The National Museum of Serbia is the oldest, the most important and the most prestigious cultural institution in Serbia. It was established in 1844, although it moved into its current building in 1950. The museum possesses a collection of over 400000 objects, which in addition to local treasures also includes foreign masterpieces.
HISTORY OF THE NATIONAL MUSEUM
The museum was closed between 2003 and 2018. I remember that I visited this museum in 2002. At that time it was in a very bad state and in desperate need of renovation. The same exhibits were there, but I remember that I did not enjoy the visit. The inadequate lighting did not complement the art exhibits. Worn out carpets and dirty walls transmitted a rather depressing image of what should have been a scintillating temple of culture. One other tragic observation is that for 15 years young generations did not have access to the most important cultural institution in the country, so important for general education and knowledge. Luckily, those days are over!
The National Museum re-opened in 2018 and I went back there during my last visit to Belgrade. It has been renovated to the highest standards, appropriate for an institution of such extreme cultural importance for the country and for the Serbian nation. It is smaller than other famous European museums, but that does not mean that it is any less precious.
The new permanent exhibition represents cultural development in that part of Europe from the prehistory to the 20th century. The emphasis is on the Serbian cultural heritage. The Serbian medieval art, as well as the 18th and the 19th century Serbian painting are in my opinion the most fascinating. The international collection is also rich and interesting. But, that’s something that you can also see in other European museums that house famous masterpieces.
A building that houses the National Museum was originally a bank. In the atrium of the building you will see the vaults from that period. They now present numismatic collections, from the beginning of the coin minting to the present time.
The National Museum is in the Republic Square, next to the National Theatre. As you can see below, they beautifully restored the museum building, while they are still restoring the square in front of it. When they finish all the works, both the building and the square in front will look magnificent.
ORTHODOX FRESCO PAINTING
The Orthodox fresco painting represents the peak of the Serbian medieval art. Its birth coincided with the creation and development of the medieval Serbian state, but unlike the Serbian state it did not cease to exist during the Ottoman occupation. While the Serbian architecture has seen mixed influences of both Byzantine and medieval Italian states, fresco and icon painting remained deeply rooted in the Eastern Byzantine tradition. The Serbian rulers commissioned fresco painting as the highest form of the religious decorative form. Following the political and military growth in the 13th and the 14th centuries, the unknown artists decorated the biggest number of new and existing sanctuaries.
The oldest Serbian portrait is a representation of Mihailo, the ruler of Dioclea. Records from 1077 mention the Holy See addressing him as king, indicating that he had been crowned some time before.
The portrait dates from around 1080 and it is in the Church of the Archangel Michael in Ston, in present day Croatia. The church is a small building with a jagged facade, typical of the Pre-Romanesques period to which it belongs. The building interior was once completely covered with frescoes done in a new Romanesque style. Mihailo holds a model of his foundation, with his face in bright and expressive colours.
Stefan Nemanja was the Grand Prince of the Serbian Grand Principality from 1166 to 1196. A member of the Vukanović dynasty, Nemanja founded the Nemanjić dynasty and is remembered for his contributions to Serbian culture and history, founding what would evolve into the Serbian Empire, as well as the national church.
He was introduced to Constantinopolitan art during his captivity under Emperor Manuel I Komnenos. Later, around 1175, he hired Byzantine masters – from either Constantinople or Thessaloniki. These artists adhered to the classical, mature phase of the Komnenian period, with its stylization, strong contours and pathos.
Serbia in the period from King Stefan the First-Crowned (1196-1227) to King Stefan Dragutin (1276-1282) prospered and grew stronger. The former land of Grand Župan Stefan Nemanja became the Kingdom of Raška in 1217, while the emancipated Serbian church was elevated to an archbishopric in 1219. The territorially and economically invigorated Serbia found itself on the route of the Crusaders going to the Holy Land, the invading Mongols and other nomadic people.
The economy experienced a particular surge during the rule of King Stefan Uroš (1243-1276), with the arrival of Saxon miners and the intensive use of country’s vast and varied mineral ore resources. Serbia’s increased material wealth resulted in an improved culture of everyday living, manifested at the court, in homes and in monasteries.
In the realms of church and culture, this period saw a systemic introduction of the Slavic liturgy, development of an authentic literature in the Serbian language and construction of new churches in the national style. The medieval Serbian painting reached its zenith in the 13th century. Its importance exceeded national borders and limits of the Byzantine cultural sphere.
Three frescoes featured in this post are the oldest layer of frescoes in the Prizren cathedral and they represent scenes of miracles of Jesus Christ. The painting style includes elements of Komnenian artistry – noticeable in the appearance of the figures and the draperies – combined with the 13th century idiom, evident in the renditions of flesh. This anachronistic style points to the work of local masters.
Another notable fresco is of the Serbian Queen Simonida, in Gračanica monastery in Kosovo. Born as Simonis Palaiologina, she was a daughter of the Byzantine Emperor Andronikos II Palaiologos and the fourth wife of the Serbian King Stefan Milutin.
SERBIAN ITALO-CRETAN ICONS
The Italo-Cretan school describes an important school of the icon painting, which flourished while Crete was under the Venetian rule during the late Middle Ages. It reached its climax after the fall of Constantinople, when it became a central force in Greek painting during the 15th, the 16th and the 17th century. The Cretan artists developed a particular style of painting under the influence of both, the Eastern and the Western artistic traditions and movements. The most famous product of the school – El Greco – was the most successful of many artists who tried to build a career in Western Europe and also the one who left the Byzantine style farthest behind him in his later career.
There was a substantial demand for Byzantine icons in Europe throughout the Middle Ages. As a Venetian possession since 1204, Crete had the natural advantage and dominated the production and supply.
Even before the fall of Constantinople, there is evidence that leading Byzantine artists were leaving the capital in order to settle in Crete. The migration of Byzantine artists to Crete reached its peak after the fall of Constantinople in 1453. Crete became “the most important centre of art in the Greek world”, thus influencing artistic developments in the rest of the Orthodox world.
In the icons of the Eastern Orthodoxy and of the Early Medieval West, there is very little room for the artistic license. Almost everything within the image has a symbolic aspect. Christ, the saints and the angels – all have halos. Angels (and often John the Baptist) have wings, because they are messengers. Figures have consistent facial appearances, hold attributes personal to them and use a few conventional poses.
A colour also plays an important role. Gold represents the radiance of Heaven; red represents divine life. Blue is a colour of human life. White is the the Uncreated Light of God, only used for resurrection and transfiguration of Christ.
If you look at icons of Jesus and Mary: Jesus wears a red undergarment with a blue outer garment (God become human). Mary wears a blue undergarment with a red over garment (human was granted gifts by God). Thus, the icons convey the doctrine of deification.
Letters are symbols too. Most icons incorporate some calligraphic text naming the person or depicted event. The text is often presented in a stylised manner.
Frescoes and icons in this article are all from the National Museum in Belgrade. They represent only a very small part of the magnificent collection. I have chosen them for this post because they are all very beautiful.
If you go to Belgrade, make sure that you visit this museum. The collection of frescoes and icons is outstanding.
When I go back to Belgrade, I will make sure that I visit the National Museum again. One visit is not enough to see everything properly. But it is thanks to these photos that I can look at these marvellous works of art again. I will try to take more photos next time. Most likely I will present them in a new post, for my and for everyone else’s pleasure!