Visoki Decani Monastery is a monastery of the Church of Serbia situated in the western part of the UN administered Serbian province of Kosovo and Metohia. It is the largest and best preserved medieval monastery in Serbia. The monastery was dedicated to the Ascension of Our Lord.
Established in the fourteenth century, initial construction occurred between 1327 and 1335 during the reign of the medieval Serbian king Stephen Uros III Dečanski (of Dečani). The monastery is situated in the valley of the Bistrica river surrounded by the mountains and forests of the Prokletije mountain range.
Construction of the monastery church at Dečani Monastery began in 1327. The church was dedicated to Jesus Christ the Pantocrator. King Stephen commissioned the construction to a group of master-builders headed by master Vitus of Kotor and under the supervision of Archbishop, later Saint, Daniel II. In 1330, Stephen Dečanski granted a charter for the monastery with an endowment to support the monastery. Stephan's remains are preserved in the Decani church in a coffin at the head of the altar.
After the death of King Stephen his son Stephen Uros IV Dušan, known as "Dušan the Mighty," became the king and later Emperor of Serbia. Stephen Dušan continued construction of the church, which ended in late 1335. He also re-confirmed his father's charter to the monastery. Expansion of the monastery continued with construction of a large refectory and cells for the monks. For defense of the monastery tall defensive walls with a tower (pirg) at the entrance, was built around it. Additionally, a hospital was built nearby. Construction of the monastery was done mainly under the supervision of Serbian master-builders, Protomaster George and his brothers Dobrosav and Nikola.
Painting of the interior church walls began soon after the building was completed and continued until 1350. Other than the name of "Sergius the Sinful", who had signed his name in red on the pillar of the church, the names of the many artisans of the church interior are not known. Judging by the name, but much more by the stylistic characteristics of the Decani painting, it appears that King Dušan brought in fresco artists from the Serbian coastline who belonged to the so-called "Greek School" (pictores graeci).
Following the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, Decani Monastery fill into decay. In 1397, Princess Milica, the wife of Prince Lazar of Kosovo, after visiting the monastery with her sons, issued a charter by which the seized estates were returned to the brethren. She also endowed the monastery richly with gifts. In the early 15th century, the Igumen of the monastery was Gregory Camblak, who later wrote the biography of Stefan Dečanski.
Under Turkish yoke
After the final conquest of Serbia by the Turks in the middle of the fifteenth century, Dečani Monastery, with difficulty, survived under Turkish rule. Beginning in the second half of the sixteenth century and with the restoration of the Serbian Patriarchate in Peć, monastery's life, particularly the artistic life, improved. During the sixteenth and the seventeenth century, the treasury at Decani Monastery became richer as many objects of art and books were added. Also manuscripts were copied.
In the late seventeenth century, the monastery was looted again by the Turks during the "Great Migration" and the living quarters were burned. The monastery experienced a similar fate in the middle of the eighteenth century.
In 1764, Igumen Danilo Paštrović Kažanegra took over administration of the monastery, which he found was almost in ruins. The monastery fortress walls and refectory were gone, and only one monk was in residence. He undertook the difficult task of reconstruction of the monastery compound. Under his direction a new iconostasis was installed in the church that continues in use today. Under his guidance and efforts, the monastery was once again reborn. As a result of his work, Daniel is recognized as second founder of the Decani Monastery. Beginning in the first half of the eighteenth century substantial support was received from the Serbians who lived in the southern part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. These Serbians were emigrants from Kosovo after the "Great Migration".
Later in the eighteenth century, the monastery buildings and the walls around them were restored. The Dečani monastery monks and their benefactors continued rebuilding the monastery into the early nineteenth century. Simeon Lazovic and his son, Aleksije, artists from Bijelo Polje, painted icons on the iconostasis in the chapels of St. Demetrius and St. Nicholas. With the consolidation of the Serbian State after the First and Second Serbian Uprisings, the Serbian rulers also began supporting the monastery. In 1836, Prince Miloš Obrenović commissioned the building of new residental quarters, and in 1857, Prince Aleksandar Karađorđević presented to the monastery a reliquary for the relics of St. Stefan Decanski. He also paid for the new roof on the church. The monks themselves managed to restore some old buildings as well as build new ones within the monastery. During this time Dečani monks travelled as far as St. Petersburg and Moscow and returned with rich gifts from the Russian Church and the Russian emperors.
The end of the nineteenth century was a difficult period for the Decani Monastery, reflecting the fate of Serbian Orthodox Church and people in general during this time. State of near lawlessness led to many looting and desecration attacks by certain neighbouring Albanian clans.
After the Balkan wars of 1912-1913, Kosovo found itself again within the Kingdom of Serbia. During the early years of the twentieth century the Russian brotherhood from Mount Athos came to live in the monastery on the invitation of the Serbian bishops in an attempt to rejuvenate the brotherhood and increase the level of the spiritual life within the community. These Russian monks lived in Decani until 1916 when they were deported by Bulgarian police out of Serbia.
During World War I the part of Kosovo in which Dečani Monastery is situated was occupied first by the Bulgarian army and then by the Austrian army. Bulgarian soldiers stole some valuables from the monastery and made an attempt even to take the relics of St. Stephen and transfer them to Bulgaria. This was prevented by a miracle of the Saint, when the truck in which the relics had to be transported broke down and could not be repaired. In the meantime the Serbs called the Austrian cavalry to take the control of the monastery. The monastery remained under Austrian military control until the liberation in 1918.
After the end of the war the brotherhoood of Dečani resumed its regular monastic life under much more favourable conditions. The period between World Wars I and II was a period in which spiritual life in the monastery flourished under the leadership of Igumen Leontije Ninković. The monastery was financially supported by the Royal House of Karađorđević. In 1925, King Aleksandar of Yugoslavia and Queen Marija visited the monastery and left rich gifts to the brotherhood. In the 1930s, the Serbian Orthodox Church opened a seminary in the Monastery of Decani and many young candidates received their spiritual training for the priesthood under the vaults of the ancient Decani church.
World War II
During World War II the monastery brotherhood experienced difficult days of Albanian violence and persecution. In 1941, thousands of Serbs from the area around Dečani Monastery were forced to leave Kosovo and many were killed or abducted. Kosovo Albanian militants organized by Balli Combetar organization planned to destroy the monastery. It was only in the last moment that hieromonk Makarije managed secretly to reach Pec and call Italian Carabinieri to protect the monastery. From then on the Italian Army protected the monastery from Kosovo Albanians.
After World War II ended the monastery property was confiscated by the new communist regime that was very hostile towards the Serbian Orthodox Church. Even one of the monastery buildings - Prizren konak - was turned into a political school. After many misdeeds commited by the atheists - both Albanian and Serbs - this building was destroyed in a fire in 1948. After that the communists left the monastery which continued living in very humble conditions without support either from the state or from the Church that had been completely impoverished by the repressive communist laws.
In 1992, the new brotherhood led by Fr. Teodosije replaced the older brethren who retired to the coastal monasteries of Montenegro. The monastic brotherhood has developed various monastic activities: woodcarving, painting of icons, translating and publishing books. Although completely surrounded by Muslim Albanians, the monastery of Visoki Dečani has become an important spiritual center for not only Orthodox Christians of Kosovo and Metohija, but for the entire country and Orthodox followers worldwide. In September 1992, over 2,000 people were christened in the Bistrica river. That was probably the first time, since the mass conversion of Slavs to Christianity in the seventh century, that so many people accepted the Christian Orthodox faith of their forefathers.
During the Kosovo conflict of 1998-1999 the monastery brotherhood openly stood against the violence as a way of resolving the conflict. Both the repressive policies of Milosevic and the Kosovo Albanian rebellion were sharply criticized. The monastery sheltered refugees of different ethnicities and distributed food parcels in the area during the conflict.
Today, the monastery is a thriving brotherhood with 30 young monks from all parts of Serbia who continue living under the constant protection of the Italian peacekeepers, the KFOR. Despite isolation and everyday threats from Albanian extremists and without basic freedom of movement, Dečani monks continue with their everyday spiritual activities with firm hope that God will protect the monastery as He has many times in its turbulent history.
Holy services in Decani Monastery are known for their solemn beauty. They are performed according to the traditional monastic liturgical rules of Mount Athos and attract numerous pilgrims and faithful who come to worship at the monastery. The most sacred moment during the year is the Feast day of the Patron Saint, St. King Stephen of Decani, when numerous priests, monks, nuns and lay people gather in the monastery to celebrate their beloved protector. Monastery has also begun a publishing program.
On Sunday, June 20 2004, in the presence of several hundred faithful from throughout Serbia and Montenegro, Serbian Patriarch Pavle with seventeen hierarchs of the Serbian and Greek Orthodox Churches served a Holy Hierarchal Liturgy at Visoki Decani Monastery, consecrating Teodosije (Sibalic), the new Bishop of Lipljan and Igumen of Decani Monastery the auxiliary Bishop of the Diocese of Raska and Prizren,
During its turbulent history the Monastery was an important spiritual center with developed artistic and intellectual activities. Although the monastery buildings suffered damage during the Turkish occupation, the church has been completely preserved with beautiful fourteenth century fresco paintings. Today a young brotherhood of 30 monks lives in the monastery and continue the centuries old traditions. The beautiful monastic services are served according to the typicon of Mount Athos.
In 2004, UNESCO listed the monastery on the World Heritage List, citing its frescoes as "one of the most valued examples of the so-called Palaeologan renaissance in Byzantine painting" and "a valuable record of the life in the 14th century".