Morava Style: Medieval Serbia’s Majestic Swan Song

When I first laid my eyes on Ravanica’s Church of Ascension last spring, it became apparent why medieval Serbia’s first and last autochthonous architectural style inspired so many artists through the centuries, from the graceful architecture of Branko Tanazević to the subtle poetry Vasko Popa.

That cold April morning, I could not peel my eyes from the intricate rosettes and writhing mythical animals, which enlivened the brick-sandstone façade, giving it an organic, playful feel. Unlike the stern Rasican variant of the Romanesque seen at Studenica or grandiose Vardar (Serbo-Byzantine) style of Hilandar and most Kosovo monasteries, Morava style churches, seemed more inviting and almost celebratory in their ornate exuberance, pulling out all stops to show not only the usual solemnity of devout life, but also its richness and beauty. Although autochthonous to Serbia, it was also a style that saw most international influences, from Venetian gothic and Arabic, to Armenian and Georgian, in ways and reasons that still evade scholars.

This beauty of Ravanica is made even more poignant by the fact that this brief era of architectural florescence was the last one Serbia saw in centuries, as within the century of Ravanica’s construction, Serbian state ceased to exist and was taken over by the Ottomans. For the next four centuries what is now Serbia  was a border-land, ravaged by frequent wars, which mostly destroyed its medieval monuments, with only a century of continuous peace and relative prosperity.

During this period, the beauty of Ravanica, although frequently dimmed by pillaging, existed in popular memory as it was the foundation and the final resting place of Prince Lazar Hrebeljanović, of the Kosovo Battle fame. Thankfully, despite being looted again in WWI and WWII, Ravanica’s church can be seen in most of its former glory, among the ruins of its formerly imposing walls.

After this visit, during which I was also lucky to hear its nuns sing hymns, I decided to make sure I visited all the other major Morava style monasteries in Serbia. That day, I went to the majestic Manasija (Resava), which was only a short drive away, to marvel at its walls and frescoes, built during the reign of Lazar’s son, Stefan who was also the first Serbian ruler to make Belgrade the country’s capital.

However, despite the dramatic grandeur of Manasija, I was more attracted to the more intricate Morava style churches and monasteries, which lay around Lazar’s old capital of Kruševac.

Almost a year and half later, I got the chance to visit Ljubostinja, the resting place of Lazar’s impressive wife, Princess Milica, and was once again blow away by the organic, florid beauty of its church, dedicated to the Holy Virgin. Tucked away in a small valley by Trstenik, and decorated with local stone from Bela Voda, Ljubostinja in its beauty seemed otherworldly, especially after having passed so many half-empty villages on the way.

Then I went to the less impressive Naupara and then Lazarica, which proudly stood at the heart of Lazar’s ruined fortress in Kruševac, its surviving delicate rosettes in sharp contrast with hunks of crumbled stone walls that protected them for centuries.

Finally, I went to Kalenić, whose church I yearned to visit for ages and make sure it was as stunning as in the photos. Tired from a longish drive from Ćićevac, where I stayed the night at a friend’s place, I was finally able to see its iconic chequered central tower, floating towards me. As we entered the monastery gates, my friend tried to remember Popa’s poem which she had to memorise at school and which I completely forgot about. We gawked at the series of Venetian-looking windows, which were decorated on the outside with scenes from the Old and New Testament. Then we gawked at the frescoes, and gawked some more at the inscriptions left by its visitors from several centuries ago. The only thing that kept us in the present was hearing one of the nuns chide the workers for not shutting the gates to the monastery’s garden.

We continued to Belgrade via Jagodina, speechless, as we could not remember the best lines written by Popa almost 50 years ago, the perhaps best capture the magic of Morava style churches and the time when they were built; that perseverance of warmth and colour in the face of ruin.

Colours ripen

On the thin branch of time

From whence did your pretty defiance

Appear on my lips

My angelic brother

Colours burn

With youth in my blood.

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