Saint John Chrysostom, fresco in the altar of the Church of the Mother of God in Studenica, detail, 1208/1209.
A little more than a decade after the uplift of the Church of the Mother of God in Studenica, the sons of Stefan Nemanja Stefan, Vukan and Sava Nemanjić, who was then the abbot of the Studenica Lavra, undertook extensive work on completing their father’s endowment and sepulchral church.
Thanks to Saint Sava, 1208/1209. the best painters of that time were hired to decorate the monumental church of the Mother of God with frescoes. They probably arrived from Constantinople after the Fourth Crusade and the fall of the Byzantine capital to the Latin Empire in 1204. While frescoing the main Studenica Monastery church at a time when the relics of the Venerable Simeon the Myrrh-bearer had just been transferred from Hilandar and stored in a pre-prepared marble tomb, for the first time in the Serbian environment, painters used the most precious blue paint and gold. During this period, these materials were difficult to obtain; the azure blue natural pigment was more expensive than gold itself, imported from distant lands in the East. It was produced by a special recipe, crushed and extracted from the semi-precious stone lapis lazuli, which was excavated in the province of Badakshan in Afghanistan, several thousand years before the birth of Christ. It was exported to the Mediterranean and Asia region and was highly respected in Ancient Egypt as well.
Pigment lapis lazuli and a gold leaf, illustration
Lapis lazuli (lazurite, ultramarine) is a complex mineral that, in addition to blue, also contains impurities of calcite, sodalite and pyrite, which contribute to its unique shade, from light blue to dark purple tone. The most valuable is lapis lazuli of a deep shade of blue with a touch of purple and small “veins” of pyrite, which is also called “Byzantine blue” due to its noble composition, specific vivacity in tone and the highest degree of purity. In the Byzantine semantics of colors, this blue color is an expression of a new, eschatological reality in eternity, immaterial light, peace, the fullness of virtues and spiritual authority. That is why the epithet “Byzantine Blue” suits completely, associating it with the most sublime spiritual heritage of the Byzantine Empire. The process of obtaining pure lazurite pigment has only been partially described in old painting manuals (Erminias and Il Libro dell’Arte by Chenino Chenini), because this knowledge required years of viewing and learning in order to properly extract the finest powder from a compact rock of exceptional hardness. It was then mixed by an “alchemical” process with heated pure beeswax, gum arabic and rosin, until the final rinsing of the compact mass and the separation of the pigment of the highest degree of purity, ready for use.
The use of gold in frescoes has been noticed among Serbs since the time of Saint Sava. Gold symbolizes the light of truth, tested and purified in the fire of temptation, the supernatural beauty of the glory of God and the Heavenly Jerusalem which is contemplated by the eyes of the faith. Like lapis lazuli, gold, when used in painting, reflects an eschatological reality devoid of the category of space and time. Material gold is just an ambiguous symbol of the “immaterial gold” of the unfading Light, the original beauty of the soul and everything created, many times brighter than gold itself. Based on the conducted research, it is known that during the painting of the apse and the domed space of the Church of the Mother of God in Studenica in 1208/1209. gold was used extensively in some places with the aim of achieving the impression of a mosaic, while in other parts of the main Monastery church gold was used wherever it was necessary to highlight halos, significant inscriptions in Cyrillic, stars and gold embroidered details of the vestments. The results of the latest expert analysis, published in the journal Archaeometry, University of Oxford / I. Drpić, A. Jelikić (2021), On large-scale gilding and mosaic simulation in medieval Serbian wall painting, 1-15 /, confirmed the presence of gold and lapis lazuli on Studenica frescoes from the beginning of the 13th century. The amount of lapis lazuli used during the fresco painting of the Church of the Mother of God in Studenica is proportional, if not greater, than the amount of gold, which has been largely preserved to this day.
Thanks to the work of the conservator-restorers of the Republic Institute for the Protection of Cultural Monuments of Serbia – Belgrade during the past years, blue lazurite and gold shine again in their true splendor. When visiting Studenica Monastery, special attention should be paid to these details and to the opportunity to see the eight centuries-old beauty of this magnificent art.