SERBIAN ORTHODOX CHURCHES IN BELGRADE
Certain southern parts of Serbia were under the Ottoman rule for 500 year, while Belgrade was under the Ottoman occupation for 346 years. Although the Ottomans did not suppress the Serbian Orthodox religion, I’m sure that you can imagine the way Belgrade looked as a provincial Ottoman city. At the time when cities in western Europe constructed monumental churches, in Belgrade, there were mosques everywhere.
Thus, the oldest church dates from the 18th century and even that church is in Zemun, built at the time when Zemun was under the Austro-Hungarian rule. In fact, all churches that you can see in Belgrade were built after the liberation from the Ottoman Empire in 1867, when Serbia became a newly independent state.
In this and the next post, I will write about Serbian Orthodox churches that, if you visit Belgrade, you are most likely to see.
There are, of course, other churches in Belgrade but they are not in the centre, plus I didn’t bother visiting all of them. You will however get a good idea about the Serbian Orthodox religion, the church architecture and their interior decoration.
SAINT SAVA CHURCH
Without any doubt, the biggest and the most important church in Belgrade is the Saint Sava church. I’ve already written about this church in my post on Belgrade, so I’m not going to repeat that again.
But, what I need to mention is that this church is still unfinished. However, there is an indication that they will complete all interior decoration works either in October or November this year. If I’m still in Belgrade at that time, I’ll visit it and will most probably write about it.
Right now, the only finished part of the church that you can visit is its crypt.
SAINT MARK CHURCH
The Saint Mark church is Belgrade’s second monumental church. Built in the Serbo-Byzantine style in 1940, it is one of the largest churches in the country, modelled on the Monastery Gračanica.
Construction of this church couldn’t follow the strict canon concerning the east-west position, because of the already urbanised adjacent area. In order to fit into the existing city grid, the Serbian Patriarch gave a special permit for the church to deviate from the canonical rule by 10 degrees. The church’s main entrance is in line with Resavska street.
Remarkably, despite the fact that it was constructed 80 years ago, this church is also unfinished. Apart from the church iconostasis, the altar and several tombs, it has empty walls and the ceiling. That’s very unusual, because all other Serbian Orthodox churches in Belgrade are fully decorated.
I had a chat with a person that sells candles and other religious artefacts in the church. I asked her: “How come that they invested so much money in the Saint Sava church, but not in this one?”. She said that it was because of people buried in the crypt. I don’t know whether that’s true or not, it was the first time that I heard that theory.
Serbia is a republic, but it has a royal Karađorđević family. They live in Belgrade, they received back all their property that the communist government had confiscated from them after the Second World War.
However, the murdered King Aleksandar Obrenović and his wife Draga Mašin, together with other members of the rival Obrenović dynasty are buried in the crypt of the Saint Mark church.
So, it could be that the Karađorđević family and their supporters oppose the decoration of this church. I wouldn’t be surprised if this was true. I’m sure that the money would’ve been found by now, especially as so much money went into the Saint Sava church. The fact that the church remains undecorated so many years after its construction points out that, perhaps, there are people who don’t want it to be finished. It’s a shame, if it’s really true.
As you enter the church, the marble tomb of the Emperor Stefan Dušan (1331-1355) is on the right hand side. He was the King of Serbia and the Emperor of the Serbs, Bulgarians, Greeks and Albanians from 1346 until his death. He conquered a large part of southeast Europe and was one of the most powerful monarch of the era. Under his rule, Serbia was the major power in the Balkans.
On the left hand side, you will see a tomb of Patriarch German.
That’s all. So, there is an altar and the iconostasis, two tombs and a small section that you can see in the photo below.
Regardless, you should visit this church for its monumental architectural style. Plus, it’s in the centre of Belgrade, close to other important buildings, thus you can visit it without much effort.
CATHEDRAL CHURCH OF ST. MICHAEL THE ARCHANGEL
The Cathedral church of St. Michael the Archangel, located in the heart of the historical area, is one of Belgrade’s most recognisable landmarks. You can see its bell tower from many different parts of the city, overlooking the nearby confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers.
Built in 1840, it is one of the most important places of worship in the country. But, that role of the Belgrade’s main cathedral church will go the Saint Sava church.
If you visit just one Serbian Orthodox church in Belgrade, I suggest that you visit this one. It’s conveniently located and it’s also one of the most beautiful ones.
You may have noticed that there is no sitting in Orthodox churches. It’s one of the key differences between Orthodox and Catholic churches. You don’t sit in front of God.
As you can see in the photo below, the church has a magnificent iconostasis.
It was made by the Serbian sculptor and engraver Dimitrije Petrović and it is the most prestigious classicist iconostasis in Serbia.
Additionally, one of the most famous 19th century Serbian painters, Dimitrije Avramović, painted 18 wall frescoes and around 50 icons of the iconostasis.
It’s certainly impossible and impractical to take photos of everything, to put in the post. You really have to go to this church to see Dimitrije Avramović’s masterpieces. They easily rival everything that you can see in famous Italian and Spanish churches, where great Renaissance and Baroque masters worked on the embellishment of those religious temples.
When you enter the church, on the left hand side you will see a tomb of the Serbian Metropolitan Mihailo.
More interestingly, on the right hand side, you will see a tomb of Prince Mihailo Obrenović III. He also belongs to the Serbian royal dynasty that rivals the current Karađorđević dynasty.
But in case of this church, it was built and decorated long before the Karađorđević dynasty came to power, after the assassination of King Aleksandar Obrenović in 1903, when the change of royal dynasties took place in Serbia.
You can see the rear side of the church in the photo below. Unfortunately, the lighting in this and other churches that I visited, although suitable for the solemn atmosphere required in religious temples, it’s not entirely very suitable for taking perfect photos.
A fresco in the photo below is above the church’s main entrance. I’m actually very glad that I have these photos, I would’ve made more, but as I mentioned, because of the lighting, it didn’t make sense as I would’ve ended up with many dark photos. Perhaps, the best that I can do is to go back while I’m in Belgrade and see the beautiful images again.
This church is also one of the most likely ones that you will see during your visit to Belgrade. The Ružica Church is located within the the most important tourist attraction in the city – the Belgrade Fortress. Thus, it’s certain that, while you are exploring the fortress, you will come across this small church.
The Ottomans demolished the original church with the same name in 1521. In the 18th century, the site was a gunpowder storage.
The church was further damaged during the First World War and rebuilt by the Russian architect in 1925.
In my opinion, this is one of the most beautifully decorated churches, with wall and ceiling frescoes. Different artists worked on different parts within the church.
Thus, Kosta Todorović carved the iconostasis, while the Serbian cleric and painter Rafailo Momčilović painted the icons, the images within the iconostasis and the thrones. He learnt the art of icon painting from prominent Russian iconographers.
Rafailo Momčilović was caught and killed by the Croatian fascists Ustaše at the beginning of the Second World War, just because he was Serbian.
Serbian Orthodox church declared him a martyr and a saint.
I think that the frescoes are the most impressive in this church. That’s also why you should make sure to visit it.
Although slightly damaged in certain parts because of the dump, they are nevertheless beautiful.
The Russian artist, Andrej Bicenko, painted beautiful images that you can see in these photos. He was a graduate from the Saint Petersburg academy.
After the communist revolution in Russia, he came to Serbia. He first lived in Zrenjanin, but then he moved to Belgrade.
He painted wall frescoes in this and some other churches in Belgrade and across Serbia.
However, after the communists took power in Serbia and Yugoslavia after the Second World War, he emigrated to the United States, where he died.
I hope that the church authorities will do something about these frescoes and will not let them deteriorate further. It will certainly be more difficult to restore them when they become more damaged.
SAINT PETKA CHURCH
Immediately next to the Ružica church, you will find the small Saint Petka church. Thus, you can visit both of them at the same time. They are literally next to each other.
The Saint Petka church, built in 1937, is dedicated to Saint Paraskeva or Saint Petka of the Balkans. She was the 10th century ascetic female saint.
They transferred her remains to Belgrade, to the original Ružica church, in 1393. But in 1521, when Suleiman the Magnificent conquered Belgrade, they transferred her remains back to Istanbul.
In 1641, her remains ended up in Romania. Today, you can see them in the Metropolitan Cathedral of Iași. I visited this cathedral once in the past, during my numerous visits to Romania.
What’s very special about this small church is that, unlike the other churches in this post, it’s covered in mosaics.
I know that they are also decorating the Saint Sava church with mosaics. Beautiful frescoes decorate all other churches.
Mosaics, as a decorative form, were first used in Mesopotamia and then in the ancient Roman world. The art of mosaics also flourished in the Byzantine Empire.
The early Islamic art also used mosaics, but not after the 8th century. Thus for example, you are not going to see mosaics in any Seljuk or Ottoman era mosques. They used different decorative forms for their religious temples.
In case of this particular church, the painter Đuro Radlović covered the walls and the ceiling in mosaics. He did the iconostasis and the altar of the Saint Mark church, also in mosaics.
Originally, this small church was covered by frescoes. But, they used poor quality materials and frescoes deteriorated beyond repair.
So, the artist used mosaics for the second decoration. He completed the work in 1983.
Undoubtedly, it’s a beautiful church. In my opinion, the most stunning is the ceiling. Unfortunately, I can’t convey the beauty of this church with photos. You really have to be there, to see it in its entirety.
Plus, there is always the issue of lighting. There is normally very little natural light, making it difficult to take good photos.
In this post, I described the Serbian Orthodox churches in Belgrade that you will most likely visit while you are in Belgrade. They are in the most central area of the city, near popular tourist spots.
In my next post, I will present other churches, slightly detached from the most central area, but equally beautiful and important.
Certainly, you will have to decide which one you want to visit. But I hope that, by reading these posts, you can at least get a good idea of what’s there to visit.