Svetosavlje Embodied: the Church of St. Sava in Belgrade

The Church of St. Sava in Belgrade sums up the national discourse in Serbia over an entire century: since its inception in the late nineteenth century this monument to the most venerated Serbian saint has been intermittently under construction; seven decades after the foundations were laid it is still not nearing completion.1

The church is a large domed structure that dominates Belgrade’s Vračar plateau; it marks the locus where the Ottomans allegedly burned the body of Saint Sava, a medieval cleric celebrated as the founder of the Serbian church who came to be seen as the saintly protector of schools and education. The proximity of the church to the National Library is thus meant to reinforce the notion of the ‘spiritual’ foundations of national culture. A monument to Karađorđe, leader of the popular revolt against the Ottomans in the early nineteenth century, complements the meaning of the complex as a symbol of struggle for independence and statehood.

St. Sava’s is impressive in size, but less so in form; the succession of spherical elements of the superstructure creates a balanced albeit somewhat cluttered silhouette while the exterior, sheathed in white marble, is cold and uninviting. Although celebrated as an extraordinary accomplishment of the ‘Orthodox spirit’ it is nothing more than an uninspired example of academic revivalism. Rather than spirituality it displays pomp and pretension.

The church is based on a design made in 1930 under the direct auspices of the Serbian Patriarch. The plan was commissioned abruptly, after four decades of deliberations and two unsuccessful competitions. Instead of resolving the disputes surrounding the national monument, however, the patriarch’s decision intensified the debate. Among the issues discussed that of style was the most controversial. The two competitions, in 1905 and 1926, had stipulated a design that would conform to the national monuments of the Middle Ages; the adopted design, however, is not even closely reminiscent of the local building tradition. Instead, the low profile of the dome and the abutting semidomes were meant to connote St. Sophia in Constantinople.

Such a reference to the Byzantine Empire indicates a shift in nationalist ideology. In the multi-confessional environment of the first South Slav state established in 1918 as Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats Slovenes (later renamed Yugoslavia) Serbian nationalism was re-defined more stringently along confessional lines; ethnic nationalism and Orthodox zealotry fused under the name of Svetosavlje (‘Saint-Savaism’) to promote a concept of unity of nation and religion. In rewriting the national narrative along the lines of Russian Slavophile doctrines the ideologues of this militant ideology, mostly high-ranking Orthodox clerics, strove to eradicate all traces of Western cultural models and position Serbia’s heritage within the Byzantine tradition. Serbian culture was thus immersed into an imaginary pan-Orthodox culture that was seen as the foundation and common heritage of all ‘Orthodox nations’.

Construction began in 1935 but was interrupted by the outbreak of World War II. After the war it was abandoned by the new communist authorities and the building site lingered all but forgotten until 1985 when permission was granted to resume construction. This was the first signal of a rapprochement between the communist authorities and the clerical establishment. It also presaged the rise of nationalist factions within the communist elite and an ideological shift from Marxism to ethnic nationalism. When the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts outlined the national agenda in the following year its call for amending historical injustices and redefining national borders along ethnic lines received unequivocal nationwide support; this unanimity was demonstrated in a most dramatic way at a mass rally organized in 1989 to mark the anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo.

St. Sava’s became the central pageant of the ‘awakening’ nation. Construction proceeded in an atmosphere of imminent war and amidst complacent displays of ethnic and religious exclusiveness. Debates on the feasibility of such a pretentious enterprise or on its architectural style which had been openly raised in the 1930s, gave way to silent acceptance. Unanimity was either expressed or implied; enthusiasm for the church as the epitome of regained national unity precluded all criticism.

Discord amongst the Serbs is one of the most common notions of the nationalist discourse. It is widely perceived as the cause of many misfortunes that befell the nation, and in particular the 1389 Battle of Kosovo where a coalition of local Christian forces under the command of Prince Lazar confronted the invading Ottoman forces.2 Their defeat and the death of Lazar were ascribed to the betrayal of one of the nobles, Vuk Branković, who abandoned the battlefield. In the adaptation of the medieval tradition into national mythology the villain was transformed into the traitor, a Serb Judas who stands in opposition to the Christ-like figure of Prince Lazar. This Romantic fabrication was deeply implanted in collective memory – not only as myth or metaphor but as a palpably true narrative that describes an epic battle between nations — the Serbs and the Turks. Its Biblical typology offers a cultural paradigm of immense proportion; it is the framework for an ethnic ontology, a model of moral standards and a worldview based on Christian postulates but specific to the Serbs. The Kosovo narrative is seen as a mirror of the national character and a blueprint of the nation’s history: for their innate righteousness, the Serbs were destined to victimhood. The way of the just, however, is paved with trials and tribulations and the Kosovo treachery remains a constant reminder of the tragic consequences of national discord.

The myth of Saint Sava plays well into this theme. Among the saint’s most esteemed accomplishments was reconciliation of his feuding brothers for which he is seen as a symbol of national unity. This theme underlies the following exultation of a contemporary author and unofficial spokesman for the church: “The memorial temple of St. Sava in Vračar is the first concordant, conciliar, unanimous endowment of the entire Serbian people, of the entirety of Serbs, of them all and from everywhere around the world. This universal house, this temple of temples … we erect in conciliar resolve, at our expense, on this land given to us by Christ.”3

Such highly-charged rhetoric defined the discourse of resurgent nationalism since the late 1980s; its archaic tone is consistent with the archaic forms of the church and its meaning. Particularly indicative of the latter is the reference to St. Sava’s as a ‘temple’ (hram) rather than a ‘church’ (crkva). The term connotes the exceptional character of the building and raises its status beyond that of a Christian place of worship. It is a temple to Serbhood, a notion that designates everything pertaining to the Serbs – their history, language, religion, ethnicity, and entire cultural heritage – as inherent to and inseparable from the national ‘being’. The essential nature of the Serbs was conceived through the physical and spiritual union of Saint Sava and his father Stefan (canonized as Saint Simeon), founders of the Serbian church and state. Through the oneness of father and son, the secular and sacral merged to become a fundamental principle of the national disposition. Serbhood thus implies an innate inclination toward the spiritual established by Sava and Simeon and reiterated by Lazar two centuries later: relinquishing earthly riches for divine grace, the ‘earthly kingdom’ for the ‘heavenly kingdom’, Lazarus made a blood sacrifice analogous to that of Christ’s. The Kosovo covenant, as it is termed in the discourse of national mysticism, has become the fulfillment of the Serbs’ divine calling.

The church of St. Sava is an outward manifestation of the sense of uniqueness and self-righteousness that is engendered by the Kosovo axiom. Commonly described as the largest church in the Orthodox realm, it is universally accepted as a monument particular to the Serbs and their achievement – a testimonial to the lost glory of the medieval past. The meaning, however, extends beyond notions of national pride and accomplishment. Since the 1930s, this project has served the vision of Svetosavlje: not only unity of the Serbs, but unity of nation and religion — a return to the ‘golden age’ of Sava and Simeon where church and state were one. This dream includes a sense of affinity with other ‘Orthodox nations’ – a sense of belonging to a pan-Orthodox world with Russia, the new Byzantine Empire, in the vanguard.

Such a vision, that offers religious affiliation and ethnic bonding as the principal definition of identity, is embedded in the cultural model promoted by the ideologues of Svetosavlje. Its introvert and metaphysical perspective, pushed to the extreme by war and isolation, turns to the past to understand the present and to myth to interpret reality. Although the protracted construction of the national monument seen within such a mythical framework could be attributed to national discord and historical fate, the unfinished church stands as a monumental testimonial to a century of hesitations and uncertainties in the search for the nation’s identity.4


* This is a somewhat revised version of a text published in French (B. Pantelić, “L’église de Saint Savas à Belgrade”, Études Balkaniques, 12, 2005, 181-86).

1 For an official history of construction of the church, see B. Pešić, Spomen hram Svetog Save na Vračaru u Beogradu 1895-1988 (Belgrade, 1988).
2 On the Battle of Kosovo, see T.A. Emmert, Kosovo: Legacy of a Medieval Battle (Minnesota, 1991).
3 M. Bećković in Glas Javnosti, 24 July 2001.
4 On the varying perceptions of cultural identity, see B. Pantelić, “Designing Identities: Reshaping the Balkans in the First Two Centuries: The Case of Serbia”, Journal of Design History, 20, 2007, 131-144.