History in the Crossfire: Kosovo’s Endangered Monasteries

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We could see it coming up the road, a simple but radiant structure in pink and white stone that glowed in spite of the rain. The church of the ancient monastery nestled into the base of a mist-topped green mountain, its cultivated fields and vineyards, still producing sustenance after seven hundred years, spread around it down the slope of the hill like a lady’s skirt in variegated patterns. Decani Visoki looks the very picture you’d expect of an active monastery: tidy, quiet, and prosperous.

Until you come to the KFOR barrier gate, draped in camouflage and topped with barbed wire, where incoming vehicles must state their purpose, surrender their passports, and submit to a search if the guards armed with AK-47s think it’s necessary.

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Such is the protection required for Kosovo’s only UNESCO site, the Medieval Monuments in Kosovo (actually four separate sites spread across the country, but grouped under the same listing). The trouble is that the monasteries are tiny islands of medieval Serbian Orthodoxy nestled among a sea of Albanian Islam, and such beautiful and potent symbols of the resented old regime that they can’t help becoming targets – in this part of the world, memories don’t have to be long to remember violence and genocide. It seems that most Serbian sites require this kind of protection, even from the visiting public – Gizmestan Tower, the intensely Serbo-nationalistic monument to the 1389 Battle of Kosovo, also required me to surrender my passport to an armed guard before entering the tower’s barricaded enclosure. And the protection is warranted – in 2004 some isolated tit-for-tat violence between Albanians and Serbs in Kosovo escalated into a nationwide orgy of anti-Serb violence which, in addition to costing thousands of lives, also resulted in the deliberate burning and bombing of Serbian churches and heritage sites.

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Another medieval UNESCO church in Gjakova, southern Kosovo – closed to the public.

As recently as a year ago, Islamic extremists were arrested trying to pass a truck full of weapons through this very same barrier to the Decani Monastery that I passed through, and there have been incidents of ISIS and other extremist hate-graffiti appearing on the ancient stone walls. 

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The world is becoming a scary place, and the fact that heritage sites are at the epicentre of conflict just shows that history is anything but past. In Gjakova, the site of another of the UNESCO monasteries, Serbian worshippers were prevented from entering a church on Christmas Eve by Albanian protesters who stoned their bus. Not half a mile outside the Decani Monastery’s gates, the citizens of Decan are right now protesting a recent ruling that favored the monastery, in a conflict over some disputed land rights with the town. Kosovo’s recent bid to join UNESCO was an important effort to use heritage as a platform for increasing recognition of its statehood. But the rejection of Kosovo by the committee elicited relief from Serbs who feared for the fate of their monuments under a potentially hostile Albanian-dominated government.

But walking through the gates of the monastery, one can leave all the madness behind. It was quiet, we were the only group visiting and we had to wait for the monks to finished lunch before a lay brother could give us a guided tour of the church. Photos are disallowed, perhaps for copyright purposes or to protect the sense of seclusion, but photos would not have done justice to what we saw.

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The exterior is luminous, and the carvings as crisp as if they’d been executed yesterday. Other than a recent cleaning of the stone, our guide was uncertain what conservation had been done to the outside. It’s possible the carved decoration has been restored, but considering how little restoration (or even maintenance) we saw elsewhere in the region, I’d say it’s unlikely, which means that the beauty of the stone has been preserved magnificently unaltered for seven centuries.

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It was the interior that was truly breathtaking though, and pictures wouldn’t begin to do it justice. To modern eyes accustomed to bright colors and poppy graphics, medieval frescoes probably seem like a pretty lame medium, as their colors tend to be more muted than those of other medieval art. And the frescoes that entirely cover the walls of Decani monastery are at a particular disadvantage because they have not been cleaned or conserved, and so are dulled by the smoke and dirt of centuries. But photos, as usual, can’t convey the spirit of the place, which is what makes it so powerful. Delicate but strong stone columns frame the entryway, or narthex, footed with roaring beasts and depictions of sin and salvation.

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Trampling the enemies of medieval Serbia…

As soon as you walk in, you are struck with the weight of seven centuries that have had time to gather and mature here, between walls whose images of kings and saints – a visual chronicle of Serbian history – soar upward until they’re lost in the shadows of the ceiling.

The UNESCO monasteries were built by monarchs so enshrined in epic and history that they were canonized in their own eras, each king of the Nemajic line entering sainthood upon his death. One of these king-saints, Stefan Decanski, the patron of the monastery, rests just next to the altar, where his tomb is opened every Thursday so that worshipers can view (and kiss!) his embalmed body, miraculously uncorrupted after seven centuries.

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The tombs of the Serbian saint-kings, their bodies displayed to worshippers once per week. The wall paintings are a genealogical record of the dynasty.

But I don’t think its the beauty of the frescoes that make the Decani monastery so special, but rather what they represent. The physical survival of the mural paintings alone is remarkable – the world has a very limited supply of frescoes that old and that intact. But this monastery in particular sits in a region that has seldom known peace since the medieval period. The monastery has stood like a rock while different tribes and empires and regimes have swept over the region, bringing their own religions, prejudices, and political agendas. Under the Yugoslav state, communists attempted to void traditional religious sites by chipping out the eyes of statues and painted figures, disfigurement that was still obvious at several sites we saw. The medieval heritage sites of Kosovo have had more than their share of volatility to contend with, and their very survival is humbling and awesome.

And all it would take is one factional, sectarian idiot with a bomb to blot it out forever. Building is the work of heroes, but destruction takes just a coward’s second.

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Saints’ Bones and a Mummified Head – Siena

Okay, so I went a little crazy in Siena. But you have to give me a break – it’s pretty much the first real stop on my trip, and the whole place looks like this:

Yummmmm…..

But really my favorite thing in Siena, besides the coffee and the gelato, were all the saints’ relics. The medieval person’s obsession with the body parts of saints and holy people is one of the stranger aspects of medieval Christianity. But it leads to some of the most awesomely gruesome sights you’ll ever see in someplace as “tame” as a church or museum.

As a rule, medieval Christians believed that the preserved physical parts of saints could, when prayed to or even touched, act as intercessors between the individual and the saint, and thus between the individual and God. Popular and enduring relics include pieces of the true cross, the Virgin Mary’s veil (important because it could have 2000-year-old residue of her breast milk… yummy), scraps of Christ’s foreskin (not even kidding), and heads of John the Baptist (there are about ten of these floating around Europe and the Holy Land). Teeth, fingernails, scraps of skin… these physical remnants of spiritual people held enormous power and appeal for medieval Christians (and for many Catholics today… Sorry, guys.), and their worship actually drove a large portion of the medieval economy. Pilgrimage was common practice, and the more famous the relic, the more power it had, the more people would come to whatever church owned it, the more money pilgrims donated to the church and spent along the way (see how it works?). So in many cases, any church or cathedral was really only as important as the relics it displayed.

Alright I’m getting a little carried away, but you guys know how I get about medieval things. The point I’m getting to is I saw more relics in one afternoon in Siena than I’ve seen in my entire life and European travels combined.

The only thing I knew about Siena before coming was St. Catherine of Siena (more on her in a minute). I’m a big admirer of hers, so I spent the day wandering between her various holy sites around the city. But on the way, I got sidetracked by signs leading to something called the Museo dell’Opera. I was like, Awesome! The other thing I’m most interested in! So I bought a ticket, expecting some exhibit of costumes and props from Italian opera, and instead I found… a room full of saints’ reliquaries and Medieval art. I was pretty confused… but I like those things too (and I’d just paid 6 euro), so I just went with it.

One of the very first popes (92-99 AD), St. Clement was killed by being tied to an anchor and thrown off a ship. This story is apocryphal though, and I kind of doubt it’s true: I’d like to know who swam to the bottom of the ocean to untie his body and bring it back to Siena…

Most of the reliquaries were pretty small, but this one caught my eye. It’s the size of a casket and has the complete skeleton of St. Clement the Martyr. The inside of the casket is gorgeously decorated, with delicate golden flowers and pearls twining in and out of the bones. I also noticed that one edge of the casket has a seal, which I assume is supposed to guarantee that the casket has never been opened and thus that the bones inside are authentic. Or at leas, authentically old.

I finished the day with a pilgrimage to some Catherine of Siena sites. Since she was born here in 1347, there are quite a few around the city.

Besides the typical saintly things – ecstasy of marriage with Christ, reception of the stigmata, etc. – Catherine was particularly known for her fasting. I read Rudolph Bell’s book Holy Anorexia in high school, and I’m pretty convinced by his argument that medieval ascetic fasting has many behavioral and psychological parallels with modern disordered eating, particularly anorexia. From an early age St. Catherine used extreme fasting to manipulate her parents into calling off her arranged marriage and allowing her to become a nun (she had already vowed chastity at age 7). At 16 she gave up all food except water, uncooked vegetables, and bread. At 22 she gave up the bread, and at 26 she gave up food altogether, taking nourishment only from the sacrament, which she received daily. Her health declined until she died of malnourishment at age 33, the same age at which Christ was crucified, which I’m sure is exactly what she wanted.

It might seem strange to say that I admire her, but she managed to carve out her own life path and do things exactly the way she wanted in a time when basically no woman had that freedom. She used her mental/physical weakness as a strength, becoming famous and influential in her own day as well as a saint after her death. That’s really as high as a woman could aim for in a career in the medieval church.

But I digress – the whole point of this spiel on St. Catherine is that, although her body is buried in Rome, her head is preserved and on display in San Domenico in Siena: