the lunette of the three-part window, scene of Saint George killing the dragon is brought into direct connection with the vow which Stefan Decanski himself gave to this Holy Warrior, calling upon his aid before going into battle of Velbuzd. The appropriate opening on the eastern side, in the main apse, has, however, almost the exact likeness as that in the Church of the Theotokos in Studenica. It has already been said that this three-light mullioned windows was an example for the stonecutters when they worked on the reliefs on the facade on the later mausoleum-type church in Banjska where it found its replica. The sources themselves, in all truth, do not mention that the benefactor of Decani also attempted to follow the pattern of Nemanja's endowment, but the coincidence with its representative window confirms that also on this occasion the stonecutter remembered the church in Studenica and repeated certain of its forms.

The  main icon-stand
The interior with the iconostasis and the relics of St. King Stefan of Decani

At the same time, the interior has a marble iconostasis with relief decorations and a throne on which - the founding Charter expressly warns - only the King had the right to sit. Also, carefully fashioned marble sarcophagi under which lie the bodies of Stefan Decanski and his wife Maria Palaeologina in the southwestern part of the naos belong to the same cycle. Sometime later, after rumors of miracles which occurred at the grave and the proclamation of his sainthood, most probably in 1343, the relics of the benefactor were moved to a pre-prepared wooden coffin, a masterpiece of wood carving, placed in front of the iconostasis itself, south of the royal doors.

The most spacious church in early Serbian architecture also claims the largest assemblage of painted decorations in the world of Byzantine art. On the surfaces of the tall walls, vaultings and arches there are hundreds of scenes and thousands of people in greater and lesser thematic sequences, in which the Divine Order of the universe is presented to the faithful, the Incarnation of the Son is shown, the history of the Christian Church is displayed and her dogma is interpreted. The twenty cycles of which the Calendar had 365 illustrated days, and Genesis 46 scenes, as well as hundreds of individual figures and busts, contain often rare and sometimes unique images.

Even though more numerous than in other churches, the scenes in the Decani church are not in general of small dimensions - its interior was not dissected nor were walls divided as they were in Gracanica Monastery, so the available surfaces also allowed the representation of monumental scenes. On the other hand, neither were all the scenes "readable," especially the Menologion, whose individual days without designation are difficult to differentiate. The faithful, therefore, were faced with difficulties attempting to understand the language of frescoes; along with this, but also because they were at a great distance from the observer or were placed in fields where the person who had ordered them and the painter knew full well that no one would be able to see them. The act of painting was, therefore, similar to the discreetly written signatures and prayers of zoographers, an act of a higher order, realized for viewing from the other side, as if the scenes were not meant only for eartly eyes: certain truths had to be stated regardless of whether they would be understood by anyone.

The coffin of the Holy King
The coffin of St. King Stephan of Decani, 14th century

The painting of frescoes lasted ten years. The earliest inscription including a year was written on one crossbeam of the northern nave, 1338/9, and the latest, over the entrance to the nags, 1347/8. But as the season for fresco-painting in the interior on still wet mortar ended usually in autumn, the work was most probably finished in September or October of 1347.

It is difficult today to conjecture the magnitude of work in which, considering the size, only one group of master painters did not take part. Undoubtedly, firstly an order was made of the entire thematics on drawings with well measured relationships of the surface, and then the work was divided and carried out at the same time on different sides. The frescoing would usually run from east to west and from the highest, first of the spherical surfaces, downwards. In Decani one of the artists with his co-workers might have begun work also in the Chapel of Saint Demetrius, where he in the inscription wrote down the name of Abbot Arsenije. According to a unique idea, realized in a scope which is difficult to comprehend in the manner in which it was done in other, smaller churches, the frescoes are placed in harmony with the general feel of a church, with the meanings of certain of its parts and functions of the services. As in Gracanica, the correlation of area elements in the upper zones did not prevent a view of the surfaces which, strictly speaking, belonged to parts of the Church with serving purposes. Due to this, not even certain thematical wholes limited themselves to appropriate segments of space - they passed onto the walls and vaultings of neighboring aisles, and in that way made it easier for the faithful to follow certain ideas. It is understood that for the painter himself this was an indispensable condition for realizing the complicated task which, in the spirit of the time, was expected of them. Also in the tall dome at the top is Christ the Pantocrator, and beneath him the Divine Liturgy being served by the Heavenly Powers, while prophets are between the windows. In the pendentives the evangelists are represented in a wide plane.

The area below the dome and neighboring sections on the sides received, alongside the Great Feasts, a multitude of pictures connected with Christ's Life - scenes of his miracles, parables which he made use of in his sermons and public acts, and especially his suffering. Alongside these, on the southern side is a part of the verses from the Akathist to the Theotokos, hymns during which when sung at services one could not sit.

Miracles of Christ
The miracles of Christ - 14th century frescoes

Part of the miracles of Christ, his activities and, especially, his appearance after the Resurrection passed, as it has been said, into the sanctuary. In them, the basic theme, as is understood, was made up of scenes with a liturgical content: the Communion of the Apostles with Christ adorned in a rich archhierarchal sakkos, the Theotokos with archangels representing the Incarnation of the Logos and the Service of the Hierarchs alongside which is connected a greater number of Fathers of the Church, placed on the adjoining surfaces.

On the wide arch toward the prothesis there are, among others, scenes from the Old Testament which, in harmony with the character of the area, have a eucharistic meaning; they, however, represent a prefiguration of the Theotokos whose cycle, together with liturgical and other Old Testament scenes, has a place in the prothesis. On the underside of the arch towards the naos part of the scenes of Christ's parables, miracles and his activities, have expanded also, and of living historical persons, Arsenjie, the deserving first abbot of the Decani brotherhood, received his portrait.

The famous icon of Decani Holy Virgin
The famous icon of Decani Holy Virgin, 14th century (a fragment)

In the western parts of the naos the Acts of the Apostles and Fearful Judgment are shown in detail, presented in 33 scenes. The Dormition, as is custom above the entrance, has special episodes and makes up a small totality in itself, as with the scenes of the sermon of Saint John the Forerunner and his conversation with Christ about the Baptism. Special also are the Old Testament scenes in individual groups, making up the Wisdom Sayings of Solomon and episodes from the Book of the Prophet Daniel, having many levels according to dogmatic meaning. Finally, on a greatly lengthened surface of the western wall, in the southern part of the naos is the largest and most complicated scene of the Vine of Jesse - the tree of Christ's ancestors with His Countenance at the top, with the fundamental genealogical line, having a number of parallel rows in which there are many numerous scenes, not only from the history of the Old but also the New Testament, to which the spoken prophesies applied.

In the southern chapel are scenes from the life of patron Saint Nicholas, and then the second part of the illustration of the Akathist to the Theotokos and other scenes from the activities of Christ, his miracles and parables. It is similar also to the farthest northern nave, dedicated to Saint Demetrios: alongside scenes of the life and sufferings of the famous Thessalonican Martyr, m segment of the vaulted surfaces and under them is presented an exceptional cycle of Genesis.

The frescoes of the dome
The frescoes of the dome

In the narthex the greater surface in the upper zones is taken up by the Calendar. All the feasts and personalities celebrated by the Church are shown in a manner adapted to the area not only by choice but also by the character of its scenes - entire compositions when important events are illustrated, simplified scenes of suffering, or only "portraits" of persons, who have found themselves a place in the great Christian community. Their order starts from 1 September with which the year began according to the Byzantine manner of reckoning time, and goes from left to right, clockwise, the sequence in the zones and in the framework of certain parts of the building in greatest measure attempting to make the following of this great cycle in painting in general easier.

Individual scenes represent the history of the Christian Church through the Ecumenical Councils, which confirm her dogmatic foundation, all together six (without the Seventh, dedicated to the condemnation of iconoclasm), each having two compositions: one with portraits of the Emperor and leading Hierarchs and the Council, and the second with the opposing bishops.

Old codex
One of medieval codices from the Library of Decani Monastery

The cycle of Saint George, with scenes from his life and suffering, makes a special appearance in the northeastern aisle of the narthex. Its surfaces are, in fact - one can see from the scene of the Service of the Hierarchs in the lowest belt - divided up by the special cultic part dedicated to this saint. The chapel was in any case constructed according to the desire of landowner Djordje Ostousa Pecpal who participated here through his donation. As in western art, where certain parts of the church or altar were furnished by respected individuals, in the Orthodox Church there were rare cases when, during their construction or later, other benefactors also joined in with their own means. In Decani the area also had a sepulchral intent: tomb-markers bear witness that members of the Pecpal family where also buried here.

Alongside the abundance of pictures of sacral content, Decani has preserved a multitude of historical portraits, in the first place of its benefactors. The ruler's ideology and its expression in art already in the time of King Milutin appeared in a number of iconographical variants, and sometimes made up exceptional totalities. In the great church of Decani rare solutions also appeared, thought up or adapted to the conditions which were changing at the exact time it was painted. The period of military campaigns and the amassing Byzantine regions, especially after 1342, influenced the state-judicial understanding in the Serbian milieu and found an immediate expression in rulers' titles, so that changes could also be very clearly followed in the inscriptions near their countenances. Due to this, certain parts of the wall decorations can be more exactly chronologically determined, especially in the lower zones where the majority of portraits are located.

St. King Stefan of Decani, fresco 14th cent.
St. King Stefan of Decani, fresco Decani Monastery, 14th century

Interesting changes were also brought about by events connected to the cult of the founder of the monastery, Stefan of Decanski. His oldest portrait, on the southern wall, following respected older members of the dynasty (Saint Symeon Nemanja, Archbishop Sava and King Milutin) was painted only somewhat later, together with the figure of his wife Maria Palaeologina. On a newer layer, Stefan of Decanski is with his son, the other benefactor of the church, with whom he holds its model, while from a beam of light Christ blesses them with both hands. At the same time, the family picture of Stefan Dusan on the western wall also has been altered where in the new compositional scheme Empress Helen has received the place between the heir to the throne, young Uros. on one side and most probably Dusan's half-brother. the later Czar of Thessaly Symeon, on the other. All of these changes on the portraits near the sarcophagus of Stefan Decanski were made, it appears, after his canonization. Dating also from that time is his excellent countenance on the pilasters in front of the iconostasis where, as we have seen, his remains where moved to at that time. And here with a model of the church which he offers up, the Sainted Benefactor bowing slightly, mouths his long prayer to Christ.

In all cases, the countenances of the rulers and members of his family show that they continued the tradition of dress in example of the Byzantine emperors, whose etiquette and royal ceremonies they faithfully followed. To a great extent this can be seen in the aristocratic portraits of the time. The differences in their clothing allow, however, the possibility that elements of costumes of another origin can be found - especially with those people who did not belong to the highest circle of social hierarchy, so neither did their titles agree with those of Byzantium. Thus Djordje Pecpal is shown as a humble landowner of unknown rank and status in a short tunic with flower ornamentations, a belt around his middle and a decorated cape, whom Saint George, holding him as a protector, leads to Christ on His throne.

In humility the kings Stefan and Dusan also bow to the glory of Christ the Pantocrator in the large bust above the entrance into the nags, receiving from cherubim a scroll with the Divine Word. Even though they, as benefactors, are illustrated here in the known tradition of representation "over the doorstep," their countenances, here in an individual thematic context, reveal complicated ideas: on the book held by Christ is written the metaphor of the gates and salvation of those who enter, in connection with the mission which has been entrusted to them, while at the sides are figures of David and Solomon, also father and son with whose appearance the Serbian rulers are also compared in local literature.

A lion from the main portal
A marble lion from the main portal

As with Byzantine emperors, humble before God whose servants they are as are all others, and glorious in their power on earth, the Serbian kings also clearly express this twofold rank with the portraits in Decani. Thus, alongside the northern entrance to the narthex, Stefan Dusan once more is shown in an official way, between his wife and son-heir, but this time with a rank which reveals changes that have in the meantime taken place. After conquering Serres, an important city on the old road from Thessalonika to Costantinople, Dusan at the end of 1345, maybe on Christmas, there proclaimed himself, and in April of next year, on Easter, in Skoplje, was crowned, Emperor of the Serbians and Greeks. His portrait in Decani with the Emperor's title, as is understood, did not also show the changes in appearance, because, as has already been said, Serbian rulers even before, as Kings, copied the dress of Byzantine emperors. The picture of the royal family makes up, on the one hand, a totality with the portraits of spiritual figures on the neighboring surface of the western wall - the abbot of Decani Arsenije, once more Saint Sava, as the founder of the Serbian Church, and Joanikije, her patriarch at that time. Rather, the last of these in the inscription is still described as archbishop, which tells one that the first part of the scene in the northwestern corner of the narthex was painted in autumn of 1345 before the changes in which he gained a new title, and the second painted later: i. e., before the onetime great logothet of the king and a person of trust, Archbishop Joanikije, before the crowning of Dusan as Emperor was consecrated as patriarch.

As also in Gracanica, finally a place was ordained for a group portrait of the dynasty in the form of a tree which grows from the roots of Stefan Nemanja. It stands on the same wall on which, on the other side, in the nags, is the Vine of Jesse - a scene whose iconography suggested the same manner for royal origins of the family of Serbian rulers.

The cross of Emperor Dusan
Cross of Emperor Dusan

Rich in their scope, the frescoes of Decani are often mentioned as an example of so-called encylopedism, in whose spirit generations of painters created in the decade around the middle of the 14th century. In its iconographical abundance - even though not in the same scope nor collected together in one place - the wall paintings of this character were already known in churches built and decorated during the time of King Milutin. Besides this, the frescoes of Decani were not, even though this is sometimes stated or at least hinted at, an expression of dried-up academism which left behind the original freshness of meaning. It holds true that artistic reforming of examples chosen from art history characteristic for churches of the first quarter of the century lost rhythm and creative charge; but the scenes looked at in their entirety and mutual relationships still showed a lively and clever control of ideas which lends them a different and complicated meaning. It might be said that a passion for the showing of dense compositions with innumerous episodes and facts was missing, whose most obvious representatives were - keeping only to local ones and not the wider region of the Byzantine style of this time - in the King's Church in Studenica, Saint Nicetas, Staro Nagoricino and Gracanica. In Decani this compressed exhibition of content is often represented in numerous scenes and sometimes made into entire small cycles. Its narrativity was different, but m no way larger than in shrines which received wall paintings two or three decades earlier.

St. Theodor Tyrone
St. Theodor Tyrone, Decani Monastery 14th century

The decoration of the expansive interior was also a great challenge for the masterpainters and for artist-counselors, since they had never had the occasion to create such a sophisticated composition, with the responsibility that its parts, in the spirit of the constantly developing interpretation of pictures and ideas which they express, be mutually connected. On the other hand, the great worksite brought together a number of groups of painters, of whom it was expected that they would coordinate their method of work. Behind the desired oneness, especially successful in the general gamma, one can nonetheless recognize artistic individuality and talent. Of the names of the master painters who participated, only one is known however, written down in color on the capital near the place where he painted: Srdj the sinner. The character of this name leads one to think that he was one of the artists of Kotor who had come as did Fr. Vita at the invitation of the ruler. Sources in Kotor mention, of the other hand, so-called Greek painters (pictores graeci) masters who in the coastal cities in the 14th century worked for Orthodox clients. For this reason, it is often thought that they also joined with their knowledge in the great work in Decani. Nothing more is known, however, about their method of work nor of their true capabilities in decorating such a large interior. On the other hand, frescoes in a number of local churches show a similarity in style to such an extent that there is no doubt that they originate from one artistic climate and that the master painters of Decani, with appropriate experience, should be sought within the country itself, in the regions in which the Serbian state existed, while they continued to employ Greek artisans who, painting in the same spirit, closely cooperated with local painters over a number of decades.

The plan of the church
The plan of the church

Better preserved than other large churches, Decani also has on its marble altar railing icons from the time the walls were decorated, even in the same style, surely the work of the masters who painted the frescoes here, who, as was often the case, did the icons at the same time. The Royal Pictures of Christ and the Theotokos, on one and the other side of the royal doors, and Saint Nicholas and Saint John the Forerunner next to them, today make up a very rarely preserved totality of an iconostasis in the entire Byzantine world, as does the great collection of ancient works representing one of the greatest treasuries of Serbian art from the time of political independence but also from the centuries of Turkish rule. In its own right, the monastery's library preserved excellent collections of ecclesiastical manuscripts and literary works, one part of which was written in Decani itself.


A detail from the facade
A detail from the facade