From the outside the Church of St Constantine and St Helen in the suburb of Voždovac looks like a slightly more elegant standard-issue Serbian Orthodox church, with a demure grey façade and a prominent bell-tower.
The current structure, an update of the church built in early 20th Century and damaged in WWII was designed by Dragomir Tadić, a renowned Serbian church architect of the late 20th Century who also built the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC) of St Lazar in Birmingham and worked on reconstructing many monasteries and temples around Serbia.
Probably the most notable thing about the reconstruction was that it was done during the socialist era, in 1970, when the Communist Party’s icy attitude towards religion somewhat thawed. Then Patriarch of the SOC, German decided to use the opportunity to make the church unique. A mosaic depicting its patron saints was commissioned from Venice and a new iconostasis was commissioned from a craftsman in Ohrid. The crucial decision however, was the decision to commission frescos from Milić Stanković, an eccentric painter who styled himself Milić of Mačva, in reference to his home region in north western Serbia.
The order of scenes of frescoes in Orthodox churches is normally a set thing, in an order and style that existed for centuries based on notable former churches and monasteries. Overstepping those canonical constraints is greatly frowned upon, and can lead to the whole church being repainted – this recently happened in the Church of St Alexander Nevsky.
However, Milić, who was famous for his mystical approach to Orthodoxy, mythologizing Serbian history and painting flying logs in a faux-naïve way, decided to completely do away with the tradition making the church unique in Serbia causing quite a stir when the interior was finished in 1987.
Rather than depicting dignified emaciated saints, cloaked in Byzantine dress, the church is a fever dream of flying heads of Jesus and saints, lay-people breaking bread and, of course, flying flaming logs. Despite breaking all the rules, Milić went all out in his surrealism and managed to capture passion and mysticism of faith, which frequently eludes modern Serbian Orthodox church artists whose works look like a more dignified painting by numbers. The art community looked on this very favourably and proclaimed it a master-piece.
Ironically, as the SOC gained more power in the society after the fall of socialism, it became more conservative, both in its preaching and tastes, and there were calls of the church’s interior to be repainted in a more traditional style.
When I first went to visit the church to marvel at Milić’s wonderful frescoes, the lady who took care of the church, looked at me sternly when I said how amazing they were.
“He might be a good painter, but here he failed”, she said with the breathy holier-than-thou certainty.
Special thanks to Zoran M. Jovanovic as his book “Istorija Beogradskih Svetinja” opened my eyes to this fantastic church.