Beautiful mosaics are one of the great prides of the Eastern Orthodox Church – and rightfully so. These Byzantine artworks are complex, technically outstanding, and artistically unique.
I recently had a chance to visit one of the most ornate assemblages of Eastern Orthodox mosaics in the Balkans, housed in St. George’s Church (also called the Oplenac Church) in Topola, Serbia, outside of Belgrade. This church was erected in the early part of the 20th century atop a hill to serve as the mausoleum of the house of the Karageorgevich Family, a Serbian royal lineage. There are twenty-eight members from six generations of the family buried in the church, including six Serbian rulers.
St George’s Church was masterminded by Peter I, who wanted his ancestors’ final resting place to be special. It was his idea to hire artists to recreate the most beautiful works of the Medieval Eastern Orthodox fresco tradition in mosaic. Craftsmen used 40 million tiles to bring these images to life, and the 725 compositions cover 38,000 square feet of wall and dome surface inside the church. Peter I died in 1921 during the course of the work; however, his son, Alexander I, continued the project, and the church was consecrated in 1930.
I was not at all prepared for the overwhelming color and liveliness of this place. The approach to the church climbs through an unassuming natural oak forest. The exterior of the structure is white marble, striking in its stark facade. By contrast, the inside is alive with color. I felt swallowed in imagery, surrounded by larger-than-life portraits of Karageorgevich men, each with a robe more intricately decorated than the next. In classic Eastern Orthodox east-meets-west fashion, about half of the designs on the walls were of people – Jesus, Mary, and the royal family; the other designs were geometric ones, reminiscent of those seen in Islamic mosques. The basement of the church was especially unusual. In a space poorly lit by colored bulbs, the tile scenes were rendered mysterious and haunting.
Right now, in the Serbian capital city of Belgrade, the largest cathedral in the Balkans has recently been constructed. Called the Church of St. Sava, it is intended to be a testament to the staying power of the Serbian Orthodox faith (a branch of the Eastern Orthodox tradition), as well as a statement of national, religious, and ethnic pride. Construction began in 1935, was interrupted during WWII when the Germans used the spot to park tanks, and then was restarted in 1985. The church itself is complete; you can walk inside of it, and regular masses – which can accommodate up to 10,000 people — are being held. However, work on the mosaics intended to blanket the walls has yet to be started. Ironically, there’s no lack of support for them; donations have paid for the construction of the church and ample resources exist to fund the mosaics. The issue is whom to hire to do them. Apparently, the skill of traditional Byzantine mosaic design has been all but lost in Serbia, and the best artisans to perform the job are Russian. For a variety of political reasons, no one wants to hire the Russians – and even if they could start tomorrow and work every day, they would not be able to complete the project for at least ten years. Decoration is on hold indefinitely, and it is unlikely that the cathedral’s original planners will see it with a decorated interior.
Therefore, the church remains relatively plain inside, as the majority of its concrete walls are bare. There are a few icons mounted near the altar, but for the most part, the interior of the structure is plain and gray – and, I have to say, beautiful in its plainness. I loved the overwhelming colors and patterns of St. George’s – but I also loved the aesthetic silence of St. Sava’s. Someday it will join the ranks of the many other elaborately decorated Eastern Orthodox Churches in this part of the world. In the meantime, however, it stands stark in anticipation, encouraging the observer to enjoy the play of light on the walls in this grand spiritual construction.
I visited both of these churches on the same day, so the contrast between the “before and after” interiors was especially striking. That said, what has stuck with me more from these visits is the realization of the level of commitment that these churches’ founders and followers made to their construction. In both cases, the people who first hatched the visions for these monuments did not or will not live to see their completion. This has not deterred them from bringing their visions to life. The goal is not that they lay eyes on the mosaics in their final glory; the goal is to make sure that the mosaics come to life, regardless of who sees them and when.
The faith and long-term vision required to follow through on undertakings of this magnitude amazes and impresses me.
I wonder if I will ever feel this depth of devotion to a project?