The Church of the Apostles is the earliest church in the Patriarchate of Pec. Its construction seems to have been initiated by St. Sava towards the end of his life, for a later, 14th century fresco shows him as the founder. What was the exact role of St. Sava is not clear, but his project was realised by his successor as archbishop, Arsenije I. There is some evidence that the Church of the Apostles was built on the site of an earlier shrine. Other churches were subsequently added to the Church of the Apostles, so that its original appearance cannot be reconstructed.
The sanctuary and the area under the dome, together with the choirs, are undoubtedly the earliest parts of the Church of the Apostles. Only the choirs were subsequently rebuilt. The sanctuary is very spacious: the broad semicircular apse is extended by lateral chambers - the prosthesis and the diaconicon, which also have small apses. The monumental and comparatively low dome above the nave is supported by spherical triangles (pendentives). They transfer the weight of the dome on to the vertical walls.
The original shape of the western part of the Church of the Apostles has not been preserved. It is very long, so that it is out of proportion with the area beneath the dome and the sanctuary. It was undoubtedly extended at some date before the end of the 13th century. The openings in the walls and the related edifices of the Rascian type show that small churches, pareklesia, had probably existed earlier next to the western section of the Church of the Apostles. When the two churches next to the Church of the Apostles were built in the 14th century, the pareklesia were pulled down and the western section of the main church got its present appearance. It is an area rectangular in plan with a barrel vault and an arch in the middle supported by two pilasters set one opposite the other. This reinforcing structure was built later, at the end of the second quarter of the 14th century, and it divides the western part of the church into two bays.
The Church of the Apostles is constructed almost exclusively of stone; the building was done rather carelessly, for it had been planned to cover the facade with mortar. The external wall surfaces which had been originally plastered had various painted decoration. There are no traces of sculptured ornaments of portals or windows, which are common in the Serbian churches of the 13th century, but that does not necessarily mean that they did not exist.
A large and simply carved stone sarcophagus which originally contained the remains of the founder, Archbishop Arsenije, stands against the south wall of the central bay. Another sarcophagus, almost without any ornaments, is in the south-west corner of the church. It contains the remains of Joanikije II, the first patriarch of the Patriarchate of Pec. The grave of Archbishop Sava is between these two sarcophagi, also against the south wall. It is made of reddish marble in the form of a sarcophagus on a low base, and it is covered with carved crosses and floral designs. The neat arrangement of ornaments and the fine craftsmanship show that it is the work of an experienced carver.
The wall paintings in the Church of the Apostles date from various periods. This is a result of the fact that the Patriarchate of Pec has had a continuous life for over seven centuries and that reconstruction of or additions to its main church, involving the adorning of new wall surfaces with frescoes, have been occasionally made over this period.
The earliest wall paintings date from the middle of the 13th century and are in the sanctuary and in the area beneath the dome. The Deisis, the monumental representation of enthroned Christ, to whom the Virgin and John the Forerunner address prayers on behalf of mankind, is painted in the altar apse. Below it is the Adoration of the Lamb - the famous Fathers of the Church paying homage to the Lamb - now destroyed. The north and south walls of the central section of the sanctuary illustrate the Communion of the Apostles.
The frescoes in the upper zones of the nave are still extant. A large Ascension is in the dome: Christ is at the top, in the calotte, while the Virgin, two angels and the twelve apostles are painted on the vertical circular wall below it. The four Evangelists are represented in the pendentives. The following compositions are shown on the wall surfaces beneath the dome: The Descent of the Holy Ghost; Christ Sending Apostles to Disseminate His Teaching; The Denial of St. Peter, and (slightly lower) The Last Supper and The Raising of Lazarus. The poorly preserved frescoes in the prothesis were dedicated to the miraculous events in the lives of the Prophet Daniel and King David.
The apparently simple subject-matter of the earliest frescoes in Pec proves to be much more complex on closer scrutiny. It was influenced by the learned first leaders of the Serbian Church, St. Sava and Arsenije I, so that some iconographic peculiarities of these paintings can be understood only within their particular historical and ideological contexts. The fact that the Deisis was painted in the altar apse shows that the Church of the Apostles was designed as the burial place of the highest church dignitaries. The monumental Ascension is in the dome primarily because it was also shown in that place in Zica, the former archiepiscopal seat. The fact, again, that the Ascension, and not Christ Pantokrator was painted in the dome of Zica was a result of the influence of the well-known churches in Constantinople and Salonica.
The most complex group of frescoes that have been preserved in the Church of the Apostles is undoubtedly that in the space beneath the dome, in which scenes from Christ's life and the incidents after the Crucifixion are shown apparently without any logical order or links. All these scenes are, however, associated with the same place, for all of them take place in Sion, in Jerusalem, in the house of Apostle Jacob. There is evidence that St. Sava of Serbia visited, when on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, the church on Sion, which was considered the first Christian temple - the mother of churches. Some of the themes illustrated in that church, among which the events taking place in the house of Apostle Jacob were given special prominence, were introduced by St. Sava into the Serbian religious centre in Zica. When the Archbishopric, later the Patriarchate, was removed to Pec, the repertoire of the Sion temple was transferred to the new Church of the Apostles.
The theological learning of the dignitaries who commissioned the paintings is especially evident in the prothesis, in the scenes from the lives of the Prophet Daniel and King David, which contain subtle allusions to the mystery of the communion. Two Serbian archbishops, St. Sava of Serbia and Arsenije I, are also represented in this area. The procession of the most notable archbishops in the central apse also includes St. Sava, as the last figure on the north side. The figures of the Serbian archbishops are not important as portraits only; they are also evidence of the efforts of the young Serbian Church organisation to enhance the reputation of its leaders by their inclusion among the famous fathers of the church.
The 13th-century painters of the Church of the Apostles are anonymous. Their gifts were unequal, so that although their style is the same, the results of their efforts vary in quality.
The most important figure among these painters, and perhaps their leader, was the master who did the paintings in the dome and painted a part of the area beneath it. He had a genuine talent for monumental forms and epic narration. His figures, both individual and in compositions, are painted with meticulous care, almost in the manner of icon painters. The apparently serene scenes are instinct with internal drama, suggested not only by the expressive movements of the figures, but also by contrasts of darkness and light.
Besides this highly gifted painter, there were other artists of varying ability, who painted parts of the Church of the Apostles in the middle of the 13th century. Of these, the painter of the monumental Deisis in the sanctuary is particularly good. He emphasises the drawing rather than the volume of the figures, so that he can be considered a comparatively conservative artist for that time. Nevertheless, his figures, and particularly those of Christ and John the Forerunner, are serene and majestically, and impress one not only by their size, but also by their expressiveness.
The mid-13th-century frescoes in the Church of the Apostles may be ranked among the most important achievements of the Serbian painting of that century. These wall paintings, characterised by competent draughtsmanship, monumental quality and predominantly dark colours, testify to the high level of the painting of that epoch.
Approximately half a century later painters came again to the Church of the Apostles, this time to adorn the westernmost part of the building, the narthex. They were probably engaged by King Milutin. Their paintings are only partly preserved: there are two large fresco icons of the Virgin and St. Nicholas on the west wall; the portraits of Stefan the First-Crowned and King Uros I as a monk, originally a part of a procession of the Nemanjic dynasty are on the south wall; and on the vault there are several scenes illustrating the Passion: The Washing of Feet, The Betrayal, Christ before Annas (a part only), Christ Arraign, before Caiaphas, The Denial of Saint Peter, and Christ before Pilate. Parts of the scenes of Christ Bearing His Cross and Christ Brought before Annas are on the west.
While the frescoes in the space beneath the dome and in the sanctuary are mature achievements of the 13th century painting, the wall paintings dating from about 1300 usher in a new style which was to become dominant in Serbia in the first decades of the 14th century. Its features are particularly clearly seen in the compositions from the cycle of the Passion. These paintings show a large number of figures of small dimensions that participate in the events with overstated liveliness. The setting of the action, both the architectural forms in the background and the interior spaces, is precisely delineated. Thus the scene of Christ before Annas on the west wall shows a group of scribes seated at a table on which the writing materials are represented in full detail. The narration is fluent, one scene merging with the next one, so that one tends to overlook the mediocre workmanship. These frescoes resembleso closely those painted by Mihailo and Eutihije in 1295, that they have been dated on the basis of this similarity. The painters in the service of King Milutin who held such views soon became academic in style and their work began to show full domination of the contents over the form.
The two pilasters and the arch connecting them between the western and central bays in the same area were probably painted between 1350 and 1354. The assumption that Patriarch Joanikije commissioned these paintings seems to be corroborated by the figure of hermit Joanikije, his namesake, which was painted in a conspicuous place on the south pilaster. The stylistic features of the figure of Christ on the front part of the south pilaster, which is in a very good state of preservation, the representations of the prophets on the nether side of the arch, and the medallions on the lateral sides of the arch, show that their author belonged to the group of artists who worked in the narthex of the monastery of Decani. This can be easily seen in his tendency towards tonal painting and exaggerated movement.
Another restoration of the wall paintings in the Church of the Apostles was undertaken some time later. The frescoes in the choirs had probably become decayed, so painters were engaged to paint anew this part of the church. Nine warrior saints and St. Sava of Serbia, described as "the founder of this holy place", were painted in the south choir. Three Great Feasts - Nativity, Presentation to the Temple and Baptism - were represented above these figures. In the north choir there are representations of Simeon Nemanja (also marked as a founder), Stephen the First Martyr, and three hermits. Above these standing figures are the compositions of the Transfiguration and the Descent into Limbo. Several other figures, the most impressive being that of Apostle Peter, are painted on the south pilaster.
The most prominent among the figures in the first zone are the handsome warrior saints, in colourful costume and armed to the teeth. The gay colours of these elongated figures and their harmonious movements differ strikingly from the 13th century frescoes, with their emphasis on the monastic ideals of beauty. Although considerably damaged, the representations of the Great Feasts in the upper parts of the choir space radiate the same gaiety. They are based on good models, full of details, and are painted carefully and with an experienced hand.
These frescoes have not been dated precisely. The fact that St. Sava of Serbia and his father are represented in a prominent place in the choir area seems to indicate that these wall paintings were commissioned by Patriarch Sava IV (1354-1375), who wanted to allude to his own merits in adorning the Church of the Apostles by the representation of St. Sava, the first Serbian Archbishop. In any case, these frescoes may be dated into the third quarter of the 14th century.
The representation of the Dormition - Death of Patriarch Joanikije, painted above his sarcophagus in the west bay of the Church of the Apostles, dates from the same time (soon after 1354). The painting records the requiem, showing the whole assembly of clergy and laymen gathered round his hearse while the funerary service is being held. There are some reasons to consider this picture as a group portrait, especially since the architecture in the background of the Assumption shows the Patriarchate of Pec, so that it is clear that the artist adopted a more realistic approach to the old iconographic pattern. The anonymous author of this scene was skilful in modelling and had a particularly fine sense of colour.
At the time of the restoration of the frescoes in the Church of St. Demetrius (1620/21) Patriarch Pajsije gave a commission to painter Georgije Mitrofanovic for a posthumous portrait of his predecessor Jovan, to be painted in a shallow niche in the north wall of the Church of the Apostles The body of this patriarch was buried in Constantinople near the Yeni Gate, but his portrait was nevertheless painted in the Patriarchate, where the leaders of the Serbian Church were interred. The painting shows Patriarch Jovan addressing a prayer, written on a .long scroll, to the Virgin, who is painted with small Christ on the adjacent pilaster.
The wall paintings in the Church of the Apostles were restored once again at the time of Patriarch Pajsije. This time artists were engaged to paint the walls with damaged or destroyed frescoes. The detailed inscription on the west wall gives an account of this restoration in the middle and west bays on the church. It shows that the whole undertaking was financed by Patriarch Pajsije personally and that it was carried out between the 1st of September 1633 and the 31st of August 1634. However, neither this group of paintings has been preserved in its entirety. It can be seen, nevertheless, that Patriarch Pajsije sought to restore the old themes wherever sufficient traces had been preserved. Thus two compositions from the Passion - The Mocking of Christ and (partly) Christ Bearing His Cross - were restored in the south section of the west bay. Especially interesting is the procession of the Serbian rulers below these scenes. Starting from the west wall are Uros I and Stefan the First-Crowned, represented as monks (both from c. 1300); they are followed by figures painted in 1633/34: Stefan Nemanja, shown also as a monk, Prince Lazar, in regal robes, Stefan the First-Crowned, King Milutin (Uros II), Stefan Decanski, and, finally, Dusan, marked as a king.
In the middle bay the paintings from this time have been preserved in the vault only: along the middle are the representations of Christ as the Angel of Great Counsel, Pantokrator and Ancient of the Days; below them are the busts of nine prophets, and below these are the scenes, only partly preserved, illustrating the well-known hymn, the Virgin's Akathistos. In a niche next to the south wall of the same bay the Death of Sava II is represented in the manner customary in compositions of this kind.
Patriarch Pajsije was not lucky in the choice of his artists for the restoration of wall paintings in the Church of the Apostles in 1633/34. They were artists of little ambition and less talent. Unsure drawing, awkward proportions, colour without freshness give us a gloomy picture of the abilities of the artists working in the Patriarchate of Pec at that time.
Nearly a century later, in 1622, a new iconostasis was made for the Church of the Apostles. It was one of the rare efforts made at that time to adorn the Pec churches. The two main icons and the row of icons illustrating the Great Feasts, the work of a Greek artist and a Slav monk from Salonica, show that a relatively high level of workmanship was maintained even in this late period.
A considerable number of frescoes in the Church of the Apostles was painted over in 1875 by the Debar painter Avram, the son of Dico, a well-known artist from the village of Tresonce. His paintings not only did considerable damage to the earlier frescoes, but also covered them. Since their artistic quality was negligible, they were removed during the conservation and restoration works carried out in 1931 and 1932. The remains of these latest wall paintings may be seen in the sanctuary (The Hospitality of Abraham) and on the pilaster in the area beneath the dome (Christ as the Good Shepherd). Above the latter painting is a long inscription on the restoration of wall paintings in 1875.