RETVRN: Remembering the Serbian Middle Ages

One of the most commonly heard, yet, as it often happens, misattributed, Churchill quotes about the Balkans is that its nations „produce more history than they can consume“, always irritated me for both of its condescending and exoticizing attitude. What is that makes Balkan history so indigestible? Isn’t it the case that it is hardly only the Balkan people’s who shaped this region’s history (and its historical memory) ever since the Roman times?

However, as annoying as it is, it does point to the universal human – not just Balkan – feature that we often can take history piecemeal, often picking the pieces that somehow rhyme with the present, and like ignoring those that seem dissonant to how we like to self-perceive and what we would like to accomplish.

As the former, forward looking, legitimising narrative of the Serbian system – the one of increasing modernisation and joining the EU – seems to be crumbling, Serbian officials are once again looking back to the country’s rich and layered history for guidance and legitimising narratives about the present. While first post Milošević years were very much in the end of history mode, perhaps best illustrated by the fact that the main collection of the Serbian National Museum was closed for more than a decade without the cultural grandees making a big deal out it (imagine the same happening with Louvre in France or the British Museum in the UK), the past half a decade saw history and the historical sense come back in a major way in the public self-perception.

Not only did the National Museum reopen in 2018, but there has been a steady effort to reintroduce national history in the public works: a major new highway crossing Serbia’s heartland was named after the very capable Prince Miloš Obrenović, Belgrade`s major new square is now dominated by a monumental statue of Stefan Nemanja, the founder of the Serbian medieval state, while the 85 year-long national project of building the magnificent St Sava`s church is finally coming to a finish. This is just a quick list which includes numerous smaller monuments strewn across the country to major historical figures, investment in major regional museums as well as attempts at reconstructing old, majestic pre-WWII facades and landmarks.

While this runs in parallel to the ostensible attempts at showing modernisation and contemporary successes of the county – from the focus on buzzy innovation and successes in COVID vaccination to grand, albeit architecturally bland international neoliberal style developments, such as Belgrade Waterfront – it is still interesting to see Serbia take the leaf out the book of similarly, increasingly “trad” governments of Hungary, Russia, Turkey, Egypt in publicly embracing the “RETVRN” meme, as other major countries – and especially the UK and the US – seem more interested in deconstructing – even physically – their own history.

This turn towards the past is somewhat reminiscent of a similar rediscovery of the major medieval past as Serbia tried to wrest itself from the influence of the Habsburg Empire at the turn of 20th century.

While strong historical memory was always part of Serbia’s official self-perception and through traditions such as singing of epic songs to gusle present in daily life –  in the late 19th century, Serbia was interested in modernising and looking as much as its more prosperous major Western neighbour. Focus on building a European identity was most obvious in architecture – with many major buildings built in Neoclassical, Baroque and Neo-renaissance styles – none of which were actually present in Serbia during the Ottoman rule. This is best seen in major public works like the Old Palace in Belgrade, designed to celebrate Serbia`s successes at becoming a Kingdom in 1884, and many of the major churches, most notably St Michel`s cathedral in Belgrade, from 1860s, which looks like it came straight from Austro-Hungarian towns of the time.  

Part of this was a clear political calculation and always active foreign influence in shaping the way newly independent countries perceive themselves. Much like recently independent Greece chose to go focus more on its Ancient Hellenic past, rather than stop at its more recent Eastern Roman (i.e. Byzantine) period in its art and self-perception, so Serbia only vaguely referenced its medieval period (let alone its, for that period overly oriental looking vernacular culture), but decided it should become a bland European country. A lot of these decisions (a bit like now) were results of Great Power influences which determined the way Balkan societies developed: from installing German princelings in Greece, Romania and Bulgaria, to insisting on building of railways and importing Continental European social systems and more, Britain, France, Prussia and the Habsburgs had little interest in investing their capital in potentially different (or even hostile) developments in the newly independent Balkan states. Similar foreign, in this case Habsburg, attempts at influencing national/ethnic consciousness among Albanians for own geopolitical interests in late 19th century were documented by Teodora Toleva.

Russian empire, on the other hand, played up the Orthodox, Byzantine non-Western angle and sought to strengthen the bonds with the Balkan nations in its ambition to gain access to the Mediterranean, take over Istanbul and make it a jewel in its strategic crown, as evidenced by their lavish gifts in terms of evocative churches to Bulgaria and Montenegro.

Things significantly changed, however, when France, Britain and Russia realised a common interest in reining in the Germany and the Habsburgs, and developments within Serbia made it more willing to reassert its power.

Furthermore, the cultural climate in Europe was more permissive to folksy, historicist and even orientalist elements. While revivals of non-classical styles, like Neo-gothic and historicist styles coincided with the early to mid 19th century Romanticism, it was in the second part of the century that both the West developed a taste for Oriental reminiscences with the increased reverence towards Byzantine architecture. Theodore Hansen, one of the most accomplished monumental architects of the time, popularised a Western take on neo-Byzantinism, while Carlo Maciachini designed a truly imporessive church of San Spiridone in 1860s. There were also early attempts in Serbia to create a new local style, such as those by Andreja Damjanov of Veles, in his designs for main churches in Smederevo, Vranje, Niš and Mostar.  Interestingly, Damjanov, an Ottoman subject, was much more attuned to the vernacular architecture of the Balkans than the architects educated in Central and Western Europe, who designed maybe showier but less locally inspired churches (e.g the works of Svetozar Ivačković who was Hansen`s student).

The breaking point in Serbian embrace of its medieval past was the assassination of the last Obrenović king, Aleksandar in 1904, and the return of the Karađorđević dynasty to power. It was then that the reimagined medieval iconography, as well as the ideas of special Serbian asethetic started flourishing.

This was very much supported by Serbia`s allies who also supported Serbia in its policies, and Serbia started presenting itself as more „trad“ to the world and to itself.

Serbo-Byzantine version of Art nouveau started flourishing in Belgrade in the major works by Branko Tanazević and Dragutin Inkiostri Medenjak.

In terms of its outward facing image, the most obvious moves towards more medievalist identity were Serbian pavilions at World Fairs which started referencing its medieval past, or celebrated it in grand style like the Kosovo Temple built by Meštrović. Just on the eve of WWI, Vojislav M. Petrović and  Čedomilj Mijatović managed to publish a selection of Serbian folk tales and fables in magnificent Arts and Crafts style in the USA and the UK, which was a great prelude to the swathes of Allied pro-Serbian propaganda in WWI. Vidovda, Serbian national holiday on which the Battle of Kosovo happened, as well as the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was a focus of efforts to raise money for Serbian army and Orphans around the world and was featured prominently on all War Time materials.

Although it was part of national consciousness for ages, Vidovdan only started being celebrated a national holiday, relatively late, in 1889, on the 500th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo, when King Aleksandar Obrenović, the first one to start signalling a turn away from the Habsburgs, was anointed king in Žiča, the traditional coronation church of Serbian medieval kings. Although the last Obrenović tried to signal more interest towards Serbian medieval heritage (including visiting and endowing Hilandar monastery to ensure it remaining in Serb hands), it was really under the Karađorđevićs that the medieval iconography and traditions going back to that time became mainstreamed.

The victory in WWI, and creation of Yugoslavia, meant that the country had a free reign in forging its identity. It was during this time that the most research into the medieval Serbian heritage was made (by the likes of Aleksandar Deroko and Rastko Petrović) and that there were most ambitious attempts at creating a Serbian national historicist style. Local architects, like Momir Korunović were helped by many Russian emigres, already experienced in creating monumental neo-byzantine fantasies, to make Belgrade look like new Byzantium. Once again, this visual trajectory was helped by that fact that, at the time Serbia (or rather the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes) was along with the Kingdom of Romania, the only major Orthodox country that was not blighted with major crisis (Bulgaria lost WWI, Greece had reel from the catastrophic Greco-Turkish war of 1919-1922 while Russia had its Revolution). Serbian Orthodox Church also reunited its various smaller churches in 1920, and free reign was given to those wanting to revive the glorious pre-modern times. While some parts the Serbian intellectual elite, saw this historicism as retrograde and kitschy, it was embraced by the populace as the monumental Serbo-Byantine style spread from official buildings (courts, monuments churches) to family tombs and houses. Although modernism spread in Yugoslavia in the late 1920s, creating the unique Belgrade modern style and while other historicist styles were also present, it was common to see some syncretism with Serbo-Byzantine elements. This was especially pronounced in already curvy Serbia Art Deco, such as seen on the Sima Igumanov’s palace at Terazije.

This all came to an end in WWII, when Yugoslavia was first dismembered and occupied by the Axis forces and then went through a revolution, bringing the Communist Party to power after 1945.

While Yugoslav Communists were strongly anti-traditional and anti-monrachist, they continued showing reverence to Serbian medieval history. It was not only celebrated in their art, but, even though the Serbian Orthodox Church was suppressed and its split with the Macedonian Orthodox church was supported by the Communists, many of its most famous monuments were restored and promoted (some even achieving a UNESCO listing). None of the streets named after the medieval royalty changed names, most of the monuments dedicated to them remained standing, all the while almost all the mentions of Modern Serbian monarchy were removed (with notable exceptions of Karađorđe and Miloš Obrenović who were considered proto-revolutionaries).   

Petar Lubarda

Two most notable homages to the Serbian middle ages were that in 1953, Aleksandar Deroko designed the Monument to the Kosovo Battle at Gazimestan, and the frequent promotion of the White Angel fresco – discovered during a 20th century renovation of Mileševa monastery and allegedly beamed to the outer space.

This homages to the pre-modern times, by a Communist regime, were not so surprising in international contest – Stalin and especially Enver Hoxha showed great interest in affirming  and celebrating parts of their national heritage – and had a clear local purpose. Pre-Ottoman feudal politics were of course politically inert in mid-20th century, while offering a source of national pride and underlining anti-imperial, independent nature of Serbia and, by extension, Yugoslavia. Finally, while the Serbian Orthodox Church teachings and projects were strongly discouraged (St Sava Church foundations were used a parking for a while, and the idea was to have them removed) the Communists probably tried to defuse political tensions with organised religion by praising its aesthetic achievements and reducing it to a mix of museum and folk traditional societies.

All of this changed, once again, with the series of national(ist) renaissances around Yugoslavia after Tito`s death in 1980. Given that much of the impetus to Serbian nationalism of the era came from Albanian irredentist movements in Kosovo, the area most evocative of Serbian medieval history, it is no wonder that much of the iconography was borrowed from the Middle Ages, culminating in 1989: with Milošević rally at Gazimestan and Kosovo Battle movie. And after that, the rest is history…

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