«Зидно сликарство на фасадима бочних параклхса Богородице Перивлепте у Охриду», Monumenta 4 (2019), с. 29-42.
In one of his very first works dedicated to the artistic history of Ohrid, Cvetan Grozdanov presented the wall decoration on the façades of the parekklesia of the Mother of God Perivleptos, in which he gave detailed descriptions of the portraits of historical personages, and correctly read the inscriptions beside them. The façade of the northern side chapel shows Vuk and Grgur, the younger sons of the sebastokrator Branko, and in front of them, in ceremonial apparel, the emperor Uroš, as the sovereign bearer of authority. To the right of the entrance, above which were the patron, St. Gregory the Theologian, Grigorios, Archbishop of Ohrid and the donor Grigorios, Bishop of Devol, and Archimandrite Jovan, Hegumen of the St. Clement Monastery on the neighbouring surface.
On the surfaces in front of the southern parekklesion, where the representations were ‘legible’ to a lesser extent, one could make out figures that Grozdenov in his first work rightfully believed was the donor’s composition with the portrait of a nobleman.
In front of the northern side chapel, in the interesting series of personages who represented the society of Ohrid at that time, the oldest son of sebastokrator Branko, the lord Nikola Radonja, was missing. Several sources offer information about his appearance and later activities. Radonja was married to Jelena, the younger sister of the Mrnjavčević brothers, but prior to that he had gone to reside in Serres, where Jovan Uglješa had become a prominent figure at the court of the empress Jelena / the nun Jelisaveta. Nikola Radonja remained closely attached to his brothers in Ohrid, which is vividly recounted in the description of their meeting at the beginning of 1365 and their joint donation of family estates in Drenica to the Hilandar Monastery. His position at the court in Serres is not well-known, but relations between the two families on the threshold of the great changes in the land where they collectively administered, were of paramount importance. In that light one should view the later decision Grgur and Vuk made to leave Ohrid as part of a broader scheme in the distribution of power, following Dušan’s conquests. The position of Nikola Radonja in that company is pointed out in the later documents of the Kutlumus Monastery, which recall the people who assisted him with their gifts – the pious emperor Stefan and the nun Jelisaveta, 39
the most serene despot, Lord Jovan Uglješa, his ‘father’ Kesar (Vojihna), Vuk,
Radohna (Radonja), ‘and other Serbs and Rhomeoi’.
The course of Radonja’s life suddenly changed, due to a family tragedy: during the Great Plague that also struck Serres in the summer of 1363, his wife Jelena and both of his daughters died. He prepared a place of burial for them in the nearby monastery of St. John Prodromos (the Forerunner) beneath Mount Menikion. According to the inscription within a wall ornament that still mentions him by his worldly name, this must have occurred before the beginning of winter in 1364, when painting on damp mortar had gradually ceased. Very soon afterwards Radonja took his monastic vows and in the first months of the next year, he visited his brothers as the venerable elder, Roman, and obtained a charter from the emperor Uroš in Priština on the 11th March, confirming the aforesaid donation to the Hilandar Monastery.
The said account provides a better insight into the life of the oldest son of Branko Mladenović in the months immediately preceding his withdrawal to the Holy Mount, which coincided with the time of painting the side chapels of the Mother of God Perivleptos. Their content, especially on the surfaces in front of the southern chapel, can also be better understood in that light.
In his description of the images in the upper part of the façade, Cvetan Grozdenov in his doctoral dissertation observed that depicted above the entrance was the death of a bishop and above that were illustrations of several episodes from his life, whereas, without making assumptions, he did not reiterate the view
he had formerly expressed that they were images of St. Nicholas. A more careful examination, however, revealed the name of the scene above the entrance (Η ΚΟΙΜΗCΗC / ΤΟΥ ΑΓΙΟΥ / NΙΚΟΛΑΟΥ), attesting that the parekklesion was dedicated to St. Nicholas, and explaining that the unknown nobleman on the
neighbouring wall, depicted in a posture of prayer according to the classical scheme of a ktetorial composition, was dedicated to his cult. Namely, analogous to the dedication of the northern chapel, which Grigorios, Bishop of Devol dedicated to Grigorios, Archbishop of Constantinople, undoubtedly, the eponymous ktetor was depicted in front of the parekklesion of St. Nicholas. In the narrow circle of the renowned nobility of that time, it could only have been the oldest son of sebastokrator Branko, Nikоlа Rаdоnjа, who had laid the earthly remains of his family to rest in the chapel, dedicated to the same saint, on Mount Menikeion.
The scenes in the interior of the chapels designated a specific programme in each of them, adapted to the needs of the liturgy, but on the façades they constituted a unified whole, representing the society of Ohrid and the saints whose cults it cherished. On the façade of the northern parekklesion, to the left, are Grgur and Vuk Branković, who had inherited the administration of the city from their father and the emperior Uroš, the bearer of sovereign power and whose title included autokrator. Above the entrance, inside, is the painted bust of St. Gregory the Theologian, and to the right – the partly lost – figures of spiritual dignitaries, from the archbishop of Iustiniana Prima and all Bulgaria, the donor, the bishop of Devol, Grigorios, to Archimandrite Jovan, the hegumen of the oldest shrine in Ohrid, the Monastery of St. Clement on the Mount. In front of the southern parekklesion, this exposition resumed with the portrait of Nikola Radonja, the donor praying, behind the Mother of God, who is beckoning him to Christ, who blesses him, while to the right, beside the entrance to the church consecrated to St. Nicholas, is the image of St. Nicholas and, behind him, a bishop, to all appearances, Clement, who, as the city’s patron, is depicted in all the churches in Ohrid. All together, in this unique series, the personages on the façades of the side chapels of the Mother of God Perivleptos represented the society of Ohrid and the saintly people they venerated, and this occurred in the months immediately preceding the great changes in the land.
In that light, it is possible to consider the frescoes of the side chapels in their entirety and determine the time when they came into being. The broader chronological frames are determined by the donor’s inscription of the bishop of Devol, Grigorios, to within the year 1364/5 (between the 1st September 1364 and the 31st August 1365) and the charter of the emperor Uroš issued to Nikola Radonja/the monk Roman, on the 11th March 1365. But, the painting, given the conditions of work in fresco technique, was possible only between the 1st of September and the winter days of 1364.