The colourful monastery of Gracanica

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Gračanica – calls the bus conductor waving in our direction. Only one other passenger gets off in the quiet Kosovan village of Gracanica, just south of the capital Pristina. And yet there are a couple of cafés and snack bars near the bus stop. A bit further on, the road leads to a tall and sturdy-looking gate. This must be the Christian monastery of Gracanica – but for a church the whole place looks very defensive and closed-off.

“I cannot go inside”, our host in Pristina had told us when we asked him about the monastery of Gračanica. Like most Kosovars, he is a Muslim, while the Gračanica monastery belongs to the orthodox Christians of the Serbian minority. Whether the rules are indeed so strict we cannot confirm. In spite of the massive gate, a side door is open and we can enter the premises without anyone paying attention to us (and without showing any proof of our identity, as we had beforehand read online).

A modern church?

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In the middle of a wide lawn stands a small square building with several metal cupolas.  With its tall lattice windows and the light-coloured bricks it fits more with our imagination of Russian churches. A relatively modern church, we think at first, or possibly Tsarist, 19th century. Like some churches we have seen in St. Petersburg… Is this the UNESCO world heritage church we have come to see?

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Frescoes of saints and martyrs

But once we peer inside the narthex we know we are in the right place – patinated frescoes of saints and martyrs all over. Not a single wall that has gone undecorated. And this in a typical Orthodox church building with many interior walls, corridors and arches! Therefore there’s a lot of wall space to cover with frescoes. Deeper inside the church, a few worshippers are standing near the altar niche, kissing the frescoes of saints. Some sit on a bench right in front of the scary scene depicting the last judgement.

The dead are clambering out of their graves. Furthermore, even wild animals have to disgorge those humans – or parts of humans – that they have eaten.

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Demons are already at hand to lead the resurrected souls into hell. A resolute angel even helps in this task, pushing the damned with a trident. The late Byzantine frescoes in the monastery of Gracanica have surprisingly vivid colours and are painted in traditional style. In this, they resemble the great Byzantine mosaics, like those in Ravenna, or those you would encounter travelling in Thessaloniki. In contrast to most Byzantine churches, however, the 14th century building in Gracanica follows new Gothic fashion trends. They show most strikingly in its verticality, with its five domes rising up high above the worshippers.

Multistoried story books on the walls of the monastery of Gracanica

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On most walls of the nave, saints are standing in two or three tiers, with scenes from the life of Christ and other biblical stories above them. All of them are supervised by the huge Jesus Pantokrator – ruler of the world – in the main dome. In the centre, we find the images of King Milutin and his Queen. Milutin was the king who built this church in the early 14th century.

Like in many of the other images, her eyes are scratched out. A sign of frequent religious disagreements, we think. Perhaps it was also an indication that the marauders feared the images of the foreign gods and saints, thinking they would come alive and haunt them as long as they had eyes. Apparently, those zealous “believers” most eager to fight a rival religion are the ones most stuck in archaic beliefs far predating their purported religion …

Relaxed city life in Pristina

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Back in Pristina we have Espresso Macchiato in one of the many pleasant pavement cafés in the lively town centre. Pristina in summer is a relaxed city, and the people we meet in Kosovo are super-friendly and helpful. No visible remains of the Kosovo War (which was nearly 20 years ago, after all) or such outbursts of violence as continued until after the declaration of independence in 2008. But also no discernible signs of political instability or dissent in the wake of the most recent election. We spent only a few days in Pristina but to us the city seemed utterly inviting, likeable and peaceful… We are hoping to have a chance to come back in the near future.

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Was the monastery of Gracanica worth the visit?

Yes, it was. The late-Byzantine frescoes are rather overwhelming and the atmosphere in the small church and its churchyard was calming.

How to get to the monastery of Gracanica

From Pristina’s main bus station just west of the town centre, frequent busses leave for Gjilan. They pass through Gračanica after about 20 minutes. The monastery is on the main road about 200 m from the bus stop.

NB: We were not sponsored in any way for our trip to Kosova, all expenses were paid by ourselves

*** If you liked this post about the UNESCO church of Gračanica you might also like our post about the wonderful painted monasteries of Romania, also a UNESCO site. These monasteries have the outer walls covered in frescoes!

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  1. What a fascinating church! I’ve only seen a couple interiors of Serbian Orthodox churches, one in Ljubljana and another in Montenegro, and the big bold frescoes and unique style are just amazing to see. Great post, what a terrific excursion from Kosovo!

  2. Thanks! There are actually several more of these Late-Byzantine churches in Kosovo, and we were planning to see a few more en route to the Peaks of the Balkans trail (but had to cut the trip short for this time).

  3. It was a good thing that you got to go inside the Monastery of Gracanica. The outside is interesting. But the inside frescos would keep me entranced for hours as we checked out every single surface. I am not sure I have ever seen images before where the eyes were scratched out. That might freak me out a bit! We would definitely visit the Monastery of Gracanica.

    1. Dear Linda, it happened quite often in countries were Muslim conquerers came to the churches. In Islam depictions of humans are forbidden – so they thought by scratching out the eyes the take the “soul” out of the pictures.

  4. I love frescoes. It always amazes me how they complete the work on the ceilings. I enjoy painting, so I know how hard it is to portray the perspective correctly when working in such a large size. Seems like a cool trip.

  5. I have yet to visit this region and the church your share is gorgeous with the dark blue background and all the gold highlights. Everything just pops and really stands out and is a unique way of portraying all these historical religious events that are being shown on the walls, really fascinating.

  6. This is a really beautiful church. I’ve never thought about visiting Kosovo but it clearly has great potential. The frescoes are stunning and the church is in great condition for its age!

  7. Being born in Eastern Europe, I am very familiar with Orthodox churches such as Gracanica. Indeed, the frescoes are usually so beautiful and they cover every little space of the walls of the church. Some churches even have them on the outside walls. Gracanica looks wonderful and definitely worth a visit. It’s good to know that Pristina is such a relaxed city in summer, I would love to visit someday.

    1. Dear Joanna, yes, we have visited the painted monasteries in Romania too. All the outside walls are covered with biblical stories – like a picture book!

  8. The monastery of Gracanica has stunning wall paintings and vibrant history. Interesting how different religions clash here. It is interesting that your host, as a Muslim, could not accompany you in visiting the interior of a Christian church. Pristina also seems to be a city worth visiting. It’s good to know that this region is getting more and more popular to stay after the dramatic period of the Kosovo War.

    1. Dear Agnes, I think our host was not really interested in visiting the monastery. He just wanted to make a point about the tensions between Muslims and Christians….

  9. This is quite common and may be down to your hosts own beliefs rather than not allowed. In their eyes they feel they are being disrespectful to Allah. However there are discussions about this often and interpretations have suggested they may enter as long as they aren’t there to worship (only to observe, build relations with others or out of respect for others in ceremonies such as attending weddings or funerals). The detail and colours here are unbelievable. Every inch has been brought to life.

    1. Dear Nicole, you might be right. Also the tensions between the Christians and the Muslims are quite strong in the area. Even if he is allowed to enter, he might not feel comfortable and welcome.

  10. A wonderful post on the monastery of Gracanica. The painted frescoes on the walls of the monastery are truly inspiring depiction of the stories from Bible. A brilliant masterpiece of the byzantine architecture.The town of Pristine is so calm and relaxing with it’s street side cafes and market place and no trace of erstwhile tension.

  11. I heard a lot about of monastery of Gracanica now after seeing the pictures I must say it’s really a great place to visit. Have you visited their secret chamber?? I read the place is mysterious and amazing for history people

    1. Dear Pamela, I think the secret chamber is closed to the normal visitor. Actually it is a very spiritual place and even taking pictures is officially forbidden. Nobody seemed to care though.

  12. What an amazing place to be. It has some fascinating drawings and amazing architecture. The drawing has some true meaning that can take up back to the past at the walls of the monastery of Gracanica.

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