There long rested the Dečani Monastery ever since 14th century, among the chestnut trees just besides the Prokletije Mountain ranges in the western part of Kosovo. For centuries, this Serbian Orthodox church has been an irreplaceable jewel where the intricate of Romanic architecture coexisted with artistic sublimity of Byzantine frescoes, representing the largest and best-preserved medieval church in the Balkans that also survives from a sequence of ethnical and political tensions.
The construction of this treasure of splendor, which was dedicated to Jesus Christ, commenced in 1327 under King Stefan III of Dečani after his grant for a charter for the monastery with an endowment for support, and later became his mausoleum that rests at the head of the altar. The monarch’s son, Stefan IV, completed his father’s monument amidst late 1335 with the expansion as well as extraordinary interior of Byzantine frescoes and individual figures illustrating the holy life of the Christ and multifarious thematic scenics from the Bible.
When we passed through its entrance in this January, immediately struck by the solemn beauty and visual grandiose, we felt like we had been transported to another otherworldly place in which the serene air filling with the scent of incense candles and smell of dusty prayer books. Inside the most spacious church, there hanged Romanesque three-light windows and mullions, proportioned with richly-furnished arches, and slender frames along with free-standing columns. Meanwhile, the outer walls are exquisitely painted with layers of white and pink marbles that add much colour to the backdrop of lapis lazuli-blue.
Inside, its twenty major cycles of fresco murals represent the largest assemblage of Serbian medieval art, featuring over thousand of compositions and individual portraits, more than our eyes could initially take in. Galleries of painted creations of Byzantine art incorporate thematic scenes of the Expulsion from the Garden, the Proverbs of Solomon, the Annunciation and the Baptism of Christ. Craning my neck to take in the panoramic view of the towering interior, I stared at those splendid images of numerous angels, saints and kings covering the walls and ceiling when continuing to marvel over the visual magnificence of this monastery.
Despite the cultural richness of the Monastery, its symbolic imperative as a Serbian Orthodox jewel has rendered it vulnerable by a vicious cycle of ethnic violence or political turmoil, from Ottoman occupation, to the Communist regime and the civil wars in the 1990s. After the final conquest of Serbia by the Turks in the middle of 15th century, Dečani Monastery, against all odds, was fortunately preserved with fresco paintings, despite several lootings during the “Great Migration” and attacks by neighbouring Albanian clans in the 19th century.
During World War II, after the occupation of Yugoslavia by the Axis Powers, the fate of the monastery was, this time, gloomed by the Albanian violence and persecution. To create an ethnically pure Albanian Kosovo for the establishment of a Greater Albania, large-scale campaigns of massacres towards the Serbs were launched in which thousands living near the Dečani Monastery were compelled to leave the region. It was only the critical moment that a monk managed to call Italian Carabinieri secretly to protect and prevent the destruction of the monastery. Amidst the postwar period, the property in the monastery was further confiscated by the new communist regime that adopted a hostile attitude towards the Orthodox Church, and even one building inside was turned into a political school and devastated by a fierce fire.
Misfortunes never came alone throughout the 20th century, nevertheless. Due to the repressive policies of Milosevic towards Kosovo Albanian rebellion during the civil war in 1999, the monks of Decani, blatantly stood against coerce as a way of resolving the conflict, sheltered refugees of all ethnicities. Despite such generous protection from the monks, ethnic Albanians constantly threatened to place the monastery in peril by tanks and barbered wires to drive all the Serbs away. However tense with the Albanian Muslim population in Kosovo, this holy place, again, survived as an isolated Serbian Orthodox island in credits to the vigilance of the Italian forces that blocked every access to the monastery during the war.
Today, under sustained protection of the Italian UN peacekeepers outside the cobblestone courtyard, a thriving brotherhood of 30 continues to make a simple living with wood carving and farming for self-sufficiency and book publishing for missionary work. When dusk envelops, there spreads tuneful hymns by a group of content faces to reaffirm their lifelong dedication towards spiritual worshipping and glorification of God, with an iron of will that Jesus Christ will safeguard this UNESCO cultural heritage as in many desperate moments decades and centuries ago. ♦