From its beginnings, Belgrade was a multi-confessional city, due to its the location at crossroads or major trade routs and the borders of major empires, from the Romans to the Habsburgs. Although the city’s location brought diversity and rich history, it often proved disastrous. The city was burnt to ashes many times by defenders and conquerors alike, and its citizens were too often forced to leave it and abandon their shrines to be crushed by the unforgiving wheel of time or ignorance, which seems to weigh a bit heavier in this part of Europe.
This means that it is always a pleasure to hear about some of the old relics surviving many catastrophes that befell the city in the past two millennia. One of them, of which I only heard recently, has been protecting the city for almost exactly 300 years, when it arrived from Passau in 1718, a year after Belgrade was conquered by Eugene of Savoy. Based on Luis Carnach’s 16th century Mary Help of Christians or “Mariahilf” (very appropriate given the context), which now hangs in Innsburck, the baroque altar painting shows Mary holding little Christ and is decorated by two golden crowns. It was given to the Jesuits of Belgrade who returned to the city with the victorious Habsburg army and founded a largish community in Dorćol, close to the quarters of Dubrovnik merchants, Belgrade’s largest catholic contingent at the time. The choice of the altar painting was also appropriate given that ever since the times of Prince Stefan Lazarević, in XV century, Belgrade celebrated the Virgin as its patron.
In 1724, the Jesuits of re-opened a highschool (gymnasium), which they previously maintained in the city during its Ottoman renaissance, between 1613 and 1632. The school was apparently very well renowned, with philosophy, poetry and rhetoric being taught to about 80 boys from Belgrade families of all faiths.
In 1732 the Jesuits built a church dedicated to Virgin Mary, to serve a larger more established congregation and moved the “Virgin of Belgrade” there. It was located at the intersection of Dušanova and Dubrovačka streets, at the site where a school currently stands. Unfortunately the “Virgin of Belgrade” did not stay long at its new home. In 1735, a plague killed many Jesuits in the city, and in 1739 those who remained fled in front of the invading Ottoman force. They took everything they could get their hands on from the church, including the Virgin, and set fire to their church and school.
For almost two centuries, the “Virgin of Belgrade” was kept safe in Tekije sanctuary near Petrovaradin. Actually it is during its exile that it became known under its current name, and where it was visited by many from Belgrade pilgrims of all faiths.
It returned to its home city in 1934, upon completion of the Jesuit church of St Peter in Makedonska street. The church was designed by Zagreb architect Juraj Denzler and was built behind a handsome house initially built in 1845 for Jovan Stejić, a physician. Again, “Virgin of Belgrade” was part of a booming Catholic community, and again the trouble was not too far.
During the first Nazi air-raid on Belgrade, on 6 April 1941, two bombs fell on the church. One of them completely destroyed the sacristy, and the other one fell on the church roof and burnt it, but almost miraculously, Belgrade’s Bavarian protectress survived. The church was soon rebuilt and expanded over the coming decades. The “Virgin of Belgrade” received new golden crowns 1959 and a new frame in 1960.
Despite its turbulent history and doubtless artistic beauty, the painting is not widely known, even in the city and can be admired at its glory only before the daily mass.