329. Migrating Icons: Politics and Serbian Cultural Heritage in Bosnia and Herzegovina before and after 1992

By
Svetlana Rakic

Svetlana Rakic is Associate Professor of Art at Franklin College. She spoke at an EES Noon Discussion on November 8, 2006. The following is a summary of her presentation. Meeting Report 329.

Despite all the efforts to preserve the multi-cultural character of the four major cities in Bosnia and Herzegovina—Sarajevo, Tuzla, Mostar and Livno—the war has changed each city's ethnic composition, probably forever. One of the major demographic trends is that most Serbs have moved out of these cities. The question I pose is: should they take their material culture with them? I will present a brief history of icon collecting in Serbian churches in Bosnia—how the collections were formed and how these icons are related to Serbian national identity, history and current ideology. By understanding some of the historical issues important to the formation of these collections, we can better understand the role these icons played in the formation of Serbian identity in these territories.

Prior to the 1992 war, Serbian churches in Bosnia and Herzegovina housed more than 2000 icons dating to between the 16th to the 19th centuries. After the war ended in 1995, the four largest Serbian collections of Orthodox icons found themselves on the territory of the Bosniak-Croat Federation. The richest collection (642 icons) was housed in the Old Church in Sarajevo. The next three most valuable collections were in the churches in Mostar and Livno and in the Episcopal Palace in Tuzla. With the exception of the Tuzla collection, the other three icon collections were formed over several hundred years by the clergy, church authorities, local parishioners and visitors offering gifts and donations to Serbian churches. Those icons testify to the spiritual expression of a people who endeavored to preserve the awareness of their roots by maintaining their cultural traditions.

The role of the Church as the patron of arts was of course the most important after the Turkish Conquest of this territory and the later restoration of Serbian Patriarchate in Pec in 1557. The construction and restoration of churches and monasteries and their decoration with frescoes and icons was paid for in large part by the Patriarchate and the clergy, but also by the members of the new class of Serbian landowners, clan and military leaders, merchants, craftsmen and artisans. The Sarajevo parish archive from the second half of the 17th century shows, for example, that many Serbs abundantly helped through their donations to the Old Church in Sarajevo.

In the post-Conquest period, the areas inhabited by Serbs were divided by two powerful empires—Ottoman and Habsburg—which were both culturally and religiously very different from Serbia's Orthodox tradition. The only centripetal force to counter Serbian cultural dispersion was the Church, which set the cultural and spiritual norms that were embraced by all Serbs, regardless of their geographical location or cultural environment. Serbian post-Conquest art clearly mirrors this spiritual unity. In spite of all the hardships endured by Christians, the fact remains that the Ottoman system did not destroy the ethnic and religious identity of the Serbian people but permitted it to exist and, to a limited degree, to develop. Turkish law permitted restoring pre-existing churches. Thus, with permission from the Turkish governors, churches could be rebuilt and maintained, which included furnishing them with icons. The study of Serbian post-Byzantine and church Baroque art, namely icons from churches in territories where Serbs lived from the 15th century on, reveals that the icons from Bosnia and Herzegovina belong to the stylistically and culturally unique body of Serbian post-Conquest art.

The process of cultural unification of the earlier Serbian ethnic layer in Bosnia was prompted in the first half of the 16th century, when the Turks, as conquerors, moved the Serbian military population to Slavonia and Bosnia. As a result, the Serbs in Bosnia finally accepted the Orthodoxy that was preached in Serbia by Saint Sava, and medieval traditions related to the Serbian dynasty of the Nemanjices subdued the local Bosnian ones. Even before the restoration of the Pec Patriarchate in 1557, the Orthodox Serbs in Bosnia became culturally identical to those in Serbia and other Serbian provinces. The Serbian patriarch in the Ottoman Empire, with his responsibility to the Porte for the behavior of his people, remained not only a spiritual but also a secular leader with the greatest authority and respect among all Serbs. After the legal recognition of the restored Patriarchate of Pec, the Serbian Church assumed the role of the central national institution, which is why the cultural and spiritual unity of the conquered nation remained strong.

The alliance of the Serbs with Austria that led to the great national migration in 1690, when the Serbs moved from the southern regions of Kosovo and Metohija into their new Austrian homeland in Srem, prompted a new era in Serbian history. The Serbian people and their Church were now split between two very different but equally hostile empires, Austrian and Turkish. In the west, including the territory of what is today Bosnia, Serbs faced hardships and poverty living within the declining Ottoman Empire. In the north, they faced problems of colonization. In the early 18th century, the biggest and most powerful Serbian community in Bosnia lived in Sarajevo. The Sarajevo parish, therefore, became a very important center for the Serbs living under the Ottomans. Patriarchs from Pec (now elected in Constantinople) often visited Sarajevo, which had become a bishopric center. The Serbian bishoprics in Bosnia and Herzegovina shared the grim fate of all Serbian people left living under the Turks. Icons produced during that period reflected those historical changes: the most gifted painters rarely ventured to the impoverished Ottoman province. Therefore, icons painted within the borders of Austrian empire had Baroque characteristics. During this period, many icons came to Bosnia as gifts from better-off Serbian churches in Austria.

At the same time, the Pec patriarchs often found their main support in the Archbishopric of Dabar-Bosnia, with its center in Sarajevo. After the Pec Patriarchate was closed in 1766, the Sarajevo parish kept in contact with the Patriarchate in Constantinople which explains a large number of high-quality Greek and Cretan icons found in Bosnian collections. By the late 18th century, it was the archbishop of Dabar-Bosnia (with his seat in Sarajevo) who administered the majority of Orthodox Serbs living in Bosnia and the surrounding territories. In the minds of ordinary people left within the Ottoman Empire, their Serbian monasteries, churches and icons were as important as the glorious medieval spiritual centers of the Nemanjic's lands.

Not only did the historical circumstances determine the ways in which the icons came to the Serbian churches in Bosnia, but the study of their iconography and style also reveals a close connection with the specific historical circumstances in which they were made. Reflecting the new historical circumstances and the contemporary spiritual needs of the Serbs, the medieval iconography of Serbian rulers acquired some new elements, with the stress shifting from their sainthood to their martyrdom. For example, this 17th century icon painted in Sarajevo for the Old Church shows apostle Paul and the Serbian Prince Lazar as Christian martyrs. Numerous older icons of St. Paul show him as the disciple of Christ—holding a book or a scroll and blessing. This icon, painted by one of the best Serbian icon painters of his time, master Radul, deliberately focuses on the aspect of martyrdom. The pose of both figures, showing the palm of their hands (Lazar is also holding a cross), is the position characteristic of martyr saints. Paul's open right hand is raised in a gesture that signifies respect as well as safeguards against evil (the apotropaic gesture). The depiction of Lazar is even more interesting. He is dressed in a royal garb but it is his martyrdom that is emphasized, with the depiction of a thin white cross in his hands. Thus, Prince Lazar, who was killed in the battle of Kosovo in 1389, is depicted as a martyr saint. The Serbian church began to see him as a man who died leading his Christian army against the Muslims. The cult of Prince Lazar gained in significance especially during the fourth decade of the 17th century, around the time when this icon was painted. This change in iconography, which reflected the specific historical circumstances and ideological needs of the Serbs, who at that time had been living under Turkish occupation for more than two centuries, would further develop and spread in the 18th century.

During the second half of the 20th century, the rapid change in attitude towards the importance of the preservation of cultural heritage is directly related to the political changes in the country. Under the Communist regime, sacral art was largely removed from the public eye because it emphasized differences between the country's three dominant ethnic groups and undermined the communist principle of "brotherhood and unity." The ambiguous relationship between church and state further contributed to the neglect of the icons. During this period, there was only one church museum in Bosnia: the Old Church in Sarajevo. Except for the Church authorities—who were afraid that the regime would take away their icons to put them in state museums or institutions—no one else was in any way interested or even aware of the existence of valuable icon collections in Bosnian churches. Let me illustrate this no-trust relationship between State and Church with an example of the Tuzla Bishopric: The Episcopal Palace building was confiscated by the Communist government in 1958 and then returned to the Bishop ten years later. The same government took away a number of very valuable icons from the Old Church in Mackovac (that is in the Tuzla Bishopric) and those were never returned to their owner, the Bishop of Tuzla. The Mackovac Church was burned to the ground by the Muslim SS Handzar division during WWII. The icons were somehow saved but the Communist regime got a hold of them and moved them to the City Museum in Tuzla. The same happened to a valuable section of the Tuzla Bishopric Church archives pertaining to Serbian political and cultural history of the region, which were taken away from the Church and placed in the City archive.

Prior to the 1980s, the majority of the preservation projects funded by the Institute for the Protection of Cultural Heritage of Bosnia and Herzegovina—which was a government institution—involved "non-ethnic" heritage, such as pre-historic sites or the monuments of the Communist revolution and victories of WWII. Thus, for example, it posed no problem at all to secure the funding for the conservation of a locomotive engine that transported the partisans to some important location during World War II, but to get any funding for the preservation of icons was difficult. Therefore, no larger-scale conservation or research work on the icons in Bosnia was done prior to the mid-1980s.

The interest in religious art was revived in the mid-1980s, simultaneously with the political changes which brought about the demise of communism and the appearance of ethnically-centered political parties. From 1985 to 1992, I worked on setting up museum collections in Serbian and Franciscan churches in Bosnia and Herzegovina. This was a groundbreaking work that involved recording the initial data and organizing restoration works. The first complete catalogue of the relevant iconographic material from Bosnia was published only in 1998, and even then it was published in Serbia and not in Bosnia. It was first completed and scheduled for publication in 1992 with a major publishing house in Sarajevo. The late 1980s was the time when the first exhibitions of sacral art took place in Bosnian galleries and the time when the first scholarly studies and books on sacral art from Bosnia were being published. But after the war broke in 1992, the publication of the icon catalogue from Bosnia was postponed. When it was finally published, it was tinged by the bitter conflicts that had destroyed Yugoslavia.

The war meant that sacred monuments of all three religions became military targets, such as the16th century Muslim mosque in Banja Luka, which was destroyed by the Serbs and the 16th century Serbian monastery of Zitomislic in the Mostar region, which was destroyed by the Croats. Eleven years after the war ended, I have gathered some information on the present situation of the four largest collections of icons that existed before the war in Sarajevo, Tuzla, Mostar, and Livno.

During the recent war, all of the items from the Museum of the Old Church in Sarajevo were stored in a place that was damp, which meant that many of the icons and textiles were badly damaged. After the war had ended, the most badly damaged items were sent to Belgrade for restoration. The UN Mission formed a Fund for the Protection of Orthodox Cultural Heritage in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which paid for the restoration of some 20 to 25 icons from the Museum, as well as for the renovation of the damaged church museum building, which was reopened in December 2001. Many more icons from this collection are waiting to be restored. A significant number of icons from this collection were moved to the monastery of Dobrun near Visegrad (Serbian territory in eastern Bosnia). At this site, a brand new Museum of the Archbishopric of Dabar-Bosnia was built and the Sarajevo icons are on "indefinite display/loan" there. This Museum was opened in August 2004.

The Tuzla icon collection is unique insofar as it was formed when the present Bishop of the Zvornik-Tuzla Eparchy decided to gather all icons that had artistic value from smaller parish churches under his jurisdiction, organize the necessary conservation work and put them on permanent display in the newly built museum inside the Episcopal Palace. All of this took place in the 1980s—the decade of the demise of Communism. I led the icon restoration project and worked on the design of the museum's layout, since I worked as an art historian at the Institute for the Protection of Cultural Heritage of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Bishopric Museum in Tuzla was opened in 1991 in the presence of high officials from the church and local government.

The exhibit did not last long; less than a year later, the entire museum was moved to a Serb-held territory in northeast Bosnia. Having in mind the events in Croatia, the Sinod of the Serbian Church suggested in early 1992 that all bishoprics from Bosnia and Herzegovina should evacuate church treasuries to safer locations. The collection from the Bishopric Palace Museum was moved to the city of Bijeljina (Serbian territory in north-east Bosnia). The Bishop hopes to return the seat of his eparchy to its original location in Tuzla, but he does not seem to believe that this is going to happen soon. However, he does not plan to move the most valuable icons back from Bijeljina, where he is planning to open a new Bishopric Museum.

In Mostar, icons from the monastery of Zitomislic, the Cathedral Church (Church of the Holy Trinity) and the Old Church (Church of the Nativity of the Virgin)—all together around 100 icons—were moved to the Cathedral Church in Trebinje (Serbian territory in southeastern Herzegovina). Since most of the icons have never been cleaned or preserved, a great number of them need attention. Icons from the Zitomislic monastery were partly returned to the re-built monastery church. The remaining icons from the Cathedral Church are due to be returned when the Church is rebuilt, but there is no clear timetable for when this will occur.

Just before the war broke out, in March 1992 I traveled to the Serbian Church in Livno to try to move the icons to a storage room in the Belgrade Patriarchate. Serbian Church authorities gave me the permission to move the icons to Belgrade if the Livno parishioners would agree to let the icons go. The local priest talked to the parishioners, who decided that they did not want the icons to leave Livno. The explanation I was given was "If we are killed here then our icons should disappear with us." A few months later, in June, the church was burned down and most of the Serbs killed or expelled. The icons were taken out of the burning church by the local Franciscan monk and stored in the Franciscan parish office in Livno. When the war was over, the Franciscans returned the entire collection to the Serb church officials. The Serbian parish priest now assigned to Livno, told me that there are not more than 70 Serbian families left (of the 3,782 Serbs living in Livno in 1991). The church is under re-construction: the roof is leaking and the steeples are still not in place. The valuable icons pose a major problem to the young priest: he does not know what to do with the collection; he is storing half of the icons locked in his parish home, the other half is in the restoration workshop.

Under the Communist regime, icons that were not displayed in church buildings (used strictly for religious purposes) were generally piled on the floor and locked up in rooms with no temperature or humidity controls. No one except the clergy could enter those rooms. Thus, in Bosnia icons were "in hiding," so to speak. Since the fall of Communism the icons have started to come out of "hiding," but many of them are now "migrating," due to the demographic changes in the country. Serbs were never in the majority in the four cities discussed above, but before the war they did constitute a significant part of the population. There was a meaningful reason for those collections of icons to be preserved and maintained in their original sites. Yet, it is unlikely that Serbs will return to Sarajevo, Tuzla, Mostar or Livno. Thus, it is unlikely that the ethnic map of Bosnia will look the way it did before the war. We may agree that an ideology that supports the separation of Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs is a bad ideology, but we cannot deny that this is the reality of the current state of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Can or should the cultural map of Bosnia stay unchanged after all the demographic changes brought about by the recent war? When discussing this question regarding the Serbian historical church treasures, one should also keep in mind that there is a limited amount of cultural heritage of the Bosnian Serbs that has survived all the wars and different regimes that competed for supremacy throughout the turbulent history of this region. This observation may not justify the obvious current Church policy (or tendency) to move whatever can be moved to the Republika Srpska. Still, this seems like a "logical" or "rational" thing to do—to move the most valuable cultural treasures from their original sites in the Croat-Muslim Federation, along with the Serb population. The key to this puzzle is in the truth of the statement that "one day things will go back to what they were." But no one from Republic of Srpska seems to think of that day as a real or even preferred possibility.
 

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