By Ivan Stevović | University of Belgrade
The katholikon of Kalenić Monastery is dedicated to the Presentation of the Virgin Mary. It was erected and painted around 1410. Its ktetors were protovestiarios Bogdan, the high court dignitary, and the Serbian Despot Stefan Lazarević (r. 1402–27).
By its spatial concept, this church belongs to the contracted type of cross-in-square church surmounted by a dome, with lateral apses, and a separate narthex. The entire length of the inner space is 16.40 m, while the top of the dome is constructed at the height of 19.80 m. The exterior was carried out with particular attention: the building rests on a delicately profiled socle, while the façades were composed of regular horizontal rows of stone and bricks. The vertical profiling of the façades was achieved by constructing pilaster-strips and multileveled arched profiles, while the horizontal articulation of wall masses is dominated by two cornices. The very rich repertoire of architectural sculpture appears around windows, the front sides of arcades, and on the perforated rosettes. In the upper zone, the distinctive feature is a dynamic structure of the shape of calotte above the narthex and of the elongated volume of the dome.
Well preserved, the painting of Kalenić is one of the highest quality in Morava Serbia. Its thematic repertoire consists of the representations of the Holy warriors, Church fathers, Serbian saints Sts. Simeon Nemanja and Sava, those tied to an apocryphal Life of the Virgin, as well as a composition with the representation of the ktetor’s relatives, protovestiarios Bogdan and Despot Stefan Lazarević on the northern wall of the narthex. In the upper zones of the naos are the scenes of Great Feasts, as well as those from the narrative cycles of the Life and Miracles of Christ. The particularity of the program is the representation of the Dead Christ depicted inside the niche of the prothesis.
Although it is, without exception, regarded in historiography as the architectural accomplishment of the Serbian “Morava School”, the church of the Presentation of the Virgin has all the components of the late Byzantine architectural vocabulary. Such a monument is justified by the simultaneous tendency for achieving a homogenous composition of primary masses and their almost sculptural shaping by protruded volumes of conches as well as by a whole array of strikingly accentuated minor elements of the articulation of the façades. Above the lower zones rises the so-called “fifth façade”, the heterogeneous structure of which does not actually match the ground plan of the building.
Such tendency toward monumental and decorative modeling of the whole structure, towards the maximal integration of individual components into the entire composition, the contrast between compact contours of the lower parts of the building and accentuated decomposition of silhouettes of the construction of domed space of the church, and the dome itself, are the extensions of those perceptions of architecture that, in the previous generation, manifested most clearly in the Panagia Parigoritissa in Arta, the Hodegetria in Mystras, and in the pareklession of the Virgin Pammakaristos in Constantinople. The details, understood as the elements that simultaneously function individually and as the organic part of the whole, represent the most important phenomena of this new architectural image, organized in such a manner as to highlight the harmony among shapes and motifs of diverse visual identity, adornment, and color.
In order to be expressed to its fullest, the silhouette of the lower parts of the church, accompanied by a lavish repertoire of architectural sculpture, demanded the precise opus, visually confronted to the motif of the checkerboard in the upper zones of the conches, on the fronts of architectural elements placed below the drum, and on the drum itself. Finally, the composition of the multifaceted image of the exterior is completed by the geometrized sculptural decoration. Its strictly controlled placement is fully adjusted to the architectural forms, and its artistic function additionally accentuates the polychromy of the façades. On the exterior walls, on the contrary, colored relief on flat and concave-convex surfaces of the window jambs, arches, and rosettes, appears at the same time as an independent visual accent and an important feature in the overall intention of the master-builder of Kalenić to dematerialize the building’s masses. The architecture of the façades of Kalenić is, therefore, the integral accomplishment derived from the intention to establish equal values of its inner and outer spaces and surfaces.
The frescoes of katholikon at Kalenić Monastery, which are of remarkable artistic qualities, have as the theme in several places the concept of ruling ideology, which is in accordance with the fact that Despot Stefan Lazarević was the second ktetor of the church. It is especially visible in the narthex, where the representation of the Flight into Egypt was depicted above the ktetors’ composition, with the personification of Egypt painted above the sovereign’s head. Through such a visual disposition, the metaphor about the wise and book-loving ruler was accentuated, which is how Despot Stefan was otherwise represented in contemporary literary sources. Likewise, on the scene of the Census at Bethlehem, which faces the previous, enthroned Emperor Augustus was depicted as Despot’s match and with his facial features, which is in accordance to the citations from the biography of Stefan Lazarević in which his genealogy has been drawn from the times of emperors Augustus and Constantine.
The frescoes in Kalenić draw a clear link between the depiction and contemporary written sources in Serbia. Although the signatures of the authors of the frescoes have not been discovered, researchers have for some time been unanimous that the painter called Radoslav, the author of the miniatures in the so-called Vissarion's Tetraevangelion, was the principal figure in the master's workshop. Finally, the function of massive stone beams, embedded into the opposite walls of the west bay, remains unresolved. According to the prevailing opinion, their function could have been tied to the exposition of Eulogiae within the space of the church.
Simić - Lazar, Draginja. “Observations sur le rapport entre les décors de Kalenić, de Kahrie Djami et de Curtea de Argeş.” Cahiers archéologiques 34 (1986): 143–160.
This article offers an analysis of the iconography and iconographical relationships between the above-mentioned monuments.
Simić - Lazar, Draginja. Kalenić et la dernière période de la peinture byzantine. Skopje: Matica Makedonska - De Boccard 1995.
This is the most complete monograph on the frescoes of the katholikon at Kalenić Monastery.
Stevović, Ivan, and Branislav Cvetković. The Monastery of Kalenić. Belgrade: Institute for the Protection of Cultural Monuments of the Republic of Serbia, 2007.
This is a scientific and popular monograph that presents an analysis and explanations of the architecture and fresco painting of the katholikon at Kalenić Monastery.
Stevović, Ivan. “Late Byzantine Church Decoration as an Iconic Vision of Heavenly Jerusalem: the Case of Kalenić.” In New Jerusalems: The Translation of Sacred Spaces in Christian Culture, edited by Alexei Lidov, 585–606. Moscow: Indirik 2009.
This article analyzes the architecture of the monastic church, explaining the checkerboard pattern in the upper parts of the building as the visual symbol of the Heavenly Jerusalem.
This contribution was sponsored by the Mary Jaharis Center for Byzantine Art and Culture at Hellenic College Holy Cross.