I never thought of visiting monasteries under military protection.
This afternoon, leaving behind us a storm over Novi Pazar in southern Serbia, we entered Kosovo via Montenegro by the spectacular road which crosses a pass at over 1,800m. At the border post, while buying insurance (the green card is not valid in Kosovo), the truck drivers warned us of the dangers of the road, repeating langsam, langsam fahren, and drawing hairpin turns in the air, the dizzying descents and loops of some terrifying roller-coaster.
In fact, from up there, the plain was invisible for a long time.
In Peć, we wanted to visit the Patriarchate in the Rugova Gorge, and the monastery of Dečani to the south. The first seat of the Serbian Orthodox Church was founded in the Middle Ages at Žiča near Kraljevo, at that time close to the northern border of medieval Serbia, but as the region was regularly subjected to wars, the first bishops moved the seat of their authority to Peć in today’s Kosovo, protected by nearly impassable moutains.
Nevertheless, peace never came, and the monastery stood for centuries under the protection of some great power, either the Ottomans or the KFOR.
In Peć, no guide-post indicates the direction to the Patriarchate. Just as the monastery of Dečani will not be indicated later: there are only signs to the Rugova Gorge and its natural park. However, the Patriarchate appeared very clearly on our map, just at the beginning of the gorge, but driving along the long road at the foot of the cliffs, also encountering a joyous Albanian wedding procession, we saw no monastery. Ultimately, coming across a police car at one of these poor taverns bearing the false banner of “pizzeria”, we asked for the way.
The Patriachate? We have long since passed it.
The officer only had an approximate command of English, don’t worry, you drive one kilometer maybe two, I call my colleague, he make you signs when you come on the road, you see him. He made a long phone call, describing the car with a French license plate, and yes, yes, he assures us, he make you signs when you come on the road, you see him, you can go.
One mile, then two, and no monastery in sight yet – just a sort of military camp with long walls protected by barbed wires and one or two watchtowers. A guard we pass by before seeing the tired soldier, who waves us hand without rising from his chair. We are on the right way to the Patriarchate. The guard and the lowered barrier bear the emblem of KFOR, and we must leave our passports there – just as we will do later, in the Dečani Monastery –, after passing the barbed wire entanglements, waiting in front of an armored vehicle, and the military interrogation (of course, we should also have left our arms there, this is self-evident).
Once we leave the barrier behind, the road gently slopes toward the river, and we are alone. Over the large concrete walls some older walls are revealed. The portal of the Patriarchate opens westward, facing the river, and the monastery appears as an island, encircled with the monastic buildings which form a circle, an orb, in the center of which lies a garden with its canals and mulberries planted in the 13th century – the church is in the background, behind the motionless branches –, as an image of the heavenly Jerusalem.
One, two nuns pass by without rushing. Another with a bucket. Very young and very elderly ones.
Yes, you can eat the mulberries. The old lady dressed in gray lowers the branches, so we pick the fruit. Flies buzz over the creek. The blue juice spots the slabs.
Like in many monastic churches of Serbia, the building complex of the Patriarchate is also painted red, on the model of the churches of Mount Athos, and still there are traces of frescoes on the façade of the narthex. Behind the façade, on the northern side, there is a small cemetery where, not far from the nuns, there lays a man with a feverish face.
But the external architecture with its apses and domes does not immediately reveal the complexity of the internal organization of the building.
Three gates open in the dark narthex. This is not a single church here, but a complex of three joined churches, plus a fourth one at the southern side of the building. The central gate leads into a short nave with a barrel vault submerged in obscurity, like a tunnel to be crossed in the dark to reach the ineffable, the space opening under the dome. This is the church of the Holy Apostles, the oldest of the three, perhaps founded by Saint Sava himself around 1250. The left door provides access to Saint Demetrius, a smaller building filled with light, while the right one to that of the Virgin Hodigitria, a broader and higher church. The fourth, closed church is dedicated to Saint Nicholas.
The bright narthex, paved with marble, completely covered with frescoes from the mid-fourteenth century, prepare you for the vision of the three major churches it precedes. But it was also the place where the Serbian Church held its councils. Hence the emphasis on the mission of the apostles and the message of the gospel. The fresco cycle represents the miracles and parables as they are described in the Gospels, and in the order in which they will be read during the liturgy of Lent. Above the main door, the encounter between Christ and the Samaritan woman accompanies the healing of the blind.
Agni parthene (Oh pure Virgin). Serbian church hymn of Greek origin, sung by Divna Ljubojević
The nun joining us is very old, very small and fragile. Leaning on a long curved stick, which is surely higher than her, she speaks with a clear voice, passionately and eruditely. She reads us the pictures as if she were reading a language which is both far away and familiar, she speaks about the images which evoke texts, and the texts that are contained in the images, she connects each fresco to the next one, she reveals what is hidden in the painting, she recalls not only the men of the thirteenth century, but also the thought of their time, and suddenly the frescoes come to life, and the thought takes shape before our eyes. How to convey this moment?
Thee narthex, the three elongated churches one along the other, the walls, the arches, the domes, everything is covered with frescoes, painted nearly eight hundred years ago by artists from Thessaloniki. High above us, in the church of the Holy Apostles, which pretends to be a replica of the room of the Last Supper in Jerusalem, Christ’s ascension. Below, in successive circles, angels and apostles dancing with hands raised to celebrate the celestial Mass.
On the southern wall, in the lunette above the arch, Christ calling Lazarus. The painter, having not enough place to represent Lazarus standing, chose to show the moment before the call, when Lazarus had not yet risen. A man in red stretches a long ribbon from the corpse sitting in the grave, a ribbon which he strips off him as the sins of Lazarus fall off him; but the most surprising sight is Christ, whose eyes, while leaning forward at the left side of the arch and drawing a cross with the hand, are at the same height of those of Lazarus, and their eyes meet above the man in red, who stops in his work, and waits, with one hand lifted as a sign of interrogation. Above, almost following the vertical of Lazarus resurrected, Saint Thomas slips two fingers into the wounds of Christ – and these are like three questions, three question marks following each other on the wall.
Under the arch, the Nativity of Christ facing His baptism in the Jordan. The two scenes are related to each other by the long silver beam emanating from both sides of the arch, the star of the Holy Spirit. Opposite, on the northern wall, just above the arch, Christ is lying under the right side of the arch, on a pink cloth. This is how He participates in the Last Supper, already separated from the apostles who are almost invisible in the darkness enveloping the table, hidden behind the great dishes. In the scene just behind it, on the arch under the dome, the apostles are in the forefront, in the supper of Pentecost, flooded with light and gold.
A few kilometers away, in another valley in the woods, the monastery of Visoki Dečani was built on the orders of King Stephen Uroš III (1321 - 1331) by a Franciscan architect, Fra Vita, and by Dalmatian builders coming from Kotor.
The monastery of Dečani, also enclosed in the circle of its fortified walls, also protected by barriers, fences, barbed wire entanglements, soldiers, camouflage nets, concrete blocks, reveals itself having an appearance from somewhere far away, perhaps the south of Italy. The refinement of the sculpted portals and windows, the texture of the white stone, the barely dimmed, barely pink marble, the strips of pilasters that run around the walls. From the outside everything seems to announce a long Romanesque nave and transept, but a completely different structure is hiding behind the walls: a narthex with double nave at right angles to the church, the nave and the choir inscribed in a square – and so dizzying when you contemplate, with the head thrown back, all the height of the church (this is the meaning of visoki), completely covered with frescoes.
Foundation charter of the monastery, 14th century. King Stephen Uroš III of Dečani is represented in one of the frescoes of the church according to the Byzantine iconographic formula used for the emperor as a church-builder.
At the foot of the iconostasis, the sarcophagus of the founder, King Stephen Uroš III of Dečani, who died in 1331 and, it is said, remained intact to this day. Behind him, on the western wall, an immense fresco of the Parousia or the Second Coming shows Christ descending from the heaven on a throne carried by angels, with the open Gospel on the knees, and the instruments of the Passion laid out on a strange, black veil. Just above the portal, under Christ the Judge, the Assumption of the Virgin. As in Peć, one of the chapels contains a fresco cycle dedicated to the Genesis, and another to the life of the Virgin; one wall recounts the Acts of the Apostles, others line up the holy soldiers like St. Demetrios and all the archangels, whose swords will slice up the sins. All in all, about a thousand scenes covering the walls.
A taciturn monk follows us slowly in the church, with a voice like a whisper, and strange gestures, like a big, patient shadow at our side. He invites us to see the cells of the monks, and he remains behind alone in the garden.
We have coffee on large tables under the covered arcades. Voices, not far, behind the closed doors. Outside, flies buzz in the trees.