Mileseva Monastery

Mileseva Monastery

Mileševa Monastery, the main endowment of King Vladislav /1234 – 1243/, grandson of Stefan Nemanja and the fourth in the lineage of Nemanjic Dynasty is located in the valley of Milesevka River, 6 km to the east of town of Prijepolje. In 1236 Mileseva Monastery became the second most important monastery in the Serbian Medieval Kingdom when it received the relics of Saint Sava who died in Tarnovo in Bulgaria, in the period of the King Vladislav’s reign.

The Mileševa Monastery church of Holy Ascension was erected around 1225 while the outer narthex was added in 1236 to accommodate the body of Saint Sava. The original architectural style of Mileševa Monastery is the one of the monumental Raška School /harmony of the Byzantine architecture and the Romanesque details/. Mileseva Monastery structure was based on the plan of Zica Monastery /the endowment of Vladislav’s father Stefan the First-Crowned/ but executed by artists of lesser skills. The church of Mileseva Monastery is one nave structure with two lower choirs, a wide central apse and two small apses. Its single nave widens from the west eastward, so that the eastern bay is omitted completely, which results in the three altar apses leaning directly on the domed east wall. The western cupola and the bell tower in front to the entrance of Mileševa Monastery were added in the 19th century.

In 1377 Bosnian Ban Tvrtko was crowned king above the grave of Saint Sava – the greatest Serbian saint. Later on in 1466 the Bosnian noble Sjepan Vukcic Kosaca took the title „Herzog of Saint Sava” and his territory thus became known as Herzegovina, the „Herzog’s land”. In the 15th century Mileševa Monastery was the seat of the Orthodox Bishop of Bosnia. The future Grand-Vizier of the Ottoman Empire, Mehmed-Pasha Sokolovic /1505 – 1579/ was studying here before he was taken from his family and listed into Turkish service. His brother Makarije who became in 1577 the new Serbian Patriarch was also studying in Mileseva Monastery. In this century the Mileševa Monastery also operated a celebrated printing shop whose liturgical books spread throughout the Serb lands and beyond. Next centuries Mileševa Monastery saw a grave turn of fortune : in 1594 the Turks took the Holy relics of Saint Sava to Belgrade and burned them in reprisal for Serbian uprising. In 1688 another retaliation left the Mileševa Monastery burnt and in ruins. Mileševa Monastery had undergone two great restorations, the first in the 16th century, at the time of patriarch Makarije Sokolovic. During the 19th century Mileševa Monastery was abandoned and was renewed by the people of Prijepolje only in 1863 when it got its present-day appearance.

The frescoes of Mileševa Monastery represent one of the peaks of the European 13th century painting. The wall paintings of Mileševa Monastery Church are characterized by two main features – the unusual order of the frescoes in the naos and their first-rate quality that classifies them among the most important works of not only the Serbian, but also Byzantine art in the 13th century. The Greek masters had to adapt their program to the disposition of the temple Raška style of architecture and brought to Mileševa Monastery the fresco decoration technique that has been maintained in the Byzantine mosaic workshops of the town of Saint Demetrius. In chronological order from right to left and bottom to top, certain scenes have been placed completely contrary to their traditional position. Thus, the Communion of the Apostles is depicted on the western wall of the area under the dome, instead of in the main altar apse. The Deposition from the Cross and the Descent to the Gates of Hell are painted on the southern wall under the dome and the Nativity is on the northern wall os the same area. In the north side of the narthex of Mileševa Monastery stand depicted all the Nemanjics up to King Vladislav – he stands last on the left-hand side holding a model of his endowment, next to him is his older brother Radoslav and then their father Stefan the First-Crowned with a scepter in his hand. Saintly figures of Vladislav’s uncle Sava and his grandfather Nemanja /cut in half by the rebuilding/ continue on the east wall. As these portraits are contemporary and the painters showed great interest in their realism there representations are considered to be closest to the real images of rulers. Further there is a clear intention towards the psychological characterizations of every portrait. This is the first representation of the line of Nemanjic Dynasty later to become on obligatory depiction in the endowment of each ruler. Facing this lineage stands the founder-composition – Virgin Mary leads King Vladislav with a model of Mileševa Monastery to Christ. Above this, on the southern wall of the western bay stands the famous fresco „Holy Chrism Bearers at the tomb” with the White Angel that became one of the symbols of Serbia and the Serbs. Here again as on the other portraits we see large striking eyes meek and mild expressions on the faces of the otherwise imposing and clearly lit figures with balanced postures. The fresco of the White Angel of Mileševa was sent as a video message in the first satellite broadcast signal from Europe to America, in the middle of the 20th century, which represented a symbol of peace and civilization. Later, the same signal, containing the White Angel, was sent to space in an attempt to communicate with extraterrestrial life forms. The greatest value of the Mileševa Monastery paintings lies in the synthesis of strictness, noble simplicity and politicized sensitivity. The frescoes with the golden back of Mileševa Monastery are mimicking the mosaics that were unsuitable for the harsh climate of Serbia. The frescoes of the external narthex of Mileševa Monastery, depicting the Last Judgment are barely visible as they were heavily damaged during the occupation in the WW II when the church was used as a stable.

The oldest of the preserved Mileševa Monastery dwellings lying to the north is a nice example of contemporary Balkans architecture. Closing the entrance to the Canyon of Mileševka River on a high cliff some 2 km to the east of Mileševa Monastery stand the ruins of the Fortress of Mileševac also known by the name Hisardžik. In the early middle ages it belonged to the Serbian Kingdom, and a golden coin of King Tvrtko I Kotromanic was found in the Milesevac Fort, after his coronation. In 1373, when properties of Nikola Altomanović, after his death were divided among the Prince Lazar and the Bosnian lord Tvrtko, the Mileševac Fortress came into hands of the Bosnian state, ruled by Sandalj Hranic, together with the Mileseva Monastery. It was the seat of the region of Crna Stena /Black Crag/ but more important it simultaneously guarded both the Monastery and one of the most important Medieval roads leading from Prijepolje towards Skopje. The Milesevac castle has irregular ground plan divided into upper and lower section. Three towers and some massive walls of the Milesevac castle – Hisardzik stronghold still stand tall while the rest is only partially preserved. A fairly preserved natural environment adds to the character and beauty of the Mileševa Monastery. The immediate surroundings of Mileševa Monastery are dominated by the wild canyon of the Milesevka river, with medieval monastic cells rising high above the river. The entire area of Mileševa Monastery is protected as a natural, cultural and historic complex and makes an attractive destination for visitors and pilgrims keen to discover the cultural and spiritual issues. After the comprehensive reconstruction works carried out in Mileseva Monastery in recent years, as per previous announcement and confirmation with the blessing of the Abbott, with fully respect of the monastic life in the monastery, visitors have possibility to stay in the brand new dormitories – nicely appointed hospices of the Mileseva Monstery with comfortable single and double rooms with facilities, and to have a monastic or traditional meal /for groups/, along with enjoyment of the beauty and spirituality of the White Angel fresco !

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