Hidden Belgrade (53): Belgrade’s Most Storied Church

Church of the Ascension (Vaznesenjska crkva) lacks the glitz of Cathedral Church of St. Michael the Archangel (Saborna crkva), the grandeur of St. Mark’s and St. Sava’s, or romance of Ružica and Topčider church, but there are few churches, in the city who witnessed as many dramatic and glorious events in the city’s history.

That was maybe its fate from the beginning given that it is the only church in the city dedicated to Belgrade’s slava (patron saints’ day) Spasovdan or Feast of the Ascension, which the city celebrated since Despot Stefan Lazarević made it the capital  of his state in 1403. The feast has been traditionally celebrated by a procession through Belgrade, which after a pause during WWII and the Socialist times, has been renewed since 1993.

The church, of course, was built much later, in 1863, when Serbia was freeing itself from the Ottoman rule. It was a Central-European romantic reimagining of five-domed Ravanica, designed and built by architects and builders, Joseph Stock, Friedrich Schleisner and Ernst Gleisner. It was positioned on the outskirts of the expanding city between Brewers’ alley and Tailors’ street (present day Admirala Geprata and Kraljice Natalije, respectively), next to the city court of Obrenović dynasty (of which only a hammam remains) and a major road leading towards their residence in Topčider (present day Kneza Miloša).

Its royal neighbours moved out soon after the church was completed, and opened the first public park in the city but it remained next to a series of buildings in which Serbian parliaments met: first assemblies took place in the Prince’s brewery (after which the Brewer’s alley was named) and later in the buildings on Tailors’ alley.

Old Brewey at the corner of present day Admirala Geprata and Balkansa streets

The church was also right next to sites of two key political assassinations of Serbian and Yugoslav political history.

In 1928, inside the temporary assembly building of the Kingdom of Serbs Croats and Slovenes, located inside former cavalry barracks in Kneza Miloša, across the road from the church, Puniša Račić, an MP from Montenegro shot a Croatian MPs, Puniša Račić, which led to the imposition of dictatorship in the Kingdom and paved way for an (eve more) acrimonious relationship between its constituent nations.

Then, 75 years later, on March 12, 2004 that Zvezdan Jovanović killed Serbian PM Zoran Đinđić from a building in Admirala Geprata, again, just across the road from the church.

Needless to say, the church itself and its parishioners suffered a lot through its history. When it was shelled during the Austro-Hungarian offensive on Belgrade in WWI, one of the missiles was lodged in its northern wall only to be removed in 1921. But the greatest tragedy to hit the church happened on the first day of WWII in Yugoslavia, on April 6 1941, when Nazi Germany viciously bombed Belgrade. The churchyard had a make-shift air raid shelter, to which the people of Savski Venac and Sava Mala rushed as soon as they heard the sirens. Unfortunately, proximity of the church to Government and military offices, meant that a few bombs hit the shelter killing about 200 people. One of the survivors was a relative of mine, a child at the time, and whenevr I pass the church I think of the grizzly story of how he was saved from the piles of dead bodies and rubble. This dark day is memorialised with a cross in the church yard.

The air-raid also damaged the church and its art-nouveu fresco interior, painted by Andrei Bicenko, a White Russian emigré, under supervision of Uroš Predić. Bicenko was one of the many Russian artists who brought fresh colour to Serbian churches. His compositions have a warm, almost a comic-book feel, and he also painted the interior of Ružica church as well as a famous composition of Jesus giving wheat to the Apostles in the church of Novaci by Ub. However, like many of the anti-communist emigres he had to continue his work in the US after WWII, where he died at the age of 99 in 1986.

Beside many tragedies, the Church of the Ascension also keeps memories of some of the most glorious times in Serbian history. Its main bell is the one that tolled in 1830 when Prince Miloš Obrenović received the Ottoman imperial edict ( Hattı Şerif ) which gave Serbia internal statehood and paved way to its full independence. It was here that in 1912 King Petar Karđorđević set off into the First Balkan War and it was here that he victoriously returned. At last but not the least, buildings in the church served as some of Belgrade’s first high schools. Indeed the predecessor of Belgrade’s prestigious Third Gymnasium was located one unassuming house which opens to Kraljice Natalije street.

The church still remains a witness of Belgrade’s latest transformations: most protest walks that regularly happen in Belgrade pass it by and it will be the parish church of Belgrade Waterfront’s new residents.

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