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Mediterranean Quarterly 17.3 (2006) 43-54

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"Migrating Icons":

Politics and Serbian Cultural Heritage in Bosnia-Herzegovina before and after 1992

Prior to the 1992 war, Serbian churches in Bosnia-Herzegovina housed more than two thousand icons dating from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. They were painted in a variety of styles within the framework of post-Byzantine and Orthodox Baroque art. Most of them were done by Serbian and Greek iconographers, although a significant number of Russian, Bulgarian, and Romanian icons also were to be found in the Bosnian collections. The richest collection (642 icons) was 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. Despite all the efforts to preserve the multicultural character of the four cities—Sarajevo, Tuzla, Livno, and Mostar—the recent war changed their ethnic composition, probably forever. Bosnia-Herzegovina now consists of the Republic of Srpska and the Bosniak-Croat Federation. 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 demographic changes in the cities of Sarajevo, Tuzla, Livno, and Mostar show that most of the Serbs have moved out of these cities. The question remains: Should they take their icons with them?

I am going to focus on the problem of cultural (and spiritual) heritage that [End Page 43] is left behind due to large displacements of population and demographic changes brought about by political and ideological transformations of the country. I am not going to suggest solutions; I will only describe the problems involved and look at possible future outcomes. To do this, I first need to outline a brief history of icon collecting in Serbian churches in Bosnia—how the collections were formed and why; in what circumstances they were formed; who the patrons were; and, finally, how those icons are related to Serbian national identity, history, and current ideology.

With the exception of the Tuzla collection that was on display in the Episcopal Palace before the war, icon collections were spontaneously formed over several hundred years, with clergy and church authorities, as well as local parishioners and outside visitors, making gifts and donations to Serbian churches in those localities. 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 of some artistic value from smaller parish churches under his jurisdiction, bring them to his residency, organize the necessary conservation work, and, finally, put them on permanent display in a newly built museum inside the Episcopal Palace. All of this took place in 1980s—the decade of the demise of communism. The palace itself is a historical neoclassical building finished in 1905, although Tuzla had been a bishopric center from earlier, Turkish times. I was in charge of the restoration of the icon collection and the design of the museum layout because 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 1990 in the presence of high officials from the church and local government. It did not last long; two years later, the entire museum was moved to a Serbian-held territory in northeast Bosnia. Having in mind the events in Croatia, the synod of the Serbian church suggested at the end of 1991 that all bishoprics from Bosnia-Herzegovina evacuate church treasuries to safer locations. In the aftermath of this warning, fifty-six Serbian churches were destroyed on the territory of the Zvornik-Tuzla Eparchy by Croatian and Muslim forces. The other three icon collections (Sarajevo, Mostar, and Livno) were also moved at the beginning of the war to other locations. But let's first see how they were originally formed.

All the icons preserved in Serbian churches in Bosnia date from the times when this territory was under Ottoman and Habsburg rule. Those icons testify [End...


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