10 Monumental Works of Medieval Orthodox Art

Southeastern Europe developed a unique cultural tradition represented through these 10 unique examples of Medieval Orthodox art.

Dec 14, 2022By Dusan Nikolic, BA History of Art

monumental medieval orthodox art


The Great Schism of 1054 is considered the turning point in the division of the Roman Catholic West and Orthodox East. The mutual aversion of the Roman pope and the patriarch of Constantinople finally settled a centuries-long theological and political dispute. Though it was not considered an enormous event in the 11th century, the Schism continues to this day and has defined the development of both Churches. Due to this separation of religious denominations, artistic traditions developed separately as well, including the development of Medieval Orthodox art styles, mainly in Byzantium and all the Byzantine-influenced Medieval states.


1. Beginnings of Medieval Orthodox Art: The Church of Saint Sophia in Ohrid

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Exterior of the Church of Saint Sophia in Ohrid, via Structurae


The archbishopric of Ohrid was established after the Byzantine Emperor Basil II conquered Bulgaria in 1018. It functioned as an autocephalous organization under the direct authority of the Byzantine emperor, not the Patriarchate of Constantinople. Despite its independence, the archbishopric of Ohrid shared the theological positions of Constantinople Orthodoxy. One of the main participants of the debates around the Great Schism was the archbishop of Ohrid, Leo, who later ordered the painting of the church of Saint Sophia in Ohrid.


As the archbishopric’s main church, its decoration visualized the main ideas of Christian Orthodoxy. The church’s apse, probably painted in 1056, shows how these new developments influenced new Christian iconography. Looking from the top to bottom of the apse, the viewer is met by Virgin Mary enthroned, carrying a paten, a plate used for holding the bread during the Mass, with Christ-child inside it. Under it is a fresco of the Communion of Apostles, representing Christ in the middle offering bread and wine to his apostles. The scene symbolizes the role of the apostles in spreading Christianity and the Eucharist upon which the Church was built. Throughout the later middle ages, these two scenes became the standard apse decoration in Medieval Orthodox churches.


2. Studenica Monastery in Serbia

studenica monastery hodegetria church crucifixion fresco
Interior of the Church of Virgin Hodegetria, Studenica Monastery, beginning of the 13th century, via Blago Fund


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Built at the end of the 12th and beginning of the 13th centuries, the Studenica monastery is dedicated to the Virgin Hodegetria, translated to Our Lady of the Way. It was built by the Grand Prince Stefan Nemanja, the founder of the Nemanjic dynasty, and his sons: Vukan, Stefan, and Sava. Considering its architecture and painting, the church of the Virgin Hodegetria was the first major Serbian contribution to Medieval Orthodox art. Even though the architecture and sculptural decoration of the church is romanesque and gothic, the frescoes are the finest example of 13th-century Byzantine art. Art historians have paid particular attention to the beauty of the crucifixion’s fresco on the church’s west wall.


The significance of the monastery to the Nemanjic dynasty, the most prominent Serbian Medieval dynasty, is seen by the efforts of Stefan Nemanja’s descendants, who renewed and further developed the monastery. Today, the monastery of Studenica houses the remains of its founder and is one of the most sacred places for Serbian Orthodox Christians.


3. Gračanica Monastery

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Portrait of King Milutin in Gračanica monastery, c. 1321, via National Museum of Serbia, Belgrade


Around 1315, Serbian king Milutin Nemanjic decided on founding the monastery of Gračanica on the ruins of a 13th-century church and dedicating it to the Dormition of the Theotokos, a feast of the Orthodox Church celebrating the “falling asleep” (death) of Virgin Mary. It is located in the town of Gračanica near Priština. The church’s architecture is a typical Byzantine cross-in-square building with five domes. The church was finished before the death of King Milutin, probably in 1321.


The most valuable part of the church is its complex fresco program, with many of its features surviving into the 21st century. Among the many portraits of Serbian royals, the most important ones are the representations of King Milutin and his wife, Queen Simonida. The elderly Serbian king and the young Byzantine princess of the Palaeologus dynasty jointly ruled the Medieval Serbian state at the beginning of the 14th century. In the arch between the narthex and the nave of the church, the visitor is greeted by their images.


On the right is King Milutin Nemanjic, dressed as a Byzantine emperor and holding a model of the church in his hands. Across from him, on the left side of the arch, is Queen Simonida, daughter of the Byzantine emperor Andronikos II Paleologus. From the point of the arch, Christ blesses the royal couple, sending them angels carrying their crowns. The representation of divine investiture is typical in Medieval Orthodox art inspired by Byzantine political ideology but reaches exceptional dimensions in the monastery of Gračanica.


4. Bachkovo Monastery in Bulgaria

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Scene of the Resurrection of Dry Bones, Ossuary of Bachkovo Monastery, 12th century, via Mapping Eastern Europe


Near the city of Plovdiv in modern-day Bulgaria is the monastery of Bachkovo, dedicated to the Dormition of the Theotokos. The monastery was founded by a Byzantine military aristocrat Gregory Pakourianos, who had previously helped Emperor Alexios I Komnenos rise to the throne. The original building of the monastery was renewed during the 14th century by the Bulgarian emperor Ivan Alexander, confirmed by his donor portrait.


The only original part of the monastery that survives is the ossuary, the building where the remains of dead monks were placed. The ossuary is a two-storied building; the lower level is where the dead monks were buried, and it was probably decorated with frescoes in the 12th century. Since it was used as a resting place for the bodies of monks, frescoes contain scenes relating to the Resurrection and the Last Judgment. An especially interesting scene can be found on the west wall of the crypt. Titled Resurrection of Dry Bones, it represents a vision witnessed by prophet Ezekiel (Ezekiel 37:1-28). It is described as a vision where the prophet sees himself in the valley of human bones. Before his eyes, the bones start forming human beings with flesh and blood. In Christianity, this vision is related to the belief in Resurrection on the Day of Last Judgment.


5. Monastery of Agios Neophytos in Cyprus

church saint neophytos the recluse fresco
Scene with Neophytos the Recluse and Two Angels, Church of Agios Neophytos in Cyprus 1183, via Global Geography


During the 12th century, the island of Cyprus, by then only a province in a vast Byzantine Empire, became the main point of focus of Byzantine imperial politics. Due to Crusaders coming from the West at the end of the 11th century, Byzantine emperors shifted their focus to the Holy Land and its surrounding territories, including Cyprus. Thus began the period of a great church-building campaign, which spawned some of Cyprus’s most important religious centers to this day. One of its peaks can be found in the Agios Neophytos Monastery. The monastery was founded by monk Neophytos (Saint Neophytos the Recluse) in a cave that he had chosen for his hermit life and into which he carved his tomb. Quickly, Neophytos attracted a small community, and a monastery was developed around his cave.


Based on the saint’s own writings and the remaining inscriptions, the church of the True Cross was painted by Theodore Apsuedes. The paintings were done in 1183, while Neophytos was still alive. While retaining a typical Byzantine system of decoration and depictions, this church offers some unique scenes in Medieval Orthodox art. A couple of scenes inside the church represent Neophytos himself. From the point of iconography, only one stands out completely: Neophytos is at the center with arms crossed on his chest but no halo. From both sides, an angel is holding him by the shoulder, as if lifting him. Art historians have yet to determine the exact interpretation of this scene.


6. Saint Andrei Rublev’s Icon of the Trinity 

icon old testament trinity andrei rublev
Copy of the Old Testament Trinity Icon, c. 1513, via State Historical Museum, Moscow


Coming to the very chronological edge of the Medieval period, the beginning of the 15th century saw a rise in Russian artistic production with the center in the new capital of Moscow. This meant especially the production of religious Orthodox art and the building of some of the oldest churches in Moscow. This period was also beautified by the works of one of the most important masters of icon painting.


Andrei Rublev was a Russian painter associated with the Moscow artistic school in the 15th century since most of his works were either done in Moscow or its vicinity. His icon of the Holy Trinity is a prime example of Russian Medieval Orthodox art. The icon represents the “Old Testament Trinity,” a version of the Old Testament scene of the Hospitality of Abraham, described in Genesis 18. In Medieval Orthodox art, this scene symbolized the New Testament truth, the revealed God in Trinity. The three Old Testament men-turned-angels, almost physically identical, are seen by Abraham as one God. Abraham’s insight is interpreted as prophetic of the New Testament revelation that God is one in three.


7. Church of Saint Panteleimon in Nerezi 

fresco saint panteleimon nerezi
Mourning of Christ, Church of Saint Panteleimon in Nerezi, 1164, via academic.com


Near the city of Skopje in North Macedonia is the church of Saint Panteleimon in Nerezi. It was built in 1164 thanks to a member of the Byzantine imperial family, Alexios Angelos Komnenos. From the point of architecture, it is a cross-in-square type of church with five domes. Decorated with frescoes just a little more than a century after the Great Schism, its painting program follows the ideas already established in the Church of Saint Sophia in Ohrid.


At the top of the apse is the Virgin Mary, and below her are the Communion of Apostles and the portraits of Archbishops. The most important scene is the Mourning of Christ on the church’s northern wall, representing the Virgin Mary and Saint John the Apostle crying over the dead body of Christ. In Medieval Orthodox art, scenes of Christ’s death tend to hint at his eventual triumph and resurrection. The instruments of his torture in the foreground signify his previous Passion, or the suffering of Jesus from the moment he entered Jerusalem up to his death on the cross. An important part of the scene is the cave opening on the left, meant to be Christ’s tomb, which is left open and empty. All of the scenes in the church are intended to show the viewer the complete path to salvation that culminates in Christ’s triumph over death.


8. Pantokrator Monastery in Constantinople

pantokrator monastery in constantinople interior
Interior of Pantokrator Monastery, photographed by the staff of the Byzantine Institute, 1936, via Hollis Image Library, Harvard University


As one of the most significant building complexes done by the Komnenos dynasty in Constantinople, the Monastery of Christ Pantokrator was founded by Emperor John II and his wife, Eirene. It consists of three internally connected churches dedicated to the Virgin Eleousa (Virgin of Tenderness), Archangel Michael, and Christ Pantokrator (the All-Ruler). Most of their interior has been changed through the centuries, and almost no original decoration remains. Some written documents describe the interior as being decorated with golden mosaics and marble floors.


The church dedicated to Archangel Michael, also known as Heron, is the funeral chapel of the imperial Komnenos family. The imperial tombs were clustered beneath the western dome in this two-domed church. One arcosolium, an arched recess used as a place of entombment, survives in the western wall.  Arcosolia were set aside for distinguished family members, though unclear for whom. The western two may have been intended for the tombs of John II and his wife, Irene. Their son Manuel I was buried here in 1180. Described as a lavish tomb, his grave incorporated an opus sectile floor (a type of mosaic work in which figural patterns are composed of pieces of stone), the relic of the Stone of the Unction (by tradition, a stone slab where Jesus’ body was prepared for burial), and a tomb marker of dark stone topped by seven domes.


The importance of Heron, particularly for Medieval Orthodox art, is shown by a parallel with a Serbian church of Saint Archangels near Prizren, North Macedonia. Art historians have not only noted the similar architecture of these two churches, but their functions as mausoleums match up as well.


9. The Church of Hagia Sophia in Trebizond 

church of saint sophia trebizond empire
Exterior of The Church of Hagia Sophia in Trebizond, 1238-1263, via World History


The Church of Hagia Sophia in Trebizond, modern-day Trabzon, was built by the Emperor of Trebizond, Manuel I Komnenos. It has a cross-in-square plan with three great porches, an architectural feat unparalleled in Byzantine architecture. It is not only an example of 13th-century Medieval Orthodox art but a document of the efforts that renegade Trebizond emperors put into legitimizing their own claims to the Byzantine throne.


The Trebizond Empire was founded just before the Sack of Constantinople by Crusaders in 1204 by the nephews of a deposed Komnenos emperor, Andronikos I. Though the state of the so-called Great Komnenos quickly became politically irrelevant, they continued voicing their pretensions to the throne. By its dedication to the Holy Wisdom (a literal translation of the term “Hagia Sophia”), the Hagia Sophia of Trebizond shows a connection to Constantinople’s own great church. In doing this, Manuel I Komnenos built the identity of Trebizond as a new capital of the empire.


Its original fresco decoration is mainly destroyed, with only fragments remaining. The central motif of the church is an eagle with spread wings, the symbol of the imperial Komnenos family.


10. Monastery of Vlatadon in Thessaloniki

vlatadon monastery thessaloniki church of transfiguration
Exterior of Vlatadon Monastery in Thessaloniki, 1351-1371, via Nikana


Thessaloniki was the second-most important city of the Byzantine Empire. As both a political and commercial center, it had always been a focus of the Byzantine political and ecclesiastical elite, a fact proven by the number of churches built in Thessaloniki during the late Byzantine period. With the return of Byzantines to the capital in 1261, the Paleologian renaissance, a term used to describe an interest of Byzantine scholars for ancient texts during the last centuries of Byzantium, began and spread to the city and further through the rest of the Balkans. It nurtured artists that were trained by the masters in Constantinople and influenced by the monasticism of Mount Athos, a community of Orthodox monks in Northern Greece established in the 8th century.


Vlatadon Monastery, built around the 6th decade of the 14th century, was dedicated to the Transfiguration of Christ. Its name comes from the family name of Dorotheos Vlatis, the Metropolitan of Thessaloniki between 1351 and 1371. Some art historians have noted the connections of the monastery to the rise of Hesychast monasticism and teachings. Hesychasm is a type of monastic life in Eastern Christianity in which practitioners seek divine quietness through the contemplation of God. Dorotheos was friends with the leader of Hesychasm, Gregorias Palamas, and one of the keys to the Hesychast theology was the moment of Christ’s Transfiguration. Another argument in favor of this connection is the figures of monks painted on the church walls, probably under Mount Athos’s influence.

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By Dusan NikolicBA History of ArtDusan is an art historian and graduate of the University of Belgrade, specializing in Byzantine church architecture with an interest in the history and creation of art. Formerly a museum worker, he spends most of his research and free time on interdisciplinary work between art history and psychology.