The Transfiguration Fresco at Zrze Monastery
The Transfiguration Fresco at Zrze Monastery

By Anđela Gavrilović | University of Belgrade


A shallow niche in the lunette above the entrance to the church of the Transfiguration of Christ in Zrze Monastery (1368/69) preserves a mural of the composition of the Transfiguration of Christ. The katholikon of the monastery was built and decorated with frescoes in several phases. In the first stage, the small church was built by monk German as his endowment around the middle of the 14th century, followed by a second phase, in which the nartex was added on the west (before 1368/69). In the third stage, the northern and southern parecclesions have been added (the end of the 16th and the first half of the 17th century), while at the beginning of the 17th century an opened porch was built on the west. The first church is a single nave edifice with a semi-circular vault and gabled roof. The apse is three-sided on the outside, and semicircular on the inside. Since the original western entrance of the first church was demolished after the restoration of frescoes in 16th century, the nartex and the naos now form a single space. The Transfiguration mural was executed together with the frescoes of the narthex of the church – in the seventh decade of the 14th century (before 1368/69). Today, it is protected by the opened porch.

The key mural in the church consists of two parts, which form one symbolic whole. The central part of the niche features the scene of the Transfiguration. It is surrounded in the archivolt by the figures of the Mother of God with the Christ Child and eight prophets.

Viewed as a separate scene, the iconography of the Transfiguration fresco relies on traditional Byzantine iconography. At the top of the scene, Christ is depicted on Mount Tabor in glory with a cruciform halo. He is shown full-length, in white robes, and with a double mandorla emitting rays. He blesses with his right hand. Moses is located on the right, and Elijah on the left. Christ, Moses, and Eliah stand on three separate peaks of Tabor, while below them are three apostles: John, Peter, and James.

The Mother of God with the Christ Child is depicted bust-length at the top of the archivolte that surrounds the Transfiguration. Next to her are figures of the prophets: David and Solomon, Ezekiel and Isaiah, Gedeon and Jona, and Habacuc and Saint John the Forerunner. The first three pairs of prophets are depicted as busts, while Habacuc and Saint John the Forerunner are shown full length. Through gestures and gazes, all prophets point to the Mother of God.


The appearance of the Transfiguration fresco on the west façade of the main church at Zrze Monastery is justified by the fact that the very church is dedicated to this feast. The Transfiguration fresco over the entrance to the katholikon of Zrze Monastery is original and unique in many ways. First, because it consists of two parts that are connected into one symbolic whole through iconography: the scene itself and the figures in the archivolte. In Serbian medieval art, the iconographic solution of the Transfiguration fresco at Zrze is unique as no other monument features the Transfiguration scene in such a way. The iconography is the result of nuanced theological thoughts and the aspirations of the patrons of the frescoes, the two noblemen Pribil (later painter and metropolitan Jovan, middle of the 14th century –the end of the 14th century) and Prijezda (later painter hieromonk Makarije, 14th century – after 1421/22).

Zrze Monastery, like Lesnovo Monastery, was an important medieval monastic center with a long tradition, where complex theological thoughts could be expressed in the language of images and art. The katholikon of Zrze Monastery was originally built as inheritance church by monk German (second half of the 13th century ? – first half of the 14th century), a former nobleman of king and later tzar Dušan (r.1331–1355). His son, Hajko (beginning of the 14th century –1368/69), became a monk named Hariton and was buried in the church after his passing, sometime before 1368/69. At that time, his sons, Pribil and Prijezda, together with their mother, decorated the nartex with frescoes in his memory. This act is preserved in the inscription on the west wall of the nartex. The Transfiguration fresco above the entrance to the church belongs to this fresco layer.

The Mother of God with the Christ Child at the top of the archivolte inscribed with the epithet “Joy of all” (Πάντων χαρά), which is not so frequent in Byzantine art or in the medieval art of Eastern Europe. Apart from Zrze Monastery this epithet is found in the church of Christ the Lifegiver in Borje (1390/91). This epithet can also refer to Christ (for example, He is inscribed with this epithet on one fresco in Roženski Monastery in Bulgaria – 1597). The prophets who surround the Transfiguration fresco point to the human nature of God, that is to the incarnation of Christ through the Virgin. Christ’s incarnation is especially emphasized by the presence of the main witness of His human nature – Saint John the Forerunner and his peculiar gesture of raised right hand and forefinger. The epithet of the Mother of God “Joy of all”, aligns with the symbolism of the texts on the prophets’ rolls, which can also point to Christ, since the Mother of God bore “the One who is everywhere, to fill everything with joy”, abolishing the old curse.

The most important feature of the fresco-icon of the Transfiguration above the entrance in Zrze Monastery is the deep theological symbolism that connects this scene with the figures of the Mother of God with Christ Child and prophets, relying on the text of the service of the Transfiguration feast and visually interpreting the Transfiguration scene, emphasizing the fact that “the One seen by Moses on Tabor” is ‘the God born from the young Virgin, who is the deliverance of men”.

The service also explains that the Father’s voice during the Transfiguration in fact “revealed the secret of God’s incarnation: the Only Begotten Son and the Savior of the Whole World”. Thus, the Father’s words represent the testimony and the confirmation of this mystery. Through His incarnation, Christ revealed an eternal mystery that was hidden, and human eyes saw the unseen: the earthly flesh shone with divine radiance, the mortal body radiated the glory of God. Precisely due to the fact that Christ is the Only Begotten Son, He is also the Savior of the World. Given the fact that the Transfiguration fresco was illustrated for the memory of the soul of Hajko, later monk Hariton, it is obvious that his sons Pribil and Prijezda in the funerary church of their grandfather and their father, chose the themes that emphasize Christ’s human nature and His Transfiguration, since in the mystery of Christ’s Incarnation lies the pledge of eternal salvation.

Further Reading

Čubrilo Golac, Andrijana, “Freska Preobraženja u manastiru Zrze”, Patrimonium 18 (2020): 401–410.

This article is the first thorough study of the fresco-icon of the Transfiguration on the western façade in Zrze Monastery.

Čubrilo, Andrijana, “Zidno slikarstvo crkve Preobraženja Hristovog u manastiru Zrze”, Beograd 2019 (unpublished PhD thesis, Faculty of Philosophy, University of Belgrade).

In this doctoral thesis, the frescoes of the church of Transfiguration executed in different periods, are examined in detail for the first time and from the aspect of the whole monument.

Gavrilović, Anđela, “O bogoslovskim idejnim osnovama ikonografsko-programskog rešenja scene Preobraženja Hristovog nad ulazom u crkvu Preobraženja u manastiru Zrze”, Patromonium 19 (2021) 275–285.

>This study deals with the strong symbolic connection that lies between the Transfiguration fresco on the one hand, and with the Mother of God with Christ Child and prophets.

This contribution was sponsored by the Mary Jaharis Center for Byzantine Art and Culture at Hellenic College Holy Cross.

Anđela Gavrilović, "The Transfiguration Fresco at Zrze Monastery," Mapping Eastern Europe, eds. M. A. Rossi and A. I. Sullivan, accessed June 3, 2023,