The Banjska Monastery, built between 1312 and 1316, is situated on the right river bank of the eponymous river, in the foot of the Rogozna Mountain, 12 km away from the village of Zvecane, 4 km of the Kraljevo-Kosovska Mitrovica main road. The monastery is the endowment of the King Stefan Uros Milutin II, the most prominent ktitor (donator) among Serbian mediaeval rulers. King Milutin consigned the construction of the Banjska Monastery to his trusted Councilor St. Danilo the Second, subsequently the Archbishop of Serbia, at that point the Abbot of Hilandar Monastery, and later also the first Abbot of the Banjska Monastery. It was the King’s desire that the Banjska Monastery should have a prominent place among his many endowments, a whole array of ambitiously designed architectural achievements of the then builders, and as a result Banjska was richly furnished and lavishly endowed.
King Milutin intended Banjska as his own sepulchral church and his remains were indeed transferred to this monastery in 1321, and soon after also those of Queen Teodora, wife of King Stefan of Decani and mother of King Milutin’s son, Emperor Dusan, were entombed in the northern chapel of the Monastery. However, following the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, King Milutin’s remains were moved to Trepca (the village of StariTrg), and then in 1460 moved again to the vicinity of Sofija, Bulgaria (to where the Gornobanski Monastery was founded), and hence transferred to several other shrines. Today they rest in the St. Nedelja Church (Church of St. Kyriake), also commonly known as the Church of the Holy King.
Albeit monumental, comprising a church, dining room, library, konacs and “imperial palace”, the edifice started decaying early on. The destiny of the monastic complex, similar to other endowments of mediaeval Serbia, became determined by many dramatic and tragic events, primarily during the Ottoman rule. In 1389 it was set on fire in the wake of the first Ottoman onslaught. Its ordeal continued in the 15th century, when in 1491 the monastery was again torched and the great library with countless rare books went up in flames. Still, the monastery persisted until early 16th century, when another devastation led to its being completely abandoned. Sometime around 1619, Bosnian Mustafa Pasha Olovcic Bergler Bey established a fort at the monastery. It was during this period that part of the church was converted to mosque, later known by the name of Sultan Osman II Mosque. But the greatest devastation of Banjska Monastery took place in 1689, when it served as a fortress to both the Turkish and the Austrian armies in the Austro-Turkish battles. In 19th century the already ravaged church was converted into a mosque serving as one until World War I. Turks finally abandoned Banjska in 1912, and it took a while before the demolished and dilapidated monastery was restored in 1938. Owing to Djuradj Boskovic, the architect and Professor at the Belgrade University who for ten years conducted detailed exploration and photographed the remnants of the church in Banjska, the reconstruction of the monastic complex was initiated. However, World War II brought on fresh troubles, so the reconstruction of the church could not be completed. In the second half of the 20th century Banjska Monastery continued crumbling down, with the building material from the monastery, same as its gold and treasuries, scattered and looted – one of the pillars of the iconostasis was found in the cobblestones of Mosovska Mitrovica and some fragments in Vucitrn.
Knowing that it was a great shrine, for centuries people continued to visit the famous walls. Banjska Monastery came to life again in 2004, when young monks assembled there. This was also a reason why the reconstruction of the church and the wider complex of the monastery was initiated in 2006 – unfortunately, only to be halted again in 2010.
Archeological excavations, never fully completed to this day, significantly improved our knowledge of the original history and appearance of King Milutin’s majestic endowment. The whole monastic complex, along with the remnants of a large surrounding wall and various buildings along the inside of the wall, needed for housing and other functions necessary for a large monastic brotherhood, surfaced during these excavations.
Behind the distressing appearance of the whole area and of the King Milutin’s mausoleum, lie the remains of the large-scale complex, formerly enclosed by a massive defensive bulwark. Current remains of the monastery fortress include not only fragments of the original walls, but also the re-building carried out in 16th and 17th centuries, when a small Turkish fortress was erected on top of the ruins of the monastery complex, with minarets added over the northern choir of the church which was then partly converted into a mosque while the rest of the church became residential quarters.
All buildings of the Banjska Monastery were built in the Byzantine style, combining stone and bricks. The only exception is the central edifice, the church of St. Stefan itself, built with multi-colored stone, the late Romanesque construction technique. Thus the architects and builders of the Byzantine and Romanesque schools of architecture united here.
The Banjska dining hall is among the most representative ones, equal to those in Hilandar and Studenica (also King Milutin’s endowments) or in the Monastery of St. Archangels near Prizren (the Emperor Dusan’s endowment). The dining hall’s position and layout resemble the bulk of the monastic dining halls across the Byzantine world. A great apse in the dining hall’s northern end originally was intended of the Abbot’s distinguished table. Outside the dining hall, overlooking the church, there was a ceremonial porch leading, on its south side, to the monastic quarters.
Main entrance to the monastery, located on the west side, was regal in appearance. The entrance itself was a construction with a rectangular base, forming a doorway to the monastery. The vestibule outside the entrance featured decorative stone socles and had walls painted in frescos. As a whole, the entrance structure represented what is today commonly known as a portal in all Orthodox Athonite monasteries.
St. Stefan church replaced an older temple, previously leveled to the ground and formerly the seat of the Banjska Diocese in late 13th century, during the reign of Milutin’s father, King Uros the First (I). King Milutin issued a Gold Seal Chrysobull of St. Stefan (1314) to its foundation, bestowing his endowment with vast possessions of land (the chrysobull lists as many as 75 villages and hamlets), mainly in Kosovo and Metohija.
The Banjska Monastery substantially differs from all the rest King Milutin’s endowments – built in a new Byzantine style of Renaissance under the Palailogos dynasty – due to the King’s wish to model his endowment after the century-and-a-half-older Monastery of Studenica, the burial place of Stefan Nemanja, founder of the Nemanjic dynasty and King Milutin’s ancestor. Builders seeking to emulate the Studenica model could not overlook the changes that took place in the 13th century Serbian architecture, and as a result they created an architecturally magnificent structure. The Monastery of Banjska follows its model in terms of the façade, decorated with expensive stone ornaments and architectural embellishments. Already its layout demonstrates highly developed and complex elements of the Raska (Rascia) temples. Most particularly, the single-naved yet monumental interior section was originally topped with wide-sitting and well-lit dome. The central nave terminates in a tripartite altar area, regally composed. To the north and south side of the church’s central section, choirs extend into side-chapels behind them, starching out to the west side of the church and to the narthex. While the inside of the church appear dispersed – space both divided and interlinked in keeping with the requirements of those days and its overall purpose as a sepulchral church – the outside was compressed into a strong body of both Romanesque and Romanesque-Gothic architectural style of Adriatic and Tuscany cathedrals. The complex interior of the Monastery Banjska culminates at the east end of the edifice with vast narthex flanked by two high bell-towers, of which the southern bell-tower remains partially preserved to this day.
The façade of the Monastery of Banjska, built of carefully carved tricolor stone blocks, bewilders with its precise alteration of colored surfaces, achieving a strict chessboard-like rhythm. The two-colored facades, borrowed from the Italian Romanesque architectural tradition, left a significant mark on the 14th century Serbian monumental architecture. However, the tricolored stone façade of the Monastery of Banjska stands out as a unique architectural leap of imagination. The combination of the unique coloring and soft, warm relief carved in Raska tradition afford the stately appearance of the Banjska façade, equaled only by the Tuscany Siena Cathedral.
The most significant element of the Banjska’s figurative stonework ornaments is the small statue of the Holy Mother of God and baby Jesus, today preserved in Sokolica Monastery, and often called “Our Lady of Sokolica” (“Theotokos of Sokolica”). According to oral tradition, monks fleeing from the Turks over five centuries ago moved the statue there as a holy relic. In 1920 the statue was discovered at the Sokolica church by the poet Rastko Petrovic, who then dedicated a poem to it. “The Holy Peasant Woman in Kosovo” (Sveta seljanka na Kosovu).
Style features present in the Banjska sculpted ornaments are closer to its own than to the Studenica epoch, since its late-Romanesque form follows the rules of expressions common in the Raska and the coastal areas, characterized by the beauty of the art work, richness of both realistic and fantastic motifs, and the finesse of the finishing. Writers of later genealogies and chroniclers extolled the beauty of mural art of Banjska. What little is left today can hardly evoke the yesteryear grandeur. Only a few figures in the interlinked medallions now remain on the interior surface of the western arch of the dome.
The pride of the Banjska Monastery once was the famous “gold of Banjska”, glorified in the Serbian epic poetry and described in the travelogues of the epoch. It comprised thin gold leaves which gilded the background of frescos, emulating the Monasteries of Studenica, Mileseva and Sopocani. Today, only a few faded fragments are preserved of the depicted lives of saints.
The Monastery of Banjska represents an invaluable cultural, historical and religious treasure of the Serbian people. Its surroundings include a former spa resort, with currently unused mineral hot springs. The spa complex in the village of Banjska, at 540 meters above sea level, comprises two hot springs, with temperatures 43 C and 47 C respectively, and water that can be used for drinking, while bathing in it treats chronic rheumatism and neuralgia. It is such religious, cultural and natural potentials on the slopes of the Rogozna Mountain, whose hills boast the triumphant remains of a magnificent construction and sublime ideas, that make Banjska one of the biggest tourist, and thus economic, potential of the northern part of Kosovo and Metohija.
Unfortunately, standing in the way of many military campaigns, enduring persistent and alternating destructions and reconstructions to this day, the ruins of Banjska can hardly evoke its former glory to the present onlooker. In 2013, commemorating monastery’s septuacentennial anniversary, the Government of the Republic of Serbia, through its line ministries and the Office for Kosovo and Metohija, in cooperation with the Serbian Orthodox Church and the Institute for the Protection of Cultural Monuments of Serbia, has launched a new process of restoring one of the most significant spiritual centers of our people and the greatest monuments of Serbian art and history.
Two rings were found in Theodora’s tomb. The silver ring is preserved in the Museum of Applied Arts in Belgrade. Art history views the gold ring of the Queen Theodora (National Museum) as the most valuable example of Serbian medieval goldsmithery.