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Deserts and holy mountains of medieval Serbia: Written sources, spatial patterns, architectural designs

Author(s): Popović Danica

Journal: Zbornik Radova Vizantološkog Instituta
ISSN 0584-9888

Volume: 2007;
Issue: 44;
Start page: 253;
Date: 2007;
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Essential concepts in Christian thought and practice, the desert and holy mountain denote a particular kind of monastic and sacral space. They are secluded from the world, intended for asceticism, and ambivalent in nature they are inhospitable and menacing zones populated with demons, but also a monastic paradise, places for spiritual conversion and encounter with the divine. From earliest times, deserts and holy mountains had a few distinguishing characteristics. All forms of monastic life, from communal to solitary, were practiced side by side there. Monks of a special make-up and distinction known as holy men who were also often founders of illustrious communities, future saints and miracle-workers acted there. Furthermore these locales were important spiritual and bookmaking centre's, and therefore, strongholds of Orthodoxy. When trying to research Serbian material on this topic, we face a specific situation: few surviving sources on the one hand, and devastated monuments on the other. The ultimate consequence is that the entire subject has been neglected. Therefore the study of the Serbian deserts and holy mountains requires a very complex interdisciplinary approach with systematic field work as its essential part. It should address the following issues: corroboration, on the basis of written sources, of the reception of the concept of the monastic desert and holy mountain in a particular, regional, context; the distinct means and mechanisms employed in their physical realization; interpretation of their function; the recognition of patterns preserved in the surviving physical structures. Even the results obtained so far appear to be relevant enough to become included in the sacral topography of the Christian world. The author of this study gives particular attention to the detailed analysis of written sources of various genres - diplomatic sources, hagiographic material, liturgical texts, observation notes - in order to establish the meaning and the function of the monastic locales labeled as deserts and holy mountains (and, in a limited number of cases, also known as caves). The most important conclusions that may be drawn would be the following: the terms are interchangeable and were used both in a broader and a narrower sense, but in either case in reference to the space intended for higher forms of monastic life. A particularly broad range of meanings had the term desert which could refer to a distinct locale, as a rule a river gorge, or a mountain inhabited by hermits, but also a cave hermitage, the hesychasterion of a coenobitic community. The distinct forms of monastic life in such areas were communities of two or three or a few monks, organized as a skete or as a cell. In the deserts and mountains hermits primarily pursued the practice of 'agon and hesychia', but were also engaged in manuscript copying - an important peculiarity of Serbian eremitic monasticism. Finally, such locales were thought of by their dwellers as spiritual cities and the narrow path leading to Heavenly Jerusalem. The other thematic focus is an analysis of spatial patterns and architectural structures based on the relevant examples studied so far. Different types of monastic communities functioning as deserts were considered, from the point of view of their spatial situation and their relationship to the coenobia. In this context, field research identified examples of the so-called internal deserts, which was reconfirmed by the records from written sources. Special attention was given to the mechanism for creating a holy mount in the Serbian environment, according to the recognizable, athonite model. Also analyzed were architectural solutions characteristic of Serbian monastic deserts, from the simplest ones such as wooden huts and walled-up caves to monumental multi-storied edifices, equipped with different features. Finally, the conclusions that have been reached serve as a basis for defining future priorities in the field research of this topic.
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