Gračanica Monastery
Gračanica Monastery

By Aleksandra Davidov Temerinski | Institute for the Protection of Cultural Monuments of Serbia – Belgrade


Gračanica Monastery, the last endowment of King Stefan Uroš II Milutin (r. 1282–1321), was built in the second decade of the 14th century to serve as the seat of the Eparchy of Lipljan, with a representative church dedicated to the Annunciation (today dedicated to the Dormition of the Virgin). The founding charter, inscribed on an interior wall, dates to 1321. By that time, the church was already completed, including its mural painting. An early Byzantine three-aisled basilica once stood on the site of Milutin’s church, and after the establishment of Serbian ecclesiastical independence (1219), a small single-nave church was built on its foundations to serve as the seat of the Lipljan’s Eparchy.

King Milutin’s five-domed edifice has a cross-in-square floor plan, an almost square naos, a deep sanctuary, a narrow western bay, and a two-storied narthex with a katechoumena (gallery). The central part of the building is surrounded by aisles, which incorporate the choirs and eastern chapels flanking the tripartite sanctuary. The church was built using the cloisonné technique with horizontally arranged ashlars framed with brick, while the windows and domes were made exclusively of brick.

King Milutin’s church has preserved its original appearance to this day. An open exonarthex was added soon after the completion of the original building and has been partially rebuilt or changed several times since. The church is the only surviving structure of the original monastery. The painted program includes many narrative cycles, liturgical and symbolic compositions, and individual figures emulating the Palaiologan style. Among the few later frescoes in King Milutin’s church, the 15th-century portrait of young Todor Branković is particularly notable. The exonarthex was repainted twice in the 16th century after its original 14th-century frescoes had been badly damaged. The once rich library and treasury still preserve a small portion of their former collections: a few dozen manuscripts and some valuable icons, most of them from the post-Byzantine period.


After his political and military successes during the first half of his reign, the Serbian king Milutin carried out a process of "Byzantinization" in his country during the first two decades of the 14th century. When it comes to culture, this achievement was extraordinary: after 1300, among the most remarkable works of both Byzantine architecture and fresco painting were executed under the patronage of the ruler of Serbia.

Late Byzantine five-domed churches geographically, stylistically, and chronologically closest to Gračanica were built in Thessaloniki (St. Catherine, Holy Apostles); in Serbia, its immediate predecessors were the churches of the Virgin Ljeviška and Staro Nagoričino, also endowments of King Milutin. Gračanica differs from the Thessalonian churches in its pronounced verticality, harmonious proportions, and the cubical drums of the domes inherited from the earlier Raška tradition. The lower part of the building is enlivened with slender pilasters, arches, and windows, while its upper construction is much more dynamic, with unique double cross vaults at the intersection of which the central dome rests. The small domes in the corners are raised high on their square-shaped tambours, thus achieving a balanced pyramidal shape. The Gračanica church represents a unique combination of the builder’s creativity and his engineering skills.

The exterior of the building partially disturbed the centralized interior characteristic of Byzantine churches, while the pronounced height of the walls and piers made it difficult to see the frescoes in the upper zones. The well-preserved and elaborate fresco program emphasizes three major themes: the dedication of the church to the Virgin, its function as the center of an episcopal see, and the intention to glorify the ruler along with his family and lineage.

The Orant Virgin in the altar apse alludes to the Virgin representing the Church in the Ascension scene shown in the blind calotte above the altar. This visual parallel emphasized the connection with the Virgin as the instrument of Christ's incarnation and, consequently, the founding of the earthly Church, which alludes to its institutions, including eparchies. The sanctuary features scenes from the Life of the Virgin and her numerous Old Testament prefigurations.

The naos is dedicated to Gospel cycles, starting with the Great Feasts, among which the compositions of the Harrowing of Hell on the east wall and the Dormition on the west wall stand out due to their size and significance. Extensively described in 26 episodes, Christ's ministry, such as his teachings, miracles, and parables, includes some unique compositions related to his teaching role and, again indirectly, to the episcopal function of Gračanica. The cycles of Christ's Passion and his post-resurrection appearances, as well as the life of St. Nicholas, along with a painted calendar and a multitude of individual figures of saints, appear throughout the church. The northern chapel is dedicated to St. Nicholas; the dedication of the southern chapel is unknown, although a representative arcosolium suggests that it was intended for the burial of Ignjatije, the learned bishop of Lipljan believed to have advised the painters in formulating the iconographical program of Gračanica.

The eschatological themes in the narthex (Last Judgment) establish a close relationship with historical figures. The Nemanjić Family Tree, known only in Serbian churches, appears here for the first time as a dynasty-glorifying composition. The monumental monastic portraits of Milutin's parents, King Uroš (r. 1243–76) and Queen Jelena, to whom Christ Emmanuel brings monastic instead of royal insignia, are iconographically unique. The ktetor's composition in the arch leading from the narthex to the naos illustrates the divine investiture of the rulers, an iconographic concept previously reserved for Byzantine emperors: King Milutin holding a model of the church and Queen Simonis, daughter of Andronikos II Palaiologos, to whom Christ sends their crowns.

Based on the preserved signatures in King Milutin’s earlier endowments (Bogorodica Ljeviška, Staro Nagoričino) and the remarkable similarity of their painted ensembles to those in Gračanica, the painting workshop is believed to have been led by Michael Astrapas of Thessaloniki. He is the artist responsible for the finest of Gračanica’s paintings, which share the iconographic, stylistic, and aesthetic characteristics of the art of Thessaloniki, the second city of the Byzantine Empire.

Gračanica’s outstanding architectural exterior is matched by its equally valuable frescoes, making it one of the artistic peaks of Byzantine monumental art of its time. It also marks the end of an exceptional period of Serbian medieval history – the reign of King Milutin.

Further Reading

Ćurčić, Slobodan. Gračanica, King Milutin’s Church and Its Place in Late Byzantine Architecture. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1979.

The most comprehensive monograph of the history and architecture of King Milutin’s Church at Gračanica Monastery and its place in Late Byzantine architecture.

Ćurčić, Slobodan. Architecture in the Balkans: From Diocletian to Suleyman the Magnificent, c. 300–1550. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010.

In this major work, the architecture of Gračanica is briefly analyzed and placed in its wider historical and artistic context, relying on the results of new research on late Byzantine architecture (pp. 662–666).

Todić, Branislav. Gračanica. Slikarstvo. Belgrade: Prosveta, Jedinstvo, 1988.

This book offers a thorough account in Serbian of the painting cycles in Gračanica Monastery with a concise recapitulation of all the layers of the wall paintings and icons. It also includes a list of illustrations and drawings with French captions.

Todić, Branislav. Serbian Medieval Painting: The Age of King Milutin, translated by Jelena Erdeljan. Belgrade: Draganić, 1999.

This is a synthesis of the patronage of King Milutin and examines all of his commissions (esp. pp. 330–337). It also includes a catalogue of the monuments with thorough summaries for each building, and a wide-ranging bibliography.

Vojvodić, Dragan and Danica Popović, eds. Sacral Art of the Serbian Lands in the Middle Ages: Byzantine Heritage and Serbian Art. Vol. 2 of 3. Belgrade: Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts, 2016.

A collection of essays that helps place Gračanica Monastery within the context of both Serbian and Byzantine artistic and architectural traditions, with an exhaustive up-to-date bibliography.

This contribution was sponsored by the Mary Jaharis Center for Byzantine Art and Culture at Hellenic College Holy Cross.


Aleksandra Davidov Temerinski, "Gračanica Monastery," Mapping Eastern Europe, eds. M. A. Rossi and A. I. Sullivan, accessed June 3, 2023,