The Genealogical Tree of the Nemanjić Dynasty, Dečani Monastery
The Genealogical Tree of the Nemanjić Dynasty, Dečani Monastery

By Nicole Paxton Sullo | Yale University


Within the narthex of the Church of Christ Pantokrator at Dečani Monastery, an extended genealogical tree maps the lineage of the Nemanjić dynasty. This imposing expression of ancestry dates to ca. 1346–48. It was painted under the auspices of Emperor Stefan Uroš IV Dušan (r. king 1331–45, emperor 1345–55), who completed the program of monumental painting at Dečani, originally founded by his father King Stefan Uroš III Dečanski (r. 1321–31). Filling the southeast bay’s east wall, the genealogy is positioned to the right of the central portal as one proceeds from the narthex into the naos. Parts of an extended menologion cycle – a visual hagiographical calendar of saints’ lives that encircles the entirety of the narthex – border the composition. Spanning the space of this bay, a raised plinth serves as a base for the marble font that functions, still today, as a vessel for the blessing of holy water on the Feast of Theophany.

The dynastic genealogy displays seven generations organized into a schematic. At the center of the lowest register, a now-damaged image of Stefan Nemanja (St. Simeon) (r. ca. 1165/68–96) is the dynasty’s “root.” Simeon’s sons, Sava I and Stefan Prvovenčani (“First-Crowned”) (r. grand župan 1196–1217, king 1217–ca. 28), are located on either side. Above, in the middle of the mural, Stefan Uroš II Milutin (r. 1282–1321) is flanked by his brother, Stefan Dragutin (r. 1276–82), and father, Stefan Uroš I (r. 1243–76). In the top register, the patron, Dušan, stands at the center, his young son, Stefan Uroš V (r. 1355–71), to his left and his father, Stefan Dečanski, to his right. A lattice of scrolling vinework frames and connects these figures, and busts of additional family members blossom from interspersed axillary shoots.


The genealogical tree at Dečani, painted following Dušan’s proclamation as emperor, promotes the patron’s expanded rule through a record of his lineage. The flowering vine that connects generations of Nemanjić rulers within the composition gleans from the language in Stefan Dečanski’s charter for the monastery; he refers to himself as “Stefan Uroš, son and heir to [the Nemanjić ancestors’] holy roots, the branch and only-begotten offshoot of my holy father, beloved by his heart more than his whole life, the mainstay and strength of his old age.” As has been elucidated by Dragan Vojvodić, the vertically-oriented genealogy builds on a long tradition of processional dynastic imagery in medieval Serbian churches. Formally, the “tree” also borrows from late Byzantine depictions of Christ’s lineage in the Tree of Jesse (an instance of which also appears as a pendant to the Nemanjić genealogy within the naos at Dečani). Most directly, however, the mid-14th-century family tree at Dečani stands in conversation with an earlier iteration of the same iconography in the southeast corner of the narthex at Gračanica Monastery (1319–21). In this example, the very first occurrence of the genealogical tree in medieval Serbian monumental painting, the patron of Gračanica, Dušan’s grandfather, King Milutin, traces his lineage from the dynasty’s founder, Stefan Nemanja.

Close comparative examination of the genealogies at Dečani and Gračanica reveals that the positioning of some of the family members (and purposeful exclusion of others) offers insight into the patron’s contemporary political circumstances and their aspirations for the future of the dynasty. At Gračanica, a central, vertically-rising schematic accentuates Milutin’s direct lineage; only he and the central figures of Stefan Nemanja, Stefan Prvovenčani, and Uroš I wear halos (despite the previous rule of his older brother Dragutin from 1267–82, which ended in abdication). Indeed, the arrangement relegates Dragutin’s sons, once heirs to the dynasty, to the left of Uroš I, at a comfortable remove from the crown. Moreover, looking to the future, Milutin includes, to his left and right, his daughter, Carica, and his named heir, Stefan Constantine (r. 1321–22), while completely omitting his oldest son, Stefan Dečanski. In its purposeful disregard for an exacting stemma, the genealogy attempts to ensure Dečanski’s absence following his exile to Constantinople in 1314. Reality, however, eventually defied this contrived historical record after Dečanski’s return in 1320 and subsequent, eventually successful, struggle to gain the throne in the face of Constantine and his first cousin, Vladislav II (r. 1316–25). The genealogy at Gračanica establishes itself as a site of political statement, a visual means to manipulate dynastic succession and secure its founder’s place in history.

Around twenty-five years later, the genealogical tree at Dečani continues to address complicated, contested paths of succession and lays bare past upsets. Once more, a pictorial history advances the political position and objectives of the monastery’s patron. In a riposte to Dečanski’s absence at Gračanica, Dušan’s genealogy revises the visual memory of his empire through a reciprocal excision of Stefan Constantine from the Dečani genealogy. The inclusion of numerous other princes and princesses, who propagate the interstices of the composition, renders the erasure of Milutin’s younger brother all the more evident. Dušan did not, however, employ the same tactic for the figure of Simeon Uroš (r. despot 1348–55, 1359–69), the son of his father’s second wife, Maria Palaiologina. While Simeon’s presence did not pose a threat to Dušan’s role as emperor, he had the potential to disrupt the eventual succession of his child, Stefan Uroš V. Indeed, after Dušan’s death, Simeon laid claim to much of the empire’s southern territories in Epiros and Thessaly, and proclaimed himself “emperor of all Greeks, Serbs, and Albanians.” With foresight of this possible outcome, the program at Dečani does not erase Dušan’s half-brother, but rather depicts him in a way that deprives him of power. Represented as a minuscule bust flowering between Dušan and Stefan Dečanski, Simeon wears a cloak with no insignia, and gestures in the direction of the emperor and his intended heir. In contrast, the bust figure of Christ Emmanuel above reaches from the heavens to bless Dušan’s reign as two angels descend with a divinely sanctioned crown and imperial loros.

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Further Reading

Ćurčić, Slobodan. “The Nemanjić Family Tree in the Light of the Ancestral Cult in the Church of Joachim and Anna at Studenica.” Recueil des travaux de l’Institut d’études byzantines 4–5 (1973): 191–195.

This article frames the Nemanjić genealogy at Gračanica Monastery as the “final visual manifestation” of a prolonged development of political propaganda under King Milutin. Ćurčić focuses on earlier dynastic imagery in the church of Joachim and Anna (the “King’s Church”) at Studenica.

Haustein-Bartsch, Eva. “Der Nemanjidenstammbaum: Studien zur mittelalterlichen serbischen Herrscherikonographie.” PhD diss., Rheinischen Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn, 1985.

This dissertation offers a comprehensive overview of genealogical trees for the Nemanjić family in medieval Serbian monumental painting and relates its development to the iconography of the Jesse Tree.

Ćirković, Sima. “Between Kingdom and Empire: Dušan’s State (1346–1355) Reconsidered.” In Βυζάντιο καὶ Σερβία κατὰ τὸν ιδ᾽ αἰῶνα [Byzantium and Serbia in the Fourteenth Century], edited by Eutychia Papadopoulou and Dora Dialeti, 110–120. Athens: Ethniko Idrima Ereunon, 1996.

This chapter offers a concise overview of Stefan Uroš IV Dušan’s political aspirations, the shift from kingdom to empire, and connections between medieval Serbia and the Byzantine Empire.

Gavrilović, Zaga. “Kingship and Baptism in the Iconography of Dečani and Lesnovo.” In Децани и виѕантијска уметност средином XIV века [Dečani et l’art byzantine au milieu di XIVe siècle], edited by Vojislav J. Djurić, 297–306. Belgrade: Srpska akademija nauka i umetnosti, 1989. (in English with Serbian summary.)

This essay analyzes the royal portraits and Nemanjić genealogical tree in the narthex at Dečani Monastery as well as imperial portraits at Lesnovo. Gavrilović argues that these images are linked to the idea of baptism as enlightenment given their proximity to baptismal iconography and fonts.

Vojvodić, Dragan. “From the Horizontal to the Vertical Genealogical Image of the Nemanjić Dynasty.” Zbornik radova Vizantoloskog instituta 44 (2007): 295–313. (in Serbian with English summary.)

This article traces the development of the Nemanjić family tree and its appearance at Gračanica, Peć, Dečani, Mateič, and Studenica. Vojvodić focuses on the shift between “horizontal” ancestral imagery and the “vertical” genealogies, which visually referenced Jesse Tree iconography and linked the dynasty to the idea of a “chosen people.”


Nicole Paxton Sullo, "The Genealogical Tree of the Nemanjić Dynasty, Dečani Monastery," Mapping Eastern Europe, eds. M. A. Rossi and A. I. Sullivan, accessed June 3, 2023,