By Maria Alessia Rossi | Princeton University
The church of St. George at Staro Nagoričino is located on the outskirts of Skopje, Republic of North Macedonia. The Serbian King Milutin (r. 1282–1321) rebuilt St. George in 1312–13 on the remains of an 11th-century church, as attested by the inscription in Old Church Slavonic carved on the west portal. The plan of the building follows the cross-in-square type with a narthex at the west and five domes over the naos. The frescoes date between 1315 and 1317, at the time of hegoumenos Venjamin, and can be attributed with certainty to the workshop of Michael Astrapas, whose name appears in several instances within the church. The iconographic program of the naos includes the Life of Christ, that of St. George, and standing saints. The Life of the Virgin Mary is depicted in the prothesis, and that of St. Nicholas in the diakonikon. The narthex is covered with scenes from the Menologion, and on the north wall there is a dedicatory portrait of King Milutin with a model of the church, alongside his wife, the Byzantine Princess and Serbian Queen, Simonis (b.1293/4), Sts. Constantine and Helena on the left, and St. George on the right. The original marble iconostasis preserves fresco icons depicting St. George Diassoritis and the Virgin Pelagonitissa.
King Milutin’s reign was a time of military expansion, wealth, and religious fervor. He was a great military leader and conquered many territories, especially at the expense of the Byzantine Empire. These victories brought new revenues: the silver mines near Novo Brdo made him one of the richest men of his time. The chronicle written by archbishop Danilo II (b. ca. 1270), one of Milutin’s closest counsellors, tells us that with this wealth Milutin commissioned more than forty buildings, nearly one for each year of his reign, ranging from churches and palaces to fortresses and hospitals, and stretching from Skopje to Jerusalem, including Constantinople, Thessaloniki and Mount Athos.
Among these commissions is the church of St. George at Staro Nagoričino. The church of St. George, in fact, is traditionally believed to have been commissioned in the 11th century by the Byzantine Emperor Romanos Diogenes IV (r. 1068–71). It is not clear how this earlier structure looked like, but the masonry made of carefully cut ashlars is still visible on the exterior, suggesting that the 11th-century church was a rectilinear building with a semicircular apse. Scholarship has unanimously agreed that its restoration and dedication to St. George should be seen in connection to a victory of the Byzantine emperor over the Turks in Asia Minor, thanks to the military contingent sent by Milutin. The architecture of St. George seems to reference contemporary Byzantine models. The cloisonné masonry construction and the brickwork of St. George find their closest parallels in the architecture of Epiros.
The artist, Michael Astrapas, to whom Milutin commissioned the monumental decoration of St. George, was Greek, most probably from Thessaloniki. His signature appears twice in the decoration: once, on the hiton of the holy warrior St. Theodore Teron depicted between the naos and the narthex (ΧΕΙΡ ΜΙΧΑΗΛ ΕΥΤΥΧΙΟΥ), and a second time, in the inscription on the west wall of the narthex (ΧΕΙΡ ΜΙΧΑΗΛ [ΤΟΥ] ΖΟΓΡΑΦΟΥ). There are no historical records of Michael, but by tracing his signatures, scholars have suggested that he was trained in the church of St. Clement in Ohrid (1294/5) with his father Eutychios, whose signatures are also found in this monument. Michael then moved to the Serbian Kingdom, where he became Milutin’s chief painter. Michael’s team worked, among other places, in Bogorodica Ljeviška in Prizren (1306/7); the Church of St. Prohor of Pčinja near Vranje; the King’s church in Studenica (1313/14); St. George at Staro Nagoričino; St. Nikita near Čučer (ca.1321); and the monastery of Gračanica (1320–21).
The inscriptions in the church are both in Greek and in Old Church Slavonic. The latter was consciously used both for the inscription mentioning Milutin on the exterior of the church and for his donor portrait in the narthex. In addition to the political affiliation implied with the use of one language rather than the other, the choice of local saints and bishops included in the monumental decoration offers a glimpse into the relationship between the Serbian Orthodox Church and the Archbishopric of Ohrid. Sts. Constantine Kabasilas and Clement of Ohrid appear in the scene of the Divine Liturgy in the prothesis. The cult of these saints is also widespread in the Archbishopric of Ohrid, and in fact, they were represented in the church of the Perivleptos, also known as St. Clement, in Ohrid (1295). However, in the latter, they are depicted near the entrance of the prothesis from the naos. This prominent position, in St. George, is occupied by the founder and the first bishop of the Serbian Orthodox Church, St. Sava. It is telling that the inscription identifying Sava is in Greek and includes the exact title that the Patriarchate of Constantinople used for Serbian Orthodox bishops in official documents.
Dimitrova, Elizabeta, and Sašo Korunovski. Macedonia: l’arte medievale dal IX al XIV secolo, 161–168. Milano: Jaca Book, 2006.
This work is a comprehensive examination of medieval art in the Republic of North Macedonia. It includes a discussion of the architecture and painted decoration of the church of St. George.
Marković, Miodrag. “The painter Eutychios – father of Michael Astrapas and Protomaster of the Frescoes in the church of the Virgin Peribleptos in Ohrid.” Zbornik Matice srpske za likovne umetnosti 38 (2010): 9–34.
This essay focuses on the figures of Eutychios and Michael. By analyzing the monumental decorations and their signatures, it offers an overview of the painters’ careers and argues that Eutychios was Michael’s father.
Popović, Pera J., and Vladimir R. Petković. Staro Nagoričino, Psača, Kalenić, 1-50. Belgrade: Državna Štamparija Kraljevine Jugoslavije, 1933.
This book is one of the earliest studies on the Church of St. George at Staro Nagoričino (together with Psača and Kalenić). The editors briefly address the building’s history, architecture, and paintings, and offer a detailed description of the entire iconographic program (translation in French).
Rossi, M. Alessia. “Beyond the Serbo-Byzantine Identity of St George at Staro Nagoričino.” In Special issue of the series Études Byzantines et Post-Byzantines, edited by Elena Boeck. Forthcoming.
This essay examines the relationship between the Byzantine Empire and the Serbian Kingdom in the early 14th century by exploring how the church of St. George has been treated in scholarship and historiography in order to discuss the limits and challenges that categories such as “Byzantine” and “Serbian” impose.
Todić, Branislav. Старо Нагорично [Staro Nagoričino]. Belgrade: Srpska akademija nauka i umetnosti, 1993.
This is the main monograph on the church of St. George at Staro Nagoričino. It examines extensively the history, architecture, and decoration of the building (Summary in French).
Todić, Branislav. Serbian Medieval Painting: The Age of King Milutin, translated by Jelena Erdeljan, 320–325. Belgrade: Draganić, 1999.
This book offers an in-depth study of the patronage of King Milutin by examining all of his commissions. It also includes a catalogue of the monuments with thorough summaries for each building and wide-ranging bibliography.