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The wall painting on the western façade and the lunette of the southern portal of St. Nicholas in Ljuboten

Author(s): Radujko Milan

Journal: Zograf
ISSN 0350-1361

Volume: 2008;
Issue: 32;
Start page: 101;
Date: 2008;
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The wall painting on the façades of St. Nicholas in Ljuboten near Skopje, the endowment of 'Lady Danica', a noblewoman in the time of King Dušan, was destroyed in 1928, during the restoration of the church. Evidence of the appearance of the hitherto unnoticed decoration on the western facade and the southern entrance can be seen on glass plates in the Photograph Collection of the National Museum in Belgrade. When the photographs Nos. 1438, 1444 and 1567 were taken, the painting on the Ljuboten church façades, although damaged or washed away, was still partly visible. On the western façade it extended in three zones (the socle, the standing figures and the busts) across the entire façade and from the ground to the porch, the roof of which stood at the foot of the western wall archivolt, while the ornamentation of the southern façade covered the lunette above the entrance and its archivolt. Although in 1925, the painting did not contain a single legible signature or physiognomy, thematically, the outer ornamentation of Ljuboten is essentially clear. The bust of the Mother of God with the infant Christ, facing south, was in the centre of the compositional focus of the western façade. Three figures stood on the left and on the right sides of the portal, one on each of the pilasters, and one monumental figure in each of two niches. From the south, a church hierarch, with short, curly beard, was moving in a stooping position towards the Mother of God. He, certainly, could be identified as the patron of the church, St. Nicholas. The saint raises his right hand in a gesture of exhortation. Behind him, a figure in monastic habit was painted. This person holds a model of the church in the left hand, with the right hand in a gesture of prayer. Undoubtedly, it was the donatrix of the church painted here. As opposed to the figures in the southern part of the western façade, those in the northern part were facing forward. We recognized a saint on the pilaster beside the entrance, by the traces of his robes, but this was insufficient for establishing what category of saints he belongs; there was a standing image of a holy warrior in a niche, clad in a tunic and cloak, while the outermost northern pilaster was occupied by the image of a holy martyr. Evidence of the zone of the busts (between the figures and the roof) is to be seen only fragmentarily (above the figure of the patron) with the traces of clothing that was typical for martyrs. The depictions in the lunette and in the niches were framed by ornamental bands but it is not known what the socle looked like. Above the southern entrance there was a bust of St. Nicholas, recognizable by the remains of presentations of Christ and the Mother of God, who, on the images of this saint, were holding out a Gospel and an omophorion to this courageous hierarch. The painting of external façades was a widely cultivated feature in the region of Macedonia, from the twelfth century at the very latest. According to the volume of façade surfaces covered with frescoes, Ljuboten belongs to the churches in which ornamentation of this kind occupied a significant place. In keeping with a practice that had been cultivated for centuries, the painter chose the façades that had an entrance and portals as the basis for his painting, and as the starting point for the gradation of themes according to their importance. The frescoes on the west façade, where it concerns the position of the details in the whole, follow a program topology that is typical of the external ornamentation of Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. The entrance to the church was already reserved in the time of Constantine the Great, for the visualization of the religious and legal aspects of the donor's undertaking. The general features of the art of this epoch included also the donor's portrait supraporta. Positioned in such a way for the merits of the founder already to be visible on entering the churchyard, the portrait of Lady Danica, both in terms of its structure and its place in the whole - thanks to the symbolism of the entrance - placed the eschatological meaning of φιλοκτεσια in the foreground. Owing to the condition in which it existed before its destruction, the fresco painting on the western façade does not offer much material for an iconographical analysis. Nevertheless, it is worthwhile to note that, in conceptualizing the composition of the donor, the painter decided on a formula of modesty and praesentatio, less frequently practiced in the fourteenth century, and that in depicting the donatrix, he opted for a symbiosis of the motive of supplication and guiding by the hand, retaining from the previous model, the position of the model of the endowment, and finally, in writing out the inscription, he used 'cartouches', combining, like some contemporaries, tabulae and circular 'shields'. In terms of style, the façade frescoes (the shallow volume, broad forms, soft, languid lines and the mild contrast) are linked with the younger layer of fresco paintings of the Ljuboten interior (1343-1345), attributed to the fresco painters of Mateič and Dradnja. The article systematically explains the dating of the younger paintings of the church of St. Nicholas, and suggests a more precise time frame for its creation, in the years 1343-1344, expressing the conviction that the façade was painted during the same campaign, just before the task was completed in the naos. As for the history of Ljuboten, the fresco painting on the west façade is the only proper addition to the data offered by the inscription carved on the lintel of the western portal. The fact that the credit for building the church is attributed only to one member of the donor's family in the time of decorating the lower zones of the naos with frescoes, most clearly supports the conclusion that the portrait of the Lady Danica stood in the southern niche. A detail of importance for prosopographic research is provided by the robes of the prudent donatrix. Lady Danica took the veil at some time between 1336/1337, when the inscription was carved above the entrance, and the painting of the western façade (1343-1345). Today, unfortunately, we do not know whether the founders of the church building also financed the painting of her endowment. In searching for the reasons why the work on the decoration of the church was suspended, the author considers that the reasons for the interruption must have been serious. He believes that the work was suspended due to events in the donatrix's life, perhaps as a result of her death (already in her mature years at the time when the church was built), which would mean, consequently, that the noblewoman Danica only financed the first phase of the church's painting works. Who - if this were so - would be the donor of the younger part of paintings? In the absence of proof that would provide the right answer, the author returns to the thesis of I. M. Djordjević, according to which the monogram Dmitar, carved into the lower side of the lintel on the western entrance, reveals in fact the name of the younger son of Lady Danica, the co-donor of his mother at the time when the building was erected. This name is concealed on the inscription from the face of the mentioned lintel ('other son'). For Dmitar, the care taken to complete the task of painting the frescoes would be the resumption of an endeavour that had been undertaken much earlier. In support of this would be the fact that a holy warrior was painted in the northern niche, as the counterpart of the donatrix. The appearance of a saint of this type in such an important place in the fresco decoration of the noblewoman's endowment would primarily reflect the social status of the donor's family, but - due to the frequent coincidence of the name of the client and his protector - one cannot neglect the possibility, either, that it was connected with the person from the monogram, i.e. that St. Demetrius was standing opposite the donatrix. It would also indicate that this choice of saint in the northern niche served as testimony of the participation of the 'other son' in the decoration of his mother's endowment. .
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