Kosovo paths wind through the streets towards East, emphasizing the ancient paths of merchants, pilgrims, consuls and saints, kings and travelers. The streets follow those places where History and Myth are engraved on the...
“Grateful to the Lord for all that I have received, I’m initiating construction of the home of My Lord, Christ Pantocrator, and, after it is constructed, I will decorate its interior and exterior in all the beauty”. Thusly reads the first entry into the Foundation Charter of the Monastery, written by the Holy King Stephen Uroš III Nemanja. The Visoki Dečani Monastery was founded in 1327 by the great Serbian King Stephen III. All seven centuries of its history are engraved into a worn marble staircase that leads to the northern entrance of the church, patiently carved by feet of monks ascending them on their way to prayer.
The church construction was entrusted to an architect from Cattaro (currently the town of Kotor in Montenegro), which was a town of the Venetian maritime Republic at the time. His name is mentioned in several inscriptions along the church walls. He was father Vito, a Franciscan monk. His title serves as a symbolic bridge between East and West in a similar way that Dečani became over the centuries.
The exterior of the church is an elegant mixture of Romanesque and Gothic architecture with lancet windows, trefoils, reliefs and sculptures that adorn the facades, encircled by lead tiled roof and the dome, which was a customary tiling method in ancient times. Twenty nine meters high, the church lives up to its name of Visoki Dečani (visoki means high, superior in Serbian).
The construction of the church and the monastery was finished in 1335 in the space of just eight years. However, it took another fifteen years to complete enormous frescoes that adorn the walls. Several monks took turns in painting the church’s iconography. Their names remain unknown.
The interior of the church is a true artistic treasure chest. The church is divided in a traditional manner into a narthex, a nave and an apse and, like all Orthodox churches, it is oriented eastwards. The house of Christ, Ruler of All, impresses the visitor with multitude of its frescoes.
In the narthex, we admire the main painting - a large representation of Christ Pantocrator - placed right above the door leading to the nave. From it, Christ is blessing pilgrims while holding open the Gospel of John, verse 10.9: "I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out and find pasture.”
Just below the large representation of Christ are the images of Serbian King Stephen and his son Dušan. A cherub presents them with rolls of chanting prayers and blessings of their pious intention to build the monastery and rule the Serbian lands.
The walls of the narthex are further decorated with representations of 365 Holy Martyrs - a true liturgical calendar - while representations of members of seven Ecumenical Councils dominate the ceiling. The fresco with the Nemanjić dynasty genealogy with representations of all the ancestors of the Saint King, including Saint Simeon and Saint Sava, is of a particular historical value.
Two magnificent candleholders (svećnjak in Serbian) dominate the south side of the narthex. Their higher parts are reserved for small votive candles, lit by churchgoers while praying. Two lower parts of candleholders are traditionally reserved for candles for the dead. In one svećnjak, a large candle, lit for the Italian Army, which is not only engaged in the peacekeeping mission in Kosovo, but serves are a patron of the monastery, burns continuously since 1999.
Among its many treasures, the church nave contains three objects of the utmost importance for the Serbian identity.
The first is the reliquary of the Holy King, located at the southern part of the iconostasis. It is usually covered with a cloth. Its interior contains the uncorrupted body of the sovereign whose mortal remains carry a scent of roses. His right hand is lying on his chest offered for veneration.
The second is a magnificent horos (bronze chandelier), donated to Dečani by the Serbian Emperor Dušan. In 1392, it was redecorated and enriched at the order of Serbian Princess Milica. Following an ancient tradition, the arms of the noble knights who had fought alongside Serbian Prince Lazar at the Battle on the Field of Kosovo, on June 28, 1389, were melted into the chandelier.
The third object, important for the Serbian identity, is a large cross, situated on the north side of the church aisle. Called the Cross of Nestor, it was made in the second half of the sixteenth century. Carved on the sides of the cross, is a prayer in Church Slavonic invoking the protection the monastery against the plague that raged in the city of Peć at the time.
The frescoes in the nave are sublime, telling stories from the Old and the New Testament, The Acts of the Apostles, or simply depicting the Saints.
With wonderful colour changes emerging from the lapis blue background, one has to admire the representations of Risen and Transfigured Christ, the miracle of the Wedding at Cana, the conversion of St. Paul, Jesus, separating the righteous from the wicked with a raised sword on Judgment Day, the punishment of the damned, a both wonderful and intensely expressive Crucifixion, an unusual representation of the Tower of Babel and a sublime Dormition of the Holy Virgin.
The apse, with its Holy or Regal Doors that only ordained priests can pass through, is decorated by frescoes representing Serbian Bishops, other scenes from the life of Christ and a wonderful blessing Madonna, especially visible in all its glory in the early morning hours.
The church appeared even richer in ancient times due to gold plates that used to cover its black marble floor. Only few fragments of the ancient golden floor remain today.
The Life of Saint King Stephen of Dečani
Kings Stephen was born in 1285, from the marriage of King Milutin, the founder of the monastery of Gračanica, and Princess Anna of Bulgaria. At the age of 10, he became a hostage of the Tartars in Mongolia, sent there as a live token of a secure border. He spent three years in the Tatar plains only to return to Serbia after the death of Nogai Khan.
Back in Serbia, although not of age, he married Princess Theodora, daughter of the contemporary Bulgarian sovereign.
Following a conspiracy, inspired by the new Queen, second wife of King Milutin, and a group of noblemen who were young prince’s adversaries, King Milutin became convinced that his son wanted to seize the throne. Consequently, he blinded his son for, according to the Byzantine law, no blind man could ever ascend to the throne. On the night when he was blinded, Stephen was visited by St. Nicholas in a dream and eased the prince’s pain by placing his palm over his burning eyes.
King Milutin proceeded to send Stephen to Constantinople, to the court of Andronicus II Palaiologos, who took mercy on the boy, allowing him to live in the monastery of Christ Pantocrator (currently Zeyrek Mosque).
After five years in exile and a holy and modest monastic life, Milutin's son decided to return to Serbia, rendering the entire court speechless when presenting himself in front of the court without a blindfold. St. Nicholas miraculously returned sight to Stephen during a night vigil.
After the death of Milutin, Stephen became king, crowned by the Archbishop of the Peć Patriarchate, Nicodimus, on January 6, 1322. From 1324 to 1326, the King defended Serbia from invaders, defeating the mighty army of the Bulgarian empire and laying siege to the free city of Ragusa in Dalmatia (now Dubrovnik) that had previously rebelled.
As a sign of gratitude to the Lord, he decided to build churches in Jerusalem, on Mount Athos, in Constantinople and in Alexandria. Not forgetting the help of the Saint, he donated the Basilica of Saint Nicholas in Bari with a silver altar and several holy icons. He was generous with clerics, involved in helping the poor. Finally, he started the construction of the monastery of Dečani, which was later finished by his son and Serbian Emperor, Dušan.
He died at the Fortress of Zvečan on November 11, 1331, probably strangled in a palace coup.
Stephan’s fame soon started to spread when miracles and miraculous healings started to occur in Dečani where he was buried. The Serbian Orthodox Church venerates him as a Martyr Saint. His Feast falls on November 24.
In honour of the Holy King Stephen, every Thursday night at the monastery of Dečani, a special rite - The Canon of Holy Petition to King Stephen – is being officiated. It is a deep and impressive ceremony, chanted in its entirety by monks. The verses inspire admiration and hope in the holy benevolence the King.
Over time, the church of Dečani received donations that amount to a real treasure, comprising of icons, inlaid furniture, liturgical objects and books.
The Dečani collection includes more than 90 icons, dating from the 14th to the 17th century. The oldest icons are of an exceptional artistic quality, representing the artistic peak of the Serbian and Byzantine painting. Many of the icons from the 16th century are thought to be made by the famous iconographer Longin. There are testimonies of his presence in the Dečani monastery from at least three independent sources.
Dečani also treasures a rich collection of 160 manuscripts and 17 printed antique books. Most are of a liturgical content and have been used while officiating the Divine Liturgy to the present day. The collection mainly contains Gospels, Missals and Books of Prayer. However, one can also find writings of the Holy Fathers, as well as manuscripts that narrate the life in the monastery.
Many sacred objects have a long and interesting history, from the lead ampullae, found in the Reliquary of St. Stephen Dečanski, via the candleholder for votive candles, from the 14th century, cast in bronze with lion-shaped feet and cube-shaped ornaments and the Bells of Gregory (donated by a blind son of the Serbian Prince Djordje Branković), dating from the 1440s, up to Mastrelena from 1458, with an inscription in Greek.
Particularly precious are the Chalice of Radivoje from 1568 and the Goblet of Ignatius of Dečani from 1840. The monastery’s Treasury prides itself with a small collection of votive silver cradles in various sizes, donated by childless couples as a plea for God’s grace.
A charming Guest book, preserves witten traces of various people who visited the monastery over the decades.
Give Us Today Our Daily Life
The life of Decani is punctuated by divine officiating announced by a muffled ticking of klepalo, a wooden board that a monk hammers onto, calling his brethren to prayer. The Tipik, the Monastery Rulebook, envisages matins, lauds, and the Holy Liturgy to be performed from 5 am to 8 am. At 2.30 pm a hymn to the Holy King Stephen is sung in Greek style i.e. while standing. From 6 pm, vespers and prayers conclude the day. Every Thursday, The Canon of Holy Petition to King Stephen is being sung and recited. Praying vigils that precede Sundays and most major religious holidays, are particularly striking. No matter what time of the year, the liturgical life is marked by the light of the Sun. After having entered the church in darkness, we witness the sunrise during the Divine Liturgy, while leaving the church in the evenings, always after dark. During prayer, Dečani is lit in gold by the candles, famously produced by monks from pure beeswax carrying a deeply engrained scent of honey.
The Monastery is reminiscent of a large farm. The monks groom various animals: cows, goats, sheep. They keep chicken and maintain beehives. They cultivate orchards, vegetable gardens, fields of seasonal crop and vineyards. They operate a mill, build cabinets and paint icons. Wheat, corn, apples and vegetables are grown on the monastery lands. The monks produce excellent cheeses, rakija - the traditional Serbian brandy, wine and honey. In autumn, after the harvest, the whole monastic community prepares ajvar, a classic Serbian speciality with red paprika as the main ingredient.