The Balkans and Romania

The boundaries of the different nation states have been particularly fluid in the Balkans and it may be unwise to attempt to differentiate eastern Serbian and western Bulgarian art or to distinguish the Bulgarian, Serbian and Byzantine strands in the art of Macedonia. The frescoes in St Sophia in Ohrid, c.1040, or in the church of St Pante-leimon in Nerezi of 1164 (plate 18.13), may show evidence of the participation by local artists, but ultimately bear the stamp of Byzantine artists and the theology of Byzantine patrons. However, by the late twelfth century and early thirteenth century, church architecture in the Balkans demonstrates a certain hybrid mixture of Byzantine, western Romanesque and indigenous traditions.

The Monastery of the Virgin at Studenica was founded by the Serbian Grand Zupan Stefan Nemanjic in 1192. Its immaculate ashlar construction with a marbled exterior and extensive relief carvings appears very un-Byzantine and suggests that masons were invited here from the Adriatic littoral; however, the domed square core flanked by barrel vaults clearly reflects Byzantine conventions. The other peculiarity is the general oval plan, which is in contrast to the rectangular structures in Byzantine and Romanesque architecture, and which appears in Studenica and then recurs in numerous other Serbian churches including Mileseva, Sopocani and Decani. The frescoes in the katholikon of Studenica, dated by inscription to 1209, which include a vast Crucifixion (plate 18.14), remain faithful to Byzantine iconographic conventions, while the Slav inscriptions suggest the participation of local artists. Although Serbia at this time flirted with western Catholicism, Stefan Nemanjic's youngest son, Rastko, became a monk on Athos and took the name of Sava and later became the first archbishop of the independent Serbian Orthodox Church. Two years after his death in 1235, his remains were translated to the Church of the Ascension at the monastery in Mileseva, which had been founded in 1230, and which was built in the same hybrid architectural style as Studenica. The frescoes again retain the purity of Byzantine iconography and although there is an inscription that they were painted by Demetrios, George and Theodore, the ethnicity of the artists is unclear. There seems little evidence to suggest that the artists were anything other than Serbs, but possibly working in collaboration with Greek artists, and certainly working within the eastern Orthodox Byzantine tradition and in the process creating some of the most powerful and moving images of the thirteenth century.

At Sopocani, King Stefan Uros founded a monastery to which he translated the remains of his father, St Stefan Nemanjic, in 1266, and probably at the same time had the katholikon, the Church of the Holy Trinity, decorated. Again it is a case of hybrid Romanesque, Byzantine and indigenous architectural forms which created large expanses of wall surfaces that were decorated with Byzantine iconography including an immense image of the Koimesis. The inclusion of secular imagery dealing with the life of the donors (Sopocani was designed as the mausoleum for the royal house) does have Byzantine precedence, but as it was created at a time when few works survive in the Byzantine capital it is difficult to point to precise parallels. The tendency amongst some western art historians to categorize this art stylistically as metropolitan, provincial, monastic or courtly (Rice 1968) is not particularly useful, as unlike western European developments in art where such stylistic morphology can lead to the designation of different schools of art, Orthodox religious iconography was in many ways a conservative tradition which had been liturgically prescribed, and the emergence of a Serbian national school occurred within these conventions.

There has also been a tendency to view the art of the Balkans of the thirteenth century as a surrogate for artistic developments in the inner provinces of the empire from which very little monumental art survives. The argument of centre and periphery within the Byzantine context is difficult to maintain as the extant art from the Balkans in the thirteenth century was primarily a religious art serving a liturgical function, while its secular associations in the form of donor portraits also adhered to well-established conventions. It can be argued that the same workshop responsible for the mosaics in Hosios Loukas in Greece later travelled to Kiev to work on the mosaics in St Sophia, while other artists worked in Thrace, Macedonia and Greece, or travelled to Cappadocia and Cyprus. A Byzantine artist trained in Constantinople later worked in Novgorod and Moscow and it becomes highly problematic to attempt to establish an ethnicity for the artist who decorated the chapel of the Holy Trinity at the Serbian Hilandar monastery of Mount Athos in a style similar to that of Sopocani. It is possible to speak of an Orthodox artistic tradition in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries which thrived on its multi-ethnicity and multi-nationality, but which was essentially a single and united tradition with numerous regional variations.

Outside Sofia in Bulgaria there still exists a wonderful church dedicated to SS Nicholas and Panteleimon at Boyana, with frescoes dated 1259 executed in a Byzantine style and with a taste for realism in detail. Earlier, during the first Bulgarian kingdom (681-1061), together with the three-aisle basilicas there appeared centrally planned domed triconch churches like St Panteleimon in Ohrid, c.893. During the second Bulgarian kingdom (1193-1393) the church at Boyana was built in the form of a cruciform, centrally planned building, which appears to bring together local and Byzantine architectural forms.

In the fourteenth century, prior to the Turkish invasion of the Balkans, in the katholikon of the Decani monastery, decorated c.1335-50, we encounter one of the most elaborate and remarkable iconographic programmes from Serbia, containing a very complex fresco of the Nemanjic family tree. It demonstrates a sophisticated manner of working and points to the wonderful late flowering of the Morava school at Ravanica, c.1378, Kalenic c.1413-17 and Manasija (or Resava) c.1406-18, where the paintings have a visionary spiritual power. A considerable number of icons from the Balkan region also survive, including a curious Bulgarian ceramic icon of St Theodore with a Bulgarian inscription, possibly c.900, in Sofia, and a large number of icons in the collections of the Hilandar Monastery, in Ohrid and in Skopje.

In Romania, in the traditional territories of Wallachia, Moldavia and Transylvania, by the mid-fourteenth century there was sufficient economic prosperity and political stability for the construction and decoration of the major churches of Cozia and St Nicholas at Curtea-de-Arges, c.1362-6, whose frescoes may be compared with those of the Chora Monastery in Constantinople (plate 18.15). A golden age of Romanian architecture occurred in the fifteenth century during the reign of Stephen the Great, while one of the most original contributions to the Orthodox tradition was made by Moldavians in the sixteenth century, with a series of churches with externally frescoed walls. These include the St George church at Voronet, c.1488-96, with its impressive Last Judgement exterior wall painting, and those in St George in Suceava (1522), Humor (1535), Moldovita (1537) and Sucevita (c.1600) (Nandris 1970). The defeat of the Serbs at the Battle of Kosovo in 1389 by the Ottoman Turks and the final abolition of the Serbian state in 1459, and the Turkish occupation of Bulgaria from 1394 to 1878, severely restricted the development of Orthodox art in the Balkans. It was only after the liberation of Bulgaria in the Russo-Turkish wars in 1878 and the liberation of much of Serbia in the 1860s that the production of Orthodox art was once again revived, but now largely in neo-Baroque and neo-Renaissance styles.

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