Sopoćani Monastery

Sopoćani Monastery

Sopocani Monastery is the Medieval Monastery of Serbia set in deep seclusion, 16 km west of Novi Pazar, near the spring of Raska River, close to the Stari Ras – the center of the Serbian Medieval State. Sopocani Monastery is the magnificent endowment of King Uros I (1243-76, the youngest son of the King Stefan Prvovencani /the First-crowned/ and Ana Dondolo, Venetian princess), in Medieval times known as the Sopot Monastery. Around 1255 King Uros married the princess Helen of Anjou, relative of the king Charles of Naples and Sicily and the French king Louis IX,  and spent his last years in Sopocani Monastery as the monk Simeon, or some records have it that King Uroš retired to the southern part of the state (Hum), where he became a monk and subsequently died (perhaps in 1277). From the original Sopocani Monastery rich compound remains only the Church of the Holy Trinity built during the 1260s.

The outer narthex of Sopocani Monastery with the high bell tower was added in the first half of the 14th century. The prestige of the Sopocani Monastery sanctuary was secured by the burial of the founder, King Uros, and his Queen mother Ana Dandolo, his father Stefan the First-Crowned and Grand Duke Djordje, Uros’s uncle and Archbishop Joanikije I, as the King had prepared tombs for the first hegoumenos of Sopoćani, his mother Queen Ana, for himself and the then archbishop, Joanikije. Shortly after the clash with the Turks in Kosovo Polje (1389) Sopocani Monastery suffered serious damage and had to be restored by the Serbian Despotate when certain changes were done and special attention was paid to strengthening of its fortifications. At the beginning of the 16th century Sopocani Monastery was without the lead roof and the narthex was partially destroyed. In the 16th century Turkish violence forced the monks of Sopocani Monastery to flee to the secluded Crna Reka Monastery, when they took the coffin with the body of King Stefan the First-Crowned. Brought back to life in the late 16th century, when it was thoroughly renovated and numbered over 100 monks, the Sopocani Monastery was finally deserted in 1689. At that tragic case Sopocani Monastery was ruined and set aflame by the advancing Turks who chased the rebellious Serbs northwards. Sopocani Monastery was left in a pitiful state for the next two and a half centuries until it was finally renovated in 1929. Renovation of Sopocani Monastery continued after the Second World War and great attention was given to conservation of the frescoes.

Although from the outside Sopocani church looks like a basilica with three naves, it is actually a single nave structure whose semicircular side chapels were incorporated to a single line in the 14th century enlargement. The Church of Sopocani Monastery is built of dressed travertine and was plastered on the outside. The tall Sopocani Monastery church, top by relatively small dome, with huge wall surfaces decorated only by Romanesque stone windows and arches, provides a new sense of grandeur and size that set an example for the subsequent royal endowments. The outer open narthex, set with the three-floor tower in front, was built in the time of King (later Emperor) Dusan. Since Sopocani Monastery tower is freshly reconstructed, it has only a few traces of frescoes. The remains of other monastery buildings have been discovered in the Sopocani Monastery complex including refectory on the western side accross from the entrance to the church. The Sopoćani refectory was rectangular with an apse on the northern side.

Stepping into the inner narthex we observe the magnificent ensemble of Sopocani frescoes that are painted in bright colors and decorated with golden leaves. On the north wall of Sopocani Monastery narthex is a historical composition representing the Death of Queen mother Ana Dandolo: lying on the catafalque, she is surrounded by her son Uros and princes Dragutin and Milutin, while Uros’s wife Jelena is seen kneeling in front; Christ and Virgin Mary receive the Queens soul. The portraits of King Uros’s family, all standing, are to bee seen once more along the east and the south walls. Side chapels are dedicated to St Steven, protector of the Nemanjic’s, and to St Stefan Mirotocivi ( i.e. Stefan Nemanja), the founder of the famous Serbian dynasty. In the latter can be seen scenes from his life and the process of transposition of his remains/relics from Chilandari Monastery to Studenica Monastery. South of the door leading into the Church are figures of Emperor Dusan and Jelena and their son Uros. In the Sopoćani Monastery naos are the oldest frescoes (dating from 1273/4), considered to be the peak not only of Serbian but of all European painting of the time. Their expressionist strength and gracefulness, bright colors and bold compositions all keep alive in the spirit of classical antiquity and predate the works of Italian Renaissance. The spacious surfaces of the simple internal architecture of the Sopoćani Monastery church are covered with beautiful and serious athletically developed figures which are powerful and well designed. That decoration is perfectly harmonized with the space, yet not in the same way as in the paintings of the thirties of the same century and demand distance for viewing. The magnificent achievements in fresco decoration enabled the Sopocani Monastery to be included in the UNESCO World Heritage list of protected monuments. Although damage over time has effaced almost half of these works and the former golden background has disappeared totally, one still admires the excellence of the ensemble. The compositions here are unusually large and therefore comparably few in number. The most impressive among Sopoćani Monastery frescoes is the scene of the Dormition of the Virgin Mary on the western wall, bearing intentional similarities with the composition of the Death of Queen Ana. This fresco was proclaimed the most beautiful Medieval fresco in the world at the Exhibition in Paris in 1961. On the western wall there are cycles of the Great Feasts : Crucifixion of Christ, Descent into Hell, Nativity, Presentation in the Church and Transfiguration are particularly impressive. The founder’s composition is located on the southern wall of the naos next to the sarcophagus where King Uros I the founder of Sopocani Monastery was buried. This composition depicts Christ on the throne with the Virgin leading Stephen Nemanja, Stephen the First Crowned and King Uros carrying the model of the Church. The central position in the painting is reserved for Christ holding in his hands Mary’s soul. In the lower zone are the tall figures of prophets, that give the impression of being both physically strong and spiritually wise. In the apse one can see the Adoration of the Lamb with a line of Serbian Archbishops joining the rest of the Christian saints. The usual founder’s composition is painted on the south wall. The Sopoćani paintings are works of a most refined quality and purity of style in the Byzantine art of the period. The talented artists of the Byzantine school at Sopoćani, at the beginning of the second half of the 13th century, produced a work which through the simple, serene and perfect harmony of its features, integrated into the established concepts of monumental art, has never been equaled in the realm of medieval art in Eastern Europe. This particular group of monuments realistically portrays the earliest center of civilization in the ancient Serbian state and contributes ample evidence of the birth and development of artistic and cultural activity in medieval Serbia, which through its achievements, was to attain the highest standards in the art and culture of the Byzantine empire and the regions of central Europe.

The important element of the entire experience of the monastery is surely hospitality of its residents – monks. Great attention is paid to the cordial reception and hospitality in areas where the Christianity is prevailing religion, so during time those activities became not only the religious obedience, but also part of everyday routine. In every monastery, by the blessing of the hegumene – the Abbott, one of monks is entitled to receive visitors, tell them facts about the monastery, frescoes and historical events. The monk invites visitors into the dining room for refreshment and the spiritual discussion, which is often one of the main reasons for visitation of the holy place.

The group of monuments at Stari Ras and Sopoćani is of exceptional interest on account of its significance in so many different spheres and its unity of composition; it provides a deeper and wider grasp of the historical, sociological, artistic and cultural aspects of the development of the Serbian nation and its contribution to the culture of Slavonic and other nations during the Middle Ages.