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SERBIAN WORLD HERITAGE SITES

SERBIAN ORTHODOX MEDIEVAL MONASTERIES

Construction of Serbia's numerous monasteries is closely related to the establishment of the Serbian state that was founded on the principles of monastic tradition and Orthodox spirituality by Stefan Nemanja, one of the most important Serbian rulers.   The progenitor of the Nemanjić dynasty Stefan Nemanja was the founder of the Serbian Orthodox Church together with his son Sava. He was also the creator of the powerful Serbian medieval state.  For the most part, Serbian Orthodox monasteries were built in the Middle Ages when the overall European culture was being developed under the aegis of the church.  Monasteries were primarily places of worship and later they were transformed to also be centers of education and culture.

 

Built between the 12th to the 17th century, these masterpieces of medieval art and architecture hold enormous artistic, cultural, social and historic importance.  As such, they are a valuable part not only of Serbian, but also of world cultural heritage.  For centuries, Serbian monasteries continue to be the center of spiritual and cultural life.  Serbia has over 200 monasteries of which 54 have been declared cultural monuments, and 7 are listed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.  

Among the carefully selected landmarks to be preserved and promoted due to their immense value for humanity, three Serbian monastery complexes - Stari Ras with Sopoćani, Studenica Monastery and Serbian medieval monuments in Kosovo and Metohija - namely Dečani, Patriarchate of Peć, Gračanica and church Our Lady of LJeviš, have been inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Due to their high aesthetic value, as well as their contribution to the understanding of medieval customs, unique tombstones specific to this part of the world, known as stećci, have also secured their place on the UNESCO List of World Heritage.

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Photo: Monastery Studenica

Studenica Monastery

Monastery Studenica, one of the most beautiful 12th-Century Serbian Monasteries, was built by Grand Prince Stefan Nemanja, the progenitor of the Nemanjić dynasty, which would rule Serbia for two whole centuries.   Under the patronage of his youngest son Saint Sava, the first Serbian Archbishop and the founder of the independent Serbian Orthodox Church, Studenica became the political, spiritual and cultural center.

 

It is the largest and richest of Serbia’s Orthodox monasteries. Its two principal monuments, the Church of the Virgin and the Church of the King, both built of white marble, enshrine priceless collections of 13th- and 14th-century Byzantine painting.  These paintings, are an essential milestone in the history not only of Byzantine art, but also of Western art. Cimabue, Duccio and Giotto were also a part of this trend in the second half of the 13th century.  The Studenica Crucifixion

 fresco is considered to be one of the most beautiful frescoes in Serbia. The dominant color in the fresco is Byzantine blue that in the early 13th century valued more than gold. One liter of this precious paint cost as much as several kilograms of the precious metal. 

 

The frescoes that cover the walls of King’s Church within the monastery’s complex were painted by Mihailo and Evtihije, renowned painters of the period. Their masterfully painted and harmoniously combined artwork depicts scenes from the life of the Most Holy Mother of God

Studenica is also known for priceless works of applied art, which are kept in the monastery’s vault, including the ring of Stefan Nemanja, shrouds and many other valuable items.

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Photo: Stari Ras Fortress

Stari Ras Fortress

On Gradina hill near the city of Novi Pazar stands Stari Ras, a 12th century fortress. Built to defend the capital city of the same name, it bore witness to the emergence, development and consolidation of the first Serbian state. The monastic compound includes three archaeological sites; the fortress on Gradina, the cave with Holy Archangel’s Monastery and the settlement of Pazarište (also known as Trgovište).

 

Stari Ras, the oldest military structure in the medieval Serbian state of Raška, was built in the shape of an irregular quadrangle. Its wide walls made of crushed stone and limestone mortar had a footpath with spiked edges on top where Serbian rulers once walked.

Points of entry to the fortress were the western and the southern gates. In the southern section stood a tower which measured eight metres in diameter, while the main gate was defended by two towers of different size. The western gate was bricked up in the 12th century, when Ras became the main stronghold of the Serbian state and was replaced with a new gate next to the main tower.  Underneath the fortress, there is a cave monastery with a church which preserves the remains of 13th century frescoes. It is believed that the famous Vukan’s Gospel, an illustrated manuscript and one of the oldest monuments of Serbian documentation science, was written here.

The remains of settlements have been found not far from Stari Ras, in Pazarište. The older remains, dated to the 14th century, were mainly log houses, while the newer remains have been traced to the 17th century when many stone structures were built in the settlement under the Ottoman rule. The remains of a church, a necropolis and other structures suggest that the area of Pazarište was already an important spiritual centre in the 12th century.

Stari Ras fortress, together with the medieval monasteries of Sopoćani, Đurđevi stupovi and Saint Peter’s church, has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site under the joint name of Stari Ras with Sopoćani.

Sopoćani Monastery

The Sopoćani Monastery, an endowment of King Stefan Uroš I of Serbia, was built between 1259 to 1270, near the source of the Raška river in the region of Ras, the centre of the Serbian medieval state.

 

The Sopoćani monastery represents an exceptional example of the Raška school. It was named after the Old Slavic word “sopot” which means “spring”. The church has a form of the Romanesque three-nave basilica with a massive semicircular apse in the central part of the nave. Apart from its significance as a spiritual center, the frescoes painted on the walls of the monastery have brought it international fame and recognition as a world herigage site. The monastery was included in the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1979.

 

Frescoes in the Sopoćani are substantially preserved thanks to the quality of workmanship and represent some of the greatest achievements of 13th century religious art in Serbia.  The most prominent is the Dormition of the Virgin that covers over 30 square meters and it is located in the central nave of the church. The Virgin, surrounded by Christ, angels, apostles, bishops and and other faithful, occupies the central part of the composition.  Frescoes representing the life of Grand prince Stefan Nemanja, the progenitor of the Serbian medieval Nemanjić dynasty, also have extraordinary historical and artistic significance. Stefan Nemanja, who later in his life entered the monastic life and became elevated into sainthood, is now known as Saint Simeon.

 

The monastery has had a turbulent history. It was abandoned after the Ottoman Turks destroyed it and was left in ruins for more than two and a half centuries. The monastery was renovated in the early 20th century, only to suffer new devastations during World War II. The conservation work and restorations of this jewel of medieval architecture were initiated after the war and are still ongoing. Thankfully, today it is a thriving community settled by a brotherhood of dedicated monks.

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Photo: Monastery Sopoćani
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Photo: MChurch of Saint Petera

The Church of Saint Peter

The Church of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, also known as the Church of Saint Peter, is one of the oldest mediaeval sacral monuments in Serbia.

The present day church was built in the 10th century on the foundations of the 6th century baptistery after which it served as the ecclesiastical seat of the Serbian church as well as as the baptismal church and state council site of the Nemanjić dynasty.

 

The exact date of its founding is unknown. Archeological findings point that the church has been rebuilt several times in history, beginning in the 4th century, with notable additions made in the 7th century. The architectural style resembles that of early churches in Pomorje, Armenia, Georgia, and Italy, dated to between the 7th and 9th centuries.  Excavations at the site that were performed in 1956–58 have unearthed Greek sculptures and black-figure pottery dating back to 7th and 6th century BC, as well as a princely grave with regalia, robes, gold and silver jewelry, masks, beads and pottery, dating 5th-century BC. These artifacts can be seen on display at the National Museum of Serbia, in Belgrade. 

 

The foundation of the church, the massive columns, ground plan and the octagonal tower which conceals an inner cupola are examples of the circular mausoleal architectural type used after Emperor Constantine (306–312). Roman, Byzantine and medieval Slavic tombs surround the church.

Serbian Grand Prince Stefan Nemanja was baptised here. It was here that the aging Grand Prince passed the throne to his son Stefan the First-Crowned. 

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Photo: Our Lady of Ljeviš

Church of Our Lady of Ljeviš

The Church of Our Lady of Ljeviš was built in the 14th Century on top of the remains of a 13th-Century church, as an endowment of King Milutin. The architect who designed the church, proto-master Nikola, merged the remains of the old three-nave church with the new cross-shaped temple to create a magnificent five-nave building built with successive layers of red brick and tufa.The unique artistic legacy of this church are its two layers of frescoes, which bear witness to the development of medieval art. The three preserved 13th-Century frescoes (Wedding at Cana, Healing of the Blind Person and the Mother of God with Christ the Provider) are characterized by vivid colours and magnificent composition. The most notable frescoes of the second layer, painted between 1310 and 1313, are the larger-than-life portraits of members of the Nemanjić dynasty and the monastery’s patrons.

 

The later frescoes, with noticeably more human figures and with strong symbolism, allegory and personification, are illustrative of a change in style of mediaeval fresco painting which took place in the early 14th Century. The church of Our Lady of Ljeviš has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site, in recognition of its immense cultural importance.

Gračanica Monastery

Gračanica monastery is considered by many to be one of the finest monuments of Serbian medieval architecture. It is known for its harmonious proportions and heavy walls built of chiselled stone and red bricks. Of the once majestic monastery complex, only the Church of the Annunciation still remains.


The frescoes at Gračanica are painted in the style of Serbian and Byzantine art of the first half of the 14th Century and are exceptionally well-preserved. These frescoes of exquisite detail and enchanting beauty depict illustrious persons of the era. At the entrance to the church you will see portraits of the patron of the church, King Milutin and his wife Simonida.

 

These paintings at Gračanica are the earliest known portraits of members of the Nemanjić dynasty.

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Photo: Gracanica Monastery
Photo: Monastery Dečani

Dečani Monastery

Visoki Dečani Monastery is a cenobitic male monastery with a continuous monastic tradition since the 14th century. Today it is home to 25 monks and novices.  the Monastery Abbot, Archiandrite Sava Janjić, has led the brotherhood since 2011.

 

The founder of the Monastery was the then-King of Serbia, St. Stefan Uroš III of Dečani (1285-1331), the son of the Holy King Milutin and the father of Emperor Dušan.   Full of gratitude to God for all the blessings He had given him, especially after the great victory against the Bulgarians in 1330, King Stefan Uroš III issued his First and Founding Charter of Dečani Monastery the same year, describing the Monastery's land holdings and other gifts to it.

 

By uniting Romanesque, Gothic and Byzantine building experiences, the skilful masters of Kotor produced an original creation in design, construction and decoration.  The Dečani monastery church (catholicon) contains the most sumptuous and rich stone-carved ornamentation in Serbian medieval art. The elegant multi-colored façade was realized by alternating rows of two kinds of marble: pale yellow onyx from Peć and reddish-purple breccia from Dečani.

 

The frescoes of the Dečani church are almost too vast to be taken in by the human eye.  All that was gradually created and perfected in Serbian and Byzantine churches over the course of decades was enhanced in Dečani to an unprecedented degreeč no church, Serbian or Byzantine, had previously had so many frescoes and nowhere has the entire history of Christianity been depicted in a single location as complete as here.  The cumulative experience of late Byzantine art is woven into over one thousand scenes and several thousand individual figures divided into more than 20 cycles.  

Having become a place of pilgrimage, for almost seven hundred years the Dečani church has constantly received gifts.  Those gifts are a part of Monastery's treasury that shines with the beauty of old icons, furniture decorated with wood inlays, precious ornamented liturgical artifacts, manuscripts and printed books.  In terms of its artistic, cultural and historical value, it surpasses all other Serbian cultural heritage sites except Hilandar.

One of the richest and most valuable collections of the Dečani treasury is comprised of object made of precious and other metals.  Most of the collection dates to the period from the 16th to the 19th century.

 

Since 2004, Dečani Monastery is inscribed on the UNESCO’s List of World Heritage in Danger.   

Patriarchate of Peć

Patriarchate of Peć Monastery in Kosovo-Metohija was built in the 13th century and became the seat of Serbian Archbishops. It was expanded between the 14th -16th centuries. The Monastery has remained ever since the historical seat of the Serbian Orthodox Church.

The monastery complex consists of four churches, three of which are connected as one whole. They were built in the 13th and 14th centuries (1321–24, and 1330–37) - Holy Apostles, St. Demetrius, Holy Virgin Hodegetria and St. Nicholas. Three of them are connected with a spacious narthex.

The central church of the Holy Apostles from the mid-13th century abounds with beautiful frescoes and marble tombs of several Serbian Medieval Archbishops as well as the Patriarchal throne where Serbian Orthodox Patriarchs are formally enthroned.

Archbishop Nikodim I (s. 1321–24) built the Church of St. Demetrius on the north side of the Church of the Holy Apostles. Beside his tomb one can see there a tomb of St. Archbishop Ephraim.  Archbishop Danilo II of Serbian and Maritime lands (s. 1324–37) built the churches of the Holy Mother of God Hodegetria and St. Nicholas on the south side. In front of the three main churches, he built a monumental narthex. St Danilo’s tomb can be seen here and many beautiful frescoes.  

 

The Patriarchal Monastery in Peć abounds with frescoes, icons, relics and other artifacts of immense artistic value and beauty. It was inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage list of Serbia in 2006. Since 1999 the monastery’s been under armed protection and included with three other UNESCO Serbian Orthodox Monasteries in the list of the World Heritage in Danger.

 

Peć Patriarchal Monastery as the historical seat of Serbian Orthodox Archbishops and Patriarchs is under the direct ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the current Serbian Patriarch Porfirije. The Abbess of the Monastery is Mother Haritina who lives there with 20 nuns.

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Photo: Patriarchate of Peć
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Stećci

Stećci, mediaeval tombstone graveyards, offer a unique testimony to the cultural tradition of the Serbian people. These lavishly adorned tombstones of various shapes were carved between the second half of the 12th Century and the 16th Century.

Appearing in the mid 12th century, with the first phase in the 13th century, the custom of cutting and using stećci tombstones reached its peak in the 14th and 15th century, before being discontinued in the very early 16th century during the Ottoman conquest of Bosnia and Herzegovina.


Stećci are scattered on the sites of former necropolises, on more than 200 sites in southwestern Serbia. Apart from Serbia, stećci are also found on sites across Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Croatia. 

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Photo: Stećci

"It is that from the past which affects the present but also conditions the future.” – Ivo Andrić

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