Kosovo's holy sites

In November 1993, Serbian artillery slammed into the town of Mostar in Bosnia-Herzegovina and destroyed the Old Bridge, which had been regarded as an extraordinary architectural achievement since it was completed in 1566. The destruction of this priceless landmark underscored a terrible reality: Modern warfare can obliterate artistic treasures in the blink of an eye.

The current crisis in Kosovo will undoubtedly teach us this sad lesson yet again. This tiny region - smaller than Connecticut - is home to more than 1,300 Christian churches and monasteries that date to the Middle Ages. Thankfully, "Art of Kosovo: The Sacred Land," a recent book by Gojko Subotic, director of the Institute of Art History, in Belgrade, documents a small number of these treasures with great care and detail.

At the end of the 12th century, Grand Zupan Stephen Nemanja established a Serbian state that was independent of the Byzantine Empire. The new state was Christian, and it maintained close ties with the Christian churches in Constantinople. But Serbia had a strong economy and also enjoyed regular contact with Western Europe and the Roman Catholic Church.

The interplay of these two religious and cultural traditions - the Byzantine Empire based in Constantinople and the Catholic Church of Western Europe - shaped the art and architecture of Serbia and Kosovo.

The 13th and 14th centuries were the golden age of Serbia. Its borders expanded, trade flourished, and an extensive church and monastery building program was launched. And, thanks to a healthy economy based largely on mining, Serbia had the wealth to lure Byzantium's best craftsmen and artists to perform the work.

But the Ottoman Empire was knocking at the door. In 1371, the Ottomans defeated the Serbs at the River Marica and, in 1389, they triumphed once again at the Battle of Kosovo. While Serbia survived as an independent state for another 70 years, the Battle of Kosovo marked the beginning of the end of the tiny nation, and the event assumed mythical importance in Serbian history. (Related book review, page 21.) Indeed, the red poppies that cover the battlefield today are said to represent the spilled blood of the Serbian warriors who fell more than 500 years ago.

Following the battle, many Serbs fled northward, and their abandoned villages were occupied by Turks and Albanians who had converted to Islam. Today, it is the Serbs who are pushing the ethnic Albanians out of Kosovo.

During the 350 years that the Ottomans ruled Serbia, the small region was largely cut off from the West, and the small number of Serbian Christians who remained were reduced to the status of peasants. The Turks, meanwhile, found it convenient to use the Christian churches and monasteries to help govern the Christian minority.

Throughout the long years of Ottoman domination, Serbian Christians protected and maintained the religious treasures that are one of the most distinctive features of Kosovo today. How they did so in a region that is not especially tolerant of minorities is a great mystery. But their accomplishment in doing so has greatly enriched the world's cultural history.

The churches and monasteries of Kosovo

Because of its geographic isolation, communism, and political instability, the artistic traditions and accomplishments of Kosovo are not widely known in the West. Indeed, the standard reference book in art history, the 33-volume "Grove Dictionary of Art," does not include an entry that examines the art of this region as a whole. Gojko Subotic's book helps to correct this neglect.

The invasions, legends, myths, and history all shaped the religious art of Serbia and Kosovo, but the influence of Byzantium and Orthodox Christianity is the preeminent factor. According to some scholars, Byzantine art, with its mixture of Christian, Roman, and Greek styles seasoned with a strong Eastern influence, is the single greatest legacy of the Byzantine Empire.

John Julius Norwich, for example, author of the multi-volume "History of Byzantium," notes that this art, while largely restricted to Christian themes, achieved "a degree of intensity and exaltation, unparalleled before or since,... qualities which entitle the masterpieces to be reckoned among the most sublime creations of the human spirit."

The "intensity and exaltation" of the art, as well as the complex historical and cultural factors that shaped it, come through clearly and beautifully in "Art of Kosovo."

The volume highlights a small number of the many churches and monasteries that are found in this hilly and mountainous land. Architectural drawings and roughly 100 photographs provide visual illustration of the structures themselves as well as of the frescos and carvings found in them.

It's hard to generalize about the churches that are highlighted in this book. Some are in ruins, and others are still in use. One of the sites, Pec, has been the seat of the Serbian Orthodox Patriarchate for centuries. The other sites still in use include both monasteries and parish churches.

What the book does convey is the austere beauty of the churches and monasteries. The exteriors are plain and unpretentious and lack the ornamentation that one finds in the Gothic churches of the same era. Windows are few and small. Rounded domes exist where steeples would be found in the West. Gracanica, for example, currently a women's monastery, is a harmonious structure with a high degree of sophistication in the use of bricks and stone (photo left).

The simplicity of the exterior often disguises the generous size of the interior space in these churches. But the most striking feature of the interior of these buildings is the extraordinary beauty of their decoration. The frescos, carvings, and sculpture are sublime, and many are beautifully preserved.

Frescoes as substitute for literacy

The painted wall decorations were designed to help instruct the faithful in an era when few could read. Popular subjects included New Testament scenes, the saints, and royalty connected with Serbia. The largest number of painted wall decorations are the many frescos found in the Church of Christ the Pantocrator in the monastery at Decani.

Even after six centuries, the color of the frescos is exceptionally fresh and vivid. Indeed, based on these photographs, it appears that many of the frescos in Kosovo are better preserved than the better-known frescos in Italy.

In a typical fresco (photo page 15), Stephan Decanski, who established

the monastery and for whom it is named, offers a model of the Church to Christ, who in turn blesses Stephan.

The figure of Stephan is elongated and conveys a sense of simple dignity and grace. Further adding to the reverence of the image, Stephan bows toward Christ and silently mouths a prayer. The fresco was apparently painted after he was canonized, for Stephan has a halo around his head.

The churches also feature exemplary interior carvings. The accompanying picture shows a carving of eagles and the apostle Philip at the top of a column in the narthex of the Church of Christ the Pantocrator (photo left). The iconographic meaning and sources of these carvings are not clear, but there is no mistaking their contemplative beauty.

While the book is informative and authoritative, it is not an easy read. It includes little historical information on Kosovo and Serbia, so the reader must piece it together. This task is made more difficult because the book provides an in-depth assessment of a small number of churches rather than a broad overview of the art history of the region.

Moreover, because Byzantine art is not well known in the Western Hemisphere, most readers will not be well acquainted with the iconography that it features. Finally, the descriptions themselves are often highly technical, and readers will want to keep a good art dictionary nearby when they peruse the book.

It is the photographs that make "The Art of Kosovo" so incredibly appealing. The photos, far more than anything else, convey the beauty of the art and architecture.

Great care was taken in the choice of the pictures, and the quality of the color reproduction is stunning. By themselves, they make the book worth a careful examination.

The book is especially timely in light of the current hostilities. One can only hope that this record will not turn out to be all that is left of these priceless treasures when the bombs stop falling.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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