A Serbian Renaissance In Giotto’s Lifetime

Scrovegni-mary02” by Giotto – wga.hu. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

If you’ve ever visited Italy or taken a rudimentary course in Art History, there’s a good chance that you’ve been told a certain Florentine master named Giotto di Bondone marks the turning point in Western Art from Medieval/Gothic to the Renaissance. Among many of his masterpieces, perhaps none embody his adaptation of Classical Roman form and bold use of color better than the Arena Chapel of Padua. The deep blue hue of his fresco cycle at the Arena Chapel is a bedrock example of early Renaissance art, and is frequently cited in art history textbooks.

During my undergraduate education as an art history major at Brandeis University, my coursework was overwhelmingly focused on the West–particularly the Renaissance of Italy and Northern Europe. I can’t blame my professors or the department for this focus; ever since the Florentine Giorgio Vasari penned the first modern history of art, the discipline has always focused on the West. While comparative art courses are now a staple of the curriculum–I took a survey on Japanese art and fell in love with the delicate ink paintings and caligraphy of the Muromachi period–there was never much focus on the art of Eastern Europe or the Balkans.

Inner courtyard, Zica Monastery

14th Century Prophets and Saints, entryway, Zica Monastery

Narthex, Zica

Original photography by Mihailo Maletic

Original photography by Mihailo Maletic

Imagine my disbelief when I entered the monastery of Žiča, 200 km south of Belgrade, and saw frescoes on the walls here that were as old as Giotto’s, including a few nearly 100 years older. The same arresting blue background, with figures that belie the Eastern, Byzantine hand that painted them, are no less impressive than Giotto’s own work. As with the rise of the Italian Renaissance, the construction of Žiča and other nearby monasteries coincided with an upswing in prosperity and sovereignty. The consolidation of the medieval Serbian state and the founding of the Serbian Orthodox church by St. Sava at the end of the 12th century were two major factors in the building of monasteries across the land. Thanks to the Mongol invaders of the 13th century, most of Žiča was destroyed, so the majority of the frescoes inside the church date to a rebuilding that took place during the late 13th century, just as Giotto was beginning his career.


East End, Church of the Virgin, Studenica Monastery

South Portal, Studenica Monastery, 12th Century

Detail, Romanesque Filigree, South Portal, Church of the Virgin, Studenica Monastery, 12th Century

Inscription on foundation of Church of the Virgin, south side, Studenica Monastery

Bell Tower, Studenica

Virgin Enthroned, Studenica Monastery, 12th Century

Deep in the mountains of south-central Serbia is Studenica, the spiritual center of the Serbian Orthodox Church and home to some of the most spectacular frescoes I have ever seen. Studenica has been recognized by UNESCO for its exceptionally well-preserved (and in some cases restored) frescoes and Romanesque-Byzantine hybrid sculpture. In particular, the monumental Crucifixion scene in the nave–painted by anonymous Greek artists in 1208-0–is a breathtaking proof of the movement towards the emotive and flowing dynamism that characterizes Renaissance art. Photography of the interior is not allowed, and although I could have snuck some photos I was too overwhelmed by what I saw to pull out my camera. Take two minutes to watch this video and get a sense for what it’s like inside Studenica and to appreciate its isolated and peaceful surrouindings.

Exterior, Pavlica Monastery, 13th century

Detail, Virgin fresco, Pavlica Monastery, 13th century

Central stone, nave, Pavlica Monastery

Nave Interior, Pavlica Monastery, 13th century

Warrior Saint fresco, Pavlica Monastery, 14th century

Jesus delivering the Eucharist to apostles, Central Apse, Pavlica Monastery, 14th Century

Apostle drinking Eucharist wine, 14th century choir fresco, Pavlica Monastery

Sheep grazing, Raska Valley

Raska Valley

The last monastery that I visited in Serbia was Pavlica, near the small city of Raska and the southern border with Kosovo (the border which Serbia’s government doesn’t really acknowledge, but that’s for another day and another blog post). Pavlica is seldom visited by westerners, so I had trouble finding any information written about it in English–if you’re fluent in Cyrillic then you can check out this website devoted to it. Pavlica consists of one white church surrounded by a ruined stone wall and the foundations of the old monastery. Just down the hill from the church is a small modern home where presumably the priest lives. When I was dropped off by the bus going from Kraljevo to Raska at some random intermediate point a plain taxi drove me the 9 km out of the way to Pavlica. Apart from a ramshackle home or two and a shed of some sort the place is deserted.

When I stepped into the nave and set down my bag in the narrow corridor that served as the narthex, two men standing in the choir briefly turned their heads towards me before resuming an incantation of sorts. One of the men was dressed in the brown frock of the clergy; the other wore a sweater and track pants, typical Serbian male haute couture. Up until then I had never seen an Orthodox service being performed; many candles were lit and at the end of the ceremony, which lasted for about 10 minutes, the layman left a small bill in a dish lying next to a side altar. Then he bowed and left. The priest glanced warily at me and gave me a stern warning: “No photo. No photo,” he repeated a few times; then he exited the church, and I was left alone with these ageless frescoes. At the head of the church is a beautiful tableau of the Eucharist being performed. Six apostles line up on either side of the apse, and Jesus feeds one line of them bread and the other wine, tipped forward into the open mouth of an apostle.

I stood silently inside the church and contemplated the rich colors and figures that surrounded me, most of them probably about 700 years old or more. Then I gathered my pack and walked past a small herd of grazing sheep, following the river to my right as it wound its way towards Raska.

5 thoughts on “A Serbian Renaissance In Giotto’s Lifetime

    1. Thanks West! The monasteries are terribly lit up so I didn’t really take the best photos, and they’re not so ften visited so there’s not a whole lot of other photos of them online, but I think you got the idea 🙂

  1. Such a great post- I’m seriously making a list of places I want to visit/experiences I want have based on your blog posts alone.

    I’ve been going to Orthodox Christian services since I was a kid (Russian/Greek), and they can be so beautiful and other-worldly; I’m glad you had a chance to see one.

    Thanks for sharing the photos of these frescoes… amazing!!

    (One last note… I’m going to have to check out your site more thoroughly, but do you have a map with all the places you’ve been? You must be amassing quite the travel resume, and reaching some truly far-flung places. It’s great. How much longer will you keep at it? Indefinitely?)

    1. Well thanks Nadine, it’s flattering to know that a fellow adventurer is taking notes from my blog.

      You’ve alluded several times in your posts about going to church services on the Camino so I figured you practiced some sort of Christianity or another. It’s good to finally know what your background is. My experience at Pavlica was indeed otherworldly; in a place that has been the site of worship for close to a thousand years I felt like I had left time behind (a feeling that I also experienced at certain points on the Camino). I was raised Jewish but have basically been non-practicing for the last 3 or 4 years. Nevertheless I find myself at peace inside these old churches, or synagogues, or mosques.

      It’s a strong contrast to how I feel about the Charlie Hebdo murders or the Boko Haram slaughter in Nigeria or on 9/11; about the forced baptisms and slaughter of Jews time and again throughout the Medieval Christian world; about the thousands of Kosovo Muslims who were raped or murdered by Orthodox Serbs; the justification of slavery in the pre-Civil War USA by Bible-quoting slave owners; the wretched feeling in my stomach when I see Jewish politicians in Israel euphemizing the deaths of innocent Palestinians as collateral damage; the sadness when I found out that in Myanmar there are Buddhist monks currently committing pogroms against the Muslim minority. Then I want to burn every last place of worship, and every last holy book into ashes and scream and cry with anger.

      On a lighter note . . . the frescoes were difficult to photograph because the interior lighting was awful, not to mention I wasn’t really supposed to be taking photos in the first place 😀

      I don’t have a map but maybe I should create one. I’ll be going home in May–after almost 2 years on the road in Europe–and spend summer in California for the first time in 5 years. I’ve been working as a freelance writer for the past six months and am building up a portfolio of clients with the intention of working remotely, which is what I’m currently doing in Croatia. I’m turning 25 in less than 2 weeks and considering I’ve only managed to hit up 20 countries or so in these 16 months on the road I’d like to travel for at least another 2 years. I’m really in no rush to grow old and settle down 😀

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