Studenica Monastery

Made of marble and spirit. An exhibition of art and history of the ancient Serbian Lavra.

By Ministry of Culture and Media of the Republic of Serbia

Studenica Monastery; Aerial view from the southwestern side by Author of the photo Marko TodorovićMinistry of Culture and Media of the Republic of Serbia

'A wild hunting ground' becomes a Monastery site

Studenica is one of the most important Serbian monasteries from the Medieval period, a very significant cultural and historic site. Spiritual and monastic life in Studenica have never been cut short or suspended, so today it can pride itself on the continuity of more than eight centuries.

The monastery was founded in 1186 as the memorial and sepulchral church of the first Serbian ruler of the Nemanjić Dynasty, the Grand Prince (Župan) Stefan Nemanja (circa 1113‒1199), who was later ordained and became monk Simeon. At Studenica, in 1208 Sava Nemanjić, the founder’s youngest son, wrote The Hagiography of Saint Simeon as the first chapter (Letter one) of Studenica Typikon.

Saint Sava notes about the monastery construction:
This, our holy monastery, as it is known, was a wasteland, a wild hunting ground. 
Yet, upon arriving to hunt, our master and consolidator, Stefan Nemanja,
who ruled the entire Serbian lands, whilst hunting here, decided to build,
on this wasteland, this monastery, for peace and for the multiplicatio of the monastic order.

Aerial view from the northern side; Studenica Monastery; by Author of the photo Marko TodorovićMinistry of Culture and Media of the Republic of Serbia

On the UNESCO list

Cloistered and surrounded by peaceful hills, pine groves and forests, situated 57 km away from the town of Kraljevo, and 11 km away from the lovely gorge of the Ibar River and the village of Ušće, Studenica Monastery is a place dedicated to the quietude of monastic life.    

Аs the cradle of literature, spirituality and arts, it is an institution for all time embedded into the very foundations of the Serbian statehood and cultural history of the Balkans, Europe, and the Mediterranean.

Bell tower, Studenica Monastery (1230) by Author of the photo Marko TodorovićMinistry of Culture and Media of the Republic of Serbia

Studenica is a remarkable, extraordinary example of a Serbian Orthodox monastery complex, which is significant not only because it has preserved its original shape as constructed in the period from 12th to 19th century, but also because it stands out for its beautiful surroundings where the mountain river Studenica with its fresh, thirst–quenching water flows.

Aerial view from the northeast; Studenica Monastery by Author of the photo Marko TodorovićMinistry of Culture and Media of the Republic of Serbia

The spatial unit of Studenica Monastery includes inside its circular wall with two fortified gates several churches built during the reign of the Nemanjić dynasty – from 1186 to the first half of the 14th century, refectory, monks’ quarters and archeological remains of different buildings.

With hundreds of years of care and upgrading, there were once as many as 14 churches in the Studenica Monastery complex in the 18th century. The wider protected zone of the Monastery includes the 10 kilometers distant Sava’s hermitages, whose current churches date from the 16th century.

Covering an area of 1.16 hectares within its inner perimeter and extending over a protected area of 269 hectares, Studenica Monastery has outstanding, unique, exceptional, unmitigated, universal cultural and historic value, which is why in 1986 it was included on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites.    

Studenica Monastery with the lodgings by Author of the photo Marko TodorovićMinistry of Culture and Media of the Republic of Serbia

Serbian Lavra governed by the Mother of God the Benefactress


There are not many places in the world that have managed to keep alive the spark of their authentic beauty from the bygone era. Studenica Monastery is one of those places because it stands as a unique and magnificent medieval architectonic shrine, the cornerstone of Serbian State and Serbian Orthodox Church’s independence, gained in 1219.

View from the eastern side: Church of Saints Joachim and Ana, Studenica Monastery (1314) by Author of the photo Marko TodorovićMinistry of Culture and Media of the Republic of Serbia

The essential part of the Monastery was built in the period from the 12th to 14th centuries. This complex gradually developed in time, and nowadays it comprises a unique structure of endowments with the majestic old church dedicated to the Holy Virgin the Benefactress in its center. In the interior of the entrance tower, portraits of Nemanja’s two sons, Grand Prince Stefan the First–Crowned and Grand Prince Vukan were painted in 1210.

Rampart; Studenica Monastery; by Author of the photo Marko TodorovićMinistry of Culture and Media of the Republic of Serbia

These paintings are among the oldest portraits in the history of Serbian medieval art. Ever since its foundation in the late 12th century, it was given the highest rank of the Royal Lavra, and it had a special place among all Serbian monasteries, as St. Sava of Serbia instructed in the Studenica Monastery Tipikon:

Cross on the remains of the Church of Saint John, Studenica Monastery by Author of the photo Marko TodorovićMinistry of Culture and Media of the Republic of Serbia

I instruct, therefore, to all of you in the name of our Lord God
 the Ruler of All that this holy monastery be independent among 
all the governing ones, free of any supervision, not subject to any other
rights, but only governed by the Mother of God the Benefactress,
and by the prayer of our venerable father, and consolidator, [by]
the one acting as an Abbot in it.
St. Sava, The Tipikon of Studenica, chapter XII  

Studenica Monastery; View from the northeastern side by Author of the photo Marko TodorovićMinistry of Culture and Media of the Republic of Serbia

Majestic architectonic marble “reliquary”

The most beautiful and aesthetically most complex building within the Studenica Monastery is the Church of the Holy Virgin the Benefactress. This architectonical masterpiece from the late 12th century was erected as the funerary church of the Nemanjić dynasty founder, Stefan Nemanja (Saint Simeon the Myrrh–Streaming).

Southern portal; The Church of the Holy Virgin, Studenica Monastery by Author of the photo Marko TodorovićMinistry of Culture and Media of the Republic of Serbia

More than 40 meters long, it stands out in its surroundings. Looking like a cross inscribed within the circular–shaped fortification protecting the monastery, this majestic old church was built with top–quality marble, which gleams and glitters in the sunshine like a precious reliquary revealed in the open air.

The church treasures holy relics of the Studenica founder – Saint Simeon, the holy relics of his wife Ana – Saint Anastasia, as well as the relics of the first Serbian king of the Nemanjić dynasty, Saint Stephen the First-Crowned – Venerable Simon the monk.

Exonarthex of king Radoslav and Church of Saints Joachim and Ana, Studenica Monastery by Author of the photo Marko TodorovićMinistry of Culture and Media of the Republic of Serbia

Next to the majestic Church of the Holy Virgin built in the time of Stefan Nemanja and his son Saint Sava, dating from the same period are the dining hall, located in its immediate vicinity, the remains of the Great Lodgings constructed to serve as the dwelling house for monks, the residence for the ktetor, as well as Saint Nicholas church, foundations of Saint John the Forerunner’s church and a small church erected in 1314. in the age of king Milutin Nemanjić, dedicated to Saints Joachim and Anne. 

View from the northeastern side; The Church of the Holy Virgin, Studenica Monastery by Author of the photo Marko TodorovićMinistry of Culture and Media of the Republic of Serbia

Outstanding synthesis of architectural styles

The Church of the Holy Virgin the Benefactress is a building of extraordinary beauty and harmonious dimensions, constructed by the most experienced builders and stone–craftsmen of the late 12th century. Serbian Grand Prince Stefan Nemanja, a ruler with cosmopolitan views, who had a chance to see first–hand both the Byzantine and the Occidental art, realized that the best ideas and the greatest achievements in dominant, innovative styles of that era – Romanesque and Byzantine – should not conflict.

Detail on the southern facade, The Church of the Holy Virgin, Studenica Monastery by Author of the photo Marko TodorovićMinistry of Culture and Media of the Republic of Serbia

Wishing to combine them, he decided that his memorial would be made as a specific synthesis of seemingly contradictory architectonical styles. Thus, the inner area is structured by the principles of Byzantine art, with the altar placed on the eastern side, while walls and the outer surfaces of the church are made in the fashion characteristic for Romanesque art.

The sundial; The Church of the Holy Virgin, Studenica Monastery (1208) by Author of the photo Marko TodorovićMinistry of Culture and Media of the Republic of Serbia

The way the two styles were used in Studenica had not been seen before. Great efforts were made and significant resources used to complete the construction of the sepulchral church of the founder, together with auxiliary buildings, within a period of only 10 years (1186–1196). All the entrance portals, high and majestic, were cut from the finest marble, decorated with marvelous wall sculpture in relief.

The Western portal of the Church of the Holy Virgin, Studenica Monastery by Author of the photo Marko TodorovićMinistry of Culture and Media of the Republic of Serbia

The Studenica Monastery Church of the Virgin the Benefactress served as a model for other churches built in a distinctive style called “the Raška style”, a special branch in eastern medieval church architecture named by the capital in Ras near today’s city Novi Pazar, where was the seat of the Serbian state. The Church of the Virgin Benefactress in Studenica holds a special place among them and represents a hard–to–reach model of architectural beauty.

Main altar apse with triple arched marble window, The Church of the Holy Virgin, Studenica Monastery by Author of the photo Marko TodorovićMinistry of Culture and Media of the Republic of Serbia

Unique sculptural decoration

The Church of the Holy Virgin in Studenica was built with cubically cut pieces of top–quality precious white and grey marble, excavated in the quarry on the Radočelo Mountain, 3 km away from the Monastery, which still exists. The outer surface of the marble blocks used in the building of the Church of the Holy Virgin in Studenica was carved in such a way that it appears polished, and at some places, it is even sculpted.

Such kind of delicate work could be done only by very skilled master artisans. On the eastern side of the church, there is one beautiful marble window with three openings, with ornaments. The sculpting program of this window is so specific that the true meaning of the displayed representations is still being explored.

It is adorned with a lush garland with different patterns of flowers and floral representations probably symbolizing Paradise, which are contrasted with the symbols assuming to represent the seven deadly sins, with figures of two monks on their knees in its base, one holding an open book in front of him. 

Frescoes in the altar apse of the Church of the Holy Virgin, Studenica Monastery (1208/1209) by Author of the photo Marko TodorovićMinistry of Culture and Media of the Republic of Serbia

A stunning gallery of invaluable old wall paintings

With its temples and its ancillary buildings, its treasury with an exhibition area, its fortification and Saint Sava’s hermitage cells, the Studenica Monastery is an authentic and unique structure that testifies both to the history and the spirit of Serbian culture and art.

A stunning gallery of valuable old wall paintings can be seen under the domes of its temples, especially at the Church of the Holy Virgin the Benefactress.

 The magnificent old wall paintings are dated by the inscription in 1208/1209. In the eastern part of the church, at the semicircular apse, the frescoes are displayed in three zones.

The scene of the Officiating Bishops (St. John the Chrysostom, St. Gregory the Theologian, St. Cyril of Alexandria, St. Basil the Great, St. Athanasius of Alexandria, St. John the Merciful) is in the first zone. Above is a rare scene Christ еstablishes the Sacrament of the Holy Communion, and at the top is the depiction of the Mother of God Oranta with Christ in a medallion, flanked by two angels. 

View from the narthex to naos; The Church of the Holy Virgin, Studenica Monastery by Author of the photo Marko TodorovićMinistry of Culture and Media of the Republic of Serbia

Magnificent frescoes from 1208/1209.

Ten years after the construction of the Church of the Holy Virgin was completed, Stefan Nemanja’s sons, in particular Sava Nemanjić, who was the Abbott of Studenica Monastery at that time, endeavored to finish their father’s memorial and the church that was his burial place.

Saint Mathew the Evangelist, The Church of the Holy Virgin, Studenica Monastery (1208/1209) by Author of the photo Marko TodorovićMinistry of Culture and Media of the Republic of Serbia

Thanks to Sava’s efforts, the best painters of that time were engaged to decorate the walls of the Church of the Holy Virgin. They painted in the fresco technique, using the high–priced lapis lazuli and gold.

Holy Virgin of Studenica; The Church of the Holy Virgin, Studenica Monastery (1208/1209) by Author of the photo Marko TodorovićMinistry of Culture and Media of the Republic of Serbia

Master painters who made such outstanding work of art in the Studenica Monastery probably came from Constantinople. The inscriptions on the frescos were for the first time written in the old Serbian language.

Besides the monumental Crucifixion fresco, in the western part of naos are the ktetor composition, Great Feasts, and representations of the Mother of God signed as “of Studenica” and different Saints, which are carefully arranged and make a unique program assembly.

The Venerable nun Anastasia; The Church of the Holy Virgin, Studenica Monastery (1568) by Author of the photo Marko TodorovićMinistry of Culture and Media of the Republic of Serbia

The state of these delicate wall paintings is constantly monitored by relevant experts. Conservation and restoration work in the Church of the Virgin the Benefactress have been conducted in the service of restoring the original appearance.

Crucifixion, fresco; The Church of the Holy Virgin, Studenica Monastery (1208/1209) by Author of the photo Marko TodorovićMinistry of Culture and Media of the Republic of Serbia


Impressive Crucifixion: the masterpiece of Serbian medieval art


The western wall of the Church of the Holy Virgin is occupied by one of the finest works of Serbian medieval art, the magnificent representation of the Crucifixion of the Lord Jesus Christ. This impressive wall painting made by a very talented anonymous author is a representation of the most tragic event from the entire Christian history: 

The lamentable moment when Jesus dies on the Cross, mourned by the angels, while standing under the Cross is His Mother, the Most Holy Virgin, with several women by her side, and His favorite disciple, Saint John the Apostle, as well as the soldier Longinus, standing next to him. The deep blue background is spangled with shiny gold–painted stars, even though it was only the fifteenth hour of the day at that moment.

Ktetor portrait of Stefan Nemanja, Studenica Monastery by Author of the photo Marko TodorovićMinistry of Culture and Media of the Republic of Serbia

Next to the Crucifixion, painted above the sepulcher of the founder of the Studenica Monastery, is an extraordinarily significant fresco: Saint Simeon Nemanja, holding his memorial church in his hands, is brought by the Most Holy Virgin before Jesus Christ the Righteous Judge enthroned.  

Lamb with the Cross, The Church of the Holy Virgin, Studenica Monastery, Author of the photo Marko Todorović, From the collection of: Ministry of Culture and Media of the Republic of Serbia
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Detail of the southern portal; The Church of the Holy Virgin, Studenica Monastery, Author of the photo Marko Todorović, From the collection of: Ministry of Culture and Media of the Republic of Serbia
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Eagle and mythological creature Sirin, The Church of the Holy Virgin, Studenica Monastery, Author of the photo Marko Todorović, From the collection of: Ministry of Culture and Media of the Republic of Serbia
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Apostle; The Church of the Holy Virgin, Studenica Monastery, Author of the photo Marko Todorović, From the collection of: Ministry of Culture and Media of the Republic of Serbia
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Lioness sculpture; The Church of the Holy Virgin, Studenica Monastery, Author of the photo Marko Todorović, From the collection of: Ministry of Culture and Media of the Republic of Serbia
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As for the architecture of the Church of the Holy Virgin of the Studenica Monastery, its particular value lies in its wall sculptures, the oldest and most important whole in the Serbian medieval history of art. The sculpting quality, richness and craftsmanship make the Studenica sculpture unique. On the outside, on the marble window with three openings, there are different symbols within a lush garland on the left side. Among them, there is a representation of the Lamb with the Cross. As the lamb has no halo but has horns, it is assumed that it represents Judah and the sin of betrayal and greed.        

Mythological creature Basilisk, The Church of the Holy Virgin, Studenica Monastery by Author of the photo Marko TodorovićMinistry of Culture and Media of the Republic of Serbia

Mythological creature Basilisk

In the head of the same window frame at the Studenica church of the Holy Virgin the Benefactress there is a distinctive representation of the basilisk, a mythical creature with the body of a rooster and the tail of a serpent on the right side. It stands in front of the terrifying creature looking like a dragon, that is devouring a man.

Snake; The Church of the Holy Virgin, Studenica Monastery by Author of the photo Marko TodorovićMinistry of Culture and Media of the Republic of Serbia

The basilisk is usually interpreted as an evil symbol, also mentioned in the Book of Psalms: “Thou shalt walk upon the asp and the basilisk: and thou shalt trample underfoot the lion and the dragon” (Psalm 90:13).

Fantastic creature devouring a man, The Church of the Holy Virgin, Studenica Monastery by Author of the photo Marko TodorovićMinistry of Culture and Media of the Republic of Serbia

Saint Isidore of Seville wrote about this animal: “‘Basilisk’ (Basiliscus) is a Greek word, translated into Latin as “little king”, because it is the king of the snakes so that they flee when they see it because it kills them with its odor – it also kills a human if it looks at one.

Detail of the main portal sculpture; The Church of the Holy Virgin, Studenica Monastery by Author of the photo Marko TodorovićMinistry of Culture and Media of the Republic of Serbia

Indeed no flying bird may pass unharmed by the basilisk’s face, but however distant it may be it is burnt up and devoured by this animal’s mouth”. Pliny the Elder also confirms its attributes: “Anyone who sees the eyes of a basilisk serpent (basilisci serpentis) dies immediately.

Fantastic creature; The Church of the Holy Virgin, Studenica Monastery by Author of the photo Marko TodorovićMinistry of Culture and Media of the Republic of Serbia

It is no more than 12 inches long and has white markings on its head that look like a diadem. Unlike other snakes, which flee its hiss, it moves forward with its middle raised high. Its touch and even its breath scorch grass, kill bushes and burst rocks.”

King Milutin Nemanjić, Church of Saints Joachim and Ana, Studenica Monastery (1315) by Author of the photo Marko TodorovićMinistry of Culture and Media of the Republic of Serbia

Surpassing excellence: Fresco painting of King’s Church in Studenica 
 


The Church of Saints Joachim and Anne, also named the King’s Church after its ktetor king Milutin Nemanjić (1253−1321), was frescoed shortly after its construction, probably around 1315. For this task, Serbian King Milutin, grandson of Stefan Nemanja, hired the best artists of his time, Greek painters Michael Astrapas and Eutychios from Thessaloniki, who had already done frescos in his memorial churches.

Queen Simonida; Church of Saints Joachim and Ana, Studenica Monastery (1315) by Author of the photo Marko TodorovićMinistry of Culture and Media of the Republic of Serbia

Experts agree that the wall paintings in the King’s Church are the pinnacle of surpassing excellence in the artistic creation of Michael Astrapas and Eutychios, whose style in these works comes close to the beauty of icon–painting. Frescos have preserved their original appearance and they have never been painted over.

The Virgin with Christ; The Church of the Holy Virgin, Studenica Monastery (1568) by Author of the photo Marko TodorovićMinistry of Culture and Media of the Republic of Serbia

In the lower section of the painting is King Milutin as ktetor, holding a model of his memorial church in his hands, accompanied by his wedded wife Simonida, together with Saint Joachim and Anne, the parents of the Virgin Mary.

Saint Sava and Venerable Simeon, Church of Saints Joachim and Ana, Studenica Monastery (1315) by Author of the photo Marko TodorovićMinistry of Culture and Media of the Republic of Serbia

On the opposite wall, there are represented king Milutin’s forefathers – Saint Simeon and Saint Sava, and the Holy Virgin Herself with Jesus Christ. Magnificent in every aspect, the series of images from the King’s Church are the masterpieces of Serbian and Byzantine art dating from the 14th century. 

Credits: Story

Studenica Monastery

Live View Studio
Photo credit: Marko Todorović

Museum of the Serbian Orthodox Church  
The narration was provided by  dr Miljana Matić - art historian.

Blago fund

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