The Sopoćani Monastery, a foundation of King Urosh I, was built in the second half of the 13th century, near the source of the river Raška in the region of Ras, the center of the Serbian medieval state. The most certain year of the monastery construction is 1265. The church is dedicated to the Holy Trinity.
The completion of the painting of the main parts of the church can be indirectly dated to between 1263 and 1270. Archbishop Sabbas II, who became the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church in 1263, is represented in the procession of archbishops in the altar of the Sopoćani church. Sopoćani frescoes are considered by many experts on Orthodox Christian art as the most beautiful frescoes belonging to the Serbian Orthodox Church.
In the 16th century, the monks had to leave the monastery on several occasions because of the Turkish threat, but they always returned to it. During one of these departures, they took the coffin with the body of King Steven the First-Crowned to the Monastery of Crna Reka (Black River) in Kosovo. The church lost its roof, and the outer narthex was partly demolished. The end of the 16th and the beginning of the 17th century was a period of great prosperity for Sopoćani. All damages were repaired at that time.
The Turks burnt and demolished the monastery in 1689 and carried off the lead from the church roof. After this tragedy, the monks did not return to it, and it remained deserted for over two hundred years, until the 20th century. The rare travelers who visited it in the 18th and 19th centuries recorded that it lay in ruins. The church slowly decayed: its vaults caved in, its dome fell down, and the remains of the surrounding buildings were covered with rubble and earth.
During the 20th century, the monastery is renewed and today is settled by numerous and very active brotherhood of monks. The fact that most of Sopoćani frescoes many consider as a miracle. The beauty presented in this archive survived more than 2 centuries of extreme meteorological circumstances and despite that conserved all of its glory.
King Urosh I (1243-1276) was a son of Stefan the First-Crowned and a grandson of Nemanja, the founder of the dynasty which ruled Serbia for over two hundred years. One of the most important rulers of the 13th century, Urosh was a wise, accomplished and well-educated man who pursued astute foreign and internal policies. He strengthened the frontiers of the state, promoted its economy and increased the power of the monarchy. He had conflicts with his neighbors — the Greeks, Bulgarians, Hungarians, and Ragusans — but he also contracted alliances with them and even established ties of kinship with some of their families. During his reign, several lead copper and silver mines were opened in the country with the help of Saxon miners, and this strengthened Serbia's commercial links with Italy, maintained through the maritime towns, and brought in considerable profits. King Urosh had good relations with both the Orthodox and the Catholic Churches in his country. He fostered their interests, and they supported him. Perhaps this policy was influenced by his closest relatives: his brother, Sabbas II, was the Archbishop of Serbia, his mother Anna Dandolo was from Venice, and his wife Helene was from France.
Such favorable political conditions and economic prosperity were conducive to the development of culture, art, and architecture and enabled Serbia not only to benefit fully from the heritage of Byzantine art but also to create its own style and tradition. It is in light of these circumstances that we can best understand the building of Sopoćani and the treasures of art and architecture that were concentrated in it. They reflect the spirit, aspirations, and achievements of Urosh's epoch.
The precise year of the foundation of Sopoćani has not been recorded. The completion of the painting of the main parts of the church can be indirectly dated to between 1263 and 1270. Archbishop Sabbas II, who became the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church in 1263, is represented in the procession of archbishops in the altar of the Sopoćani church, while Urosh's son Dragutin, who married the Hungarian princess Katelina by 1270 at the latest, is represented as a boy in the narthex. It can, therefore, be inferred that the wall-paintings of Sopoćani date from about 1265. The construction of the church and of the monastery buildings may have been completed a few years earlier.
There are some grounds for the belief that King Urosh meant Sopoćani to be a cathedral church. It is certain, however, that it became the mausoleum of the royal family. The King's mother Anna Dandolo, his father Stefan the First-Crowned and his cousin Grand Prince George (Đorđe) were buried there. At the end of the eighth decade of the 13th century the founder of Sopoćani, King Urosh himself was also laid to rest there.
The outer narthex with the bell-tower was added to the church sometime later. We do not know when it was built or who its founder was. It is only possible to offer an approximate date for it, on the basis of its general design and architectural features. It belongs to the type of open narthex that was built in Serbia from the 14th century onwards, but it follows the spatial design and Romanesque details of the earlier spacious structures raised in front of the Ras-style churches. It was probably built at the very end of the 13th century, in a crucial period in the development of architecture in Serbia, after which it ceased to follow Byzantine models. Besides, the Sopoćani Memorial Book, thought to have been compiled in the time of King Milutin, refers to King Urosh as the first founder, which implies that there was a second founder by that time. There is no evidence whether it was King Milutin himself, some church dignitary or Helene (Jelena), the Queen Mother. The frescoes, in the outer narthex, were painted in the time of King Dushan the Powerful (Dušan), after two reconstructions of the bell-tower. The frescoes on its walls show, among other figures, Archbishop Ioaniccius, who became the head of the Serbian Church in 1338, and Dushan mentioned as a king, which means that they date from before 1346 when he was proclaimed Tsar.
Sopoćani was an important and prosperous monastery from its foundation until almost the end of the 14th century. There are records of visits and gifts made by Milutin and Queen Helene, and the fragments of a luxurious table - were and ether costly objects found during the archaeological excavations give us some idea of its former wealth.
The later history of the monastery was determined by the political circumstances which affected the entire state. It suffered the first devastations after the Battle of Kosovo in 1389 and the penetration of the Turks into Serbia. The monastery buildings were then demolished and burnt down.
The monastery was rebuilt in the time of the despotate, with alterations made necessary by considerations of security. The main entrance was enlarged and a double gate was installed, a strong tower being added to it. The refectory was reduced in size, presumably because the number of monks had diminished, but the monastery must still have been quite prosperous. This is indicated by the well-planned and solidly constructed porticoed buildings on the northern and southern sides of the monastery courtyard, the details of the reconstructed entrance and the heraldic devices on various objects for everyday use and on funerary monuments.
In the 16th century, the monks had to leave the monastery on several occasions because of the Turkish threat, but they always returned to it. During one of these departures, they took the coffin with the body of King Stefan the First-Crowned to the Monastery of Crna Reka. The church lost its roof, and the outer narthex was partly demolished.
The end of the 16th and the beginning of the 17th century was a period of great prosperity for Sopoćani. This can be seen from the building activity, the most intensive since the founding of the monastery, and from the quantity and quality of earthenware and metal objects for everyday use, various coins, etc. At that time the church was reroofed, the outer narthex and bell-tower were remodeled, and almost all the monastery buildings restored. A new kitchen with store-rooms was built in the western range, and the buildings on the northern and southern sides were repaired. Now the ground floors were also used for living quarters, with some of the old arcades being converted into cells, probably in order to accommodate an increased number of monks. The architecture of this period is notable for the excellent and lavish use of carved stone details. The frames of windows and fireplaces, as well as various other structural details, were made of carved sandstone. The monastery must have been quite wealthy, for costly lead sheeting was used to cover the new roof of the church and part of the kitchen. The numerous examples of painted pottery of exceptional artistic value from this period are mostly local work, although there are also some imported vessels.
The Turks burnt and demolished the monastery in 1689 and carried off the lead from the church roof. After this, the monks did not return to it, and it remained deserted for over two hundred years, until the present century. The rare travelers who visited it in the 18th and 19th centuries recorded that it lay in ruins. The church slowly decayed: its vaults caved in, its dome fell down, and the remains of the surrounding buildings were covered with rubble and earth.
The spatial design of the Church of the Holy Trinity at Sopo-cani conforms to the line of development of 13th-century Serbian churches built after Žica, which established the forms of the second, mature stage of the Raska style of architecture. It is an aisleless building with a semi-circular apse on its eastern end and a narthex, separated from the nave by a wall, on the western side. The nave consists of three bays, the central one surmounted by a dome. To the north and south of the space beneath the dome are choirs, open to it along their entire width. The prothesis and the diaconicon are formed in the continuation of the choirs, along the eastern bay. Two chapels were added to the sides of the narthex as separate premises.
As regards its spatial organization, the Church of the Holy Trinity does not offer any new elements. The arrangement established already at Žica was followed in all its main elements. However, the differences in the upper structure show that between the construction of these two buildings important architectural developments had taken place which enriched the fund of models and reflected the maturing of architectural expression on the territory of Serbia. The structure is simpler here. The narthex and the two end bays are covered with vaults which are slightly pointed at the top, of the kind, found in Raska from the beginning of the 13th century. The engaged lateral arches which support such vaults at 2ica and Mileseva are omitted here, as they had been in the earlier churches of the Holy Apostles, Morača and Pridvorica. The structure of the dome is also simplified. In the earliest Ras-ka-style churches, the dome rested on four internal engaged arches, which were built, like a canopy, against the lateral walls and on transverse arches, so that the weight was reduced, by means of pendentives, to four points. All this was enclosed in the walls of the cubical base. In the churches built after 2ica — Mileseva, Holy Apostles and Pridvorica — there are double arches, but those on the inside are very narrow and do not spring from the base of the pillars, but rest on the imposts of the massive transverse arches. At Morača and Sopoćani they were omitted, the dome being supported by two transverse arches only. Double arches reappeared in later buildings, for they provided better static support. The builder of Sopocani was unable both to construct the dome in a professional way and to satisfy the demands of the founder as regards its form. Wishing to imitate the appearance of a Romanesque basilica and to emphasize the volume of the nave as much as possible, he placed the dome nearer the centre. In the earlier edifices of this type, the north and south walls of the circular dome base were raised on the longitudinal walls of the church, whereas at Sopocani, they are further in, resting on the engaged arches. Thus, another step in the external disposition of the mass was obtained to emphasize its height. In addition, the architect, probably fearing too much downward thrust, made these walls on the outside narrower than the arches which support them, while on the inside they project beyond the lower walls and rest on consoles, so that the span of the dome is diminished. The inexperience and lack of skill of the architect is apparent in the fact that he did not raise the cornice of the nave to a height sufficient to conceal completely the lateral engaged arches under the roof, but had to hew off some parts of them when making the roof so that they did not project from the surface of the facade. As a result, he created weak points in the building.
The lateral chapels are built next to the narthex, as at Žiča, but their form and structure are simpler. The apses are sunk into the wall and their entire area is covered with vaulting instead of cupolas. The ground plan of the altar area is the same as in the earlier churches — Žiča, Pridvorica and Morača.
While the overall design of the Sopocani church shows no major innovations, many of its external features are original. Under the influence of Romanesque architecture, the general appearance conceals the complexity of the ground plan. The nave is emphasized, covered with a pitched roof, and the circular dome base is left unaccentuated. Here for the first time in Raska architecture, the lateral chapels are covered with single low leanjto roofs. In that respect the Sopocani church is the closest of all the Serbian churches built up to that time to the Western basilica, for the transverse arms of the church — the low Raska transept — has completely disappeared here. These changes were adumbrated by some preceding edifices, but were indicated only in external features or in the relation-ship of the masses; nowhere had they been applied so consistently or on such a broad scale as at Sopocani.
The external appearance of the Sopocani church closely imitates Romanesque architecture. This became especially apparent later, when the spaces between the choirs and the lateral chapels were walled up. The Romanesque influence is reflected both in the forms and in the decorative details. The building has the appearance of a basilica, the nave being considerably higher than the two aisles and lit by clerestories. The impression of length is enhanced by the withdrawal of the dome from the plane of the longitudinal walls. Rows of small semi-circular blind arcades resting on consoles under the roof cornice decorate the western gable, the side walls of the nave, the dome and the eastern ends of the aisles. The arcading is interrupted by corner pilasters at the end of each row, and by pilaster strips in the centre of the long nave walls. The articulation of the facade by pilaster strips does not correspond to the interior lay-out or to the structural segments, and serves, as, in Romanesque churches, a purely decorative purpose. The drum of the dome is also divided by pilaster strips into eight sections pierced by windows.
The white marble frames of the portals and windows are simple in form and decoration, except for the recessed western portal, which is more elaborate. The recessions in the wall and the small octagonal columns flanking the doorway are continued in the horseshoe-shaped arches above the lunette. A series of cornices at the level of the lintel separates the lower and the upper parts of the portal. A composition of The Descent of the Holy Ghost, the feast to which the church is dedicated, is painted in the lunette. The internal portal is without columns, but the archivolt formerly had relief decoration in stucco.
The side walls of the nave each have theree simple two-light windows. The windows in the altar apse, the west wall of the narthex and the west wall of the nave are similar, but slightly more ornate, having semi-circular archivolts. The west window of the nave, above the inner doorway, is the only one preserved in ats entirety: the others lack mullions and capitals. The windows in the lateral chapels have one light and straight lintels. Only those in the choirs had a more elaborate frame.
All the windows were glazed with circular panes of stained glass: pink, yellow, blue and purple, as can be seen on the painted model of the church in the hands of King Uros in the founder's composition. Fragments of these were found during the archaeological excavations. The lower windows were protected by iron bars.
The church was built of travertine ashlar and plastered on the outside with pale ochre mortar. The windows on the drum were framed with a painted decoration, of which only small parts of a dark-red band have been preserved. Thus the most prominent part of the church, which could be seen from a distance, had the most striking external features. Very little of the interior architectural decoration and the church furniture has been preserved. Some details can nevertheless be reconstructed on the basis of discoveries during the archaeological excavations. Their form, workmanship and material show that they were made with great care and provided a warthy setting for the splendid paintings. The most prominent parts of the structure were emphasized with rich painted cornices of moulded decoration in good stucco technique. The archivolt above the inner doorway was decorated in this may. It continued, on both sides, in a horizontal cornice which formed the upper edge of the first zone of paintings on the east wall of the narthex. Similar cornices decorated the beginning of the curve in the semi-calotte of the altar apse, the tops of the pilasters in the space under the dome, and, probably, the large icons on both sides of the alter screen. The screen itself, which separated the alter region from the nave, was carved of white marble and set between the two eastern pilasters. It consisted of a low parapet, made up of two slabs set in a moulded frame on each side of the main opening. Six small columns with capitals supproting the architrave rested on the parapet. Icons with rich stucco frames, probably made of mosaic and set on pilasters, formed a part of the altar screen, which was modelled on the screens of Byzantine churches, particularly those on the territory of Serbia. It was adapted to the lay-out of the eastern part of the church, but some details of its structure and finish were specific and bore traces of Romanesque influence. The marble screen which is now in the Sopocani church is a new and temporary one, but enough of the original screen has been found to enable us to reconstruct its basic form.
The name and provenance of the architect of Sopocani are not known. The solutions of some structural problems and certain elements in the execution of details suggest that he came from the western part of the country, most likely from the coast or its immediate hinterland. A comparison of the forms of the Sopocani church with those of similar edifices helps us to establish with greater certainty the possible models of the architect. The overall design of the church was dictated by the founder. He must also have determined the size of the church and its general appearance. It was not without difficulty that the architect of Sopocani met the founder's requirements. The incorporation of the desing and the greater part of the structure into new forms created a number of problems, which the architect did not always solve particularly skilfully The architecture of the church was not based simply on the adoption of elements from earlier buildings. The factors that contributed to its design were more complex: the imitatino of existing models, the founder's taste, the general trends in architectural thought, and. particularly, the architect's previous training and experience. By combining tradition, formed under the influence of Byzantine architecture, and his own experience which he brought from the western regions, the master-builder of Sopocani created new forms of the Raska-style of architecture which were adopted in lather churches raised by the Nemanjic dynasty.
The outer narthex, with the bell-tower incorporated in the facade, was added to the west wall of the church. Its upper parts are destroyed, but the sections that have survived indicate its original appearance. It was in the form of an open porch, supported on columns and piers on the outside and two columns on the middle. They were all connected by round arches, forming, on the northern and southern sides, three sections roofed with a kind of cross-vault. These were covered with the same single lean to roofs which continued over the aisles of the church. The central part of the narthex extends the entire width of the nave. It was supported by two large pointed arches and the two lateral walls. The three bays between the arches were covered with vaulting. These vaults, arches and walls formed the transverse central area of the outer narthex. All the arches had wooden tie-beams set in the imposts. There is not sufficient evidence to deduce the appearance of the upper section of this part of the narthex and of the form of the roof above it. Some details which have been preserved on the bell-tower seem to indicate that th roof of the central part of the narthex followed the form of the vaults, i.e. that it was set transversely in relation to the church. It is nevertheless not clear whether it was a lean-to roof, sloping towards the bell-towers, or, as seems more likely, a pitched roof.
The three-storey bell-tower was built at the same time as the narthex. Its ground floor was open, and the entire structure rested on four piers, connected by arches. The storeys were separated by wooden floors and each had four elongated windows. Along the corners of the outside walls adove the ground floor ran shallow strip pilasters terminating below the roof in a row of small arcades on consoles. There were also small arcades on the western, facade of the outer narthex, and, presumably, on the gables.
The western range at Sopocani is not similar to other buildings of this type. The position of the bell-tower in front of the narthex and Romanesque features of its facade are in line with 13th-century tradition. However, the narthex in the form of an open porch, the transverse position of its central area in relation to the church, and the use of wooden tie-beams in the imposts of the arches are in the spirit of Byzantine architecture of the kind fostered in Serbia from King Milutin's time. The outer narthex and the bell-tower at Sopocani thus reflect the transition from 13th-century architecture to that characteristic of the first decades of the 14th century.
The bell-tower was altered several times. Probably immediately after its completion, when it became apparent that the four piers could not support the weight of the high and massive walls, the two lateral arched openings on the ground floor were walled up. The openings between the other two arches were also partly walled up before the painting of the frescoes in the fourth or fifth decade of the 14th century. The remo-delling undertaken at the end of the 16th and the begiinning of the 17th century was the most extensive. The large openings on the first two storeys of the tower were walled up, and only wery narrow windows left. A chapel with an altar niche was formed on the second storey, and a low quadrangular opening was pierced in the east wall of the first storey. The way the stone was carved and built into the frame of that opening indicates that these alterations took place at the end of the 16th century. The church and the outer narthex were completely re-roofed at that time. The roofs, gently sloping, were made of lead sheets placed over a base of rubble. It was then that a lean-to roof was built above the middle part of the outer narthex.
The Church of the Holy Trinity was the central and most important part of the Monastery of Sopocani. The buildings in which the monks lived are centemporary with it. The monastery was raised on a terrace cut into a slope and surrounded by a strong wall. Like all Serbian monasteries, it was roughly circular in plan. The refectory, living-quarters and store-rooms were built along the inner side of the surrounding wall. The monastery was entered from two opposite sides. The main gate was on the south-western side, and the other, which probably communicated with the farm buildings of the monastery, was on the north-eastern side.
During its long and eventful history, the monastery was demolished and rebuilt several times, but its core retained the original form. During the successive rebuildings, use was made of the greater part of the enclosed area and, whenever possible, of the existing walls of ruined buildings. The functional lay-out remained largely unchanged. The greatest body of evidence has been preserved from the last phase of building, while the earlier ones cannot always be reconstructed.
The monastery refectory lay on the western side, opposite the entrance to the church. It was the most important and imposing building in the monastery complex after the church. It was rectangular in shape, wath a free apse on the northern side. Along the longitudinal exis, it had a row of wooden posts which carried the upper structure. The posts stood on stone bases set into the floor of sandstone slabs. The internal wall surfaces were painted. The refectory probably did not have an upper storey, but the ground floor must have been high. No window openings or remains of windows have been preserved. The refectory was subsequently remodelled. Probably in the 15th century, it was divided into two parts of unequal size, and the smaller room was converted into an extension of the kitchen and provided with a large hearth-bakery. It was then that another entrance to the refectory, leading from the porch of the adjacent residential building was opened near the apse.
Remains of five premises have been discovered between the refectory and the main gate to the monastery. The lay-out architectural details and objects found in them show that they were the kitchen and pantries. The first two rooms were used for the preparation of food and were directly connected with the refectory. The first, which probably belonged to the earliest period, had a triangular hearth in one corner. The second contained a square base for a large stove and a low masonry bench which ran along the surrounding wall. Parts of a high chimney — a column, capitals and serrated segments of two shallow arches — were found during the excavations. The hearth is similar in form to that in the Monastery of Crna Reka, and the technique of carving and fitting together denticulated segments was known to the stone-masons who took part in the building of churches in the neighbourhood of Sopocani in the 16th and at the beginning of the 17th century.
Lead piping carried water through the wall between the second and third room to the facade wall, where there was a fountain. A bench, built of regular sandstone slabs, ran along the wall from the fountain to the refectory. The building had a porch, and a masonry staircase led to the upper floor, which probably contained monks cells. The remains that have been preserved date mostly from the end of the 16th and the beginning of the 17th century.
The original main gate of the monastery had a frame of carved sandstone. During later rebuilding, probably in the 15th century, an entrance chamber with another gate was added to it. A tower was also erected next to the entrance. The other entrance to the monastery, on the north-eastern side, was also remodelled in the 15th century, but was subsequently walled up and used as living-quarters.
The residential buildings lay on the north and south sides of the monastery courtyard. The rooms on the ground floor were used for storage, while the cells were on the upper floor.
The original form of the buildings on the north side cannot be established with precision. The building added to the apse of the refectory is in the best state of preservation. Its method of construction and the archaeological finds associated with it suggest that it was built at the beginning of the 15th century. It had four rooms and a wide portico, supported on wooden posts with stone bases, along the entire lenght of the facade. The portico had doors to the rooms and the refectory, and a masonry staircase led to the upper floor. During a later reconstruction, probably towards the end of the 16th century, a part of the portico was converted into rooms, and stoves were built in them. Two lavatories were built next to this building against the outer side of the surrounding wall. One was entered from the ground floor, and the other from the upper storey. They were linked at the bottom to a sewage canal.
A building with three rooms in a row, which were probably used as cellars, originally stood against the southern part of the surrounding wall. It had a porch and a masonry bench running along the facade wall facing the courtyard. A semi--circular cesspool for the lavatory located on the upper floor was dug outside the surrounding wall. Remains of another house, built probably at the end of the 16th century, were discovered extending on from this building. It differed from all others in the monastery in its design and construction: it had seven rooms and a corridor in the middle, and the parts above the base layer were timber-framed, the spaces between the timber being filled with unbaked brick. The rooms were small and used for habitation. The three rooms against the surrounding wall had floors of hexagonal or rectangular brick and were heated with stoves or hearths.
The majority of the monastery buildings had doorways and window frames of carved sandstone. In the last building period, the decoration of fireplace and some other details were also of the same stone.
Tne monastery retained the same functional layout throughout its existence. Some parts of the buildings were used in every epoch of its history. The remains existing today date from varoius periods and give us an imperfect insight into the last building phase, that of the 17th century.
The upper parts of the church were rebuilt in 1926-28 with the stone found in its immediate vicinity, with the addition of some artificial materials. Some parts of the walls, arches, domes and rows of arcades were restored on that occasion. The roofs were covered with tiles. Thus the remaining frescoes were protected from the weather and the decay of the building was arrested.
After World War II Sopoćani was placed under the care of the Serbian Institute for the Protection of Cultural Monuments. The frescoes were restored and parts of the church were repaired. This work, however, did not ensure lasting protection. There were, furthermore, still unresolved questions concerning the original appearance of the church, the size and lay-out of the monastery and the changes which it had undergone. Consequently, detailed investigations and large-scale restoration work were begun in the monastery in 1975.
As became apparent in time, the materials used far the rebuilding of the church in 1926 were not adequate. The dome developed cracks in several places, and the arcades made of concrete began to crumble away. Because of that, all the parts of the church that had been inadequately rebuilt were pulled down. At the same time the walls and the spaces below the roofs were investigated. The results of these investigations and of the archaeological excavations, combined with the evidence obtained by the study of the old builders' system of measurement, were used an an attempt to restore the original appearance of the church. A part of the drum, the dome, the gable walls, the rows of arcades and the cornices were rebuilt, New travertine was used. The roof was renmade with new timbering and lead sheets. The wall-paintings in the church were cleaned, restored and protected.
Remains of almost the entire length of the surrounding wall, of bath entrances, of the refectory and other monastery buildings were uncovered during the systematic archaeological investigations. Many fragments of structural and architectural decoration were found. They included parts of consoles, cornices, segments of vaulting, doorways and window frames of sandstone, iron locks and hinges, keys and nails of various sizes. Some parts of the church - arcades and cornices made of travertine, marble capitals and bases of mullions, fragments of the altar screen and the sorcophagi - were also excavated.
The finds included a large quantity of earthenware, metal utensils and cutlery, and some coins and jewelry. Some pieces of pottery are true works of art in their shape, colour and decoration.
These excavations yielded much information on the size and appearance of the monastery in various periods, on its economic status, its links with the outside world, devastation and rebuilding.
Parallel with the excavations, the remains of the monastery buildings were protected from further decay. The surrounding wall was rebuilt high enough for it to serve its former purpose again.
Investigation and restoration work is still in progress at Sopoćani. When it is completed, we shall be able to get a fuller picture of the features of this monument which has survived the ravages of time. In addition, a museum illustrating the history of the monastery and exhibiting all the important finds from the archaeological excavations will be built beside to the monastery complex.
It has not always been to the detriment of the provinces that they lagged behind the capital. Sometimes, when the main centers perished, the dead corners were saved by the beneficial antiquity lingering on in them.
B. Pasternak, The Protective Charter
Although Holy Trinity Church cannot boast of costly marble on its external walls and lavish relief decoration on its portals and windows, it nevertheless harbors in its interior one of the most splendid collections of 13th-century paintings in Europe.
The large windows in the altar apse, the dome and the lateral walls of the church shed abundant light on the frescoes, which were exposed for centuries to the inclemencies of weather and the malice of infidels, and which have survived thanks to the excellence of their technique and the superb workmanship of their painters.
Even, today, when the golden background of the frescoes has almost completely vanished, so that the glint of gold can be discerned beneath the dark ochre only when appropriately lit, the visitor can still experience this great beauty in a quiet and joyful way, while the harmony of tones and colors continues to reverberate in him long after he leaves Sopoćani.
What makes Sopoćani so exciting is, above all, a marvelous synthesis of classical creative energy and Christian sensibility, a subtle combination of the sensual and the spiritual, the authentic and the imaginative, the intellectual and the emotional - a combination which imparts lasting magic to these paintings. There is no disharmony in Sopoćani: everything is part of a comprehensive rich design, the beauty of whose forms nothing can impair, not even an occasional garnish colour, a forced gesture, or harsh lateral lighting which may make a form look awkwardly rigid - for the painter of Sopoćani was one of the subtlest and most sophisticated colourists in old Serbian painting, an artist who could invent the most refined harmonies of colours and steep his paintings in a suffused light that seems to have been filtered through gauze. His drawing has a fine stylization which endows all forms and gestures with lasting charm. In Sopoćani the main constituent elements of the painting - the line, volume, and color - are brought into perfect harmony, powerfully communicating the subject-matter and the artist's message. The work of the master of Sopoćani is superior to all other paintings of medieval Serbia because it is the product of superb talent and of the noblest artistic aspirations.
In the paintings of Sopoćani all the faces seem to radiate benevolence and calm. The beautiful figures, full of exalted energy, seem to harken to some inner silence and harmony. This mood of classical serenity gives way, but only occasionally the suppressed agony of a wounded soul (Mother of God and St. John in The Crucifixion). Exceptionally, there is a tremor of tension on a face, some trace of anxiety, of unrest, insecurity, for »the human flesh is more fragile than ice or glass«, as the Italian poet Angelo Tornabuoni wrote in the 13th century (the Angel in Abraham's Hospitality, the Noli me tangere scene, Mary meeting the resurrected Christ). Sometimes the face is darkened by an incurable melancholy; its weight seems to bow the head, to paralyze movement, to cloud the eye (Christ in The Ascension, Christ in The Incredulity of St Thomas). This contrast, when a human figure, which seems to be full of unbounded energy, wisdom, and goodness, is struck by sorrow and becomes helpless and painfully vulnerable was expressed with equal power by the master of Sopoćani in the 13th century and by Michelangelo in the sculptures of the Medici Chapel and, more passionately still, on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel some three centuries later.
The vision of the events from the New Testament - only the New Testament is illustrated - represented by the master of Sopoćani is primarily epic and monumental. Solemn without being rhetorical and warm without being pathetic, it is a serene and nobly humane vision. It springs from the faith which brings peace of mind, goodwill, and forgiveness such as are expressed by Christ, his disciples and the other figures in the frescoes.
At Sopoćani not only the painted scenes are interrelated, but the colors and forms of the walls seem to stand in some sort of mysterious and meaningful relationship. Above the founder's composition is The Crucifixion; opposite is The Resurrection - the symbol of the future resurrection of all men. Christ, being both a man and God, suffered tortures as a man and rose from the dead as God, and liberated the just from the darkness of hell. The Annunciation on the eastern central arch begins the great mystery of the Redemption; it is continued in the scene of the miraculous birth of the Son of God and ends with the Dormition of Mother of God on the west wall.
The altar space contains scenes depicting Christ's appearances after the Resurrection and the liturgy of thanks-giving - the Adoration of Christ. Events from Christ's life on earth are narrated in the central part of the church.
The Sopoćani frescoes are not simply a programme of church decoration: each composition in itself has a great impact on the observer and radiates a warmth of feeling so powerfully that, for example, the air itself seems to cease to stir when the Apostle John in The Crucifixion approaches Mother of God, weighed down with the burden of grief, and bends over her like a mighty protecting arch.
This general mood of classical calm, serenity and new sensitivity is not peculiar to Sopoćani. The same spirit permeates Gothic architecture, particularly that of France. This parallelism, manifested in such different techniques and environments, might be explained by the new wave of emotionalism awakened in the West by such great preachers as Francis of Assisi and Bonaventura, and by the aesthetic and theological studies based, in both East and West, on the works of Plotinus, Dionysius the Areopagite, St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, on close study of Byzantine poetry and on direct contact with classical antiquity, whose monuments could be still seen in Constantinople. The Byzantine variant of the classical tradition, so splendidly expressed in the manuscripts of the 10th and 11th centuries and in the mosaics at Daphni (c. 1100), may also have had some influence on this development.
At that time both East and West believed that material beauty could be used as a means to get closer to God and to that celestial light which is both knowledge and beauty. This ideal was glorified in an equally elevated style by the French Abbot Suger, the Serbian writer Domentianus (Domentijan) and the Italian poet Dante. It was embodied in the sculptures of the cathedrals in Amiens, Rheims, Strasbourg, in the sketches in some German manuscripts (Wolfenbueitel), which resemble closely their Byzantine originals, in the frescoes in Mileseva and, particularly, in the masterpieces of painting at Sopoćani. Scholars have demonstrated that artists living in the same historical epoch often express themselves in the same forms even if they work in very different environments and use different materials - and that the changes of taste and style in 13th-century art reflected the changes in the social and intellectual climate in which, at least temporarily, considerable stability and security prevailed.
It seems that the master of Sopoćani was inspired by the poems of the famous Byzantine poet Roman Melodos (5th - 6th century). His lines seem to describe perfectly the kind and compassionate Christ of Sopoćani. That may be the reason why there is so much suppressed emotion, so much nobility in sorrow and so little impetuosity and violent passion at Sopoćani. Everything here seems to be transferred from the realm of drama to the realm of poetry.
The central part of the church and the altar space contain the most beautiful frescoes. The paintings in the dome have disappeared without a trace, but we may assume that they followed the usual iconographic arrangement - that the ceiling of the dome was dominated by Christ Pantokrator, and that the drum contained representations of the prophets. The Evangelists are presented in the pendentives: Matthew in the south-eastern, Mark in the south-western, Luke in the north-western and John in the north-eastern pendentive. Three prophets and Seth were represented in the medallions between them. An inscription with the year of the painting of the church ran along the ring of the drum; unfortunately, the part on which the year was inscribed has perished, and the surviving fragments of the inscription contain the lines from the Imros of the Third Ode: »O, Lord, the fortress of those that place their trust in Thee, fortify this church of Thine«.
On the arches supporting the dome are painted full-length figures or busts of patriarchs and prophets. In the upper zone of the north-eastern pier, the Archangel Gabriel approaches Mother of God, painted on the opposite pier (The Annunciation). Prophets, martyrs and warrior saints arc ranged below this composition.
The central part of the altar space shows The Descent of the Holy Ghost; below this composition is The Communion of the Apostles, and the first zone contains a representation of the officiating Church Fathers. On the south wall, the procession of the most famous Church Fathers and liturgists includes St. Sabbas, the first Archbishop of Serbia. The procession on the north wall shows Archbishop Arsenios I of Serbia and Sabbas II, the son of Stephen the First-Crowned and the uncle of the founder, who became the third Archbishop of Serbia sometime between 1263 and 1265.
The compositions on the north and south walls of the altar area show the sequence of events after the Crucifixion. The Threnos (almost completely destroyed now) is in the highest zone of the southern wall, while The Entombment of Christ is painted on the north wall. The scene of The Three Marys Visiting Christ's Tomb on the north wall is followed by Christ Appearing to Women after the Resurrection on the south wall. The composition Christ Appearing to the Apostles before the Closed Door is shown in the first zone on the north side of the altar area, and The Incredulity of St. Thomas is represented on the south wall. The greater part of the upper zone of the northern choir is taken up by a composition of the Forty Martyrs, while the Apostle Thomas or Philip (only the face has been preserved), the Apostle John (the bust has been preserved), an unidentified apostle and a full-length figure of the Apostle Mark are painted on the west wall. The window of the north wall of the choir separates St. Luke from another apostle and an unidentified holy healer (physician) is shown in the medallion below the window. Above the door leading to the prosthesis is a painting of The Holy Image, with a part of the torso of an apostle on the left and St. Peter on the right.
Two compositions, now badly damaged, were painted in the southern choir: Abraham's Hospitality (The Old Testament Trinity) and The Baptism of Christ. Below the window is a holy healer (physician); the Apostles Paul and Matthew are on the east wall, and four figures (one of the St. Panteleimon) are shown on the west wall. The Nativity is under the dome on the north wall of the nave; below it is The Transfiguration, and Archdeacon Stephen (we recognize him by the heap of stones he holds in his cloak) and a stylite. Below the composition of Christ's Presentation in the Temple on the south wall is a representation of Christ's Sermon in the Temple, and below it is John the Forerunner (Baptist) and a stylite.
The following compositions are on the south wall of the western bay: The Raising of Lazarus (only partly preserved), The Crucifixion below it, and the founder's composition in the first zone. Christ, enthroned, is approached by Mother of God leading the founder's grandfather, Simeon (Stephen) Nemania, his father Stephen the First-Crowned, the founder, King Urosh I, with a model of the church in his hand, and princes Dragutin and Milutin, who are painted on the west wall. Barely recognizable fragments of The Entry into Jerusalem are on the northern wall, with The Resurrection (The Descent into Limbo) below it; four warrior saints and martyrs occupy the first zone. A monumental and moving composition of The Dormition of Mother of God (6.25x4 meters) is on the west wall, and a bust of Christ blessing with both his hands fills the lunette above the door.
The subject matter of the frescoes in Sopoćani is presented in a very clear way: the impact of the Biblical events is not impaired by the introduction of minor characters or unnecessary details. The compositions are finely balanced and possess a classical clarity. They are usually organized along horizontal lines or are adjusted to the arched form of the architectural spaces in which they are painted (Christ's Presentation in the Temple, The Sermon in the Temple). Sometimes they are composed in the form of an isosceles triangle (Christ Appearing to Women after the Resurrection), the linear severity of which is tempered by symmetrically placed hills or architectural details in the background. The compact mass of the horizontal composition is enlivened by the central figure, the main actor in the scene, whose importance is further emphasized by the architecture in the background (Christ in The Incredulity of St. Thomas, in Christ Appearing to the Apostles, and particularly, in The Dormition of Mother of God). Everything appears to be carefully subordinated to the human figure, which reigns supreme in these paintings with its powerful bodily presence and beauty.
The apostles, warrior saints and martyrs in the first zone, represented usually in a frontal position, are captivating figures, inspired and monumental studies of great beauty. Each has its own volume, lighting and chromatic harmony, and seems to be the product of teeming and effortless creativity.
The ochre background, more or less dark, emphasizes the sculptural forms of the figures with their powerful limbs, well-defined anatomical details, and profuse classical drapery. The bust of a young apostle, probably John, with handsome, gentle features painted in soft colors and appearing suntanned, is so enchantingly serene that, he seems to emanate both light and beauty. The face of the Apostle Thomas (or Philip) possesses an almost hypnotic power and a kind of mystery and profundity that invites speculation. His finely modeled red lips seem warm and have a hint of worldly sensuality. Apostle John's face, painted in red and bronze hues, has a warm glow and reveals the beauty of youth, health, and peace of mind; the face of the Apostle Thomas, on the other hand, is veiled with some kind of pale-blue, transparent web, which seems to have touched, like the twilight haze or pale moonlight, his forehead, eyes and the right side of his face, while the left half still glows in the last rays of the setting sun. His unusually large and dark eyes in the shade of this blue-greenish light gaze intently at the spectator, reflecting a tension left by some passion suppressed at great cost. This unusually beautiful blue shade and internal agitation endow this figure with a mature, intellectual beauty and communicate to the spectator the impression of both a mystery and a profound experience.
St. Peter, St. Menas, the apostles standing by Mother of God's bier, the Jews in the synagogue and some of the prophets represented on the sides of the pilasters are among the noblest faces of old men in early Serbian painting. Painted in rich hues of green-brown, olive, ochre, pink and cinnabar, their beauty is strikingly picturesque. The sculptural quality of the figures and the wealth of chromatic harmonies is particularly apparent in the flowing snow-white hair and beards, the effect of which is emphasized by locks of bluish or pale grey-purple colour, which enliven the glow of the eyes impart freshness to the face. St. Mark, a strong presence, slightly turned to the apostle standing next to him, seems to have stopped for a moment, like a classical paripatetic philosopher, to complete an interrupted sentence. St. Paul completely dominates the space around him; his is a gigantic figure, his clothing falling in fine classical folds of a bluish-purple hue along which light shimmers, imparting depth and sheen to the texture. The characterization of the head is psychologically penetrating and seems to externalize the depth of thought and the power of observation of Christ's wisest disciple. St. Paul's firm features emphasize his will-power and resolution and bring to mind the words he uttered: »I have waged a just war, I have won the race, and I have upheld the faith.« The Paul of Sopoćani does not resemble at all Anatole France's hot-tempered little Jew in constant conflict with the Greeks. The vision of the master of Sopoćani is much more monumental, elevated and certainlycloser to the image of the apostle-philosopher we get from the Bible.
In The Dormition of Mother of God, the apostles are arranged in rhythmic groups; they face the spectator, but their bodies are slightly turned and they rest on one leg, suggesting a certain movement in relation to the horizontal mass of Mother of God's bier. Their faces are convincingly lifelike, and we might think - but for their classical chitons and chimations - that we have met them somewhere before. All of them radiate beauty, strength and genuine sorrow, which is not demonstrated by external gestures, but seems to well up from inside the figure. The technique of the painter is here the same as in some other scenes - he paints the faces, hands and feet in warm colours laid on thickly, so that the impression of an almost physical materiality is created, while the clothing is light, nearly transparent, suggesting fine fabrics, painted in varying pastel nuances, depending on the light which ripples over them or streams down them in thin jets like molten silver before it is scattered like pearls on highlighted surfaces. The nuances of violet, a colour of which the painter is particularly fond, range from pale mauve to purple in more than eight different tones. Blue - in all the shades from milky blue, grey blue, greenish blue to purplish blue and azure - is also employed to very good effect. Grey is used in a refined scale, with elusive bluish, purple, greenish and pink overtones. But the nuances of ochre are perhaps the richest of all, ranging from dark golden to buff and russet. When white is added, soft highlights are obtained. This rich palette is almost never wasteful: cinnabar and purple are rerely used (usually for hangings, covers and details of clothing). The intricate patterns on the embroidery are always represented with paint only, and the costly cobalt is used only exceptionally (the Apostle James in The Transfiguration). Gold was reserved exclusively for the background of the most prominent compositions.
The apostles, warrior saints and martyrs seem to be painted in an even more splendid manner than the angels themselves. All of them have, of course, very handsome heads and profiles, while their features suggest an exceptionally subtle combination of tenderness and austerity. The painter indicates that their beauty is not of this world by the pale ochre and pink colour of their faces and by greenish shading over which a barely visible, gossamer veil of light is cast. Only the face of Christ in the lunette above the entrance to the nave is painted in a kind of coldly translucent greyish-white ochre. This is the face of a man who has acquiesced in his destiny and waits for the inevitable to happen.
The architecture in the background of the Dormition shows that classical antiquity was present at Sopoćani not only in the conception of the figures and the arrangement of the compositions, but also in subsidiary features. These architectural details include decorative reliefs and porticoes with Corinthian capitales on marble columns. On the building on the right-hand side there is a relief of a young man with a cloak thrown over his left shoulder which reaches to his knees and leaves his right shoulder bare. Turned three-quarters to the right, he points with his extended left arm and in his right hand holds a ball which he is about to throw. On the opposite side is another relief of a man holding the folds of his cloak with his left hand and wearing a kind of a hat. The painter must have seen such reliefs somewhere, remembered them and incorporated them in his painting.
At Sopoćani we can recognize the figures of contemporary or historical persons by their strong graphic treatment. The painter draws the features of their faces with clear lines and colours them with a uniform layer of pale ochre without shading. These portraits are somewhat idealized since they were meant to last after the death of their models and to keep their memory alive for posterity. This manner of painting is most conspicuous in the figures of the Serbian Archbishops Sava I, Arsenije and Sava II included in the procession of officiating Church Fathers. The founder's composition is executed in the same graphic style.
The Annunciation has inspired poets and attracted artists because the painter managed to endow a standard composition and an extremely simplified scheme with the mysticism of light and mysteriousness of poetry, as the Serbian writer Isidora Sekulic put it. The great German poet Reiner Maria Rilke wondered what it was that vibrated in the air between the Archangel's finder and Mother of God's outstretched arm. It seemed to him that at the meeting of their eyes the world vanished, that something changed in the nature of the angelic messenger and Mother of God; they themselves were awed and it was only after that that he began to sing his hymn: "Rejoice ...". The Archangel Gabriel has just alighted and takes a firm step towards Mother of God. He has lifted his right hand in greeting, and placed his lift hand on his right arm in a relaxed way. The beautiful and tender face of the angel, almost like that of a girl, his steadfast look, his graceful, almost feminine posture, and his finely modelled limbs make this figure a superb example of the charm and beauty of youth. The soft line of his shoulders, the nice proportions of his body, the soft blue-white colour of his shimmering chiton, the fluffiness of his wings which seem covered with a golden polen, create a kind of enchanted, vibrant atmosphere in which one senses the exciting lyrical sensuality of a classical ephebe or even hermaphrodite. This internal movement which seems to sway the body like a ripple is also seen in Joseph in the scene of Christ in the Temple, in Adam and Eve in The Descent into Limbo, and in Christ Appearing to the Apostles. This fine combination of the ellipses and curves of the human body in movement is subtly displayed in the figure of the Apostle John in The Crucifixion and delicately intimated in the fragile bodies of the maidens in The Bathing of Christ and in the figures of young apostles in The Ascension.
The master of Sopoćani not only gives full expression to the classical ideal of beauty, but also achives a peculiarly poetic combination of the sacred and the secular. This shows that at Sopoćani Hellenism was not merely an adopted element, a group of remembered rules and motifs, but a stimulating and creative tradition.
The Nativity is set in a spacious landscape divided into three zones by undulating hills. The individual episodes are skilfully arranged round the window in the middle. To the left is The Bathing of Christ, full of bucolic atmosphere resembling classical genre-scenes. It also suggests, however, a sense of wonder and mystery which seems to be felt by all the participants at being present at the birth of the Son of God, conceived by the Holy Ghost. Hence their solemnity and profound concentration bordering on awe. The young girl holding the infant in her lap is swathed in a veritable cloud of bluish cloth; her exquisite face with large eyes seems to express fear and excitement as she checks the temperature of the water in which she will bathe the holy babe. Another girl, shown in full length and clothed in a dark red dress, holds the jug and pours a thin, silver-blue jet of water into a richly decorated bath-tub. To the right of the window are two shepherds, a handsome youth in a knee-lenght tunic and an old man in a grey sheepskin, both gazing intently at the kings coming to pay homage to the infant and at the angels descending from Heaven. On the far right is a flock of sheep painted in rapid brush-strokes, with a freshness and directness that testify to a sure hand and an observant eye. In the central part of the composition Mother of God, dressed in a purple-crimson cloak, rests on a couch, looking attentively at her baby, whom the kings, guided by the star, are approaching with gifts. While Mary's face is beautiful, young and ennobled by love, Joseph is confronted by the loneliness of a superfluous person. Having become grey in that night of waking and meditation, he turns his back on the main scene, not noticing that a silverish-violet dust is falling upon his hair, clothes and face.
A closer analysis of the Sopoćani frescoes shows the vision and style of the main painter so compelling that he succeeded in bringing out the best qualities of his assistants. However, a more experienced eye notices that the figures of the prophets, martyrs, and Evangelists in the highest zones are more rigid, the outlines are more emphasized, and the modeling is partly achieved by thick parallel brush strokes. Traces of 12th- and early 13th-century art are still evident here. In some paintings, we notice similarities with the frescoes from the Church of the Acheiropoietos in Salonica, which date from c. 1225 - 1230. There are also some analogies with the frescoes of the earlier paintings in the Church of St. Mary (Bogorodica Ljeviska) in Prizren and in the Church of St. Nicholas at Studenica.
The Baptism of Christ in the southern choir, the earliest fresco, has been only partly preserved. The layer of mortar on which it was painted is partly covered by the adjacent composition of The Hospitality of Abraham. The heads in The Baptism are somewhat cruder as if this aristocratic art of idealized forms was influenced by the monastic-expressionistic emphasis on the inner drama. Some analogies with it can be found in the frescoes at Psahne in Euboea (1245) and in the paintings at Kranidi on the Peloponnese (1244).
It should be mentioned that the founder's composition which is now in the church is not the original one. The original painting was replaced for some reason by a later composition, painted by a less gifted artist less refined colorist. Especially striking is the beautiful head of the Mother of God. Her face with tender features radiates warm light, which is set off by her azure head-scarf. It is assumed that this new composition was painted sometime before 1275, for King Stephen Urosh I the Great (as his biographer Archbishop Danilo II calls him) died in that year.
The old narthex was probably painted in the seventh decade of the 13th century, soon after the completion of the nave. Although we do not know the exact year in which the painting began or when it was finished, the relevant historical evidence can help us to date these frescoes approximately. We know that Bishop Sava II became Archbishop of Serbia in 1263. and since he is shown on the wall in the sanctuary as an archbishop, the frescoes could not have been painted before that date. Supporting evidence is provided by the founder's composition, especially by the age of the founder's sons, and this also points to a date between 1265 and 1268.
The painters of the old narthex were probably the helpers of the main artist, whose instructions they followed. They could draw comparatively well, as is shown by the skilfully executed connecting lines and curves which give a certain "undulating'' mobility to their forms (Potiphar's wife and Joseph, Jacob's Chariot, Jacob Enthroned), but their range of colors is considerably more limited. These painters knew how to use the effects of light, but they could not impart fluidity and softness to their forms. Their figures are compact, firm and strike us, even when they are represented in movement, as sculptures on which light shines with a metallic glint. Unlike their master, they lacked the feeling for idealized and monumental forms.
The programme of the decoration of the outer narthex was a detailed one. Sopoćani was probably a cathedral church, and as such, it required a specific type of subject-matter. The four walls of the outer narthex illustrate four vast themes, meant to instruct, warn and remind both the believers and the bishop. The west wall tells the story of Joseph in sixteen episodes. The narration is very lively, dramatic, full of unexpected details and clever artistic solutions. The scenes, arranged in a continuous sequence, are almost literal illustrations of the written story, the painting thereby being subordinated to the religious message. These new tendencies which became apparent towards the end of the 13th century were to become dominant in the art of the age of the Palaeologus.
The frescoes on the south wall illustrate The Tree of Jesse (the genealogy of Christ), and those on the north wall The Last Judgment and The Death of Queen Anna Dandolo, the founder's mother. The frescoes on the east wall show Ecumenical Councils, The Last Supper and The Council of Simeon Nemania. The founder's composition is in the first zone: to the left of the door is Christ, and to the right Mother of God with Child, who recommends King Uros, Prince Dragutin, Queen Helen and Milutin to her Son. Especially striking, both because of the beauty of their features and the quality of the painting, are the figures of the young and gentle Prince Dragutin, who seems transparent and pale, and the truly "enchanting" Queen Helen, as Archbishop Danilo II called her. The figure of Queen Helen resembles Mother of God in the founder's composition, just as the composition of The Death of Anna Dandolo resembles The Dormition of Mother of God. Anna lies dead on a bier with richly embroidered pillows and coverlets. Above her are the bereaved King Urosh with his sons, Queen Helen, noblemen, and, at her head, her daughter, who bends over her full of grief and tenderness. Above the bier is an angel who has already gathered her soul, represented as s swaddled infant. A painting on the extreme left shows Mother of God and Christ, who have come to be present at the death of the King's mother. The scene is not without pathos and a certain impressive quality, but the emotions are expressed primarily by external means.
A monumental composition of The Last Judgment is painted above The Death of Queen Anna Dandolo. The upper part of the composition, with Christ and the apostles, is missing, but the choirs of the just approaching Christ and the angels blowing the trumpets calling upon the Earth and the Sea to yield up their dead, are in a better state of preservation. The composition of The Weighing of Souls is very skilfully executed: the devils, one of whom pulls down the scale with the scrolls on which sins are recorded, while another brings a new load of scrolls on his back, are very competently painted. Other devils, holding forks and hooks, ruthlessly drive a crowd of terrified sinners into a flaming river. The most expressive are the naked male and female sinners symbolizing the Seven Deadly Sins, whose bodies are entwined and bitten by serpents. These are really powerful figures, painted in pastose earth-colored ochre with barely indicated shades. The features of the faces and the expressions of pain are indicated mainly by the drawing.
At the request of the royal founder, the monk Domentijan wrote the Lives of the King's grandfather Simeon Nemania and his uncle St. Sava, and we may assume that these lives and the frescoes in the south chapel served the same purpose - to glorify the pious dynasty which could boast of two canonized members in less than a hundred years of its rule. The fact that St. Sava was already represented in the procession of the most famous Church Fathers in the altar area explains why his portrait does not appear anywhere else in the church.
The frescoes on the south wall illustrate The Tree of Jesse (the genealogy of Christ), and those on the north wall The Last Judgment and The Death of Queen Anna Dandolo, the fo
under's mother. The frescoes on the east wall show Ecumenical Councils, The Last Supper and The Council of Simeon Nemania. The founder's composition is in the first zone: to the l
eft of the door is Christ, and to the right Mother of God with Child, who recommends King Uros, Prince Dragutin, Queen Helen and Milutin to her Son. Especially striking, both because of the beauty of their features and the quality of the painting are the figures of the young and gentle Prince Dragutin, who seems transparent and pale, and the truly "enchanting" Queen Helen, as Archbishop Danilo II called her. The figure of Queen Helen resembles Mother of God in the founder's composition, just as the composition of The Death of Anna Dandolo resembles The Dormition of Mother of God. Anna lies dead on a bier with richly embroidered pillows and coverlets. Above her are the bereaved King Urosh with his sons, Queen Helen, noblemen, and, at her head, her daughter, who bends over her full of grief and tenderness. Above the bier is an angel who has already gathered her soul, represented as s swaddled infant. A painting on the extreme left shows Mother of God and Christ, who have come to be present at the death of the King's mother. The scene is not without pathos and a certain impressive quality, but the emotions are expressed primarily by external means.
The south chapel is dedicated to Simeon (Stephen) Nemania, the founder of the dynasty. The first zone contains standing figures. Especially remarkable, because of the quality of the painting, the fullness of the forms and the striking contrasts of light and shade, are the figures of Simeon Nemania, St. Triphon, St. Mercurius, St. Demetrios and St. George. Their style shows traces of the influence of the main artist of Sopoćani. The compositions in the upper zone are of inferior quality. The scenes illustrate Nemanja's Departure for Mount Athos and Nemanja's Arrival on Mount Athos. Both compositions are almost completely destroyed, but their subject-matter can be identified by analogy with a cycle, about thirty years earlier and in a good state of preservation, in the chapel of King Radoslav at Studenica monastery (1234). The scenes showing the translation of his relics and their arrival at Studenica are well preserved. The ceremonial hearse is carried by Prince Vukan and King Stephen the First-Crowned. A large icon of Mother of God can be seen above a group of bishop and monks. A young monk above Nemania's lead may be St. Sava. A procession of Church Fathers approaching Christ is painted on the east wall of the sanctuary.
The north chapel next to the narthex is dedicated to Archdeacon Stephen, also a patron of the Nernanjic dynasty. Several compositions from the life of this saint have been preserved, painted on a blue background. There are also representations of Christ and Mother of God, but the chapel is dominated by the monumental figure of the Archangel Michael with the inscription "The Guardian of the Holy Trinity".
The paintings in the outer narthex - the open porch - date from between 1338 and 1346. They were commissioned by Emperor Dusan and Archbishop Joanikije, who was invested in 1338. The founder's family - King Dushan, Queen Helen and Prince Urosh V - dressed in monastic habits, are shown on the east wall, to the right of the entrance. A portrait of Archbishop Ioaniccius> (Joanikije) is painted on the wall of the bell-tower. The figures of the Archangels Michael and Gabriel at the entrance below the bell-tower are in a better state of preservation. The porch also contains illustrations of Christ's parables and miracles: The Healing of the Paralytic, The Healing of the Blind, Mother of God and Christ Providing Food for the Poor and Orphans. Especially interesting is the story of the wealthy man who prepared barns and secured high profits and was surprised by death when he had finished everything. This lively scene has a number of figures: some build barns, some carry building materials, some fill sacks with grain and some put it into barns. The scene is of considerable documentary value for it shows costumes, tools, building techniques and other details from the life of that period.
The frescoes in the chapels of St. George and St. Nicholas date from the 1370s, i.e. from the time of Emperor Uros. The Chapel of St. Nicholas contains scenes from the life of that saint: St. Nicholas Ordained Priest; St. Nicholas Consecrated Bishop; St. Nicholas Rescuing the Condemned Innocents. The author of the frescoes in these chapels strives after decorative effects derived from a blue background and white highlights in a vain attempt to make up for the lack of genuine talent.
For an entire century the rulers of the Nemanjic dynasty paid homage to the first founder of Sopoćani, King Urosh I, and his foundation-mausoleum with the remains of King Stephen the First-Crowned, Queen Anna Dandolo, the king founder, his loyal archbishop Jevstatije, protovesthiar Toma and others of whom no written evidence has survived, but whose tombs have been excavated.
Not a single old icon from Sopoćani has come down to us. If they were painted by the chief artist, they may have been superior even to the icons of Christ and Mother of God, dating from almost the same period, which have been preserved at Chilandar (Mt. Athos). The remains of molded stucco frames, to the left and right of the altar, suggest that they originally held mosaic icons or at least icons carved in stone, similar to those in St. Mark's in Venice. Not a single book, gold vessel, gold cross, incense burner or candlestick has been preserved. We can only guess what objects were kept in the treasury of Sopoćani.
Fortunately, the paintings in the nave have survived. They are works of great beauty and refinement, in which compositions of epic impact are harmoniously combined with lyrical and intimate scenes. The art of Sopoćani - it should be especially emphasized - gives eloquent expression to a new view of the world and a new relationship between man and God. This relationship is religious, but it is also permeated with an unprecedented serenity, humanism and beauty.
It would be really strange if this great painter employed his talent in Sopoćani only. The founder who invited him or the expert who recommended him must have been aware of his exceptional talent and must have seen some of his earlier work. If we examine some contemporary works executed in other techniques we realize that the Sopoćani artist was not such a solitary phenomenon as may appear at first sight. We can see embodiments of similar conceptions, though with differences resulting from the employment of different techniques and formats, in the Psalter in Stavronikita monastery on Mount Athos (MS 46), which contains a figure of King David bearing a striking resemblance to the King David of Sopoćani, and in the miniatures of two Iviron Gospels, also on Mount Athos (MSS Nos. la and 5). There are also analogies with the miniatures in MS No. 38 on Mount Athos and with MS W 53F in the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore in the United States. The famous Toros Roslin, the great Armenian miniaturist, was a contemporary of the master of Sopoćani. Some of the chromatic harmonies found in Sopoćani, especially the combinations of green and purple, were known to the author of the earlier layers of frescoes in Holy Archangels Church at Varoš near Prilep. The artistic conceptions of all these painters were similar. It is a merit of these artists centered on Mount Athos that they revived painting and imparted to it a new emotional intensity which the earlier art did not know and the later art was unable to employ. The refined intellectual atmosphere and the cultivated taste of the Serbian court provided a favorable climate in which this greatest painter of the 13th century could produce his most splendid works.
Author: Desanka Milošević
Monastery Sopocani is located near the town of Novi Pazar, the territory of Raska in Serbia.
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