Deliberately remote, the Monastery of Studenica sits in splendidly mountainous surroundings, high above the river that bears the same name, and even higher above the Raška Valley, a dozen kilometres to the east. Originally established by Stefan Nemanja at the end of the 12th century, this is undoubtedly one of the country’s greatest monasteries and one of the holiest places in the Serbian national psyche.
The monastery consists of three churches within an oval walled complex (originally there were nine). The largest of these, and central to the complex, is that of the Church of Our Lady (Bogorodičina crkva), completed in 1196. The exterior is of polished marble, unique in Serbian medieval architecture, with elaborately sculptured leaves, figures and mythological beasts in the Romanesque style decorating the windows and doorways. Inside, the effect of smooth marble is marred by a clumsily executed exonarthex, added by Radoslav, one of the later rulers of the Nemanjić dynasty, who added this maladroit extension around 1230.
The marble tomb of Stefan Nemanja is situated in a chapel to the right of the exonarthex beneath a fresco that shows him holding a model of the church and being presented to Christ and the Virgin. It was at Studenica that Stefan Nemanja abdicated before his retirement to Mt Athos in Greece. His body was returned here after his death.
Most of the original frescoes, completed in 1209, and probably the work of a single artist, were repainted in 1569. They are divided into an upper part that has a gilded background, a middle part with a yellow background and a lower part, with a blue background. The work reflects a development in the Serbian tradition in which there is an increased emphasis on the human form, its physical strength and its definition of character. Exceptions to the 16th-century repainting are part of the Annunciation and the Crucifixion, which adorns the west wall and shows the figure of Christ flanked by St John and the Virgin.
Next door, and tiny in comparison, is the King’s Church (Kraljeva Crkva), built by King Milutin in 1314. The frescoes here are very well preserved and represent some of the greatest religious art in the country, painted in the period when Serbian fresco art was at its peak. The north wall has the fresco of the Birth of the Virgin, which shows how Serbian artists had gone beyond mere symbolism by this date to become increasingly interested in portraying realism and technique. To the left of the Virgin child, a woman holds a tray of surgical instruments while the figure of Destiny fans the newborn; in the foreground, a woman is portrayed testing the temperature of the water with the back of her hand.
The third remaining church is the early 13th-century Church of St Nicholas (Sveti Nikola), which has a few surviving frescoes of interest and a 17th-century iconostasis. It should not be forgotten that Studenica is no mere museum but a thriving, working community that, while welcoming visitors, is not in the least dependent on them for its existence. For the monks here, the monastery is both a religious retreat and a workplace where spiritual contemplation is mixed with more mundane tasks like chopping wood and growing vegetables. Visitors are steady and frequent but rarely overwhelm the tranquillity of the place. Rather than just visit as a day trip, it is also possible to stay for longer and absorb the peaceful atmosphere here.