Prince Lazar Hrebeljanovic (ca. 1329 – 28 June 1389) was a medieval Serbian ruler who created the largest and most powerful state on the territory of the disintegrated Serbian Empire. Lazar’s state, referred to by historians as Moravian Serbia, comprised the basins of the Great Morava, West Morava, and South Morava rivers. Lazar ruled Moravian Serbia from 1373 until his death in 1389. He sought to resurrect the Serbian Empire and place himself at its helm, claiming to be the direct successor of the Nemanjic dynasty, which went extinct in 1371 after ruling over Serbia for two centuries. Lazar’s programme had the full support of the Serbian Orthodox Church, but the Serbian nobility did not recognize him as their supreme ruler. He is often referred to as Tsar Lazar Hrebeljanovic. However, he only held the title of prince.
Lazar was killed at the Battle of Kosovo in June 1389 while leading a pan-Christian army assembled to confront the invading Ottoman Empire, led by Sultan Murad I. The battle ended without a clear victor, though both sides endured heavy losses, which were more devastating for the less numerous Serbs and their Christian allies. Lazar’s widow, Milica, who ruled as regent for their adolescent son Stefan Lazarevic, Lazar’s successor, accepted Ottoman suzerainty in the summer of 1390.
Lazar is venerated in the Orthodox Christian Church as a martyr and saint, and is highly regarded in Serbian history, culture and tradition. In Serbian epic poetry, he is referred to as Tsar Lazar.
Lazar was born around 1329 in the Fortress of Prilepac, 13 kilometres southeast of Novo Brdo, then an important mining town. His family were the hereditary lords of Prilepac, which together with the nearby Fortress of Prizrenac protected the mines and settlements around Novo Brdo. Lazar’s father, Pribac, was a logothete (chancellor) in the court of Stefan Dusan, a member of the Nemanjic dynasty, who ruled as the King of Serbia from 1331 to 1346 and the Serbian Emperor (tsar) from 1346 to 1355. The rank of logothete was relatively modest in the hierarchy of the Serbian court. Dusan became the ruler of Serbia by dethroning his father, King Stefan Uros III, then rewarding the petty nobles that had supported him in his rebellion, elevating them to higher positions within the feudal hierarchy. Lazar’s father was among these nobles and was elevated to the position of logothete by pledging loyalty to Dusan. According to Mavro Orbin, a 16th-century Ragusan historian, Pribac and Lazar’s surname was Hrebeljanovic. Though Orbin did not provide a source for this claim, it has been widely accepted in historiography.
Pribac was awarded by Dusan in yet another way: his son Lazar was granted the position of stavilac at the ruler’s court. The stavilac (literally “placer”) had a role in the ceremony at the royal table, though he could be entrusted with jobs that had nothing to do with court ritual. The title of stavilac ranked as the last in the hierarchy of the Serbian court. It was, nevertheless, quite prestigious as it enabled its holder to be very close to the ruler. Stavilac Lazar married Milica, who, according to subsequent genealogies, created in the first half of the 15th century, was the daughter of Prince Vratko, a great-grandson of Vukan. The latter was the son of Grand Prince Stefan Nemanja, the founder of the Nemanjic dynasty, which ruled Serbia from 1166 to 1371. Vukan’s descendants are not mentioned in any known source that predates the 15th-century genealogies.
Tsar Dusan died suddenly in 1355 at the age of about 47 and was succeeded by his 20-year-old son Stefan Uros V. Lazar remained a stavilac at the court of the new tsar. Dusan’s death was followed by the stirring of separatist activity in the Serbian Empire. Epirus and Thessaly in its southwest broke away by 1359. The same happened with Branicevo and Kucevo, the empire’s north-eastern regions controlled by the Rastislalic family, who recognized the suzerainty of King Louis of Hungary. The rest of the Serbian state remained loyal to young Tsar Uros. Even within it, however, powerful Serbian nobles were asserting more and more independence from the tsar’s authority.
Uros was weak and unable to counteract these separatist tendencies, becoming an inferior power in the state he nominally ruled. He relied on the strongest Serbian noble, Prince Vojislav Vojinovic of Zahumlje. Vojislav started as a stavilac at the court of Tsar Dusan, but by 1363 he controlled a large region from Mount Rudnik in central Serbia to Konavle on the Adriatic coast, and from the upper reaches of the Drina River to northern Kosovo. The next in power to Prince Vojislav were the Balsic brothers, Stracimir, Djuradj, and Balsa II. By 1363, they gained control over the region of Zeta, which coincided for the most part with present-day Montenegro.
In 1361, Prince Vojislav started a war with the Republic of Ragusa over some territories. Ragusans then asked most eminent persons in Serbia to use their influence to stop these hostilities harmful for the both sides. In 1362 the Ragusans also applied to stavilac Lazar and presented him with three bolts of cloth. A relatively modest present as it was, it testifies that Lazar was perceived as having some influence at the court of Tsar Uros. The peace between Prince Vojislav and Ragusa was signed in August 1362. Stavilac Lazar is mentioned as a witness in a July 1363 document by which Tsar Uros approved an exchange of lands between Prince Vojislav and celnik Musa. The latter man had been married to Lazar’s sister, Dragana, since at least 1355. Musa’s title, celnik (“headman”), was of a higher rank than stavilac.
Minor regional lord
Lazar’s activities in the period between 1363 and 1371 are poorly documented in sources. Apparently, he left the court of Tsar Uros in 1363 or 1365; he was about 35 years of age and had not advanced beyond the rank of stavilac. Prince Vojislav, the strongest regional lord, suddenly died in September 1363. The Mrnjavcevic brothers, Vukasin and Jovan Ugljesa, became the most powerful nobles in the Serbian Empire. They controlled lands in the south of the Empire, primarily in Macedonia. In 1365, Tsar Uros crowned Vukasin king, making him his co-ruler. Approximately at the same time, Jovan Ugljesa was promoted to the rank of despot. A nephew of Prince Vojislav, Nikola Altomanovic, gained control by 1368 of most of the territory of his late uncle; Nikola was about 20 at that time. In this period, Lazar became independent and began his career as a regional lord. It is not clear how his territory developed, but its nucleus was certainly not at his patrimony, the Fortress of Prilepac, which had been taken by Vukasin. The nucleus of Lazar’s territory was somewhere in the area bordered by the Mrnjavcevics in the south, Nikola Altomanovic in the west, and the Rastislalics in the north.
The book Il Regno de gli Slavi (The Realm of the Slavs) by Mavro Orbin, published in Pesaro in 1601, describes events in which Lazar was a main protagonist. Since this account is not corroborated by other sources, some historians doubt its veracity. According to Orbin, Nikola Altomanovic and Lazar persuaded Tsar Uros to join them in their attack on the Mrnjavcevic brothers. The clash between the two groups of Serbian lords took place on the Kosovo Field in 1369. Lazar withdrew from the battle soon after it began. His allies fought on, but were defeated by the Mrnjavcevics. Altomanovic barely escaped with his life, while Uros was captured and briefly imprisoned by the brothers. There are indications that the co-rulers, Tsar Uros and King Vukasin Mrnjavcevic, went their separate ways two years prior to the alleged battle. In 1370 Lazar took from Altomanovic the town of Rudnik, a rich mining centre. This could have been a consequence of Altomanovic’s defeat the year before. In any case, Altomanovic could have quickly recovered from this defeat with the help of his powerful protector, the Kingdom of Hungary.
It is uncertain since when Lazar had borne the title of knez, which is usually translated as “prince”. The earliest source that testifies to Lazar’s new title is a Ragusan document in Latin, dated 22 April 1371, in which he is referred to as Comes Lazarus. Ragusans used comes as a Latin translation of the Slavic title knez. The same document relates that Lazar held Rudnik at that time. In medieval Serbia, knez was not a precisely defined term, and the title had no fixed rank in the feudal hierarchy. Its rank was high in the 12th century, but somewhat lower in the 13th century and the first half of the 14th century. During the reign of Tsar Uros, when the central authority declined, the high prestige of the title of knez was restored. It was borne by the mightiest regional lord, Vojislav Vojinovic, until his death in 1363.
Rise to power
The Ottoman Turks took Gallipoli from Byzantium in 1354. This town at the south-eastern edge of the Balkan Peninsula was the first Ottoman possession in Europe. From there the Ottomans expanded further into the Balkans, and by 1370 they reached Serbian lands, specifically the territory of the Mrnjavcevics in eastern Macedonia. An army of the Mrnjavcevic brothers entered the territory controlled by the Ottomans and clashed with them in the Battle of Marica on 26 September 1371. The Ottomans annihilated the Serbian army; both King Vukasin and Despot Jovan Ugljesa were killed in the battle. Vukasin’s son and successor, King Marko, became the co-ruler of Tsar Uros. In December 1371 Uros died childless, marking the end of the Nemanjic dynasty, which had ruled Serbia for two centuries. The ruler of the Serbian state, which had in fact ceased to exist as a whole, was formally King Marko Mrnjavcevic. Powerful Serbian lords, however, did not even consider recognizing him as their supreme ruler. They attacked the Mrnjavcevics’ lands in Macedonia and Kosovo. Prizren and Pec were taken by the Balsic brothers, the lords of Zeta. Prince Lazar took Pristina and Novo Brdo, also recovering his patrimony, the Fortress of Prilepac. The Dragas brothers, Jovan and Konstantin, created their own domain in eastern Macedonia. King Marko was eventually left only a relatively small area in western Macedonia centred on the town of Prilep. Jovan Ugljesa’s widow, Jelena, who became a nun and took the monastic name of Jefimija, lived on with Prince Lazar and his wife Milica.
After the demise of the Mrnjavcevic brothers, Nikola Altomanovic emerged as the most powerful noble on the territory of the fragmented Serbian state. While Lazar was busy taking Pristina and Novo Brdo, Nikola recovered Rudnik from him. By 1372, Prince Lazar and Tvrtko, the Ban of Bosnia, formed an alliance against Nikola. According to Ragusan sources, the Republic of Venice mediated an agreement between Nikola Altomanovic and Djuradj Balsic about their joint attack on Ragusa. Nikola was to gain Peljesac and Ston, the Ragusan parts of the region of Zahumlje, which was divided between Nikola’s domain, Bosnia, and Ragusa. Louis I, the King of Hungary, sternly warned Nikola and Djuradj to keep off Ragusa, which had been a Hungarian vassal since 1358. By conspiring with Venice, a Hungarian enemy, Nikola lost the protection of Hungary. Lazar, preparing for the confrontation with Nikola, promised King Louis to be his loyal vassal if the king was on his side. Prince Lazar and Ban Tvrtko attacked and defeated Nikola Altomanovic in 1373. Nikola was captured in his stronghold, the town of Uzice, and given in charge to Lazar’s nephews, the Music brothers, who (according to Orbin with the secret approval of Lazar) blinded him. Lazar accepted the suzerainty of King Louis.
Ban Tvrtko annexed to his state the parts of Zahumlje which were held by Nikola, including the upper reaches of the Drina and Lim Rivers, as well as the districts of Onogost and Gacko. Prince Lazar and his in-laws, Vuk Brankovic and celnik Musa, took most of Nikola’s domain. Vuk Brankovic, who married Lazar’s daughter Mara in around 1371, acquired Sjenica and part of Kosovo. Lazar’s subordinate, celnik Musa, governed an area around Mount Kopaonik jointly with his sons Stefan and Lazar, known as the Music brothers. Djuradj Balsic grabbed Nikola’s littoral districts: Dracevica, Konavle, and Trebinje. Ban Tvrtko would take these lands in 1377. In October of that year, Tvrtko was crowned king of the Serbs, Bosnia, Maritime, and Western Areas. Although Tvrtko was a Catholic, his coronation was performed at the Serbian Monastery of Mileseva, or at some other prominent Serbian Orthodox centre in his state. King Tvrtko asserted pretensions to the Serbian throne and the heritage of the Nemanjic dynasty. He was a distant blood relative to the Nemanjics. Hungary and Ragusa recognized Tvrtko as king, and there are no indications that Prince Lazar had any objections to the new title of his ally Kotromanic. This, on the other hand, does not mean that Lazar recognized Tvrtko as his overlord. King Tvrtko, however, had no support from the Serbian Church, the only cohesive force in the fragmented Serbian state.
Major lord in Serbia
After the demise of Nikola Altomanovic, Prince Lazar emerged as the most powerful lord on the territory of the former Serbian Empire. Some local nobles resisted Lazar’s authority, but they eventually submitted to the prince. That was the case with Nikola Zojic on Mount Rudnik, and Novak Belocrkvic in the valley of the Toplica River. Lazar’s large and rich domain was a refuge for Eastern Orthodox Christian monks who fled from areas threatened by the Islamic Ottomans. This brought fame to Lazar on Mount Athos, the centre of Orthodox monasticism. The Serbian Church (Serbian Patriarchate of Pec) had since 1350 been in schism with the Patriarchate of Constantinople, the central authority of the Eastern Orthodox Christianity. A Serb monk from Mount Athos named Isaija, who distinguished himself as a writer and translator, encouraged Lazar to work on the reconciliation of the two patriarchates. Through efforts of Lazar and Isaija, an ecclesiastical delegation was sent to the Constantinopolitan Patriarch to negotiate the reconciliation. The delegation was successful, and in 1375 the Serbian Church was readmitted into communion with the Patriarchate of Constantinople.
The last patriarch of the Serbian Church in schism, Sava IV, died in April 1375. In October of the same year, Prince Lazar and Djuradj Balsic convened a synod of the Serbian Church in Pec. Patriarch Jefrem was selected for the new head of the Church. He was a candidate of Constantinople, or a compromise selection from among the candidates of powerful nobles. Patriarch Jefrem abdicated in 1379 in favour of Spiridon, which is explained by some historians as having resulted from the influence of an undercurrent in the Church associated with Lazar. The prince and Patriarch Spiridon had an excellent cooperation. The Church was obliged to Lazar for his role in ending the schism with Constantinople. Lazar also granted lands to monasteries and built churches. His greatest legacy as a church builder is the Monastery of Ravanica completed in 1381. Some time earlier, he built the Church of St Stephen in his capital, Krusevac; the church would become known as Lazarica. After 1379, he built the Gornjak Monastery in Branicevo. He was one of the founders of the Romanian monasteries in Tismana and Vodiţa. He funded some construction works in two monasteries on Mount Athos, the Serbian Hilandar and the Russian St Panteleimon.
Lazar extended his domain to the Danube in 1379, when the prince took Kucevo and Branicevo, ousting the Hungarian vassal Radic Brankovic Rastislalic from these regions. King Louis had earlier granted to Lazar the region of Macva, or at least a part of it, probably when the prince accepted the king’s suzerainty. This suggests that Lazar, who was himself a vassal of Louis, had rebelled, and indeed Louis is known to have been organizing a campaign against Serbia in 1378. However, it is not known against whom Louis was intending to act. It is also possible that it was Radic Brankovic Rastislalic and that Lazar’s attack had the approval of Louis.
Lazar’s state, known in literature as Moravian Serbia, was larger than the domains of the other lords on the territory of the former Serbian Empire. It also had a better organized government and army. The state comprised the basins of the Great Morava, West Morava, and South Morava Rivers, extending from the source of South Morava northward to the Danube and Sava Rivers. Its north-western border ran along the Drina River. Besides the capital Krusevac, the state included important towns of Nis and Uzice, as well as Novo Brdo and Rudnik, the two richest mining centres of medieval Serbia. Of all the Serbian lands, Lazar’s state lay furthest from Ottoman centres, and was least exposed to the ravages of Turkish raiding parties. This circumstance attracted immigrants from Turkish-threatened areas, who built new villages and hamlets in previously poorly inhabited and uncultivated areas of Moravian Serbia. There were also spiritual persons among the immigrants, which stimulated the revival of old ecclesiastical centres and the foundation of new ones in Lazar’s state. The strategic position of the Morava basins contributed to Lazar’s prestige and political influence in the Balkans due to the anticipated Turkish offensives.
In charters issued between 1379 and 1388, the prince named himself as Stefan Lazar. “Stefan” was the name borne by all Nemanjic rulers, leading the name to be regarded as a title of Serbian rulers. Tvrtko added “Stefan” to his name when he was crowned king of the Serbs and Bosnia. From a linguistic point of view, Lazar’s charters show traits of the Kosovo-Resava dialect of the Serbian language. In the charters, Lazar referred to himself as the autocrat of all the Serbian land, or the autocrat of all the Serbs. Autocrat, “self-ruler” in Greek, was an epithet of the Byzantine emperors. The Nemanjic kings adopted it and applied it to themselves in its literal meaning to stress their independence from Byzantium, whose supreme suzerainty they nominally recognized. In the time of Prince Lazar, the Serbian state experienced the loss of some of its lands, the division of the remaining lands among regional lords, the end of the Nemanjic dynasty, and the Turkish attacks. These circumstances raised the question of a continuation of the Serbian state. Lazar’s answer to this question could be read in the titles he applied to himself in his charters. Lazar’s ideal was the reunification of the Serbian state under him as the direct successor of the Nemanjics. Lazar had the full support of the Serbian Church for this political programme. However, powerful regional lords – the Balsics in Zeta, Vuk Brankovic in Kosovo, King Marko, Konstantin Dragas, and Radoslav Hlapen in Macedonia – ruled their domains independent from Prince Lazar. Beside that, the three lords in Macedonia became Ottoman vassals after the Battle of Marica. The same happened to Byzantium and Bulgaria. By 1388, Ottoman suzerainty was also accepted by Djuradj Stracimirovic Balsic, the lord of Zeta.
A Turkish raiding party, passing unobstructed through territories of Ottoman vassals, broke into Moravian Serbia in 1381. It was routed by Lazar’s nobles Crep Vukoslavic and Vitomir in the Battle of Dubravnica, fought near the town of Paracin. In 1386, the Ottoman Sultan Murad I himself led much larger forces that took Nis from Lazar. It is unclear whether the encounter between the armies of Lazar and Murad at Plocnik, a site southwest of Nis, happened shortly before or after the capture of Nis. Lazar rebuffed Murad at Plocnik. After the death of King Louis I in 1382, a civil war broke out in the Kingdom of Hungary. It seems that Lazar participated in the war as one of the opponents of Prince Sigismund of Luxemburg. Lazar may have sent some troops to fight in the regions of Belgrade and Syrmia. As the Ottoman threat increased and the support for Sigismund grew in Hungary, Lazar made peace with Sigismund, who was crowned Hungarian king in March 1387. The peace was sealed, probably in 1387, with the marriage of Lazar’s daughter Teodora to Nicholas II Garay, a powerful Hungarian noble who supported Sigismund. Around the same year, Lazar’s daughter Jelena married
Djuradj Stracimirovic Balsic. About a year before, Lazar’s daughter Dragana married Alexander, the son of Ivan Shishman, Tsar of Bulgaria.
Battle of Kosovo
Since the encounter at Plocnik in 1386, it was clear to Lazar that a decisive battle with the Ottomans was imminent. After he made peace with Sigismund, to avoid troubles on his northern borders, the prince secured military support from Vuk Brankovic and King Tvrtko. The King of the Serbs and Bosnia was also expecting a bigger Ottoman offensive since his army, commanded by Vlatko Vukovic, wiped out a large Turkish raiding party in the Battle of Bileca in 1388. A massive Ottoman army led by Sultan Murad, estimated at between 27,000 and 30,000 men, advanced across the territory of Konstantin Dragas and arrived in June 1389 on the Kosovo Field near Pristina, on the territory of Vuk Brankovic. The Ottoman army was met by the forces commanded by Prince Lazar, estimated at between 12,000 and 30,000 men, which consisted of the prince’s own troops, Vuk Brankovic’s troops, and a contingent under the leadership of Vlatko Vukovic sent by King Tvrtko. The Battle of Kosovo, the most famous battle in Serbia’s medieval history, was fought on 15 June 1389. In the fierce fighting and mutual heavy losses, both Prince Lazar and Sultan Murad lost their lives.
Information about the course and the outcome of the Battle of Kosovo is incomplete in the historical sources. It can be concluded that, tactically, the battle was a draw. However, the mutual heavy losses were devastating only for the Serbs, who had brought to Kosovo almost all of their fighting strength. Although Serbia under Prince Lazar was an economically prosperous and militarily well organized state, it could not compare to the Ottoman Empire with respect to the size of territory, population, and economic power. Lazar was succeeded by his eldest son Stefan Lazarevic. As he was still a minor, Moravian Serbia was administered by Stefan’s mother, Milica. She was attacked from the north five months after the battle by troops of the Hungarian King Sigismund. When Turkish forces, moving toward Hungary, reached the borders of Moravian Serbia in the summer of 1390, Milica accepted Ottoman suzerainty. She sent her youngest daughter, Olivera, to join the harem of Sultan Bayezid I. Vuk Brankovic became an Ottoman vassal in 1392. Now all the Serbian lands were under Ottoman suzerainty, except Zahumlje under King Tvrtko.
After the Battle of Kosovo, Prince Lazar was interred in the Church of the Ascension in Pristina, the capital of Vuk Brankovic’s domain. After a year or two, in 1390 or 1391, the Serbian Church and Lazar’s family transferred Lazar’s relics to the Ravanica Monastery, which the prince had built and intended as his burial place. The ceremonial interment of the relics in Ravanica was attended by the highest clergy of the Serbian Church, including Patriarch Danilo III. It is most likely at this time and place that Lazar was canonized, though no account of his canonization was written. He was included among the Christian martyrs, with his feast day being celebrated on 28 June. According to the writings by Patriarch Danilo and other contemporary authors, Prince Lazar was captured and beheaded by the Turks. His death could thus be likened to that of early Christian martyrs who were slain by pagans.
In a medieval state with a strong link between the State and the Church, as in Moravian Serbia, a canonization was not only an ecclesiastical act. It also had a social significance. After two centuries of rule of the Nemanjic dynasty, most members of which were canonized, Lazar was the first lay person to be recognized as a saint. During his lifetime, he had achieved considerable prestige as the major lord on the territory of the former Serbian Empire. The Church saw him as the only ruler worthy and capable of succeeding the Nemanjics and restoring their state. His death was seen as a turning point in Serbian history. The aftermath of the Battle of Kosovo was felt in Serbia almost immediately, although more significant in the long run was the Battle of Marica eighteen years earlier, as the defeat of the Mrnjavcevic brothers in it opened up the Balkans to the Turks.
Lazar is celebrated as a saint and martyr in ten cultic writings composed in Serbia between 1389 and 1420; nine of them could be dated closer to the former year than to the latter. These writings were the principal means of spreading the cult of Saint Lazar, and most of them were used in liturgy on his feast day. The Encomium of Prince Lazar by nun Jefimija is considered to have the highest literary quality of the ten texts. Nun Jefimija (whose secular name was Jelena) was a relative of Princess Milica, and the widow of Jovan Ugljesa Mrnjavcevic. After his death she lived on with Milica and Lazar. Jefimija embroidered her Encomium with a gilded thread on the silken shroud covering Lazar’s relics. Stefan Lazarevic is regarded as the author of the text carved on a marble pillar that was erected at the site of the Battle of Kosovo. The pillar was destroyed by the Ottomans, but the text is preserved in a 16th-century manuscript. Patriarch Danilo III wrote Narration about Prince Lazar around the time of the translation of Lazar’s relics. It is regarded as historically the most informative of the ten writings, though it is a synthesis of hagiography, eulogy, and homily. The prince is celebrated not only as a martyr, but also as a warrior.
With Lazar’s death, Serbia lost its strongest regional ruler, who might have been seen as the last hope against the expanding Ottomans. This loss could have led to pessimism and a feeling of despair. The authors of the cultic writings interpreted the death of Lazar and the thousands of his warriors on the Kosovo Field as a martyrdom for the Christian faith and for Serbia. Sultan Murad and his army are described as bloodthirsty, godless, heathen beasts. Prince Lazar, by his martyrdom, remains eternally among the Serbs as the good shepherd. His cult was adjoined to the other great cults of medieval Serbia, those of the first canonized Nemanjics – Saint Simeon (whose secular name was Nemanja) and his son Saint Sava. The cults contributed to the consolidation of the Serbs in a strong religious and political unit. Lazar was, however, in the shadow of Saint Sava and Saint Simeon.
Lazar’s son and successor, Stefan Lazarevic, was granted the title of despot by the Byzantine Emperor, and he ceased to be an Ottoman vassal in 1402. At least during his reign, the Holy Prince Lazar was probably venerated throughout Moravian Serbia, as well as in two monasteries on Mount Athos, the Serbian Hilandar and the Russian St.
Panteleimon, in which the prince had funded some construction works. During Despot Stefan’s reign, only one image of Lazar is known to have been painted. It is in a fresco in the Ljubostinja Monastery, built around 1405 by Princess Milica. Lazar is represented there with regal attributes, rather than saintly ones. His next image would not appear until 1594, when it was painted among images of numerous other personages in the Orahovica Monastery in Slavonia (then under Ottoman rule). For his cult, more important than iconography was the cultic literature.
Despot Stefan Lazarevic suddenly died in July 1427. He was succeeded by Despot Djuradj, Vuk Brankovic’s son and Lazar’s grandson. At the beginning of his reign, Djuradj issued a charter in which he referred to Lazar as a saint. When he reissued the charter in 1445, he avoided the adjective “saint”, in reference to Lazar, by replacing it with “resting in holiness”. The avoidance to refer to the prince as a saint can be observed in other documents and inscriptions of that period, including those authored by his daughter Jelena.
The Serbian Despotate fell to the Ottomans in 1459. The veneration of the Holy Prince Lazar was reduced to a local cult, centred on the Ravanica Monastery. Its monks continued to celebrate annually his feast day. The prince had granted 148 villages and various privileges to the monastery. The Ottomans reduced its property to a couple of villages containing 127 households in all, but they exempted Ravanica from some taxes. Italian traveller Marc Antonio Pigafetta, who visited Ravanica in 1568, reported that the monastery was never damaged by the Turks, and the monks practiced freely their religion, except that they were not allowed to toll the bells.
Saint Lazar was venerated at the court of Ivan the Terrible, the first Russian tsar (1547–1584), whose maternal grandmother was born in the Serbian noble family of Jaksic. Lazar appears in a fresco in the Cathedral of the Archangel, the burial place of Russian rulers in the Moscow Kremlin. The walls of the cathedral were painted in 1565 with frescoes showing all Russian rulers preceding Ivan the Terrible. Only four non-Russians were depicted: Byzantine Emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos and three Serbs – Saints Simeon, Sava, and Lazar. The prince is also represented in the Illustrated Chronicle of Ivan the Terrible, in its nine miniatures depicting the Battle of Kosovo. It is in this Russian book that Prince Lazar was for the first time referred to as a tsar. Around 1700, Count Djordje Brankovic would write his Slavo-Serbian Chronicles, in which he claimed that Lazar was crowned tsar. This would influence Serbian folk tradition, in which the prince is to this day known as Tsar Lazar. After the death of Ivan the Terrible, Lazar is rarely mentioned in Russian sources.
Lazar’s cult in his Ottoman-held homeland, reduced to the Ravanica Monastery, was given a boost during the office of Serbian Patriarch Paisije. In 1633 and several ensuing years, Lazar was painted in the church of the Patriarchal Monastery of Pec and three other Serbian churches. Patriarch Paisije wrote that Serbian Tsar Dusan adopted Lazar and gave him his relative, Princess Milica, in marriage. In this way, Lazar was the legitimate successor to the Nemanjic dynasty. In 1667, the prince was painted on a wall in the Hilandar Monastery. The same painter created an icon showing Lazar together with
Djordje Kratovac, a goldsmith who was tortured and killed by the Turks and recognized as a martyr. In 1675, Prince Lazar and several Nemanjics were represented in an icon commissioned by the brothers Gavro and Vukoje Humkovic, Serbian craftsmen from Sarajevo. The prince’s images from this period show him more as a ruler than as a saint, except the icon with Djordje Kratovac.
During the Great Turkish War in the last decades of the 17th century, the Habsburg Monarchy took some Serbian lands from the Ottomans. In 1690, a considerable proportion of the Serbian population living in these lands emigrated to the Habsburg Monarchy, as its army retreated from Serbia before the advancing Ottomans. This exodus, known as the Great Serb Migration, was led by Arsenije III Carnojevic, the patriarch of the Serbian Church. The Ravanica monks joined the northward exodus, taking Lazar’s relics and the monastery’s valuables with them. They settled at the town of Szentendre, near which they built a wooden church and placed the relics in it. They built houses for themselves around the church and named their new settlement Ravanica. Szentendre also became a temporary see of Patriarch Arsenije III.
The Ravanica monks established contacts with Serbian monasteries in the Habsburg Monarchy, and with the Russian Orthodox Church, from which they received help. They considerably enlarged their library and treasury during their stay at Szentendre. In this period they started to use printing to spread the veneration of the Holy Prince: they made a woodcut representing Lazar as a cephalophore, holding his severed head in his hand. In 1697, the Ravanica monks left their wooden settlement at Szentendre and moved to the dilapidated Monastery of Vrdnik-Ravanica on Mount Fruska Gora in the region of Syrmia. They renovated it and placed Lazar’s relics in its church, after which this monastery became the centre of Lazar’s cult. It soon came to be more frequently referred to as Ravanica than Vrdnik. By the mid-18th century, a general belief arose that the monastery was founded by Prince Lazar himself. Its church became too small to accommodate all the devotees who assembled there on holidays.
The Treaty of Passarowitz, by which Serbia north of the West Morava was ceded from the Ottoman Empire to the Habsburg Monarchy, was signed on 21 July 1718. At that time, only one of the original Ravanica monks who had left their monastery 28 years ago, was still alive. His name was Stefan. Shortly before the treaty was signed, Stefan returned to Ravanica and renovated the monastery, which had been half-ruined and overgrown with vegetation when he came. In 1733, there were only five monks in Ravanica. Serbia was returned to the Ottoman Empire in 1739, but the monastery was not completely abandoned this time.
After the Great Serb Migration, the highest clergy of the Serbian Church actively popularized the cults of canonized Serbian rulers. Arsenije IV Sakabenta, Metropolitan of Karlovci, employed in 1741 the engravers Hristofor Zefarovic and Toma Mesmer to create a poster titled “Saint Sava with Serbian Saints of the House of Nemanja”, where Lazar was also depicted. Its purpose was not only religious, as it should also remind people of the independent Serbian state before the Ottoman conquest, and of Prince Lazar’s fight against the Ott engravers produced a book titled Stemmatographia, published in Vienna in 1741. Part of it included copperplates of 29 rulers and saints, among whom were two cephalophores, Jovan Vladimir and Lazar. Stemmatographia was very popular among the Serbs, stirring patriotic feelings in them. The Holy Prince would often be represented as a cephalophore in subsequent works, created in various artistic techniques. An isolated case among the images of Lazar is a 1773 copperplate by Zaharije Orfelin, in which the prince has a parading appearance, without saintly attributes except a halo.
Lazar’s relics remained in the Monastery of Vrdnik-Ravanica until 1941. Shortly before Nazi Germany attacked and overran Yugoslavia, the relics were taken to the Besenovo Monastery, also on Mount Fruska Gora. Syrmia became part of the Nazi puppet state of Croatia, controlled by the fascist Ustase movement, which conducted large-scale genocide campaigns against the Serbs. The Archimandrite of Vrdnik, Longin, who escaped to Belgrade in 1941, reported that Serbian sacred objects on Fruska Gora were in danger of total destruction. He proposed that they be taken to Belgrade, which was accepted by the Synod of the Serbian Orthodox Church. On 14 April 1942, after the German occupation authorities gave their permission, the reliquary with Lazar’s relics was transported from Besenovo to the Belgrade Cathedral Church and ceremonially laid in front of the iconostasis in the church. In 1954, the Synod decided that the relics should be returned the Ravanica Monastery, which was accomplished in 1989 – on the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo.
In epic poetry
In Serbian epic tradition, Lazar is said to have been visited the night before battle by a grey hawk or falcon from Jerusalem who offered a choice between an earthly kingdom -Implying victory at the Battle of Kosovo – or a heavenly kingdom – which would come as the result of a peaceful capitulation or bloody defeat.
According to the epics, Lazar opted for the eternal, heavenly kingdom and consequently perished on the battlefield. “We die with Christ, to live forever”, he told his soldiers. That Kosovo’s declaration and testament is regarded as a covenant which the Serb people made with God and sealed with the blood of martyrs. Since then all Serbs faithful to that Testament regard themselves as the people of God, Christ’s New Testament nation, heavenly Serbia, part of God’s New Israel. This is why Serbs sometimes refer to themselves as the people of Heaven.
Jefimija, the former wife of Ugljesa Mrnjavcevic and later a nun in the Ljubostinja monastery, embroidered the Praise to Prince Lazar, one of the most significant works of medieval Serbian literature. The Serbian Orthodox Church canonised Lazar as Saint Lazar. He is celebrated on June 28 (Vidovdan). Several towns and villages (like Lazarevac), as well as Serbian Orthodox churches and missions throughout the world are named after him