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Mediterranean Quarterly 12.4 (2001) 124-128

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Book Review

Serbian Icons from Bosnia-Herzegovina: Sixteenth to Eighteenth Century

Svetlana Rakic: Serbian Icons from Bosnia-Herzegovina: Sixteenth to Eighteenth Century. New York: A. Pankovich Publishers, 2000. 294 pages. ISBN 0-9672101-2-7. $125.00.

During the civil wars that attended the collapse of (communist) Yugoslavia, foreign journalists and diplomats new to the Balkans repeatedly voiced frustration--and anger--over encounters with Serbs who answered their first questions with a "lecture" on the historic tribulations of their nation. Whether highly placed officials, ordinary citizens, or soldiers, these Serbs would hark back to the Serbian defeat by the Ottomans in 1389 in Kosovo and the subjugation of their nation for centuries under the double yoke of Turkish and Hapsburg occupation. Apparently no other Balkan people bothered these visitors with unsolicited history lessons. What probably did not come through to the new foreigners--and occupiers--is that the Serbs' vivid awareness of their history played a central role in preventing the fall of their nation into oblivion. The fountainhead of their identity was the Serbian Orthodox Church, their guardian through the centuries of foreign oppression.

In her unusual book, Serbian Icons from Bosnia-Herzegovina: Sixteenth to Eighteenth Century, Svetlana Rakic instructs us that, contrary to the Western fashion of looking to the future, the national trait of the Serbs, and of their church, was to look back. "Throughout the long period of foreign occupation," she writes, "the Serbian church survived largely due to the medieval heritage it fostered." Art, she adds, "continued for three centuries" to represent "part of the spiritual expression of Serb nationhood."

Cultivation of the past was essential, she explains, because the Serbs were not only under pressure to submit to the victorious Turks but also faced rivalry from the Greek Orthodox patriarchate in Constantinople and from the Roman Catholic Church, which [End Page 124] viewed the Serbian Orthodox Church as an enfeebled rival that could be vanquished. Thus Serbian sacral art, central to nurturing the Serbs' national identity, "was hostile to any foreign, especially Western, major influences or innovations."

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, "painters lived and worked in an environment that did not want anything to do with the artistic achievements of Western Europe." Rakic notes, however, that Serbian painters made an exception to this xenophobia for artists from Crete, whose stylistic innovations they encountered and adopted in the Orthodox religious community of Mount Athos in northern Greece. Much later they make similar exceptions for Russian and Ukrainian artists.

Accompanying the Turkish conquest of the Serbs, completed in 1459 with the fall of Smederevo (six years after the fall of Constantinople), was the transfer of Serbs to Bosnia. This had the effect of turning Bosnia, vanquished in 1463, into a heartland of Serbian culture, with Sarajevo home of a large Serbian community and serving as an episcopal center.

Post-Byzantine Serbian art was framed by two events, Rakic writes--the restoration by the Ottomans of the patriarchate of Pec in 1557, wresting it from a century of Greek dominance, and the great migration of Serbs from Kosovo to the Vojvodina region beginning in 1690. The first kept Byzantine traditions alive for another century and a half, while the second divided the Serbs between the empire of the Austrians and the empire of the Turks.

The restoration of the patriarchate of Pec by the Turks, making the church responsible for keeping the Serbs peaceful, was due in part to the influence of a Bosnia-born grand vizier, Mehmed-Pasha Sokolovic. In the sixty years following the restoration, Serbian landowners, clan leaders, merchants, artisans, and the church itself paid for the repainting of frescoes in fifty-eight churches and monasteries and for the building of new churches. The patriarchate, the author writes, "demanded of its painters complete fidelity to orthodoxy and the respect for the artistic principles of the old masters," with the aim of recalling "the past glory of the Serbian medieval kingdom." Later, local artists whose works "range from utterly simplified almost caricatured icons" to fairly skillful...


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