Serbian Miniatures of the 13th Century

by Svetozar Radojčić

The Serbian art of the 13th century, as a whole, is marked with sharp contrasts of a transitional period. Monumental forms of art, architecture and wall painting, suddenly reached their top in a short period of time from the seventies of the 12th century till the middle of the 13th century. The painting of icons and miniatures of the same period, almost unknown until the recent times, was much more lagging behind. A. Grabar, not until the twenties of our century, was the first one who paid attention to the Serbian miniatures of the 13th century, publishing the interesting Gospel of Prizren.
The first impression concerning the 13th century Serbian miniature, which one got after Grabar’s researches, was quite modest. One realized that the 13th century Serbs, apart from high court art, had also had modest artistic centres in the provincial scriptoriums, where there had appeared miniatures lagging behind regarding their style and technique, and, judging by the Gospel of Prizren, with a strong Oriental element.
Certain basic characteristics of the 13th Serbian century miniature, which could be seen in the Gospel of Prizren, have remained the same until today. Above all, now, after the examination of many Serbian illuminated manuscripts of the 13th century, one may see that the Serbian miniature of that time was almost always within the limits of a second-rate art.
Great fresco masters in Mileševa, Peć and Sopoćani were certainly underestimating the naive drawings in the manuscripts of their contemporaries. We, today, could not use that kind of art as a primary source for the history of the Serbian painting in the time of King Vladislav and King Uroš I. Nevertheless, it is exactly this material, as a historical source, that is unusually important and interesting. It is a source of data covering at least two centuries of the Serbian art, a material on forms of the beginning of the Serbian art, on primitive initial ornaments, on development of the human figure in the oldest of the Serbian arts, and on various influences on the first Serbian draftsmen of miniatures in the period of their learning and first attempts of independent creating.
The transitional forms from the 12th to the 13th century of the Serbian miniature painting were quite vague. The most beautiful Serbian manuscript of the late 12th century, Miroslav’s Gospel, was quite solitary among the Serbian monuments, as the only gospel with initials of Romanic origin. It seemed that the Serbs rejected that kind of painting at the end of the 12th century, and that later, in the 13th century, it preserved in very rough forms in conservative Bosnia only. Cfr. However, the Hilandar Tetraevangelion Cod. 22 on parchment, of the 13th century, though of a more modest format than Miroslav’s Gospel, testifies to the fact that the Serbian initial ornaments of the Romanic type developed in the 13th century, too (ill. 115). One could already see from Miroslav’s Gospel that its Romanic ornaments were very close to the sculptures of Raška school of that time. Now that relation is even clearer. The first vignette in the mentioned Hilandar gospel of the 13th century (Cod. 22) almost repeats a motif from the west portal (ill. 113) of the church of the Mother of God in Studenica. Cfr.
The most part of the initials in the Hilandar gospel Cod. 22 has very clear contours of the basic letter forms. These initials show the so far unknown fact that the most recent layer of initial ornaments from Miroslav’s Gospel entered a new, more progressive phase of the mature Romanic style in the Serbian scriptoriums of the 13th century. Miroslav’s Gospel, although created in the last years of the 12th century, is now connected with that course of the Serbian art of the Romanic style which reached its top in the marble plastic art of the Studenica church of the Mother of God. New researches of the Mosan art have shown to what an extent both Studenica reliefs and miniatures of Miroslav’s Gospel were connected to the Benedictine art of the second half of the 12th century. It would be enough to cite only several parallels between the Serbian works of that style and, for instance, the reliefs on the frame of the bronze door in Gniezno, of around 1170, and to feel that the illuminators of Miroslav’s Gospel and the sculptors of the Studenica portals and windows belong to the same big community of illuminators and sculptors who were under the strong influence of the Mosan art. Zacchaeus on a tree from Miroslav’s Gospel is almost identical with the man (ill. 114 and 116) picking grapes on the Gniezno door. The vegetation and birds in Miroslav’s Gospel reminds one (ill. 117 and 118) of the decorative reliefs of the same door (7), and the centaur-archer from Gniezno has its iconographic and stylistic match in the centaur-archer (ill. 119 and 120) of the Studenica arch fasade. There are similarities not only in iconographically related motifs, but in ornamental details, too. The leaves of the Studenica window of three parts (ill. 121 and 122) resemble the leaves of the Gniezno door . In the mentioned similarities there can be seen considerable differences regarding the quality of the work. The illuminator of Miroslav’s Gospel was not as skilful as the sculptor of the decorative doorframe in Gniezno, but the Studenica sculptor - probably a Benedictine one - virtuosicly cut the marble of his centaur, which is as good as the Polish bronze relief. It is obvious that the Mosan character of the Gniezno door is particularly present in the decorative motifs borrowed from initial ornaments; so one may assume that miniatures mostly contributed to the equalizing of motifs and stylistic treatment in this kind of art, which truly had the broadest international character at the end of the 12th century.
That art of the late 12th century was brought to Serbia by foreigners, travelling masters. It did not take root in old Raška. In the decorative stone plastic art of the Serbian architecture of the following times, that style was getting repeated and degenerated. The Romanic elements in the ornaments of the Serbian and Bulgarian books of the entire 13th century had a much better fate and a more important role.
The swaying of the Serbian art of the late 12th and early 13th century between West and East was particularly evident in the painting of miniatures. Miroslav’s Gospel was written at the end of the 12th century, and only several years after that, in 1202, Vukan’s Gospel was written. Two manuscripts of the same time, written for two members of the same family of the Nemanjićes, are completely different according to the style of their decoration. While Miroslav’s masters drew typical Romanic initials, Vukan’s masters had local, Macedonian and Byzantine artists as their models.
According to the subsequent development, it can be seen that the style of Miroslav’s Gospel prevailed in the Serbian art and belonged to a broader, better organized branch of the miniature painting. Both gospels, Miroslav’s and Vukan’s, give a quite dear picture of unequalized artistic traditions and developments in the young state of the Nemanjićes. Miroslav’s Gospel is a homogenous whole: a manuscript of the Romanic type with initials of mainly the same style and similar artistic characteristics; that is a scriptorium manuscript with balanced qualities. Vukan’s Gospel is a collection of works of unequal transcribers and illuminators. There are only two miniatures in Vukan’s Gospel that distinguish themselves from other primitive decorations, which resemble the plain ornaments of the Bulgarian, Macedonian and Serbian parchment books of the 13th century.
Apart from initials of modest qualities, in Vukan’s Gospel there are also two miniatures: on p. 1 John the Evangelist (ill. 123), and on p. 76 Christ Emanuel (ill 124). The drawing of John the Evangelist, a work of a Serbian master, is much more naive. The author of this miniature is perhaps the monk Simeon himself, who in the inscription at the end of the manuscript mentions himself as the writer, precisely stating that the book was created in the town of Ras, in the place of Peć, and certainly in the hermitage-cave outside the town, which has been preserved until today. Cfr. According to the drawing, to a certain common clumsiness regarding the shortening of anatomical forms, and to the way of marking, this miniature is quite close to the style of the oldest frescoes in the hermitage of St. Petar Koriški near Prizren. Thus, it would belong to that oldest preserved Serbian art of Raška, which was formed in the kellia of educated Serbian hermits at the end of the 12th century. The fact that this modest archaic art was below the Serbian monumental painting of the same time may in the best way be seen if we compare the Vukan’s Gospel’s St. John the Divine with Vukan’s painters’ St. John the Divine from the Studenica church of the Mother of God. Although the fresco of St. John in Studenica is badly damaged, it can be seen, from the fragment that is left, that its models are the Byzantine miniatures of the highest quality, the Vatican evangeliar num. 1155, of the 13th century, being its direct one, which, again, has much older models of the 10th century. The second miniature of Vukan’s Gospel, Christ Emanuel, is a work of a much more skilful master. Young Christ on a throne is marked in the Greek way. According to the type of the head and to the way of drawing the drapery, this miniature is directly connected to the Macedonian painting of the 12th century, especially to the frescoes of St. Nikola "TOY ΚΑΣΝΙΤΖΗ", in the town of Kostur. The angel in the Annunciation of the mentioned Kostur church (ill. 126), painted with strongly emphasized graphic elements, is almost identical, according to the drawing, to the figure of Christ Emanuel in Vukan’s Gospel. These similarities concerning the art of painting are in accordance with the already established Macedonian characteristics in the language of Vukan’s Gospel.

These first, obvious contacts of the miniature painting and the monumental art of fresco painting did not last long. In the greatest number of the Serbian illuminated manuscripts of the 13th century, the painted or, more often, drawn decorations are not really connected with the painting of frescoes and icons. Average ornaments and drawings in books were separated from the monumental painting, all until thfe end of the 13th century, and they have their own separate history.
Primitive initials and flags with interlacements and fantastical animals are usually considered as a typical decoration of Macedonian parchment manuscripts. We find a chaotic mess of Oriental and Romanic elements in them. Recently, while speaking of the beginnings of the manuscript ornaments among the Balkan Slavs, A. Grabar took up the hypothesis about those oldest miniatures in the Slavonic books being of the 10th century, of the time and from scriptoriums of Bulgarian Emperor Simeon. Grabar carefully discussed his hypothesis on probable activity of pre-Slavonic scriptoriums, observing that one must not draw conclusions regarding the origin and style on the basis of the ornaments of the Bulgarian and Serbian manuscripts. All hypotheses concerning the origin and look of the oldest Slavonic manuscript ornaments are not firm because they rely on some later material, usually of the 13th century. One supposed that the ornaments of "the teratological style" were not particularly favoured by the Serbs, and that the later examples of such initials in Serbian books were borrowed form Bulgarian manuscripts. In the Hilandar library, however, there have been preserved several Serbian manuscripts of the 13th century with unusually rich, diverse and quite skilfully drawn initials of "the teratological style". The most typical example is the manuscript Cod. 387 (the writings of Theodore the Studite). There are many initials of that type in it: the fantastical drawing is filled with one colour only, the red one. Another characteristic is that certain motifs in this manuscript have a lot of elements of the French Romanic miniature. For instance, as the initial B there is a drawn dog with a plant ornament coming from its mouth (ill. 125), "chien crachant des rinceaux" in the French manuscripts of the 11th century.
Initials of this style repeat the motif of snakes inter­ twined in irregular wrappings and knots (drawing 1). Buslajev still pointed out that the primitively drawn Slavonic letters with snakes had had Greek models. Earlier, all this matter was discussed on the basis of a meagre material. The Slavonic "teratological style" was at first described according to the Hilandar 12th century paroemiae from the Leningrad Public Library. Later it was shown that there were more beautiful ornaments of the same type in the Apostle of the monastery of Slepče (Leningrad Public Library).
Today, Hilandar manuscripts have given a lot more of new material. Particularly interesting are the initials with snakes in the Hilandar parchment scroll Cod. 1, of the 13th century. Similar to the manuscripts of "the teratological style" are also several Hilandar parchment books of the 13th century. The well-preserved sermons of Jovan Zlatoust! (Gold­ mouthed) (Cod. 386) show in their miniatures an interesting combination of Byzantine and Romanic elements. The drawings of heads, as the initial O, remind, according to type, of the young Mileševa saints, but in the stiff and clumsy lines there is recognized the Romanic stylization (ill. 127). One mistake of the transcriber who also drew the initials is a good source of further investigation.
On the page 50 recto, the writer wrote a few Glagolitic letters in the Cyrillic text, which certainly leads one to the conclusion that the master came from the Adriatic Coast. Cfr. According to its complete look, and especially according to the drawings of heads-initials, the Hilandar manuscript Cod. 386 is quite close to the Greek manuscripts of the 12th century from the south of Italy; the manuscript certainly originated according to some model of those provincial Italo-Greek scriptoriums out of which there came the Viennese Greek manuscript of theological contents Cod. 12 (Vienna, National Library, Theol., Cod. 12).
The other, severely damaged Hilandar parchment manuscript Cod. 313, with no beginning and no end, of a small format, has the most interesting Serbian miniatures of the 13th century. Initials of this manuscript represent fantastical animals (ill. 128), torn human limbs and complete naked figures, easily drawn, with big heads, delicate and curved lines - with apparent deformations of a caricature (ill. 129). The drawings of figures in the Hilandar manuscript Cod. 313 are stylistically slightly connected with the figures from the burnt Gospel of Prizren from the National Library in Belgrade. The miniatures from the Hilandar manuscript Cod. 313 (paroemiae) show a great number of motifs. Some initials very much resemble the Russian initials of the second half of the 13th century; the parallels for the initials of the same Hilandar manuscript are in the Macedonian manuscripts of the early 13th century, in the Triodion of Verković’s collection and in Bologna Psalter, in this manucript there are many Romanic initials in quite pure original form.
To the same group of the common Slavonic ornaments of the 13th century belongs a decoration of the Hilandar Tetraevangelion Cod. 12 (ill. 130). The vignette before Matthew reminds a lot of Bologna Psalter, with the difference that it is a Serbian manuscript, of the end of the 13th century, with its lines less delicate and its colour more intensive. There is a similar, though much more primitive, ornament in the Bulgarian zografic Radomir’s Psalter (Cod. 47).
To the last years of the 13th century belong the precisely drawn and vividly coloured initials of the Hilandar Gospels Book Cod. 8 (ill. 131). The expertly composed initials of this manuscript are known due to the copies of Sevastyanov’s mission; the most similar parallels of these initials may be found on one liturgical scroll of the 13th or early 14th century in the library of the monastery of Esphigmenou (Cod. 10).
There are still considerable difficulties regarding the studying of the Serbian 13th century miniature. A large amount of Serbian material in the Soviet Union has remained unpublished. One of the most precious Serbian manuscripts of the 13th century (Paroemiae of the National Library in Belgrade, Cod. 300), lost in 1916, has been found recently. The most richly illustrated Serbian gospel of the 13th century, the so-called Gospel of Prizren, was burnt during the bombing of Belgrade in 1941. However, after the researches at Hilandar in 1952 and 1953, the general picture of the development of the Serbian 13th century miniature has become clearer.
It has been shown, above all, that the Serbian miniature of the 13th century is, so far, the most complete gallery of the Serbian primitive art of the early Middle Ages. It is a source of better parallels for other artistic objects of a stronger material, especially for the early Serbian stone plastic art. The variety of influences upon the oldest Serbian miniature exceeded all expectations. It is evident that the borrowings are mainly of Western origin. Even some distinctly Eastern elements in the Gospel of Prizren have their closest parallels in the stone plastic art of Zadar churches. In his studies on Gospel of Prizren, A. Grabar particularly emphasized the dominant Oriental character of miniatures. In his last article, in which he takes up the Gospel of Prizren, A. Grabar points out again the parallels between the Serbian miniatures and the Oriental Spanish ones, presuming that those Oriental models reached our Coast through the south of Italy.
According to these facts one may conclude that the oldest Serbian art developed in the coastal region, and that in its beginnings it was not particularly dependent on Macedonian cultural centres, from which there was carried out the Christianization of the Slavs in the 9th century.
The recent researches of the Serbian old miniature have shown that the previous ideas concerning the oldest Balkan Slavonic miniature were much influenced by the results in the field of the Slavonic philology. The undoubtable importance of Thessalonica and Macedonian centres of the oldest Bulgarian, Macedonian, Russian and Serbian literature was transmitted - analogously - to the miniatures of those literatures’ texts. However, the researches of the Slavonic palaeography experts have shown that the dating of exactly Macedonian manuscripts is quite uncertain, and that, accordingly, some of the miniatures, that were considered as original models, are not so old at all. For example, the Bologna Psalter is now rightfully considered to belong to the 13th century, and its miniatures could in no way be considered to be of Macedonian origin. Now it is clear that the ornaments of the Bologna Psalter are a combination of older Greek initials with snakes and later ornaments with already strong Western elements. Neither in Bulgaria nor in Macedonia - regarding the miniature painting - may be found such a wealth of unaltered models as it is the case with the Serbs. The Serbs, under a strong influence of the West, received mainly from the peripheral regions of the Western European art of the early Middle Ages the old, traditional forms of ornaments, initials and the human figure. It is interesting, however, that the Serbian art used and rejected those borrowed forms, quickly maturing as an organism that developed normally, with no wandering and halts.

(Translated by Dragan Purešić)