By Alice Isabella Sullivan
2021 marks 700 years since the death of Serbia’s King Stefan Uroš II Milutin (r. 1282–1321). During his reign, medieval Serbia expanded its territory, grew economically, and developed from cultural and artistic standpoints, especially relative to the Byzantine Empire.
Milutin was a great patron of the arts. He rebuilt or built anew churches and monasteries within and beyond the borders of his realm, endowed them with precious objects for the celebration of the liturgy and for his remembrance, as well as extended financial support to religious communities to ensure their continuation. He served as a patron of numerous foundations, including the Church of St. George at Staro Nagoricane, the King’s Church at Studenica Monastery, and Gračanica Monastery, among other notable examples. The material evidence in particular reveals the scope of Milutin’s projects, and the reworking of Byzantine artistic traditions in a local context.
The churches that King Milutin built employed the inscribed cross-in-square design, which consist of a main central area under the dome, defined by piers, with the apse extending to the east and framing aisles integrated into the design. Even in structures originally erected on a basilican plan, Milutin redesigned them according to Byzantine principles. As evident at the church of the Virgin (Bogorodica) Ljeviška at Prizren (ca. 1306), he transformed the basilican core into an elongated cross-in-square church with a tall dome over the central space and another over the apse, as well as four smaller domes at the four corners of the scheme. The lateral aisles of the former basilica now framed the core of the new structure.
Milutin’s churches were also generally built using alternating layers of stone and brick, emulating a building technique common in imperial commissions in Constantinople and other key areas of the Byzantine Empire. Moreover, the interiors of Milutin’s churches received colorful mural cycles with Christological, Mariological, and Hagiographical stories. Their exteriors preserve a variety of decorative features, including remnants of plastered and painted surfaces with intricate figural and ornamental motifs. Although much of the exterior decoration has been lost due to the ravages of time, local conflicts, and climatic effects, the visual layers of Milutin’s churches remain to be fully explored.
One of Milutin’s most sophisticated achievements is the church of the Dormition at Gračanica Monastery, which he built shortly before his death in 1321 on the ruins of a church dedicated to the Virgin. Of the former monastic complex, only the katholikon (main church) survives, in an expanded form. Its exonarthex was added later. Today, the monument is an UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Gračanica is a structure of unique features and proportions. The church measures only 13 by 16.5 meters and consists of a main cross-in-square layout topped with five domes – one over the center, two over the corners of the narthex, and two above the side chapels framing the apse. These spaces, in turn, display arcosolia built into the walls to the north and south, suggesting a funerary function, although Milutin was not buried here. Slender proportions and an emphasis on height characterize the interior main spaces of Gračanica.
This interior spatial articulation of the church, however, including the narrow window openings, is not conducive to clear legibility of the multitude of image cycles painted on the walls from the floor into the domes above. Especially in the upper portions, the painted iconographic cycles are difficult to read. Nevertheless, the images were carefully positioned on the interior surfaces and functioned in the context of liturgical celebrations. They acquired a kind of divine aura in the flickering light of candles, and in the space of the church that reverberated with the sounds, smells, and tastes of the liturgy.
The slight “disjunction” between the interior painted surfaces and the architecture of Gračanica have led some scholars to propose a not so intimate collaboration between the architect and the painters of the edifice, with the painters beginning their work only after the church was fully complete.
Unlike the interior spaces, moreover, the simple design of the exterior of Gračanica encourages the eye to move upward from the lower register, punctured only by several narrow windows, to the triple arches and domes above. Although the exterior flat wall surfaces make it difficult to read the interior layout of the church, they may have been designed as such in order to display additional decorations, which have now been lost. Even the dedicatory inscription painted inside the church indicates that Milutin “painted and decorated it [Gračanica] both within and without.” The visual layers of this edifice, as is the case with other medieval Eastern Christian churches, remain enticing.
The artistic and architectural projects of King Milutin are exceptional examples of the cultural continuity and local interpretations of traditions of church building and decoration developed in the Byzantine sphere and adapted throughout regions of the Balkans, and other Eastern Christian centers, as a common claim of inheritance from Byzantium. Although Byzantium offered visual, religious, and ideological models, the art of medieval Serbia reveals aspects of local negotiations between competing traditions and worldviews, developing a distinct visual idiom at the crossroads of Latin, Greek, and Slavic traditions.
Milutin is such a celebrated figure in Serbian history that he has also been canonized in the Serbian Orthodox Church. His feast day is celebrated on October 30.
In this year of remembrance, Milutin’s reign and accomplishments have been the topic of two recent international conferences: “Seven Centuries Since the Death of Holy King Milutin,” co-organized by the Serbian Orthodox Bishopric of Vranje, University of Belgrade, University of Niš (24-25 September 2021) and “King Milutin and the Palaeologan Age: History, Literature, Cultural Heritage,” Skopje (see the event below). These events are set to yield exciting new research on this important figure and period in the history of medieval Serbia.
Alice Isabella Sullivan is an art historian specializing in the medieval history, art, and culture of Eastern Europe and the Byzantine-Slavic cultural spheres. She has authored award-winning publications, is co-editor of Byzantium in Eastern European Visual Culture in the Late Middle Ages, and co-founder of North of Byzantium and Mapping Eastern Europe. Follow her on Twitter @AliceISullivan
A. D. Temerinski, “Gračanica Monastery,” Mapping Eastern Europe, accessed July 13, 2021.
B. Todić, Serbian Medieval Painting: The Age of King Milutin, translated by Jelena Erdeljan (Belgrade: Draganić, 1999).
D. Vojvodić and D. Popović, eds., Sacral Art of the Serbian Lands in the Middle Ages: Byzantine Heritage and Serbian Art, Vol. 2 of 3 (Belgrade: Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts, 2016).
Top Image: Fresco of King Milutin, King’s Church, Studenica Monastery, 14th century / Wikimedia Commons