MONASTERY OF GRAČANICA (MANASTIRI I GRAÇANICËS - MANASTIR GRAČANICA)
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In a green setting, in the very centre of Gračanica, hides a jewel of Serbo-Byzantine art. In 1321, it was the last building founded by Milutin, great king of the Nemanjić dynasty. From its tumultuous past, this Serbian Orthodox monastery has inherited a magnificent medieval church that is worth as much for the finesse of its architecture as for the brilliance of its frescos. Since 2006, this complex dedicated to the Mother of God (the "Virgin" for Catholics) has been one of the country's four UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Spared by the last war, and now under the protection of the Kosovar police, it is occupied by about twenty nuns, one of whom is French-speaking
HistoryFrom the first centuries of Christianity to the creation of modern Kosovo, this monastery, symbol of Serbian culture, offers a good summary of the region's eventful history.
Ancient origins. The monastery was established in 1321 on the site of a 13th century church dedicated to the Mother of God, itself built on the site of a 6th century basilica. The foundations of the latter have been preserved. They bear inscriptions in Latin that bear witness to reuse from the neighbouring Roman city of Ulpiana. It was there that the Byzantines created the Eparchy of Lipljan, one of the oldest dioceses in the central Balkans, in the 5th century. But the ancient city declined and the headquarters of the eparchy was transferred to Gračanica, where a small town developed that was easier to defend. Centuries passed, so did new peoples. From the 12th century onwards, the region was disputed by the Serbs and Bulgarians. As a result of these clashes, the church built in the 13th century had to suffer. A destruction that could not leave the Serbian builder king insensitive: "I saw the ruins and decadence of the Mother of God church at Gračanica, in the Eparchy of Lipljan," explains Milutin in an inscription painted on the south wall,"so I rebuilt it from top to bottom and painted and decorated it, both inside and out. "
A fast construction site. Completed in less than two years, the work on the new church was completed in 1322. But Milutin will not see the end of it. He died on October 21, 1321, after four decades of reign. However, the king took care to associate his fourth wife, the Byzantine princess Simone Palaeologist, with the foundation of the monastery. A team of well-trained craftsmen, called "King Milutin's Court School", leads the construction. Among them, two of the best artists in the Balkans, the Greek painters Michalis Astrapas and Eutychios. The remarkable result is considered to be the culmination of classical Serbo-Byzantine art, both in terms of the finesse of its architecture and the richness of its frescoes. An exonarthex (forevegetation) was added in the 1340s. The Eparchy of Lipljan was then elevated to the rank of "metropolis of Gračanica" and the monastery became the second most important Orthodox site in the territory after the patriarchy of Peć.
Seven centuries of turmoil. After the end of the Serbian Empire (1371), the monastery found itself in the front line against Ottoman incursions. They carried out raids in 1379, 1383 and then during the Battle of Kosovo Polje in 1389: precious objects were stolen, while the exonarthex, the bell tower and a rich collection of manuscripts went up in flames. The exonarthex was rebuilt and calm returned when the Ottomans really took control of the territory in 1455. Gračanica is now a great intellectual home. In the 16th century, the monastery was famous for its icon painters and printing. But during the Great Turkish War (1683-1699), the Serbs supported Austria. In retaliation, the Ottomans looted the complex, destroyed the annex buildings and seized the treasure of the Peć patriarchate that had been hidden under a church dome. However, she survived almost unscathed. But the monastery will then experience a long decline.
Since 1999. The monastery has regained a prominent role since the end of the Kosovo war. Placed in the enclave of Gračanica, relatively spared by Albanian nationalists, it has become the "provisional" headquarters of the Raška-Prizren Eparchy, which has authority over Kosovo Serb Orthodox. Since 2006, the monastery has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site among the "Medieval Monuments of Kosovo" with the monasteries of Peć, Dečani and the Church of the Mother of God of Leviša in Prizren. Due to the local political situation, these four sites are also on UNESCO's list of World Heritage in Danger.
ArchitectureThemonastery as it existed in the Middle Ages has almost completely disappeared. Only the church itself has survived for seven centuries: despite the complexity of its architecture, it is a masterpiece that surprises by its harmony.
Monastic complex. Once through the gate, an alley leads directly to the church. It is installed in the middle of a tree-lined garden forming a large square 60 m wide, surrounded by walls and three buildings of Serbo-Ottoman influence rebuilt in the 19th and 20th centuries: two on the sides housing the seat of the Eparchy and the nuns' workshops (icons, honey, clothing, etc.) and another, larger, located behind the church where the cells, the refectory and the monastery's treasure are located (cannot be visited).
Outside the church. The catholicon impresses with its five drum-mounted domes, including the one in the centre reaching 18 m in height, its cascades of vaults and pendants, its alternating stones and bricks, its spherical volumes and its complex curves from which a graceful harmony emerges. All this in a rather small space: 13 m by 16.50 m for the church and its narthex, extended over 9 m in length with the exonarthex. The latter, open with bay windows and decorated with a dome, is not very interesting in itself, but it fits in well with the older style of the rest of the church. Do not hesitate to visit the building to find here and there the inscriptions of Ulpiana and to admire the work of the 14th century masons. They mastered the two major Byzantine techniques perfectly: the partitioned apparatus (cut stones framed with mortar and flat bricks) and the assembly of bricks forming various patterns (meanders, saw teeth, palm leaves...).
Inside the church. In a modest space, a complex structure unfolds. To understand this, we must ignore the exonarthex added later. The church follows the base of the 6th century basilica with its three parallel naves. But the anonymous architects of the 16th century went beyond this constraint to invent an almost unprecedented layout, which can only be found in some churches in Thessaloniki of the same period. This suggests that Mitulin's architects came, like the painters, from this Greek city. In general, the church corresponds to the Byzantine canons with its inscribed cross plan (or "Greek cross"), i. e. inscribed in a rectangle, a single nave without a transept. Thus, in the central dome area, two axes intersect: to the north and south, the barrel vaults form the horizontal arms of the cross, while the vertical axis of the cross stretches from west to east. But the architects took advantage of the four secondary domes placed at the four corners of the rectangle to create multiple subspaces. After the exonarthex, to the west, we enter the narthex. This one is surprisingly small: shallow, it is also limited on the sides by the presence of two lateral wings that stretch between two domes in the south and two other domes in the north. However, these wings end in the east with two side chapels (paracleions): the Saint-Nicolas chapel under the northeast dome and the Mère-de-Dieu chapel under the southeast dome. These two chapels frame the sanctuary and its apse. Finally, in the centre, the naos ("temple") is dominated by the main dome supported by four pillars that define the heart of the church.
FrescoesThe entireinterior of the church is decorated with frescoes. Those of the exonarthex, made in 1570, are without great artistic significance and quite damaged. But the decoration of the rest of the building is absolutely remarkable: these are the works created by Michalis Astrapas and Eutychios in 1322, which inspired generations of painters. On the whole, they are well preserved, except in some upper parts, due to water infiltration.
Narthex. Located after the exonarthex, this "vestibule" is decorated with frescoes of the cycles of the Last Judgment and the menologion (calendar of saints), but above all, with a remarkable series of portraits of members of the Nemanjić dynasty. The latter is placed in the lower register of the large pillars marking the separation from the naos. On the left, Milutin's parents are represented in monastic clothing: King Stefan Uroš I and French Princess Helena of Anjou surround Christ Emmanuel, who gives them each the grand scheme, a garment reserved for the most venerable Orthodox monks. On the right, a family tree illustrates the dynasty Nemanjić, from Stefan Nemanja, the founder in 1166, to Milutin. It is the first "tree of Nemanjić" ever made. It will be used in many churches, such as Peć and Dečani, a century later. On the inside of the pillars face the sponsors, richly dressed. Milutin wears the model of the church. In front of him stands his wife, Simone Palaeologist, on whose head an angel comes to lay a crown inspired by the propoloma, the trapezoidal headdress of Byzantine women. In the upper register, the cycle of the Last Judgment is dominated by the hand of God (vault). Some scenes are quite surprising, such as the angels folding up the sky and the stars like a tablecloth after a picnic, or the Paradise represented as a walled city, guarded by Saint Peter and an angel of fire, and in which the prophet Abraham welcomes the good thief carrying his cross.
Dormition of the Mother of God. Located above the entrance of the naos, it is the most striking fresco of this church, which was itself dedicated to the Dormition of the Mother of God at its foundation. It illustrates the central theme of oriental pictorial art since the 8th century: Mary's "sleep" (dormitio in Latin) or, more prosaically, her death. This episode is almost absent among Catholics, who celebrate the same day, August 15, "the Assumption", the ascent to heaven of the soul of the "Virgin", without mentioning her physical death. Here, Michalis Astrapas and Eutychios have largely reproduced the first fresco of the Dormition they painted in 1295 in the Church of the Mother of God-Perivleptos, in Ohrid (Republic of Macedonia). The scene is composed dynamically. Below, a funeral procession traces the main stages of Mary's life: the crowd leaves from her former home in Bethlehem, arrives at the apostle John's house in Ephesus, where he died, passes in front of his second house in Jerusalem, and arrives at the Mount of Olives, where the faithful discover his empty tomb. Christ appears above the remains of his mother nestled in a sparkling halo. He holds in his arms a swaddled newborn baby who symbolizes Mary's soul. Around him, a militia of archangels formed the celestial dome, then joined the procession where the apostles (without halo) carried or preceded the shroud. But an intruder has crept in among them: it is the Jewish priest Jephonias. His forearms are cut off "by an invisible force, with a sword of fire" for having tried to overthrow the sacred remains. In apocryphal writings, this character is the symbol of the redemption of the Jews. Thus, Jephonias will be miraculously healed after his conversion. In the upper register, the cohort of angels opens the window of Paradise to welcome the soul of the deceased. On either side, in a less well preserved area, are represented the apostles (still without halo) sailing in clouds drowned in the blue sky. Not just any blue: the whole background is painted from lapis lazuli from Afghanistan, the most precious pigment of the Middle Ages.
Central dome area. It is almost entirely occupied by a great cycle of the life, Passion and miracles of Christ, while on the pillars continues the cycle of menologion begun in the narthex. The whole is dominated by Christ Pantocrator ("almighty" in Greek) painted in the dome cap. It is surrounded by the letters IC XC. It is the Christogram, the abbreviation of "Jesus Christ" in Byzantine Greek (Iesous Christos), used in all representations of Christ in Orthodox churches around the world. Christ holds the Scriptures and makes the sign of blessing with his right hand. The position of the fingers is important. It reproduces the Christogram: the thumb and the ring finger touch to form the C, the other three make up the I and the X. But that is not all, since two outstretched fingers symbolize the dual nature of Christ, human and divine, while the other three, joined, represent the Trinity. In the following register, archangels participate in the divine liturgy (the Eucharist for Catholics). Amazingly, it is Christ the child and not his symbol, the amnos (the bread representing the Lamb of God), which is offered to the communicants. Between the windows of the drum of the dome are painted eight Old Testament prophets. In the lower register should normally be the four evangelical apostles. But these were placed at the top of each of the four secondary domes: Matthew to the northwest, Mark to the southwest, Luke to the northeast and John to the southeast.
Sanctuary. The most sacred part of the church is reserved for the clergy. The boundary is materialized by the "wall of icons": iconostasis. Not very wide and several times modified due to the Ottoman raids, it contains only two icons, including a very beautiful Mother of God in majesty made around 1540. Mary appears seated on a throne. She is herself the "throne" on which Christ the child sits, who here represents the wisdom of God. Both are surrounded by eighteen Old Testament prophets depicted with their symbol or with the manuscript of their prophecy. The iconostasis is also distinguished by its high wooden cross carved and gilded from the 17th century. Behind, access is prohibited. However, we can contemplate the apse decorated with the prayer: it is the traditional representation of the "praying" Mother of God (orans in Latin), standing with her hands raised and stretched, palms open to the outside, she announces the arrival of Christ. She is surrounded here by the archangels Michael (left) and Gabriel, each of whom carries a sphere evoking the creation of light (Michael) and the earth (Gabriel). This fresco is quite damaged. But another prayer, magnificent and better preserved, is visible in the abyss of the chapel of the Mother of God, to the right of the sanctuary.
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Every day 6am-5pm - free - ID to be left at the security station - proper clothing required (no shorts or tank tops, cover your head for women) - photos prohibited inside the church - shop at the entrance.
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