The Catholicon of Studenica monastery was erected in the period of 1183 to 1196 AD by its founder and benefactor great Stefan Nemanja. It is one of the most precious monuments of the Raska School of architecture. The Church is a one-nave basilica with the altar space and inner narthex. A later addition of the outer narthex was built by King Radoslav. The external look of the Church maintains a harmonious relationship between two architectonic movements: Romanesque, a dominant style in the West, and the Byzantine style. The combination of these two styles gave birth of a specific style called the Raska school.
The apex of Studenica art is four portals, especially the western portal located between the internal and external narthex.
On the northern wall beneath the sub-dome space, there is a window decorated with squares and medallions, carved in the lead board which indicates eight fantastic animals—the symbols of the Theotokos’ virtues, and two rosettes which symbolize God’s eyes.
In the arching portal of the church there is a fragmented inscription: “This all-holy temple of the Theotokos, our lady, was erected by the will of the very renowned ruler and son-in-law of the Hellenic emperor Alexios, Stefan Nemanja, who took an angelic honor (tonsure) as Simeon the monk… by Vukan the ruler 1208/9 AD, indict of ninth, and remember me a sinner, Sava who worshiped in here.”
The fresco writing of the church was completed during Prince Vukan’s time and probably with the help of his brother Stefan the First Crowned. The original frescoes are partially conserved in the altar, the sub dome space, the western wall and the lower zones of the nave. The composition of the Theotokos with angels occupies the central altar space. Beneath it there is Christ giving communion to the Apostles. Parts of the original frescoes are the Annunciation and the Meeting of the Lord situated on the western altar divider. The most monumental and artistically most perfect composition is the Crucifixion in the nave.
In 1569 AD, there was a fresco restoration, and this was witnessed by the preserved inscription on the western wall in front of the composition of the Great Dormition. On the southern wall there is a benefactor’s composition where the Theotokos brings forth Simeon, the benefactor, with a model of Studenica in his hand, to Christ, the Judge of righteousness.
There is a cycle of frescoes of the last Judgment painted in 1569 AD in the upper zone of the western and eastern wall of the narthex. The earliest fresco writings of the Theotokos’ church are actually the highest apex of the byzantine art at the beginning of the thirteenth century. The fresco renovation in the sixteenth century was done with a lot of skill and knowledge and represents the first restoration project among Serbians. Due to some fresco features, there is a hypothesis that a monk, Longin, one of the best artists of his time, was part of that project as well.
The frescoes of Radoslav’s narthex and the side paraklises are originally from the fourth decade of the thirteenth century. The fresco style is similar to the main Church. In the northern paraklis dedicated to Saint Nicholas, there is a cycle of scenes of Nicholas’ life next to the composition of the offered sacrifice. In the northern paraklis there are: Nemanja, Stefan the First Crowned, King Radoslav with his wife Anna, and on the northern wall three Serbian archbishops: Sava, Arsenije, and Sava, the younger brother of King Radoslav.
Northwest of the Theotokos’ church there is a church dedicated to Joachim and Anna, which is called the King’s church after its benefactor, King Milutin. On its facade, beneath the roof arch there, is an inscription in stone: “In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, I, Stephen Uros, the servant of God, great grandson of lord Simeon and grandson of Stephen the First Crowned, the son of great King Uros and King of the all Serbian and maritime lands, have erected this temple in the name of holy and righteous ancestors of Christ, Joachim and Anna in 1314, indict 12, and I enclosed the Chrysobulls to this church. One who changes it may be condemned by God and me the sinner, amen. The church was erected by efforts of the archimandrite and protosingelous hegumenos Jovan…”
The Church is a work of great masters. Even though the construction leaves an impression of simplicity, it is, in fact, a much elaborated complex model. The basic concept of the church is the shape of the cross structure. Similar to the Theotokos’ church, here also there is an inscribed cross structure proportionally enlarged. The idea of cross structure is emphasized through the skillfully arched roofs. This church symbolizes an image of cosmos too. In the dome, a symbol of heaven, dwells a heavenly king. It appears that artists and very educated contractors tended to point out the unity of earthly and heavenly liturgy in the Divine economy of salvation and praise of the Most High.
Of greatest value in this church are the frescoes. Largely preserved and uniform in style and aesthetic value, the frescoes cover all the walls from the ground to the dome. The fresco painting of this church dates back to second decade of the fourteenth century as the masterpiece of King Milutin’s artists who fresco-painted most of his endowments. Thanks to its artistic value, this church, though modest by size, is one of the most precious Serbian monuments of the fourteenth century. The uniformed artistic level of the entire assembly of frescoes make this work art one of the greatest reaches of the classic style of an early paleolog’s epoch in the entire Byzantine cultural sphere.
In the second decade of the fourteenth century, when the King’s church was fresco-painted, there was a singular comprehension of art in all of Eastern Christendom. King Milutin decided to dedicate the church of Joachim and Anna to this renowned monastery. Celebrating St. Joachim and Anna, the king celebrates and glorifies the Theotokos herself.
The Church of St. Nicholas or Nikoljaca is the smallest and the simplest of all churches preserved in the monastery complex. The single nave basilica with a semicircular altar apsidal on the east leaves a semi-rounded shape. The three emphasized parts of the liturgical space was accomplished by well-known and thorough construction methods of the eleventh and twelfth centuries on the southern sea shore of the Adriatic Sea. The Church was made of broken and carved stones in limestone mortar. There are two beliefs about the church’s period: first, it was a liturgical space while building the main church, and second, it originates from the time of iconography.
Hitherto, the Church gave the impression of a small building like a paraklis. The excavation studies in 1968 AD determined that the church was cluttered by one meter of dirt. After its cleaning, the church retrieved its proportionality. Apart from that, there are remnants of the porch, frescoes on plinth and many medieval tombs also. The church was originally fresco-painted in full, but the remaining is preserved only in fragments.
Today in the altar, there is a composition of the Theotokos with two angels glorifying her, and underneath, three bishops. The most impressive of all standing figures is St. John the Forerunner. The only remaining from the composition Great Feast Days is the Entrance and Myrrh bearing Women on the western wall. During restoration, very interesting ornaments of tied circles, rosettes, medallions and graphics entwined in vine were discovered. This rich and almost fully preserved ornamentation completes the quite modest existing fresco decoration of the church.