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  • Materializing Authority: The Church of Saint Sava in Belgrade and Its Architectural Significance*
  • Ljubomir Milanović

When Sinan-Pasha burned the mortal remains of Saint Sava and scattered the ashes around, he was certainly aware of the power of mortal strength which is invariably feared and finally succumbed to by a physical one. What he failed to foresee was the surrender: he failed to see that out of each particle of Sava’s ashes a new avenger of Kosovo was going to grow, and that the site of Sava’s fire was to become one where the capital of an independent Serbian principality was to rise in pride as the centre of Christian Serbian enlightenment for which abundant seed had been planted by the Holy Sava Nemanjić. And look, now, our Holy Sava Nemanjić still has no monument of his own in our country! And only those who can revere their great men and national enlightenment prove deserving of having them.1

These words of Sreten Popović, Judge of the Court of Cassation, spoken in 1878 articulate one of the earliest calls for a national monument dedicated to the first Serbian saint and archbishop, Saint Sava Nemanjić. In his passionate speech, Popović established the framework for the project. It would have to be monumental in scale in order to reflect the greatness of the saint and was intended to serve as a symbol of Serbian national pride. Popović’s speech [End Page 63] called for the enlightenment of the nation at the dawn of the new, independent Serbia, which was internationally recognized at the Congress of Berlin the same year.2

This declaration begged a series of difficult questions: What kind of building could be both worthy of Saint Sava and materialize Serbian nationalist aspirations? Who would design it? What kind of authority should be embodied by this structure and what message should it send to future generations? These were but a few of the many questions centering on the proposed monument to Saint Sava in Belgrade that would become part of a century-long debate among scholars and ecclesiastical and state dignitaries. This paper will explore the monumental architecture and symbolism of the Church of Saint Sava as a manifestation of national and religious ideology (Figure 1).

In the 1943 manifesto “Nine Points on Monumentality,” Sigfried Giedion, Jose Luis Sert, and Fernand Léger asserted:

Monuments are the expression of man’s highest cultural needs. They have to satisfy the eternal demand of the people for the translation of their collective force into symbols. The most vital monuments are those which express the feeling and thinking of this collective force, the people.3

Though written almost 50 years after the idea of building a monumental church dedicated to Saint Sava in Belgrade was first proposed in 1895, the same kind of demands informed the development of this project.4 The church monument was envisioned as a sacred building, whose architectural form and interior decoration would represent the highest Serbian national aspiration and cultural achievements.

The design of any object of sacred architecture inherently involves the concept of authority.5 It is present in the interpretation of a building’s form. One often describes this type of building as having dignity, unity, conviction, or authority because of the skills of its designer and the quality of its composition, in one word, such a structure has a presence. Such formal and material authority readily lends itself to an interpretation of symbolic meanings related [End Page 64] to the building’s function and to the person, institution, city, or state for whom it was built. In the case of the Church of Saint Sava, the edifice established the link between architecture, national politics, and ecclesiastical leadership. This was accomplished through the mobilization of the authority of collective memory. For this young, independent state and its expatriate communities around the world, there was no better symbolic choice for a patron saint than Sava, and no better location for the monument than the top of Vračar’s plateau in Belgrade.

Saint Sava (1174–1236) was born as Serbian Prince Rastko Nemanjić and later became an Orthodox monk. He was the first archbishop of the...


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pp. 63-81
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