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In the valley of the river Ibar, between the cities of Kraljevo and Novi Pazar, lies a group of medieval monasteries built in the 12th and 13th Centuries.
In what was then the fledgling Serbian state of Raška, rulers of the Nemanjić dynasty erected several monumental churches as their endowments, thus setting off a tradition of pious endowments that has continued into the present day.
Built in an authentic style - a fusion of Byzantine architecture and Romanesque decoration - and adorned with some of the most beautiful medieval frescoes, the monasteries in the “Valley of the Kings” are an invaluable contribution to the world’s cultural heritage.
Sopoćani, Đurđevi Stupovi and Studenica monasteries are UNESCO World Heritage Sites and, together with Žiča and Gradac monasteries, feature on the Transromanica cultural route of the Council of Europe (which links the common Romanesque heritage of European countries).
Žiča is unique among Serbian monasteries. It was the site where the first Serbian archbishop, Saint Sava, crowned his brother Stefan Nemanjić the first Serbian king. As many as seven heirs to the throne were crowned in this monastery, with its bright red façade which takes hints from the churches on Mount Athos. A new door opening would be cut in the walls of the church to commemorate each crowning event, which is why Žiča has been nicknamed “the seven-door church”.
Built in the 13th Century, it also served as the seat of the first Serbian archdiocese after the Serbian Orthodox Church became ecclesiastically independent. During the Ottoman rule, Žiča was torn down and rebuilt several times. It owes its present-day appearance to a thorough restoration effort made in the early 20th Century.
Romanesque influences can be seen in the decorations of the portal and in the interlaces on its windows, as well as in the characteristic friezes on its arcades. Three distinct chronological styles can be distinguished in its badly damaged frescoes. The most important ones are those painted between 1309 and 1316 by the great masters of King Milutin’s royal painting workshop.
In an effort to merge the Western culture of her native land with the culture of her Serbian husband, King Uroš I, Queen Helen of Anjou built, the monastery where she was interned in 1314.
The monastery, built in the 13th Century, is a unique example of late Romanesque architecture of Serbia. The complex is dominated by the lavish Church of the Holy Mother of God, built in the Raška style, with Romanesque and Gothic elements visible in its window decorations, arcades and the roof corona.
The monastery also includes the Temple of Saint Nicholas, a preaching Catholic church. It is believed that it used to hold church services for the Catholic builders who worked on the Church of the Holy Mother of God.
Sopoćani monastery was built at the very heart of the ancient Serbian state of Raška. It was built by King Stefan Uroš I Nemanjić in the 13th Century and later reconstructed and expanded by his great-grandson Emperor Stefan Dušan in the 14th Century.
It was once the site of a large, walled monastery complex. As well as the church it also contained a refectory and guest house however, today, only the Church of the Holy Trinity, built from cut stone with Romanesque architectural patterns, remains.
The frescoes painted in the second half of the 13th Century are Raška style artworks - as can be seen from their compositional harmony and commitment to the classical ideals of beauty. The fresco “Dormition of the Mother of God”, distinguished for its harmony of yellow, blue, green and purple, exudes an air of serenity, which was why it was named the most beautiful medieval fresco at an exhibition in Paris in 1961.
Đurđevi stupovi is a 12th-Century monastery complex built on a hill overlooking the city of Novi Pazar.
The founder of this monastery Serbian Grand Prince Stefan Nemanja believed Saint George helped him out of the prison, where his brothers had put him. So, upon his release, he erected the monastery as a display of his gratitude to the great saint.
The monastery complex consisted of church of Saint George, refectory, guest house, water tanks and walls with an entry tower.
The interior of the monastery is decorated by frescoes, some of which have now been moved to the National Museum of Belgrade. Among the most striking of them is the impressive fresco of Saint George on a horse near the entrance, as well as the portraits of the Nemanjić rulers and the depiction of four Serbian national assemblies which passed important historic decisions.
A major monastery complex of medieval Serbia, Studenica was the spiritual and cultural heart of the state of Raška. This 12th-Century endowment of Grand Prince Stefan Nemanja takes its name from the river next to which it was built.
At first sight, the monastery complex gives off the impression of a powerful, fortified medieval city. The massive ramparts with towers that surround the complex still serve the same purpose as in the medieval times – to protect the church, the refectory and the guest house. Monastic life has flourished on this site without interruption since the 12th Century.
The central feature of the monastery complex is the Church of the Mother of God, with its white marble façade and Romanesque architectural patterns.
The portals, the windows and the altar section of the church are lavishly adorned with floral symbols and interlaces, while the architectural decoration on the eastern part of the façade depict legends of mythical creatures – dragons and lizards with serpent-like tails. The founder of the monastery, Grand Prince Stefan Nemanja, is interned at this church.
Medieval art lovers travel great distances just to see the frescoes of Studenica, masterpieces of 13th-Century art. The most exquisite among them is the Crucifixion, a striking religious depiction which focuses on the human perspective on suffering and pain.
The church’s treasury keeps items of Serbian applied art, including Stefan Nemanja’s ring, as well as metal artefacts, shrouds, charters, and many other relics.