Studenica and Gradac Monasteries

Studenica Monastery

Studenica Monastery is my favorite monastery I've visited in Serbia. I have referenced these icons in my own work for years. It is so awesome to see these icons in person, to enter into the space, and to be enveloped in tand breathe the same cool air inside these churches. If I could return and spend a week in one place, this is where it would be.

The name "Studenica" means "frosty" and refers to the icy waters of a mountain stream near the monastery. People are still baptized in this icy water to this day.

The monastery was founded in 1196 by Saint Symeon the Myrrh-streamer. In the world, he was Stefan, the first king of the Nemanje dynasty. He was the father of Saint Sava, and he and his wife Anastasia laid aside their earthly crowns for heavenly crowns and followed their son into monasticism. Their relics are both interred in this church. It was here that St. Symeon took his monastic vows.
Saint Symeon's Reliquary.

 Channels and bowls are carved into the marble base to collect the copious amount of myrrh that used to stream from his relics.


These frescoes are from the a narthex chapel, the first chapel dedicated to Saint Symeon, just a generation after he built the Katholikon (main church). You can see the narthex and chapel in the photo below. It has a different roofline and doesn't share the same marble cladding as the rest of the church.

The Katholikon has incredible carvings along the exterior doors and windows.

Photography was forbidden in the church, so I am sharing the following photos of Studenica are from Вера Заварицкая's Flikr

West portal
The fantastic west door from the exonarthex into the narthex.

The real treasure of Studenica are its unique frescoes. The Katholikon was painted in 
Crucifixion, fresco from Church of the Holy Virgin, Monastery of Studenica, 1208

The Lord's Crucifixion prominently fills the western wall of the nave. No expense was spared. The lavish blue background was painted with expensive lapis lazuli imported from Afghanistan, more costly than gold.  The yellow ochre haloes were once gilded. 

This composition is highly symbolic. The stars represent the first of three nights of Christ's sleep in death. The first night was when the sun went dark for three hours during the crucifixion. Then, the sun set naturally on Friday evening, and again on Saturday evening. The Church is represented by the woman clothed in right collecting the Blood and Water from Christ's side (representing the sacraments of Holy Communion and Holy Baptism, respectively). The woman dressed in dark (on the right, above the centurion) represents the Jews following the Old Covenant, who are turning from Christ and moving away from him, as the angel tries to guide her back.


The painted yellow ochre was once covered in brilliant gold leaf. 

Studenica Monastery once had 14 churches within its walls. Today, only three remain standing. The most significant frescoes are from the "King's Chapel" built by St. Symeon's grandson, King Milutin in 1314. The nave of the small church is only about 15' by 15'. It has a perfect, complete iconographic program. I've referenced these icons in my own work for years. It was so awesome to see them in person. Sadly, the church was filled with scaffolding, so I could only see glimpses of the program. However, it was incredible to stand in the space, to see the scale and brushstrokes, to breathe the air, and feel the cool. I found a superb 300 page book thoroughly documenting the icons in the monastery store. King Milutin built many churches across his empire, and his skilled court painters filled all of them with frescoes. God willing, we'll see more churches frescoed by these skilled painters next week.

The Presentation of the Holy Virgin in the Temple

Saint Sava of Serbia, Saint Simeon Nemanja and the Holy Virgin with infant Christ


Gradac Monastery

Today is a feast day of Saint John the Baptist, and it was encouraging to see the monasteries filled with pilgrims, families spending their Saturday to visit a monastery, pray, and light candles.

Gradac was built by Queen Saint Helen of Anjou. She was a French princess who married King Stefan Urosh, the son of Saint Symeon (Stefan Nemanje). Her son was King Milutin. She wanted to continue her father-in-law's legacy, so she built Gradac, called "Little Studenica" in  The lovely church was very full of light for having such small windows. The frescoes are in poor condition, but are remarkably preserved given the ruined state of the church before the beautiful recent restoration of the monastery. It is incredible how durable natural pigments in fresco can be, even exposed to the elements for centuries. At the end, I shared a photo of the ruins before restoration.

The Nativity of Christ

Sketch of the Nativity Fresco

The beautiful new iconostasis was painted by the monastery sisterhood.

Gradac Monastery in ruins, Pokrychkin.jpg
The ruins of Gradac in 1917 before restoration, from the same view as the above photo.
By Pokrychkin - Dragomir Pétroniévitch (1917)., Public Domain, Link

We were planning to visit Sopochani monastery, but road construction twarted our efforts. We'll try again tomorrow. Tonigh, I'm staying in Novi Pazar., which means "New Market" ("Pazar "is the Serbian pronunciation of Bazaar). It has long been a significant center of trade. Tradition says that St. Paul even travelled through this area. We will visit a church with first century foundations, built on the site of the first Christian community here, at the spot where he preached. The international character of Novi Pazar is reflected in the significant Moslem population, the highest in all Serbia. We've had the same dinner for the third night in a row: cucumber and tomato salad, rolls, potato wedges and grilled chicken (grilled fish was substituted for those fasting on Friday). There are hot springs at our hotel, a relaxing way to end a long, wonderful day.


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