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The Splendor
of the Serbian empire
Steven Runciman
Indeed, none of Byzantium’s god-children were allowed to reach maturity in peace. Bulgaria and Serbia revived in the late twelfth century, and each founded empires,
the first to last nearly two centuries till it fell before the Turk, the latter to linger a century longer till the field of Kosovo reduced it to a vassaldom that soon became slavery. Both developed their Byzantine civilization. The history of Bulgaria under the asen dynasty is obscure; of its literature little has survived, and external records are scrappy and confused. More than once the Tsars threate-ned Constan- tinople during the Latin empire. But the Paleologan recov- ery and the rival growth of Serbia overshadowed the Bul- gars. influential Byzantine-born or Serbian Tsaritsas weak- ened their independence. Neverheless they produced an art, illustrated in the churches of Trnovo and the frescos of Boјana, Byzantine basically but in simplicity of form and warmth of coloring acquiring a character of its own.
The Serbian empire was more splendid. indeed, in the 14th century the Tsar Stephen Dušan was probably the most powerful monarch in europe; and Constantinople seemed indubitably within his grasp. The disciplined Bulgar sys- tem of government lent itself easily to imperialization. Ser- bia, however, had a native system that might almost be called feudal; the Serbian monarch was by no means abso- lute over his vassals. Thus Serbia was never so Byzantine. But there was a constant stream of Byzantine influence. Several Byzantine princesses made Serbian marriages, ma- ny Byzantine embassies travelled to the Serbian Court-which princesses and ambassadors alike represented as fiendishly uncomfortable and austere. When Stephen Dušan issued a code of laws, though the basis was largely Serbian feudal- ism, the bulk of it was certainly culled from the law-books of Byzantium. Serbian pictorial art was very Byzantine; Ser- bian architecture developed national characteristics. The proximity of Dalmatia and a Helena of anjou descent, wife of of Stephen Uroš i, gave it in the thirteenth century an italo-Gothic tinge. in the Fourteenth, the golden age of Serbia, Byzantine ideals and Byzantine queens dominated again; but Serbian architects kept certain ideas of their own. But, like Russia, neither Bulgaria nor Serbia was given time to pursue its career to full maturity. The Turks re- duced them too soon to slavery and their civilization crum- bled—save what the Church, struggling humbly against innumerable difficulties, managed by tenacity to preserve.
it is therefore unfair to judge Byzantine mission-work on the present state of the Balkan countries. For the Balkan countries have only recently emerged from four centuries’ black night. Rather we should compare them as they were before the Ottoman conquest with the 14th century West- -compare Salisbury Cathedral with the great Serbian Church of Gračanica. The former may soar grace-fully heavenward; the latter with the simplicity of its design, the comprehen- sive economy of its balance and its stresses and the rich restrained decoration of its interior, is the work of a people no less spiritual but far more sophisticated and cultured.
Steven Runciman, Byzantine Civilization, Plume 1969.
Emperor Stefan Dušan,
north wall of the narthex, Dečani, 1346

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