By Marka Tomić | The Institute for Byzantine Studies, Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts
The Church of St. Demetrios in Sušica near Skopje, present-day Republic of North Macedonia, was built between 1365/6 and 1371 by the Serbian king Vukašin (Mrnjavčević) (r. 1365–71). The fresco decoration was completed in 1376/7 under the patronage of his son, King Marko (r. 1371–95), hence its popular name “Markov Manastir”. The katholikon (main church) of Markov Manastir is one of the central monuments of Serbian history and art of the second half of the 14th century. It was built in the last great period of the Serbian medieval state, whose southwestern parts were ruled by two generations of the Mrnjavčević family (r. 1365–95). Vukašin’s proclamation and coronation as the king of Serbs and Greeks and co-ruler of Emperor Uroš (r. 1355–71 ) marked the end of the two-century-long reign of the saint-bearing Nemanjić dynasty; the conferral of the title ‘young king’ on his son Marko in late 1370 or early 1371 laid the foundation for the creation of a new dynasty.
The builders and painters of Markov Manastir hailed from Skopje and Ohrid, the most important artistic centers in the Mrnjavčević state. The Church of St. Demetrios is one of the finest representatives of the architectural developments in the territory of Povardarje in the late Middle Ages. The frescoes of Markov Manastir represent one of the most thematically elaborate, conceptually complex, and artistically important ensembles of Serbian wall painting of the second half of the 14th century. The iconographic programme comprises cycles (the Great Feasts, the Infancy of Christ, Christ’s Public Ministry, the Menologion, the Passion of Christ, the Akathistos, the Life of St. Demetrios, the Life of St. Nicholas), a blend of traditional and completely original themes (The heavenly and earthly Great Entrances, Christ as the embodiment of the Wisdom of the Word of God, the images of the Dead Christ (′Ακρα Ταπείνωσις) and the Lamenting Virgin, the rulers’ ktetorial portraits, the Royal Deësis and the Heavenly Court, the fresco decoration above the south entrance including ktetorial and royal portraits of Vukašin and Marko Mrnjavčević and the equestrian portrait of its patron saint, St. Demetrios above the west entrance to the church) and numerous individual images of saints.
The Church of St. Demetrios still retains its original appearance; its frescoes are also remarkably well-preserved. They were fully uncovered during the conservation works carried out in 1968–70 beneath the more recent fresco layer from 1866. Frescoed in the 14th century, the old refectory also belongs to the earliest period, but its frescoes were heavily damaged in a fire and have consequently lost their original features and details.
The date of construction and decoration of the Church of St. Demetrios at Markov Manastir is attested by the damaged ktetorial inscription above the south doorway of the naos. Recent research has revisited and attempted to reassess the historical veracity of its claim that the "construction of the monastery began in 6853 (1344/1345)". The Mrnjavčević endowment – a domed church with a developed cross-in-square plan and a narthex – represents a mature concept that combines several earlier achievements of church architecture (spatial uniting of the naos and the narthex, harmonious proportions, marked verticality). It is one of the finest representatives of the architectural style characteristic of a group of churches in the Skopje region (Ljuboten, Kučevište, Mateič, Matka, Modrište). Their stylistic features unite Byzantine architectural developments of Constantinopolitan provenance, which made their way to Skopje via Thessaloniki, and Romanesque and proto-Gothic architectural trends from the Adriatic Littoral, whose influence was felt in Prizren, another important medieval center geographically and culturally associated with Skopje. A particularly interesting feature is the blend of several architectural methods and forms: the Byzantine construction method (stone and brick); the Constantinopolitan type of apse with double niches; the Romanesque concept of the western façade; and the Romanesque-Gothic window frames. All of this suggests a unique – and in some segments eclectic – concept that bears evidence to the changes in the architectural trends of the southern regions of the Serbian Empire in the third quarter of the 14th century. Therefore the view that the preconditions for the construction of such a representative endowment were met upon Vukašin’s coronation (1365/1366) and that it was completed before his death in 1371 seem sound.
The striking thematic complexity and multi-layered iconography of the wall paintings from the Palaiologan era are most comprehensively assessed through the methodological perspective of iconographical analysis. The fresco program of the Mrnjavčević endowment also reveals elements taken from ideological, literary, theological and liturgical teachings and practices. The content and meaning of the frescoes at Markov Manastir provide answers to certain important questions about the new stage in the relationship between the liturgy and the design of painted decorations of Byzantine churches. The program of Markov Manastir is a striking example of the last stage in the development of Byzantine art, which showed a strong influence of liturgical services and court ceremony on the content and arrangement of the thematic program (Christ the Archpriest in the composition of the Great Entrance in the sanctuary; the Royal Deësis and the Heavenly Court; the last stanzas of the Akathistos cycle; the Passion cycle; the Calendar; The Feast of Holy Wisdom, etc.).
Poetry was a remarkably important source of inspiration for the contents and conceptual emphases of these paintings, since notable motifs from hymns, canons, troparia, psalms and prayers could be transformed into imagery or represented as an inscribed formula in several thematic ensembles (the Virgin’s Akathistos, representations of the dead Christ and the mourning Virgin, the church’s patron in the lunette above the west entrance, the inscriptions on the arches below the dome, etc.). This suggests that the frescoes of Markov Manastir reveal a subtle and ambiguous relationship between image and text, which had been adopted in the Serbian milieu from Byzantine culture. The remarkable erudition of the person who designed the fresco program of Markov Manastir is also apparent in the relationship toward the cult of the holy patron and the visual concept of his images above the west and south entrances, which have no parallels or prototypes in medieval Orthodox art. Another noteworthy feature is the documentary value of the frescoes at the most important Mrnjavčević endowment (the donor portraits), especially given the fact that they date from a period in Serbian history which has left very few diplomatic or other written sources. Two groups of painters frescoed the Church of St. Demetrios; of different stylistic expressions, they are believed to have been trained in Ohrid and Skopje respectively. The Ohrid painters gave the painted program its distinctive artistic character. The visual concepts that emphasize the contents with the expressive power of gestures, colors, and forms would remain unique in Serbian medieval art; the best of these artists created some of the finest works of late Palaiologan art.
Ђурић, Војислав. Ј. “Марков манастир ‒ Охрид.” ЗМСЛУ 8 (1972): 131–160.
The most comprehensive study on the painters of Markov Manastir and the artistic characteristics of their works.
Bogdanović, Jelena. “Regional Developments in Late Byzantine Architecture and the Question of ‘Building Schools’: An Overlooked Case of the Fourteenth-Century Churches from the Region of Skopje.” Byzantinoslavica 69, no. 1–2 (2011): 219–266.
A systematic comparative analysis of the characteristic stylistic features of the 'Skopje churches', which explains the wider context and the place of Markov Manastir in the regional architectural developments of 'building schools' in the Late Byzantine period.
Грозданов, Цветан. “Из иконографије Марковог манастира.” Зограф 11 (1980): 83–92.
The paper resolves the question of the contents of the Heavenly Court composition. Identifying the figures on the north side of the church as warrior saints, the author also includes all inscriptions on the scrolls held by archpriests in the Proskomedia (Liturgy of Preparation) and Grand Entrance.
Gavrilović, Zaga. “The Portrait of King Marko at Markov Manastir (1376–1381).” Byzantinische Forschungen 16 (1990): 415–428 (= eadem, In Studies in Byzantine and Serbian Medieval Art, 146–163. London: Pindar Press, 2001.)
The paper presents one of the possible approaches to the interpretation of the program above the south entrance to the church, with a special emphasis on the explanation of the epithet ‘milostivi’ (merciful) beside the image of St. Demetrios.
Касапова, Елизабета. Архитектурата на црквата Св. Димитрија – Марков Манастир. Скопје: Каламус, 2012. (The Architecture of the Church of St. Demetrius - Marko's Monastery, in Macedonian with a summary in English)
The most comprehensive monograph on the architecture of Markov Manastir, which offers an in-depth analysis of all aspects of this valuable architectural monument in the territory of Skopska Crna Gora.
Sinkević, Ida. “Prolegomena for a Study of Royal Entrances in Byzantine Churches: The Case of Marko’s Monastery.” In Approaches to Byzantine Architecture and Its Decoration: Studies in Honor of Slobodan Ćurčić, edited by M. J. Johnson, R. G. Ousterhout, A. C. Papalexandrou, 135–138. Farnham: Ashgate, 2012.
The author examines the iconography and function of the south door of the Church of St. Demetrios and proposes that the south door was intended for the entrance of the king.
Tomić Djurić, Marka. “To picture and to perform: the image of the Eucharistic Liturgy at Markov Manastir” (I), Zograf 38 (2014): 123–142; (II), Zograf 39 (2015) 129–150.
This paper presents and interprets the iconographic program of the frescoes in the lowest register of the sanctuary in the Church of St. Demetrios at Markov Manastir in the context of the relationship between mural decoration and the liturgical rites of the Late Byzantine period.
Tomić Djurić, Marka. Фреске Марковог манастира. Београд: Балканолошки институт САНУ, Архиепископија охридска и Митрополија скопска, 2019. (The Frescoes of Marko’s Monastery, in Serbian with resume in English)
Richly illustrated and featuring an abundance of visual material, the monograph represents a rounded research project which employs modern methodology to assess and interpret questions pertaining to the frescoes of the Church of St. Demetrios in Sušica.