Curiosity about modern monasticism and a friend’s advice drew photographer Giovani Cocco to Kosovo’s Decani Monastery.
“The first impression I had when I arrived at the monastery of Decani was peace and silence,” he says. “This immediate emotion was the central theme of the work from the beginning: I wanted to talk about another world, where despite the extreme social and political difficulties there still exists a way to live in peace.”
Cocco first visited Kosovo in December 2009, after which he continued to make short visits. In 2011 he was there for two months documenting the country’s remaining monasteries. He says he has visited nearly all of the active Orthodox monasteries in Kosovo, with Decani being the largest and best-known.
The monastery was built in the early 1300s for the Serbian King Stefan Dečanski. Located at the foot of the Prokletije Mountains in western Kosovo, the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declared it a World Heritage Site in 2004 due to its cultural significance
According to UNESCO, in addition to being King Dečanski’s mausoleum, it is the largest of the medieval churches in the Balkans and represents an important phase of Byzantine-Romanesque architecture in the region.
Cocco describes the monk’s life as a daily routine. “They wake up at 4 a.m., begin their personal prayers and then join the communal prayer in the church. At 8 a.m. they take the first meal, a brunch. After the meal, they perform regular activities: fieldwork, carpentry, icon painting, cooking, office work and so on. At 3 p.m. they have the second meal and after a short afternoon break they go to the church for evening prayers.”
The monks produce fruits, vegetables, cheese, honey and wine from the farm on the monastery. “This is largely a self-sustainable community,” Cocco says, “although some products like wine are exported and sold. They also produce candles and icons, which are sold in a small monastery shop with other products such as wine, cheese and rakia, [a] local brandy.”
“In Kosovo, I saw an isolated and poor but complete world. Getting to know the monks of the Monastery of Decani closely allowed me to get out of the habits and structures of my social class and culture,” he says.
To capture the atmosphere of the site, Cocco decided to use only natural light for his photographs, using slow shutter speeds that create an ethereal feel in some of the images.
“The light in the monasteries is very beautiful. Swords of light filtering through the windows, impressive chandeliers that light and warm. I didn’t want to lose the sense of this light that transmits the sacredness and the complete silence of the place. Also, I didn’t want to be invasive using artificial light such as the flash: the only choice was to shoot at slow shutter speeds. “
Kosovo was the site of the last of the wars spawned by the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. NATO intervened in the struggle between Albanian insurgents and the Serb-dominated Yugoslav army and paramilitaries in 1999, driving the Serbian forces out of the territory.
The majority-Muslim and ethnic Albanian territory declared its independence from Serbia in 2008, but Serbia and Kosovo's Serb minority refuse to recognize that declaration.
Cocco says that the monks still face challenges from the war.
“With the defeat of the Serbs in 1999, more than a hundred Orthodox holy places were attacked and destroyed because they were seen by Kosovo Albanians as symbols of Serbian Orthodox culture and tradition.”
The site has been under the protection of NATO’s Kosovo Force (KFOR) since 1999. The monastery has faced regular attacks, and many Orthodox religions sites were targeted by extremists in 2004, according to the KFOR website.
The photographer says that recently improved slightly. But that the military-style protection is still necessary. “Ethnic and religious intolerance towards the Serb Orthodox is till very strong. Decani monks still cannot do their shopping in the neighboring town 12 years after the war.”
This despite the fact that, according to their web site, the monastery sheltered 150 Albanians during the war and supplied food to poor Albanians in 1998.
“The monasteries in Kosovo are proof, in terms of culture, art and their symbolic meaning, of the intimate connection between Western Europe and the Middle East. But not only that: Above all they are a few isolated places of peace in Kosovo, where the war is over, but peace is still very far away. Their existence and security depends on the presence of armed troops of the NATO. But if protection diminished, the attacks would undoubtedly start again.”
- Cody McCloy, CNN