It was a quiet evening in September when I was invited to visit the Milesheva Monastery, in Serbia, a peaceful place with a long history. Founded in the 13th century, the monastery has represented the Orthodox Christian faith in this region of forested hills and river valleys for centuries, despite considerable political turmoil and religious change.
Christianity itself arrived in the Balkans relatively late, coming in throughout the 7th and 8th centuries through the activities of missionaries, largely from Byzantium. It was only in 870 CE, however, that Christianity became the official religion of the Serbian Principality. For the next several centuries, the churches in Serbian territory would be affiliated with Byzantine church structures, which claimed religious preeminence due both to the great age of their Christian traditions and to the regional influence of the Byzantine Emperor.
This changed, however, during the lifetime of St Sava. Born the youngest son of the Grand Prince Stefan Nemanja, he received a monastic education and pursued an ecclesiastical career that culminated in his confirmation as the first Archbishop of an autonomous Serbian Church in 1219. Because of this and other activities, he is venerated even today as a national hero to Serbs, as well as a saint.
His death in the 1230s coincided with the building of the first monastery at Milesheva, where his remains were interred. Endowed not only with the relics of so popular a saint, but also adorned with frescoes, Milesheva Monastery enjoyed a prominent position in the religious landscape of the time. A demonstration of the site’s importance can be seen in the fact that Ban Tvrtko was crowned King of the Bosnians and Serbs here in 1377, an event that also reflects the decline of Byzantine influence in the region and the growing importance of local rulers.
Already, however, a new power was rising in the area. The Ottoman expansion in the 14th and 15th centuries was being conducted on two fronts, as their influence spread out from Constantinople towards the Balkans and Greece in the west and towards central Anatolia in the east. Although exposed to raiding and destructive military campaigns throughout this period, Serbia only fell definitively to the Ottomans after their capture of Belgrade in 1521.
The period of Ottoman rule brought many changes to Milesheva. In the 1590s, St Sava’s relics were removed from the monastery and destroyed in reprisals against a Serbian uprising, and the monastery buildings were destroyed and built several times.
As a result, the current architecture of the monastery dates from the mid-19th century, but a few treasures of the monastery’s earliest incarnation still exist. These include several wonderful frescoes, preserved since the 13th century and now mounted within the walls of the monastery. The most famous is the White Angel fresco, which depicts a magisterial angelic figure with wide-sweeping wings against a field of gold.
The fine execution of the image, and its opulence, testify to the importance of Milesheva Monastery, a royal foundation endowed with the relics of famous saints. Its survival into the present day, and the continuity of Milesheva itself, after centuries of political disruption, however, also speaks to the commitment of the monks. Through their dedication, Milesheva can welcome visitors in to view its treasures for many years to come.