The great beginning: the dynastic programme of the early Nemanjić rulers
The monastery of Žiča, also known as the „Great Church“ or „Mother of Churches“, was founded in the crucial, formative period of the Serbian medieval state. As the endowment of rulers, the resting-place of the remains of the first crowned Serbian king and, primarily, the coronation church of the independent state and the cathedral of the autocephalous church, Žiča represented one of the most complex programmatic achievements of the Nemanjić dynasty’s rulers, the centre of the state and church institutions.
The achievement of a concept of such format represented the end result of the endeavors made by members of the Nemanjić family at the end of the 12th and during the initial decades of the 13th century. Historical circumstances favored their fulfillment, firstly the victorious wars of Grand Zhupan Stefan Nemanja (1166–1196) against Byzantium, which resulted in the significant expansion of territory and attainment of international recognition, and secondly the fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1204. According to the criteria of those times, the admission of Serbia into the family of Christian states, as a legitimate nation, involved fulfilling several conditions – the acquisition of state independence, an autocephalous church, and Serbia’s own, authentic contribution to the Christian civilization.
The concept of Žiča as the center of the autocephalous Serbian Church has its pre-history, which should be observed in the broader context of the Serbian „church issue“ from the end of 12th and first two decades of the 13th century and is inseparable from the struggle for state independence. The foundation of the monastery of Hilandar (1198) and the Studenica Archimandriate (1207) was the main stages in this direction due to the fact that the typika compiled by Sava Nemanjić laid the groundwork for the monastic life in medieval Serbia. An active presence in the spiritual community of the Christian world at that time was achieved through a comprehensively conceived programme, centered on the cult of a holy ruler, realized through the canonization of Simeon Nemanja. Besides hagiographical and hymnological elements, the cult of a holy ruler was in the function of the sacral foundation of the state and building the image of a charismatic protector of the dynasty.
An ecclesiastical and spiritual center: Žiča at the time of Saint Sava
The construction of Žiča began in the period after 1207, following the transfer of Simeon Nemanja’s remains from Hilandar to Studenica, and it was located near to the confluence of the Ibar and the Morava rivers, in a spacious natural valley surrounded by hills, in an area rich in natural resources and well-connected by a network of communications. According to Sava’s biographers Domentijan and Teodosije, the structural form of the Church of the Ascension in Žiča have been completed by May 1220. The remaining, final tasks mainly consisted of procuring the icons and decorating the church. The painting of the vast interior of the Church of the Ascension could have started no earlier than the spring of 1220, and had to have been finished by the ‘Great Council’ which was held on Ascension Day in 1221. With this council – where Sava delivered the programmatic Sermon on True Faith, and with the coronation of Stefan Nemanjić, Žiča became the setting of key historical events.
Works on Žiča also continued during the third decade of the 13th century. The biggest venture was the construction of a spacious exonarthex, with a katechoumenion on the upper floor and, in front of it, a massive tower with a parekklesion on the upper floor and another room below it. Before Sava set off for the Holy Land in 1229, two major events once again took place in Žiča. The first was the ceremonial transfer of the relics of Stefan the First-Crowned from Studenica, where he was initially buried. This was a programmatic act of the highest order, in the function of the coronation role of the Church of the Ascension. The second was the coronation of Stefan’s son, Radoslav.
According to Domentijan, after returning to Serbia, Sava spent most of his time in Žiča, dedicating himself to organizing the church and strengthening the legal system. Prior to his second pilgrimage to the Holy Land, Sava installed his first successor, the hieromonk Arsenije, on „his God-given throne“ at the Council in Žiča (1234). On his voyage back from the Holy Land, Sava died in the Bulgarian capital of Trnovo, on January 14th, 1236. One of his last wishes was for the treasures he had collected in the East to be taken to Serbia – to Studenica and Žiča.
Among the scarce written testimonies on the foundation of Žiča, the founders’ charters of the monastery are chronologically the oldest. They are known nowadays thank to authentic transcriptions, written in fresco technique below the bell tower in front of the main entrance to the church. They are part of the broader and very elaborate painted programme, which includes portraits of the endowers, King Stefan the First-Crowned and his successor, Radoslav, among others.
Founding charters mention the royal gifts to the monastery, such as valuable relics and costly liturgical equipment, and provide lists of granted holdings, villages, parishes and cattle farmers. The charters also include provisions about the levies to be paid to Žiča and about the exemption of all donations to the church from the authority of the court archpriests. A particularly significant provision is the well-known clause that all future kings of this state and archbishops and bishops and hegoumenoi shall be crowned or appointed at Žiča. They also contain a series of provisions of general legislative character, which are valuable for learning about the various categories of Serbian medieval law.
In founding his endowment at Žiča, which became the seat of the autocephalous Serbian church at the same time, Stefan the First-Crowned also established the estate, which secured for the newly founded monastery everything it needed to live and function normally.
Judging by the transcript of the kings’ first endowment charter, the Žiča estate was granted more than 50 villages with their hamlets, six mountains and over 200 Vlachs – cattle breeders. The donated holdings were scattered over a wide area of Serbia in those times, but this lack of territorial connection did not affect the unity of the Žiča estate, which was also guaranteed by the jurisdiction of the archbishop over all donated properties and revenue.
Among other gifts the ktetors donated, the donation charter of the Church of the Ascension in Žiča also lists precious Christian relics: particles of the True Cross, instruments of the Passion, parts of the maphorion and belt of the Mother of God, the right arm and part of the head of John the Baptist, and particles of the relics of holy apostles, martyrs and other saints. These holy objects, along with other precious items, can be considered as the nucleus of the Žiča treasury, for which St Sava deserves the most credit.
According to his biographers, Sava of Serbia was well aware of the theological dimension of the cult of relics, and this is clearly revealed in the messages of the Sermon he delivered at the Žiča Council. Also, he clearly demonstrated his knowledge of their dynastic function while developing the cult of Saint Simeon and of the First-Crowned king.
Judging by its contents and value, the treasury of Žiča, according to contemporary standards, was a reliquary programme of the highest format, typical of the treasuries of European rulers, the most famous of which was the Sainte Chapelle of the holy king, Louise IX. What was certainly similar was its function, which relied on the belief that by displaying relics linked with the main protagonists of Biblical events, one could perform the symbolic translatio Hierosolymi rooted in the idea of the translatio imperii. This was the customary way in which many medieval dynasts laid sacral foundations for their authority.
Today, details about the contents of the Žiča treasury are impossible to reconstruct. Their loss has deprived us of knowledge not just about the number and repertoire of relics, but also about reliquaries in which they were kept. Still, two precious relics from the original collection of the Žiča treasury have survived to this day and were recently studied in detail. One is the right arm of John the Baptist and the other the staurotheke with the True Cross, both with inscriptions containing the name of St Sava of Serbia.
The Arm of St. John the Baptist is nowadays kept in the crypt of the Chapel of St. John the Baptist of the Sienna Cathedral. The relic of John the Baptist’s right arm consists of an embalmed, excellently preserved forearm, including the hand with fingers, with still visible parts of the tissue. The original reliquary is a special kind of cylindrical, gold-plated silver encasing, enfolding the arm. The upper part of the reliquary is closed by a calotte-shaped lid, in the center of which the bust of St. John is engraved, with the inscription „Saint John“. An inscription in two rows flows around the central field: „John the Precursor’s right arm. Shelter me, Sava, Archbishop of Serbia.“ The function of Precursor’s arm is not documented in sources, but it is presumed to have been used during important state and church ceremonies, such as were performed in Žiča during the Great Council in 1221.
The reliquary of the True Cross is nowadays kept in the Museo Diocesano in the city of Pienza in Tuscany. This is a valuable reliquary shaped like an elongated double-armed cross, characteristic of the Byzantine staurothekes. The handle of the cross contains an inscription in calligraphic letters and it reads: „Sava, the first archbishop, and patriarch of Serbia.“ The staurotheke was made by placing a metal wrapping of gold-plated silver around a wooden base, and parts of the relic of the True Cross are visible through two cruciform openings, covered by an oval rock crystal cabochon on the front of the cross. The arrangement and number of jewels, that are incorporated in the lavish decoration, are consistent with the messages and numerological schemes of the Apocalypse.
Both of these relics initially belonged to the treasury of the Church of the Ascension in Žiča. They shared its fate at the end of the 13th century when the center of the Serbian church was moved to Peć for security reasons. There, in the second half or at the end of the 14th century, the True Cross was transferred to a new reliquary, by order of the then Serbian patriarch, who preserved in the inscription the memory of the actual donor of the relic and perpetual role model for all future hierarchs. In the final, tumultuous period of Serbian statehood, the Branković house of rulers came into a possession of the Peć relics. Faced with the Turkish threat, the widow of Lazar Branković handed over the most precious valuables to her father, the despot of Morea, Thomas Palaiologos, who also took refuge in Italy a little later. He took with him the most important relics, including the True Cross, St. John the Baptist’s right arm and the head of St. Andrew and gave them, in exchange for a sizeable compensation, to Pope Pius II.
Concept and function of the Church of the Ascension
Having the inherited model of Studenica in mind, and the Nemanjić dynasty’s subsequent ktetorial practice, in the earliest stage, Žiča was supposed to become the funerary church of its ktetor. However, this idea was abandoned while the church was still under construction. The Church of the Ascension’s other functions during early Nemanjić rule are much more certain. Some of Sava’s most important activities in forming the church organization are connected with Žiča. The first church and state „Great Council“ (1221) was held in Žiča, and this event paved the way for the future congregational functioning of the state and church. Here, Sava also consecrated the bishops of newly formed diocesesans appointed the archpriests and priests, whom he sent throughout Serbia to perform missionary activities. These measures mark the beginning of the ‘social’ function of the church, through its comprehensive influence on both the religious and the public spheres. The central issue linked to the function of the Church of the Ascension as the coronation church, is very poorly documented in sources, but we have testimonies about the place and the ceremony of the coronation of Stefan the First-Crowned, with crown brought from Rome, as well as the descriptions of the coronation of Stefan’s sons and direct heirs, Radoslav and Vladislav, which also took place in Žiča.
What is important for understanding the range of meanings and functions of the Church of the Ascension in Žiča is its reliquary programme, based on the belief that the „reconstruction“ of the Holy Land was possible in one’s own environment, and was created for the needs of the sacral foundation of Nemanjić authority. From the standpoint of the initial concept, Žiča was designated, among other things, to be an important cult center. The focus of the cult were the relics of the first king, Stefan the First-Crowned, which were brought from Studenica to Žiča as the uncorrupted body, as a sure sign of divine grace. In this way, the coronation church acquired a sacral aura and the status of a national shrine of the highest order, where Serbian rulers were crowned above remains of their first, saintly predecessor. It was an idea of the great format, but ostensibly, of short duration. Considering that the position of Žiča became unsafe in the second half of the 13th century, the coronations of rulers were no longer performed there.
The spatial structure of the monastic settlement
The monastic settlement was surrounded by a high wall that separated the secular space from the sacral one. The monks’ kellia and buildings for their other needs were erected in a circle, inside the strong enclosure. They all faced the inner space. The internal content of the monastery was defined, as was its spatial shape. Besides the main church, its topography also included other buildings with particular cult roles and meaning. They were the gate tower and refectory, positioned opposite the western entrance to the main church of the monastery.
The architecture of the Ascension Church
The scheme of the ground plan of the church is the result of changes introduced at the end of the 13th century. At that time, the wall separating the nave from the narthex was demolished and replaced by lateral engaged piers and a transversal arch. A narthex of the church has a parekklesion on both of its sides, and they were formed as separate cult buildings. Later, but before the Great Council in 1221, the prothesis and the diakonikon were built and, at the same time, porches were added in front of the parekklesia. In the next, third phase, which was completed by 1230, a spacious exonarthex was built, with a tall tower on the western side.
The elongated plan of the Church of the Ascension is best reflected on its exterior, by the high longitudinal nave covered by the gabled roof. It is intersected by a massive prismatic base, over which the dome is highly elevated and is, like inside of the church as well, the building’s most dominant feature. The imposing character of the exterior was strengthened by polychromy. It was established that, initially, all facade surfaces were painted bright red, except the wreaths, arcade friezes and, probably, the frames around the windows.
Interesting point of its architecture is the use of artificial lighting that had particular importance in the liturgy in all churches belonging to the Eastern Christian rite, especially in the cathedral churches. In the hierarchy of lights, and it is the same with natural light as well, the most important source was the light coming from the dome. It was created by means of the choros. One is also believed to have existed in Žiča, evidence of which is a medallion bearing the image of a two-headed eagle, which is kept in the National Museum in Belgrade.
An essential characteristic of Serbian single-nave, domed churches is the Byzantine concept of the interior and the Romanic exterior. This duality of style is emulated by the Raška architecture, and the most representative example of it is the Church of the Mother of God in Studenica, which strongly influenced its successor: the Church of the Ascension in Žiča.
Wall painting of the Ascension Church
Faded and fragmented in barely coherent parts, the wall painting of the Church of the Ascension in Žiča is nowadays hardly distinguishable in terms of the former beauty and richness of its programme. The frescoes on more than half of the walls of the nave are gone, and only a few fragments remain in the large, two-storey narthex. However, being always a subject of studies throughout centuries, the Ascension Church’s researchers’ efforts have significantly contributed to increasing what is known about Serbian medieval art, and naturally the painting of Žiča itself.
Ideas at the core of the thematic programme and characteristics of iconography
The preserved scenes which describe the Lord Jesus Christ’s actions in the Redemption are present on both layers of the old painting in Žiča. The belief is that later frescoes, painted during renewal in the initial decades of the 14th century, repeated in full the topics of the initial painting programme from the period of St. Sava.
All the Christological scenes in this the dome and the area beneath the dome of the Ascension Church are preserved on the layer from the early 14th century though they also constituted a part of the initial programme. The traces of the painting in the lower part of the tambour of the dome belong to the monumental depiction of the Ascension of Christ. In the texts by the ecclesiastical writers, the Ascension is celebrated as the fulfilment of the economy of the Redemption which the paintings in the lower parts of the church call to mind, that is, as the elevation of redeemed human nature to heaven and the beginning of the officiation by the heavenly archpriest Christ – the head of the Church. Placing the Ascension in the dome of the Žiča monastery could have been influenced by the fact that the church was dedicated to the Ascension of Christ. Directly below the depiction of the Ascension, several scenes are grouped in the area beneath the dome of the church, which vividly communicate with it in the conceptual and thematic sense. On the one side, these are the illustrations of events that by just a step preceded the return of Christ to the bosom of the Father, such as the Incredulity of Thomas, the Mission of Apostles, or took place right after is, such as the Descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles, or those which are complementary to it in the sense of the Holy Sacrament – the Last Supper. On the other, they are images representing the chronological and dogmatic counterpoint of the Ascension, such as the Annunciation to Zacharias and the Annunciation to the Virgin. All of them together help in a more comprehensive explanation of the nature and significance of the Ascension in the economy of the Redemption, i.e. thereby explaining the sacramental construction of the Church. The purpose of the scene of the Mission of Apostles was to recall how the Lord revealed himself to his disciples as the Messiah after the Resurrection and sent them out, in his name, to preach the atonement of sin to all peoples, as the path of salvation. As he was leaving them, he promised that he would never leave them till the end of time, i.e. that he would send to them the Holy Spirit. The scene painted on the southern wall of the area beneath the dome of the Ascension Church – the Descent of the Holy Spirit – is the testimony of the fulfillment of his promise. According to the texts in the New Testament, Christ ascended to heaven in order for the Holy Spirit to come down upon the apostles and all people as the comforter and as a sign of reconciliation with God. For the disciples to be able to spread throughout the world the true belief in Christ as God incarnate who died for mankind and was resurrected, they first had to believe in his Resurrection themselves. The depiction of the Incredulity of Thomas, painted on the eastern part of the northern wall beneath the dome, can be traced to the moment when the Apostle Thomas expressed the most reluctance and doubt. In the desire to dissipate his disciple’s incredulity, the Lord showed himself to Thomas behind closed doors. After learning about the two natures of Christ in this way, Thomas expressed: „My Lord and my God“. The Orthodox Church teaches that having said these words the incredulous apostle was the first whose doubt was replaced by faith. Due to the fact that Christ’s high priesthood was expressed in the clearest manner during the Last Supper, this scene is painted on the western wall of the space beneath the dome.
If the scenes in the area beneath the dome of the Ascension Church are viewed separately from the Ascension in the dome, which is otherwise unjustified, one can see that the majority of these scenes are connected with the meeting chamber of the apostles at Mount Sion, as the location of the events. This is why the fresco programme in the highest zones of Žiča was once called „Sion redaction“. Another opinion put forward is that with this particular selection of scenes in the area beneath the dome, St. Sava wished to emphasize the idea of the „mother of all churches“ – the house at Sion where the apostles had gathered, the first Christian Church – and to present Žiča as the „mother of all Serbian churches“.
Eight scenes of the Great Feast Days, along with some accompanying scenes from the Passion of Christ, are positioned towards the choirs and western part of the church. This continuation of the Christological cycle is now only partly preserved. The following paintings are visible in their entirety or in part: the Transfiguration, the Entry into Jerusalem, the Crucifixion, the Deposition from the Cross and the Descent into Hades. The first two are painted on the layer from the 14th century, while the latter three date back to the time of St. Sava. Painted in the upper zone of the northern choir in Žiča were the scenes of the Nativity, the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple and the Baptism, and in the southern – besides the Transfiguration and the Descent into Hades – the Resurrection of Lazarus. The Entry into Jerusalem, as a continuation of the series, is preserved in the second zone on the southern wall of the nave. Connecting the Transfiguration, the Descent into Hades and the Resurrection of Lazarus, assembled in one place the illustrations of the Great Feast Days most clearly presented the glory of Christ and his divine nature. The Nativity, the Presentation in the Temple and the Baptism were once intended to represent a programme parallel to the mentioned scenes in the northern choir. These illustrations speak of the descent of Christ on earth, his human nature and his submission the laws that apply to humanity.
The Dormition of the Virgin from the 14th century now covers the entire western wall of the former narthex, but it is certain that this scene was painted on the western wall of the nave at the start of the 13th century. Only after this wall was pulled down at the end of 13th century and the spaces of the former nave and narthex were joined, did the need arise for the representation of the Dormition of the Virgin, destroyed in the said demolition, to be placed in its current location.
Directly beneath the dome, at the start of the 14th century, representations were painted that were quite common for the programme of this part of the medieval churches in the Orthodox world. In a clockwise direction, the images of the evangelists are depicted on the pendentives in the reverse order of that in which their texts appear in the New Testament. The spaces between the pendentives are occupied by the Mandylion, the Keramion and the busts of two angels in medallions. The images of the prophets were painted in the lower zone of the church. By all accounts, a series of 18 figures and busts of the Old Testament visionaries were once painted here. In the spatial and conceptual sense, they were joined by figures of the four Biblical high priests painted at the same level, though in the altar space. With their appearance and their acts, they heralded the archpriesthood of Christ as well as that of the subsequent hierarchs of the Christian Church.
The wall painting of the sanctuary in the Žiča katholikon, only partly preserved nowadays, once featured a rather developed programme ensemble. Eight hierarchs included in the scene of the Officiating Church Fathers were painted below the half-dome of the conch, and in the register below – a series of eight icons with busts of the holy archpriests. One can observe that all but two were heads of the Patriarchy of Constantinople. Other parts of the altar area were decorated with the representations of the holy archpriests, deacons, stylites, deacon angels and the previously mentioned Old Testaments high priests. All these figural presentations were painted on the fresco layer from the 14th century. Only individual frescoes with painted ornaments originated from the beginning of the 13th century. It can be proved that the Communion of the Apostles was painted in the vault of the altar bay of the Ascension Church, exactly like in the Holy Apostles in Peć. The Ascension Church in Žiča had the Deisis in the half-dome of the apse, which was outside the mainstream art of Constantinople of that time. The programme in Žiča, especially the Ascension in the dome and the Deisis in the half-dome of the apse stressed two very important and dogmatically connected events – the ascension of the Theanthropos and His Second Coming. The binding of these scenes to two key points in the church’s topography gave the painting powerful eschatological and soteriological accents. This served as the indication of the deepest sense of the economy of the Redemption and the final purpose of liturgical assembly.
Particular emphasis was laid on the fresco icons of the Saviour – the incarnated God – and the Mother of God with him as an infant in her arms in the programme in the lowest zone of the painting, representing the invocatory nucleus of the entire programme. Represented next to the iconostasis, they are positioned right below the picture of the Annunciation and the images of the prophets, who heralded the coming of God in flash. The representations of four saints are painted right next to Christ and the Mother of God, at the eastern end of the lateral walls of the space beneath the dome. To the south are St. Stephen the Protomartyr and St. Demetrios, and to the north – St. Sabbas of Jerusalem and St. George. The lateral parekklesia of the former narthex of the Ascension Church are dedicated to the St. Stephen and St. Sabbas, the namesakes of the first and second donors of Žiča. The images of St. John the Precursor and St. Nicholas of Myra were painted on the western pair of engaged piers beneath the dome. With the Protomartyr and St. Sabbas of Jerusalem, they belong among those holy persons whose figures had pride of place on the engaged piers supporting the dome or around them in the endowments of the early generations of the Nemanjić dynasty. The angel with the ‘instruments of Passion’ and the Virgin of the Passion, holding the frightened infant in her arms, were painted on the sides of the south-western engaged pier. Along with the already mentioned scenes of the Crucifixion and the Deposition from the Cross, in the choirs were also the figures of the major apostles, as well the bust of an angel painted in the medallion in each of them. The notion about the significance of the apostles in the history of Christ’s Church, expressed so strongly in the space beneath the dome, gained its fullness in the choirs. The images of saints in the western part of the church include the frescoes of St. Samonas, St. Gourias and St. Abibas in the lowest zone, three Jewish and three Persian martyrs placed opposite each other in the second zone of the western pair of engaged piers beneath the dome, the depiction of two archangels holding a sphere with Christ’s image in the lowest register of the western wall and opposite to them are the figures of three physician saints. The figures of the warrior saints were painted in the first western bay, while the frescoes of monks are visible in the former narthex. On the southern wall, the monks are led by three figures, which could be identified as St. Anthony the Great, St. Euthimios the Great and St. Arsenios the Great. Three poet saints are painted at the head of the series on the northern wall.
Cycles and individual figures in the parekklesia
The dedication of the northern parekklesion, next to the original narthex, to St. Sabbas of Jerusalem, and of the southern one to Stephen the Protomartyr – the two saints which the Nemanjić dynasty deeply revered – played a notable role in the formulation of the programmes in these chapels. Thus, scenes from the hagiographical cycles of these patrons were painted in the second zone of the walls of both lateral parekklesia. The dedication of the parekklesia also played its part in the choice of saints represented in the lowest zone of painting. It is obvious that the images of older men – the famous Fathers of the Desert – are featured in the parekklesion of St. Sabbas of Jerusalem, whereas the portrayals of young deacons and martyrs predominate in the Protomartyr’s parekklesion. The Officiating Church Fathers painted in the altar area are proof of the liturgical purpose of both parekklesia, along with the holy bishops and deacons facing forward. The third zone of northern parekklesion is occupied by scenes from the life of the Holy Virgin, and the scene of the Crucifixion is preserved in the same register of the southern one, as the remnant of some Christological cycle. The bust of an Old Testament high priest was painted in at least one pendentive of each lateral parekklesion, while their dome programmes, unfortunately, remain completely unknown. The series of scenes of cycles and figures of saints in the lowest zone of the southern parekklesion are in the reverse direction of the series from the parekklesion of St. Sabbas of Jerusalem. All the paintings in these parekklesia, except for the pair of ornamental bands beneath the dome in the southern one, are preserved on the layer from the 14th century.
The porch on the ground floor
The symbolism of the entrance into the church completely permeates the unique thematic programme of the frescoes on the ground floor of the tower. The contents of this interesting painting, originating from the second decade of the 14th century, are almost entirely known. The figures of St. Peter and St. Paul can be seen on the arch of the passageway. With the use of a particular iconography in the Ascension Church, they are additionally emphasized as the cornerstones of the Church on earth. In this way, the apostolic character of the Church of Christ, which is present in many segments of the Žiča programme, was once again highlighted at the very entrance. Since the path of the Redemption leads only through the apostolic church, there are many reasons why the scene that teaches how to enter the Kingdom of Heaven is painted above St. Peter and St. Paul. It seems that the scene of the Suffering of the Martyrs of Sebaste, which soars over the entire space and conveys a baptismal symbolism, speaks also of joining the Church and, through it, entering the promised kingdom. Since the ktetors’ charters and portraits are located in the rather narrow entrance zone, it was clearly the intention of the creators of the programme for all who enter the cathedral church to encounter them. The ktetorship of the state’s principal cathedral church, with their portraits before its doors, singled Stefan the First-Crowned and Radoslav out as the leaders of the great assembly of the people baptized and saved within the true faith. This thought was further developed and explained in a somewhat different manner by the picture that includes the figures of „second donors“, the renovators of Žiča. Presented above the portraits of the ktetors, is the Christmas Hymn, in the celebration of which Serbian king Milutin and Archbishop Sava III are participating. The symmetry in the representation of the ruler and the leader of the Church, while they jointly celebrate God as the supreme Lord, expresses the notion of the harmony between the state and church authority on earth. Here, they both confirmed the Christian legitimacy of their dignity and, together with the whole of the universe, presented a worthy gift to the source of all powers. With the archbishop and the king, like in the continuation of the processions they were leading, all their baptized people were entering the renovated Church that had been founded upon apostolic teachings. Actually, this heralded the eschatological entry into the promised Kingdom of God.
Church of the Saints Theodores
(Saints Peter and Paul)
The Church of the Saints Theodores is a single-nave building with a broad altar apse, slightly narrower than the nave which is divided by engaged piers into two bays approximately the same length. The church is built of large rectangular blocks of trachyte, between which there are layers of four rows of bricks, separated by mortar bonding which is as wide as the bricks. On the basis of known examples, one can conclude that the alternation of two sorts of building material was widespread on the facades of the churches from the last decades of the 14th and the start of 15th century when the parekklesion of the Saints Theodores can be dated as well.
Some interesting fragments of frescoes were discovered in a purpose-made pit in the Church of the Saints Theodores in the seventies of the last century. The iconographic contents include the Holy Mother of God on the throne surrounded by archangels in the semi-calotte of its altar and the representation of the Communion of the Apostles in the upper part of the altar conch. Moreover, there was a series of busts of saints in medallions in the second zone of the lateral and the western walls, the busts of bishops were arranged in the altar area, while the busts of martyrs were in the nave. In the third zone on the walls were scenes of the Great Feasts. Only the fragments that used to belong to the initial and final scenes of the Annunciation, the Nativity of Christ, probably the Descent into Hades, and the Descent of the Holy Spirit have been preserved. As for the lower parts of the church, there is a relatively well-preserved representation of the patrons – the Saints Theodores, Tiron and Stratelate, turned in prayer towards the bust of Christ Emmanuel, in the lunette.
The church was painted by two artists that can be said to be typical representatives of the wall painting of Moravian Serbia based on their usage of rainbow colors to fill the space between the medallions. They introduced a developed decorative system as a significant pictorial element into the fresco painting of the small Žiča church, illustrating the stylistic maturity of their art. Hence, it could be said that the fresco painting of the Saints Theodores dates from the end of the 14th century or, more likely, from the first decades of the 15th century.
Žiča under the Ottoman rule and in the new epoch
With the fall of Smederevo in 1459, the Serbian lands surrendered to Turkish domination that lasted several centuries. The loss of the state’s independence also had major consequences for the Serbian Church which, deprived of the patronage of its rulers and representatives of the social elite, lost the guarantor of its autocephaly, powerful protectors and ktetors. The position of the Žiča monastery, exposed and close to important communication routes which armies used during their campaigns, account for its frequent devastation. It is believed that Žiča was devastated, and then abandoned, around 1520, and the monastery was not renewed for the next four decades. In 1562, Metropolitan of Smederevo Zaharije undertook the reconstruction of Žiča. Based on the available information, the question remains open as to whether Žiča sustained at least a basic thread of existence at the end of the 16th and during the 17th century. It seems the monastery was ultimately deserted in the period of the Austro-Turkish wars, in the ninth decade of the 17th century, which worsened the plight of the Christian population and led to frequent reprisals against the monasteries. Life in the Žiča monastery was no longer possible after the great destruction following the Austro-Turkish wars.
The situation changed during the Uprising in Serbia when the rebels continued the earlier building activities in the liberated areas. One such venture was the building of a refectory for the monks which took place after Karadjordje visited Žiča in 1806. The small church of the Saint Theodores was reconstructed in 1810, when Saints Peter and Paul became new patrons, to serve the needs of the monks and the inhabitants of the surrounding settlements. After that, the liturgy could be held only in that small church because the large one was in ruins, without vaults and the calotte of the dome. In 1856 the reconstruction began of the monastery’s katholikon, the Church of the Ascension, but the works that began in 1925 were much more extensive and complex, including renovations in the interior and exterior of the monastery. The enterprising bishop of Žiča, Nikolaj Velimirović commenced building the bishops’ palace in the north-western corner of the monastery and, on the opposite side, the refectory and the Church of St. Sava. He also erected a large number of buildings for the accommodation of the monks and for the monastery’s economy.
This drive in the reconstruction of the Žiča monastery was interrupted by World War II when it was bombed and all the monastery buildings were burned down and destroyed. The monastery remained in that state until 1948, when nuns were installed there and construction works began in order to house them. Since then, secular monastery buildings were gradually erected – most of them after the 1987 earthquake.