Wednesday, 26 July 2017

The Serbian Monastery of Dečani: a Blind Prodigal King in a Sea of Frescoes

Text by Balkan Travellers | Photographs - the Serbian Orthodox Diocese in Raska and Prizren   
King Milutin's son Stefan built this remarkable Balkan monastery to commemorate a royal family drama, which Shakespeare himself could have hardly thought up better. As a young prince, Stefan rose against his father. As punishment, he was blinded, sent into exile, and excluded from the family tree as it was presented onto the walls of the Gračanica Monastery.

Expelled from his homeland, Stefan spent a substantial part of his life in the Pantocrator Monastery in Constantinople. His father summoned him back only shortly before dying. Eventually succeeding King Milutin to the throne, Stefan built the monastery of Dečani in remembrance of his years of banishment, dedicating it to Christ the Pantocrator. In the meantime, according to the chronicles, he miraculously regained his sight.

The interior of the monastery indeed reminds of a place designed by the thirsty eyes of someone, who was unable to see for quite some time. As if to compensate an eternity of visual hunger, the Dečani Monastery boasts an endless variety of vivid, colourful frescoes – numbering over 1,000 and comprising one of the greatest surviving collections in the Balkans.

Built from purple red, yellow and onyx marble, the cathedral is the biggest medieval church in the Balkans.

Stefan Dečanski did not survive to see the monastery - he passed away a year after its construction started in 1330, and since then his tomb lays surrounded by the tens of daring religious paintings.

The frescoes, drawn by a Franciscan monk from Kotor, dominate the whole interior of the surviving Church of Christ the Pantocrator. In the narthex, Stefan's son, Dušan, is depicted with his wife and son Uroš, next to an amended family tree of the Nemanjići - with prodigal son Stefan back to his rightful position.

His tomb has been a pilgrimage place for centuries both for Christians and Muslims. The cult amongst the latter developed after an imam, entering the church with the intention of proclaiming it a mosque during the Ottoman conquest, was killed by a piece of fallen masonry.

It is said that Dečani's art is surpassed in beauty and sophistication by the Gračanica one. Yet the sheer abundance of this UNESCO monument’s frescoes probably makes it the most impressive amongst the medieval monasteries of Serbo-Byzantine school.

Practical information.
The monastery is located about 12 km south of Peć, on the road to Prizren.

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