"In My Crosshair"
The frescoes of Vozdovac Church are threatened by leaking roof but the Church does not seem to care much
At first reading the news seems a bit dull: the roof of the Vozdovac parochial church is leaking and the water is now endangering its frescoes. The roof was made long ago from tin, a material which is not meant to last this long. The parish priest says that the roof should be mended, preferably in more durable copper. So what, you might ask. The Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC) has long ago ceased to live in apostolic poverty and can allow itself to repair a roof. Right in the church courtyard the old parish home has recently undergone a €100,000 renewal and expansion, so the money should be there. Even if these funds are not available at the present, the parishioners – some 2,000 families – should be able to gather the needed sum before long.
But there is a catch. The Church as well as many of its believers don’t like the way their church looks. To be exact, they do not like its frescoes.
The current Vozdovac church was built back in 1926 but its interior remained unpainted until late 1970s. In communist times having to do anything with the Church meant ostracizing yourself from the state. Not many people were ready to do so, not even the painters. One of those who did not subdue to this rule was Milić Stanković, better known by his pompous artistic name Milić od Macve (Milić of Mačva, his native region). Much alike his name, he built his reputation by openly provoking the authorities by keeping the national themes in his paintings and by various little nationalist outbursts. Most of his pictures contained characters and scenes from Serbian history, often portrayed as tragic martyrs. Yet he was an academically educated painter and his eccentric style – of which the most recognizable recurring motif are the red skies and flying logs – was much appreciated and sought on the “bourgeois” art market of Belgrade and beyond. When in late 1970s Milić offered to SOC to fresco paint its church in Vozdovac, the services of such a good painter were gladly accepted. The patriarch gave his blessing and the works started.
However, Milić – no matter how good Christian – did not intend even for a second to give up on his unconventional style and to follow the canonical iconography of Orthodox Church that has changed little over the centuries. When the scaffolds were removed a small scandal erupted as many of the parishioners did not appreciate his free interpretation of traditional motifs. There was nothing blasphemous about the paintings, they were just original. It was exactly this unorthodoxy that in time won Milić’s frescoes (an unofficial) recognition as one of the most interesting works of church art of this period and many people were visiting this church just to see them.
In time things changed and from the early 1990s Serbian Orthodox Church regained its influence in the Serbian society. Parallel to this, the Church also became more conservative demanding that all paintings done in its churches and monasteries should be done in a traditional manner. The view of the works of art which did not fit into this model was greatly unfavorable no matter how these were seen by the rest of society. SOC’s view is that churches and monasteries are first of all its property and places of worship, and only then (protected) monuments of culture and artworks.
Having this in mind it is easy to explain the mysteriously ambivalent attitude of the parish priest and his bishop to the decay of the paintings in the Vozdovac church. As these unusual frescoes are not under any kind of protection they remain at the mercy of the Church. The inconvenience of the leaking roof will probably be mended in due time, but the bad state of Milić of Mačva’s unique work of art may remain a constant threat to its sheer existence.
Vladimir Dulovic was born and raised in Belgrade, where he studied history and kafanas extensively. Today he still studies kafanas but worldwide and in his spare time writes and edits travel guides for Komshe publishing house. He enjoys sharing his controversial views on his livinginbelgrade.com blog.
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