The Ascension Church, Žiča Monastery
The Ascension Church, Žiča Monastery

By Dragan Vojvodić | University of Belgrade; Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts


The first ktetor of the Ascension Church of Žiča Monastery was the Serbian grand župan Stefan (later the First-Crowned king), who began building it as his funerary church after 1207. The construction and decoration of its older part, overseen by Stefan’s younger brother St. Sava, anointed the first archbishop of the Serbian autocephalous church in 1219, were completed by 1221. Having become the seat of the archbishopric, the church hosted a great ecclesiastical-political council in 1221, when Stefan was probably crowned for the second time, now according to the Orthodox rite, with a royal crown received from Rome.

The naos of the church is divided into three bays. The central bay is topped by a dome and expanded with rectangular choirs. The sanctuary extends to the east with a large semicircular apse; in the west is the narthex with two lateral parekklesia (the southern one dedicated to Stephen the Protomartyr and the northern one to Sabas the Sanctified). Following the Byzantine tradition, Žiča’s façades were plastered and painted purple. The original frescoes, best preserved in the choirs, were painted by learned and gifted artists from Thessaloniki or Constantinople. Their style belongs to the progressive trends of the then new, “monumental” style of Byzantine painting. Adjoining the older part of the church, a two-level exonarthex with a high tower on the frontage was added; the wall that originally separated the naos from the narthex was later removed. The exonarthex and the room on the tower’s second story were frescoed before 1227 by local painters rather loyal to the outdated Komnenian artistic idioms.

Žiča and its katholikon were heavily damaged in a Cuman invasion ca. 1291. As a result, the seat of the Serbian Church was moved to Peć. Multiple groups of painters executed Žiča’s new frescoes emulating the Palaiologan style and largely repeating the original program.


The church is the first mature achievement of Raškan architectural concepts and would have a decisive influence on later Serbian religious architecture. Like the slightly older churches of Raška (Studenica, Đurđevi Stupovi), Žiča’s katholikon unites the basically Byzantine iconography of the interior with the shaping of masses and façade articulation derived from Western architecture. Important novelties include the rectangular choirs that replaced the earlier vestibules, the addition of lateral parekklesia adjoining the narthex, and the subsequently built exonarthex with a belfry, resulting in a distinctive solution characteristic of high Raškan architecture of the entire 13th century and some 14th-century Nemanjić mausolea. Like the sanctuaries of some Raškan churches built shortly thereafter (Mileševa, Virgin of Hvosno), Žiča’s katholikon originally had no pastophoria. All of these churches soon received a prothesis and diakonikon, both of which were routinely built in later Raškan churches.

The unusual thematic program of the frescoes at Žiča’s Ascension Church is particularly important for understanding the role of imagery in explaining the ecclesiological bases of the establishment of the new autocephalous Church. Even though only a few scenes of the original program have survived, it can be reliably reconstructed based on the more recent 14th-century frescoes and the fact that St. Sava’s successor, Archbishop Arsenije, faithfully replicated the iconography at the Holy Apostles in Peć (ca. 1260).

The dome features the Ascension and the space below it shows the Gospel events that precede (Last Supper, Incredulity of Thomas, Blessing at Bethany) and follow it (Descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles). They speak of Christ imparting his teaching on the apostles, the establishment of the earthly church and its connection with the Heavenly Tabernacle. As a counterpoint to the events associated with Christ’s ascension into Heaven, some scenes below the dome allude to the First Coming (Annunciation to Zechariah and Annunciation to the Virgin), while the representations of the other Great Feasts are reserved for the lower zones. The listed scenes are positioned in the uppermost parts of the church to highlight the importance of the union of God and man and the inseparability of the heavenly and earthly church maintained through apostolic succession.

The fresco program around the two episcopal thrones at Žiča testified that this succession and apostolic mission among his people made St. Sava, the first Serbian archbishop, equal to Christ’s disciples and gave the Serbian Church an apostolic character. The throne beside the eastern side of the southwestern pillar is surrounded by the standing figures of the Twelve Apostles in the lowest zone of the choirs and topped by the Descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles on the southern wall. Directly facing the High Place with a semicircular synthronon, on the western wall of the space below the dome, there is a semicircular scene of the Last Supper. This would have made the primate of the Serbian Church and his co-officiants seem like a live reenactment of the icon of the original Eucharistic meeting in the Cenacle. The same ecclesiological explanations are evident in the oration delivered by St. Sava, the ideational architect of Žiča’s thematic program, at the great council of 1221.

The two-level exonarthex of Žiča’s katholikon with the belfry is believed to have been added to allow the church to serve as the archbishopric cathedral and coronation church. The purpose of the room on the tower’s second story is unclear. The program of its paintings is inconsistent with that of a parekklesion. Since the program was devised by St. Sava, he might have used the room for prayerful seclusion. The figures of six Nemanjić family members, Sava’s saintly exemplars and the Crucifixion adorn its walls. The frescoes on the ground level of the tower (1309–16) emphasize the multi-layered symbolism of the church doorway as the entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven. They partially repeat the original program but also include new themes. The eastern wall features an illustration of the Christmas sticheron with two processions in the lower part led by King Milutin and Archbishop Sava III. Emphasizing their patronage of Žiča as an expression of the symphonic synergy of secular and religious authority, this image represents them as the leaders of the Serbian people into the eschatological kingdom.

Further Reading

Čanak-Medić, Milka, and Olivera Kandić. L’architecture de la première moitié du XIIIe siècle I: Églises de Rascie (Monuments de l’architecture médievale serbe: Corpus des édifices sacraux). Belgrade: Republički zavod za zaštitu spomenika kulture, 1995.

The book contains the best and most exhaustive materials concerning the architecture of the Ascension Church of the Žiča Monastery (esp. pp. 15–116).

Čanak-Medić, Milka, Danica Popović, and Dragan Vojvodić. Žiča Monastery. Belgrade, 2014.

The text in the English language offers a concise recapitulation of the latest results of investigations of Žiča’s history, architecture and all layers of the wall paintings, and includes drawings of frescos with English captions (esp. pp. 479–550).

Savage, Мatthew. “The Interrelationship of Text, Imagery and Architectural Space in Byzantium: The Example of the Entrance Vestibule of Žiča Monastery (Serbia).” In Die kulturhistorische Bedeutung byzantinischer Epigramme, edited by Wolfram Horandner and Andreas Rhoby, 101–111. Vienna: Verlag der österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 2008.

An article with an innovative methodological approach to the interpretation of the ideas underpinning the wall paintings of the porch on the ground floor of the tower of the Ascension Church of Žiča.

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

A review of the fresco program of Žiča’s katholikon from the beginning of the 14th century and a consideration of their style and iconography (esp. pp. 306–310, et passim).


Dragan Vojvodić, "The Ascension Church, Žiča Monastery," Mapping Eastern Europe, eds. M. A. Rossi and A. I. Sullivan, accessed June 3, 2023,