Tuesday, July 9, 2013


As previously noted, 85% of the population of Serbia belongs to the Serbian Orthodox Church, so it seems natural that the first place we visited with our Serbian guide was the Church of St. Mark in downtown Belgrade. One of the largest churches in the country, it was built in between the two World Wars and completed in 1940. Because of the impending war, there was no time to paint the traditional frescoes found in almost all Orthodox churches, and by the time the church could get around to them, a bigger, more important church was already under construction in the city and sucking up all the funds. (More on that in the second half of this post.)
Inside the church is a fantastic, intricately pieced model made by a Serbian artist Georg Zivanovic. It took him more than 18,000 hours over a period of 19 years to complete. Imagine working that long on a single piece of art; it is truly a magnum opus.
We had noticed that many Orthodox churches seem to use the same Byzantine style of architecture. On the outside, this 73-year-old church could have been 500 years old to our untrained eyes. Our guide pointed out that there have been no changes in Orthodox church doctrine since the 8th century. None. However, some evolution has occurred in the architecture and in the manner of decoration, although older models--like this one--are still preferred.

Most Orthodox churches have a very large, round light fixture seemingly floating in the center of the room directly beneath the dome. Our guide told us it is symbolic of the crown of Christ:
All of those blank walls are supposed to one day be covered with frescoes.

By the way, my pictures aren't very good because there was a sign that had a camera with a slash through it, but we saw others taking photos and no one was stopping them, so I took a few, but I didn't take time to level or focus the shots.

The iconostasis is made of richly colored mosaics. The center doorway is the Annunciation, and the Last Supper is on the arch over the center door.

The church is famous for containing the tomb of Dusan the Mighty, the first Serbian emperor (14th century):

I haven't been able to figure out who this tomb belongs to, other than it was someone who lived from 1898 to 1991.
The shimmering gold mosaic is quite lovely, but I don't get the canoe-shaped bed.
My favorite art in the church is this painting of an angel at Christ's tomb at the moment just after he says, "He is not here; He is risen." His face is so knowing and peaceful as his left hand gestures towards the tomb:

A smaller Russian Orthodox Church, identified as Russian by its onion domes, is just a few dozen feet away from the Church of St. Mark. It was built by Russian refugees who fled the October Revolution of 1917.

The church that slowed the completion of St. Mark's is this one, the Temple (or Cathedral) of St. Sava, also located in Belgrade. It was also started in the 1930s, but construction was stopped during World War II and wasn't resumed until 1986.  Not only is it the largest Orthodox Church in the world, but it is also the tenth largest church building in the world. Like St. Mark's, it is still unfinished.  However, unlike St. Mark's, there is lots of construction activity going on inside.
The stacked domes and half domes are typical of Orthodox architecture and make a wider and taller space possible. The semi-domes on the sides act as buttresses to support the huge central dome.

This aerial photo taken from Wikipedia gives a better idea of the massive size of the church:
St. Sava (1175-1235) was the founder of the Serbian Orthodox Church and an extremely important figure in Serbian ecclesiastical history. The river that runs through Belgrade and joins with the Danube is named after him: the Sava River. There is even a Serbian Orthodox St. Sava Church in San Gabriel that I think Bob and I are going to have to visit.
As expected, the interior was cavernous. The ground floor is 37,674 square feet, with additional galleries on the first and second levels. A mosaic of Christ Pantocrator is planned for the interior of the main dome, and the eyes alone will supposedly be 13 feet wide.
It is not often we get to see a large church like this under construction.  It reminded us of walking through La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. Part of the reason for the slow construction pace is that the interior is being financed entirely by private donations. I'm not sure we are patient enough in the United States to work for decades building something like this.  The faithful come here even in its unfinished state, however. They bow before this cross and kiss the two icon paintings that flank it, ignoring the watching tourists with their clicking cameras and whispering voices.
None of the mosaics are completed, even on the iconostasis in the picture above.  However, there was a wonderful display inside the church that highlighted the art of mosaics:

If I remember correctly, this mosaic, kept behind a fence, is one destined for the walls of the church:
Our guide told us that all the decoration is supposed to be complete in eight more years. I hope to see it again some day in all its finished glory.

Meanwhile, a smaller church next door to the Temple of St. Sava, known as the St. Sava Church or the Old St. Sava Church, is in frequent use. It was built in 1895.

In fact, when we visited, there was a crowded church service in progress. We stood in the back for fifteen or twenty minutes (there are no chairs in an Orthodox church) and reveled in the beautiful a capella singing coming from a hidden choir and echoing throughout the room. Orthodox churches do not use any musical instruments, not even an organ, in their services, and the simple but rich vocal music creates a mystical atmosphere. As latecomers arrived, they stopped at the cross near the door, dipped and crossed themselves, and kissed the icons flanking the cross. Our time inside was a nice respite from the drizzling rain outside, and an even nicer insight into the religious devotion of the city's inhabitants.

Unfortunately we could not take any photos because of the service. However, the interior was so richly colored and intricately painted that I had to track down a few photos from the internet:
Picture from here.

Picture from here
The new Temple of St. Sava will be hard-pressed to surpass this magnificence.

What is there not to love about these first views of Serbia? My preconceptions were already beginning to melt away.


  1. I really loved the overwhelming frescoes in the small St. Sava's. Orthodox churches are my favorites. So much to look at. Despite the size differentials, I preferred the small one to both of the bigger ones you featured.

  2. I love the mosaics, as well as the idea that the light fixture represents Christ's crown. These are amazing churches, quite unusual. There is something lovely in their unfinished simplicity.

  3. CHurches are such an interesting representation of many forces: money, politics, religion and the people, and these churches were no exception. Beautiful mosaics and decorative paintings.