Holy Trinity Church Gornji Matejevac

Holy Trinity Church Gornji Matejevac

On the Metoh hill, just above the village of Gornji Matejevac, sits the shrine of Holy Trinity “Rusolija”, the most beautiful old structure of Nis and Ponisavlje region, and the oldest and most mystical church of the Southern Serbia as the dumb witness of the town’s past. Church of Holy Trinity in Gornji Matejevac was probably erected by the order of some local nobleman in the first half of the 11th century during the reestablishment of the Byzantine rule over this territory and the reign of the Byzantine Tzar Manojlo I Komninus (1143-1180), after the failure of the Bulgarian Tsardom. The church was restored during the reign of Despot Stefan Lazarević at the beginning of the 15th century.

The Church of Holy Trinity Matejevac is set solitude on the green pastures and elevated above the vast valley, looking unreal at the first site. The original Church of Matejevac is known among locals as the “Latin church” as well as “golema crkva” /large church/ or as historians say, the Holy Virgin of Rusalija or Rusalija Holy Trinity church. The prefix “Rusalija” in both names testifies about the true antiquity of this church. However it was dedicated to the Holy Virgin whose name was added to Rusolija as one of three famous female cults by the ancient Serbs of lower rank. Continued usage of the “Latin Church” in its name refers to the old memory on Dubrovnik merchants who were Latin locals of Catholic faith and who used it for the services in the 16th century.

The Church of Holy Trinity in Gornji Matejevac village is simple one nave structure with the inscribed elongated cross basis covered with a dome whose facade is built of combination of bricks and stone. The later added narthex which covers the smaller surface than the naos is set on its western side. Today only remains of foundations of the narthex are visible on the Holy Trinity Church in Matejevac. The semi-circled altar apse vaulted with the semi-calotte covers the whole width of the naos and is lower than the eastern side of the entral part. The interior of the shrine of the Holy Trinity in Matejevac is divided with pilasters into three octagonal naves of the unequal space. The opposite pilasters are mutually connected with arches on which above the middle nave sits the dome. The outer eight-sided dome features four windows. The eastern and the western naves of the Holy Trinity Church in Matejevac feature the equal height and are vaulted with the semi-circle vault on the side arches. The outside appearance of the facades of the Holy Trinity church contains usage of the Byzantine motifs in ceramic-plastic decorations and blind arcades which show the interior appearance of the shrine. Dividing of apse with the chain of bricks and the “cell’ system of construction as well as the built-in Roman grave stones give special effects to this harmonized spiritual structure. The architectural shapes and experienced way of construction assured the Holy Trinity Church in Matejevac village to get premium location in the history of the Byzantine architecture. By its presence on this territory the Church of the Holy Trinity Rusolija in Matejevac village was always on spot to its builders who celebrated the future Serbian architecture.

Passengers on the former Tsarigrad road /road to Constantinople/ used the Church of the Holy Trinity as the mark that soon save overnight is to come. In the 19th century Mihajlo Valtrovic, the first historian of Serbia reported to the Serbian Educated Society about the “precious monument that represents the true Byzantine structure” when describing the Holy Trinity Church. Elegantly standing on the hill it seems much larger than it is. Its history is covered with the veil of secret and darkness with the thousand years silence of historians which might be the reason why nobody never dared to research it meticulously. After withdraw of the Byzantines it is presumed that the Holy Trinity church was abandoned because Serbs did not accept services there, when it was ruined for the first time in its history.

The archaeological researches testify that the Holy Trinity church was rebuilt at the beginning of the 15th century. It is assumed that the church was reconstructed and probably dedicated to the Holy Virgin by Despot Stefan Lazarevic when he received the title of ruler and the acknowledgments from the Byzantines. If it is so than the “second life” of the Holy Trinity church in Matejevac lasted for the next twenty years. After the fall of the Serbian Despotate /1459/ for the whole two centuries there is no evidence on the Holy Trinity church within the meticulous Turkish records. The “third resurrection” of the Holy Trinity Church in Gornji Matejevac is connected with the foundation of Dubrovnik Colony in Nis in the middle of the 16th century when people from the Adriatic coastal lands revived their customs. Then the churchyard was formed around the Holy Trinity church which is testified in records of some travelers and records from Dubrovnik Archive of some well known diplomats and merchants who experienced sudden death in accident and were buried here. The Church and the churchyard of the Hoy Trinity were not in use for more than a century and was left abandoned again. The name of the “Latin Church” remained in the memory of the Roman-Catholics from Dubrovnik. Only a century later in Nis and its vicinity there was not any Christian Church as they were either burnt or destroyed or turned into mosques and horse stable and dormitories…..

However the religious life never stopped. According to the Church Chronicles there were several hidden tiny churches in the surroundings. It is presumed that the Church on Matejevac village hill was secretly restored and dedicated to Holy Trinity and as it was the largest it got the name “golema” /large/. It is not known how long the church served but when the new church in the center of Gonji Matejevac was built in 1838, the Church of the Holy Virgin Rusalija or the Latin Church or the Golema Church definitely lost its importance. The immediate proximity of the Church revives only in June on the Day of Holy Trinity. Until recently on the wall side of the Holy Trinity Church in Matejevac village there was a plaque with the inscription that “In this House /?/ partisan movement was established”. That plaque on the Latin Church – the Holy Trinity church stood there for three decades and eventually it was moved on the separate place just beside the Church.

When you encounter with the Church from far distance it seems that the Shrine is calling you and magnetically attracts you so you are afraid not to loose it from your sight and prevent magic disappears. From the village of Gornji Matejevac you must climb up to the hill and that person who do not loose its breath from ascend will surely loose his/her breath when this Church is spotted. The conservation and restoration works were carried out in the Church of the Holy Trinity in Matejevac from 1968 until 1974 when the shrine regained its original appearance according to the remains and archaeological excavations.

What is Rusalija ?

The Rusalija prefix that goes with the Holy Trinity Church points to the true antiquity of this shrine. This word has strange, non-Slavic origin and comes from the Latin words of rosalia, pascarosata, pascha rosarum, celebrating Rozalija, the Holiday of Roses from the ancient Rome transferred to the Balkans and to Christian nations. Christians continued to celebrate this pagan Holiday while identifying it with the Christian Holiday of the Holy Trinity which is celebrated on the same days. So Rusalija is not the pagan feast but represents the Rose Easter which is the Christian Holiday.

Pentecost is the Christian Holiday that celebrates the Descent of the Holy Spirit to the apostles in Jerusalem, 50 days after Christ Resurrection. Hence the name of Proslava Pedesetnice /Celebration of the fifty days/. Pentecost is celebrated as the “birth of the Church” as the Apostles’ Works proof that the apostles are full with the Holy Spirit and they spoke so that people of all nations and languages could understand them while the many “have been baptized so have received the Holy Spirit”. However it is clear opening of the salvation of the Church towards all and not only the the Jews. This Holiday is the Feast of the Holy Trinity and of the God and the Son and the Holy Spirit. “Duhovi” Feast is literary taken from the Old Slavonic language where it is singular and refers as the Holy Spirit which is one but not several as it is used present day. However this Feast is mixed with pagan customs of belief in Rusalka as in many Christian Holidays.

Who are rusalke /ruslakas/ ?

Rusalke became the personification of Rusalijas/rusalkas -the nymphs. The national etymology ruslo, potok, tok vode /spring, stream, course of water/ specially connects them with waters. There is a traditional belief that rusalkas were created from the strangled girls. According to the legend rusalkas are always young and beautiful girls with long hair that comes to their backs. If anyone hears their song or if one spots them while dancing he/she would immediately become deaf. Rusalkas also attract strange people by whom they are not so fond. The most effect tool against rusalkas is wormwood while garlic is also very useful. Names of Rusalkas was obviously taken from the names of fairies/nymphs, since fairies rusalkas live in waters, fields and forests. People are afraid of them, especially in the week of Pentecost. In some regions of the Balkans their cult is connected with the cult of dead. It is believed that they are souls of girls who died before their weddings.