25 May 2012

Serbian Painted Churches

In the Church of Saint Nicholas in Sremski Karlovci, we finally admitted it.  We were having fun looking at religious architecture.  Painted in dizzying patterns of yellow and blue, adorned with countless icons, lit by intricate stained glass windows, the interior was vibrant and spirited.
There are some types of cultural experiences that are inescapable in Europe – pork schnitzel, curtainless showers, restaurant touts and churches, to name a few.  We go into loads of cathedrals, temples and synagogues and usually they're pretty boring.  Or, they don't allow photos or we don't go in at all because the doors are locked.  We treat churches as an obligation usually, something to check off our daily list.  But in Serbia, we've actually become a little excited about them, and have been visiting many more than we usually do in a country.
The reason: Serbian churches are usually painted and beautiful.  
We stopped at Krušedol Monastery, outside of Igir, on a whim, thinking that the bright red gatehouse was the church itself.  Instead, there was only a pathway leading into a parklike space - silent except for songbirds and the trickle of a nearby stream.  There was no one around, the grounds were completely enclosed by a high wall.  Nestled into a lush, inconspicuous valley, just off a (mostly dirt) lane, the monastery seemed like a secret.  
The church itself was attended to by a few monks in robes and beards.  The door was open, nobody stopped us from going in.
The Krušedol monks were silent and welcoming, but we still felt nervous about approaching the iconostasis (which was breathtaking).  The walls here are enough to look at, though.  Built in the early 16th century, the monastery was painted in two stages - once in 1543-6 (when the main frescoes were done) and later in 1750-6, when some fire damage was repaired and a few new additions were made.
The paintings cover every inch of the interior, and the hues run from dusky to smokey blue.  Sunlight dripped in through a few high windows.  I shouldn't have worried about the photographs; just before we left, a young monk turned the lights on so that I could get a better picture.
In Serbia, painted walls aren't only the preserve of Orthodox churches. Walking into the Catholic cathedral of St. Gerard, in Vršac, is like entering a bizarre forest of color.  The pillars are vined with green and the canopy is an autumnal riot.  The light plays in interesting ways on the patterns, turning a narrow palette of green, yellow and ochre into rich and dark shades.  It must have taken someone years to complete.
It's rare to find a church in Europe that feels alive, other than on Sundays or saints days.  But in Vršac, the cathedral felt open and ready for visitors.  Townspeople wandered in and out, talking to one another.  We were treated to an organ performance by an older man who was playing for a group of schoolchildren - nobody minded us taking pictures, nobody cared that we were wandering around.  It was a wonderful, welcoming experience.
At St. George's cathedral, in Novi Sad, the atmosphere was more hushed, but still enjoyable.  On a hot, muggy day, the cool darkness of the cathedral was welcoming, the iconostasis was almost luridly decorated and the whole place was the epitome of high baroque grandeur - except that it was built at the end of the nineteenth century.  It's a style.  The Serbs obviously like their churches ornate and colorful.

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