By Ida Sinkević | Lafayette College
Dečani Monastery in Kosovo is one of the largest and most significant Serbian medieval royal foundations. Now significantly restored, the monastery is encircled with an oval enclosure wall and surrounded by a number of currently obliterated anchoretic structures found in its vicinity and known as Dečani hermitages. The only extant and the most notable structure of the original, 14th-century monastic complex is the main church, the katholikon, dedicated to Christ Pantokrator.
The katholikon was built between 1327 and 1335 by the Serbian King Stefan Uroš III, also known as Dečanski (r. 1322–31) and his son, King and Tsar Stefan Dušan (r. king 1331–46, tsar until 1355). The founding of the church and its subsequent history have been documented in both contemporary and later literary sources that include biographies (Vita) of the royal founders written by Archbishop Danilo II and his followers and in the Monastic Charters issued by its royal patrons. The sources also reveal that the builder of the church was a Franciscan friar, Fra Vita from the coastal city of Kotor in today’s Montenegro, whose inscription has been preserved above the south entrance into the narthex.
The katholikon of Dečani is a royal mausoleum containing the remains of Stefan Dečanski. Both the monumental marble sarcophagi of Dečanski and his wife, as well as a specially decorated reliquary shrine that contained the remains of the King after he was canonized, are intact. The church also displays the largest preserved ensemble of monumental paintings in 14th-century Serbia and remarkable liturgical furnishings. The wealth of objects in the monastic treasury, which includes icons, silverware, and books, also testifies to the importance of this monastic foundation.
The katholikon of Dečani monastery is distinguished for its royal patronage, for the sheer volume and wealth of its painted decoration, and for its unique combination of Byzantine and Western artistic and architectural features. The eclectic appearance of the katholikon represents a developed version of the uniquely Serbian visual idiom that was first seen in the12th-century Church of Virgin Theotokos at Studenica Monastery; it was subsequently adopted in the churches of the Raška region and in the 14th-century royal mausolea.
The exterior of the katholikon offers the appearance of a Western church. The facades of its elongated, basilican form are completely covered with polychrome marble revetments and decorated with the corbel-tables displayed at all levels of the roof as typical of Western Romanesque churches. The style of the sculpture, mostly concentrated around the portals, windows, and consoles, which display human heads, mythical creatures, and ornament is also Romanesque and Gothic in character, probably executed by artists from the Adriatic coast or from Italy. The richness of ornamental sculptural decoration, as well as the notable tympana reliefs displaying the Baptism (south portal), the Tree of Life (north portal), and the Ascension of Christ (west portal) contribute further to the Western appeal of the monument.
The interior of the katholikon reveals a three-aisled narthex, a five-aisled nave crowned with a dome, and a deep altar space. However, the basilican outline of the church accommodates a centralized interior space, which was articulated to house the needs of the Orthodox liturgy. Essentially, the space of the naos is enlarged and connected with the subsidiary chapels of St. Demetrius (north) and St. Nicholas (south). Also, the walls have been replaced by tall parapets, thus removing the barrier and enhancing the sense of open central space in the upper zones and under the dome as was common in Byzantine churches. However, different spatial units are delineated by the carefully organized painted decoration that conforms to the liturgical needs of the Orthodox rite.
Painted by many artists for almost a decade (1339/40–47/48), the fresco decoration of the katholikon of Dečani reveals a high degree of programmatic integration suggesting that advanced and careful planning preceded its execution. Over 20 cycles of paintings include the Great Feasts, the Passion of Christ, Christ’s Miracles and Parables, the Life of the Virgin, the Church Councils, the Menologion, Last Judgement, Akathistos of the Virgin, as well as the scenes from the lives of saints, notably a cycle of the Life of St. Nicholas. In addition, the church also displays unusually elaborate renditions of the Acts of the Apostles, the Genesis cycle, and the Old Testament prefiguration of Christ. Stylistically, the frescoes of Dečani relate to the main classicizing tendencies of late Palaeologan art of the first half of the 14th century, seen both in Serbia and throughout Byzantium and its borderlands, such as in churches of Constantinople and Thessaloniki, as well as in Macedonia and on Mount Athos. Due to a number of artists who worked in the church, however, its fresco decoration varies in the quality of individual artistic skill. The most masterful scenes, such as the Second Coming of Christ and the Dormition of the Virgin display a balance and symmetry in the composition, the harmony of light colors, as well as the fluid lines and soft physiognomies of the protagonists. Moreover, the royal patronage, recorded in inscriptions and numerous individual images and compositions, notably the Nemanjić Family Tree, is also revealed in the luxurious materials, such as the gold leaf applied to haloes, clothing, and furnishings.
The unique combination of the Western and Byzantine features of the katholikon of Dečani created a new, iconic, and distinctly Serbian church type. The source of this eclecticism is found both in the complex geopolitical circumstances of medieval Serbia, located at the crossroads of Slavic, Latinand Byzantine spheres of influence and in the quest of the rulers to define the visual identity of the independent Serbian state and its autocephalous Church.
Inscription above the south doorway: “Fra Vita, a Friar Minor, master builder from Kotor, the royal city, built this church of the Holy Pantokrator for the lord King Stefan Uroš III and his son, the majestic and very great and very glorious lord King Stefan (Dušan). It was built in eight years. And the church was fully completed in the year 6843 [1334/35]” (Todić and Čanak-Medić, Dečani, p. 186)
For additional images visit https://www.blagofund.org/Archives/Decani/
Pantelić, Branislav. The Architecture of Dečani and the Role of Archbishop Danilo II. Wiesbaden: Ludwig Reichert, 2002.
A monograph on the architectural characteristics of the monastery.
Sinkević, Ida. “Dečani between the Adriatic Littoral and Byzantium.” In Byzantium in Eastern European Visual Culture in the Late Middle Ages, edited by Maria Alessia Rossi and Alice Isabella Sullivan, 143-67. Leiden: Brill, 2020.
An essay on the meaning and significance of the eclectic features of Dečani’s architecture and sculpture.
Todić, Branisalv, and Milka Čanak-Medić. The Dečani Monastery. Belgrade: Serbian Official Gazette, 2013; first published in Serbian in Belgrade: Museum of Priština [displaced] and Mnemosyne--Center for the Protection of Natural and Cultural Heritage in Kosovo and Metohija, 2005.
The most comprehensive monograph of all aspects of the monastery published in English language with an extensive listing of earlier 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.
An excellent collection of essays on the multifaceted aspects Serbian medieval history and its visual culture that helps place Dečani within the context of both Serbian and Byzantine artistic and architectural traditions.