SpiritualityArtsLandPeopleHistoryProject Rastko - Banja Luka (e-library of culture and tradition of Bosnian Krajina)

Svetlana Rakić
Assistant Professor of Fine Arts at Franklin College

Icons of Bosnia-Herzegovina
(16th-19th century)


Belgrade 1998, Institute for the Protection of Cultural Monuments of the Republic of Serbia, Belgrade, Special editions 21,

Sarajevo Church of the Holy Archangels (Old Orthodox Church) 16th century

The Deesis with the donor. Sarajevo Church of the Holy Archangels (Old Orthodox Church), tempera on wood, 29x19 cm, Neophytos the Monk, late 16th-early 17th centuries


Before the outburst of hostilities in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1992, more than two thousand icons were housed in Serbian churches, from five different dioceses.[1] With only one exception, all of the icons date from the time of Ottoman rule, i.e. from the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries, and display a variety of origins and styles within the general framework of post-Byzantine art. Most of them were done by Serbian and Greek icon-painters, although a significant number of Russian, Bulgarian and Romanian icons are also included in the Bosnian collections. With very few exceptions, none of these has ever been reproduced for publication.

The richest collection by far (642 icons) was housed in the Church of the Holy Archangels (the Old Serbian Orthodox Church) in Sarajevo (fig. I). The treasuries of the Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin (the Old Orthodox Church) in Mostar (fig. II), of the Episcopal Palace in Tuzla (fig. III), and of the Serbian church in Livno also stored large collections of icons. The monasteries of Lomnica (fig. IX), Žitomislić (fig. XI), Zavala (XIII), and Gomionica (fig. XXI) had valuable specimens of post-Byzantine icon-painting too. Many icons from Bosnia have been destroyed or damaged in the recent war, some of them were moved to other Serbian churches in safer places, while a few have remained at their original locations.

The Oldest Icon

The only extant example of icon painting in Bosnia dating from pre-Turkish times is the processional icon of The Virgin Peribleptos (figs. IV-V). The image of the Virgin and Child (fig. IV) is painted on one side, and of St. John the Baptist on the other. Popularly known as the Čajniče Beauty and deemed miraculous, the icon comes from the Church of the Dormition in Čajniče, a traditional place of pilgrimage. It is the work of a Byzantine artist who was probably serving at the court of the Serbian king Stefan Dečanski in the first half of the fourteenth century.

At some later point, possibly in the sixteenth century, parts of the icon were repainted. The original layer of paint has been preserved on the faces, but the retouched surfaces around them cannot be precisely dated until the coat of wax, spread over both sides of the icon, is removed. The Child holds in his hands a scroll with an inscription in Serbian, and not in the original Greek. On the opposite side, the scroll held by St. John is written in Greek.

Sava Kosanović, a teacher from Sarajevo, noted in 1870 that the icon of the Čajniče Virgin was brought to Bosnia from Serbia after the monastery of Banja near Priboj had been abandoned. If this is true, then there is a strong possibility that the icon was painted around 1329-1330, while Stefan Dečanski was building his memorial church of St. Nicholas of Dabar in Banja. Even before the royal memorial was erected, Banja had been an episcopal center, and it remained the seat of Dabar's bishops long afterwards. It is possible that the king himself commissioned the icon while the church in Banja was being constructed.

Bilateral icons (painted on both sides) were carried during processions as early as the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. These icons were particularly respected and sometimes deemed miraculous, just like the Čajniče icon. For this reason they received more attention from donors and other believers and were exhibited in churches in prominent places, either on iconostases or on supporting columns, if such existed. Bilateral processional icons are rarely found among works of Byzantine art.

Most of them have been preserved in Ohrid, Macedonia. Among a number of early fourteenth-century icons that once belonged to the Church of The Virgin Peribleptos in Ohrid (today the Church of St. Clement) is the icon of the Virgin Peribleptos, now in the National Museum in Ohrid, which features the same characteristics as the contemporary Čajniče Virgin. Both icons are modeled after a well-known prototype, the reputedly miraculous icon from the monastery of the Virgin Peribleptos in Constantinople.

Characteristic features of the last great period of Byzantine art, the Paleologan Renaissance, present in both Ohrid and Čajniče icons, are seen in the classical shape of the Virgin's face, the very restricted range of colors, stressed sentimentality, and specific maternal emotions towards the Child. As early as the eleventh century, "the crying Virgin" and "the passionate Virgin" were mentioned in church poetry. The endless sorrow of the Virgin's face and the pointedly worried face of Christ in the Čajniče icon, reveal their dramatic inner tension by means of deep shadows and slanting eyebrows, which stress the eternal grief in the Virgin's eyes.

A small iconographic idiosyncrasy of the Čajniče Virgin - the fact that she holds the Child on her right arm, and not on her left as usual - connects this motif with the legend of the icon painted by St. Luke while the Virgin herself was posing for him. Among wooden icons, this iconographic type first occurred in the Virgin from the Serbian monastery of Hilandar on Mount Athos (thirteenth century), in the Virgin Episkepsis from the Church of the Holy Healers Cosmas and Damian in Ohrid (the second half of the fourteenth century), and in the Čajniče icon.

How much the practical function of an icon influenced its subject matter and the manner of its artistic execution is particularly important question when processional icons are concerned. The image of St. John the Baptist is related to the sorrowful expression on the Virgin's face on the reverse side. The scroll written in Greek which the Baptist holds in his hands reads as follows: "Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Matthew 4: 17). The words define the Baptist as a prophet who announces Christ's incarnation. The Virgin's final realization of the necessity of Christ's sufferings in order to attain salvation, as well as a comprehensive utterance of the secret of sacrifice and salvation, is a part of the theological idea of the Čajniče icon. An early appearance of the same passage accompanying representations of St. John the Baptist in the same manner as presented in the Čajniče icon, can be found in the monasteries of Nerezi (twelfth century), Žiča (thirteenth century) and Gračanica (fourteenth century).

The Čajniče icon was furnished with its cover of gilded silver in 1868 (fig. V). It took the Sarajevo goldsmith, Risto Andrić, three years to produce such an outstanding example of metal work in the nineteenth-century Bosnia.

Serbian Icons

All Serbian icons preserved in Bosnia date from the sixteenth century onwards. They reveal some interesting changes in iconography that occurred in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and the rare but genuine penetration of elements typical of contemporary Cretan painting. At the same time, other examples from the Bosnian collections illustrate the persistence of Byzantine traditions in Serbian post-Byzantine art.

Ever since it obtained its independent status in 1219, the Serbian Orthodox Church has been the major source of national awareness for the Serbs. This became even more apparent after 1557, when the Ottomans permitted the restoration of the Serbian Patriarchate at Peć. Demanding of their painters complete Fidelity to Orthodoxy and the artistic principles of the old masters, Serbian bishops stressed the importance of tradition and the cult of local saints, thus recalling the past glory of the Serbian medieval kingdom.

However, in a few icons from Bosnia painted by the most talented and educated Serbian painters from the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries, who perfectly embodied the ideas of the Patriarchate of Peć, we can observe some minor but interesting changes that occurred in Serbian art of that period. Some of them are directly related to problems of national identity. During the late Middle Ages, Byzantium was an ideal which the Serbian court and church tried to imitate. After the loss of national independence, this consciously appropriated foreign cultural model became the only relevant element of historical and religious legitimacy for the Serbs. Byzantine art from Serbian medieval monasteries in the Turkish period became the only expression of Serbian national and spiritual identity, losing its Byzantine connotations in the process.

Reflecting the new historical circumstances and the consequent spiritual needs of the Serbs, the medieval iconography of Serbian rulers acquired some new elements, with the stress shifting from their sainthood to their martyrdom. A clear example of this change is seen in representations of the Serbian Prince Lazar, who was killed in the battle of Kosovo in 1389. While during his lifetime he was celebrated in art as a ruler and a donor of churches,[2] in the seventeenth century he was primarily a martyr saint, for the Church now saw him as a man who had died while leading his Christian army against the infidel Turks. This change in iconography is apparent in an early seventeenth-century icon from the Old Church in Sarajevo. The icon, representing the Apostle Paul and Prince Lazar (fig. 37), is a work by a Serbian artist by the name of Radul. The upper part of the icon, which includes the names of the saints, is damaged, and only the last three letters of Lazar's name have remained. While the apostle Paul is represented with his traditional iconographical features, the depiction of Prince Lazar has some interesting details. Lazar is dressed in the royal garb, divitision, richly decorated with a golden foliage ornament, and he is wearing a golden rounded crown on his head. Lazar's martyrdom is emphasized by a thin white cross which he holds in his hands. The cult of Prince Lazar developed in Serbian frescoes and icons during the time of Radul's life, around the fourth decade of the seventeenth century. This is when the new image of Prince Lazar occurred - he was envisioned as a martyr ruler and a leader of the Serbs in the battle of Kosovo. This change in iconography, which reflected the specific historical circumstances and spiritual needs of the Serbs, who at that time had been living under the Turkish occupation for more than two centuries, would further develop and spread in the eighteenth century.

The same trends can be observed in the contemporary products of peasant culture as well. In Serbian epic poetry the position of Prince Lazar before the fatal battle and his preference for the "heavenly" kingdom (seen in his choice to die rather than live under the Turks), are compared to that of Jesus Christ during the Last Supper. Serbian oral epics illustrate how medieval grandeur was envisioned and preserved in the shared consciousness of peasants and how important it was in the process of their self-definition. Since the Serbian aristocracy was completely destroyed in the fifteenth century, the peasantry became the major social group to carry on national awareness. This fact is reflected in the penetration of some elements of "lower" culture into icon painting. A good example of those rare but significant modifications of common iconography is the icon of St. George (fig. 6) from Čajniče, dating from 1574. In one of the scenes from the saint's life, which presents the destruction of pagan idols, St. George is shown pulling the Emperor Diocletian by the beard and hitting him on the head. In the mind of a Serbian peasant, this way of settling accounts obviously was more meaningful than throwing away sculptures of pagan gods, which was the traditional way of representing this scene.

Some examples of Serbian icons from Bosnia illustrate the random penetration of Cretan elements into contemporary Serbian icon painting. An example of this process is seen in a Serbian icon from the Old Church in Sarajevo representing Christ as the King of Kings and the Great Archpriest (fig. 18). The icon was done in the early seventeenth century, probably by one of the followers of Georgije Mitrofanović, if not by the famous master himself. There are considerable similarities in style between this obscure icon and the one of the Holy Trinity (fig. 17) from Foča, signed by Georgije Mitrofanović and dated around 1616. On both icons Christ's face is modeled with broad dark brown shades which leave only narrow rosy-ochre lighted parts under the eyes. The drawing of the facial features is brown except for the eyes and eyebrows, which are black. Both upper and lower lip of the small mouth are delineated with white light accents. The prominent cheekbones, short white comma-like striations under the eyes, the small, barely visible ears, the soft rendering of the thin beard and mustache, as well as the very thin and elongated fingers of Christ in both icons, closely connect the Sarajevo icon with the known work of Georgije Mitrofanović. Elements of Cretan painting are prominent in both icons. In the Sarajevo icon, they are seen in Christ's marble throne with decorative vases on top of it, a detail which clearly comes from Venetian painting. In the icon from Foča, the dense golden striation of the draperies, one of the hallmarks of the Cretan school, differentiates Mitrofanović from his contemporaries. While most Serbian artists from the Turkish period looked back to Byzantine art preserved in Serbian medieval monasteries, Mitrofanović, a monk from Hilandar, incorporated in his work elements of the sixteenth century Greek painting, with which he became familiar while living on Mount Athos.

Despite the minor changes in iconography and the random penetration of Cretan elements, Serbian art during the Turkish period was hostile to any major innovations or foreign influences, especially Western. Icons done after 1557 represented the spiritual expression of people who endeavored, by maintaining their cultural traditions, to preserve their faith and the awareness of their ethnic roots.

A good example of this is an icon from the Old Church in Sarajevo done by Andrija Raičević, a prominent early seventeenth-century Serbian painter, representing St. Nicholas (fig. 25). The icon bears no trace of Western art. St. Nicholas is presented in the traditional way, as seen in Byzantine art from the twelfth century on: a very high forehead with stylized wrinkles, framed by a narrow wreath of white hair that continues along the sunken cheeks and ends in a rounded beard. The icon representing the Deesis composition with the enthroned Christ flanked by the Virgin and the Baptist (fig. 28) is similar; done by Jovan, it rejects the soft modeling and humanized facial expressions of the Western Renaissance and depicts an abstract type of saint, belonging to the classical tradition of Byzantine art.

The majority of icons preserved in Bosnia before the civil war was done by Serbian monk artists who traveled through all the lands of the former Serbian kingdom and worked for churches and monasteries. Specimens of Serbian icon painting from Bosnia illustrate almost all the major stylistic and iconographic features of Serbian art from the time of Ottoman rule. Although they are mostly works of anonymous icon painters, sometimes they are signed by some of the best Serbian masters of the period. The earliest preserved signature dates from 1568 and is found on the icon of the Virgin Hodegetria (fig. 5) from the collection of the Art Gallery of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo. Signed and dated by Tudor Vukovic from Maine near Budva, it is the only known work by this iconographer, who probably came from Dubrovnik or Kotor.

Much more is known about the Peć monk Longin, the most talented and educated of the painters who worked in Serbia after the restoration of the Patriarchate at Peć in 1557. He was a poet and a prolific artist who left many signed icons and frescoes, literary compositions, and painted textiles for church use. All of his works are dated between 1563 and 1597. Longin enjoyed a fine reputation and received commissions from the heads of the greatest monasteries. His most famous works were done for the monasteries of Dečani and Piva, the churches of Velika Hoča (Kosovo) and St. Nicholas at Bijelo Polje (Montenegro), and in central Bosnia, where he painted and signed frescoes and icons for the monastery of Lomnica (figs. 7-16). Inspired by the best traditions of Byzantine fourteenth century painting, Longin fused them with the present. His skills recalled those of medieval masters, while his bright colors in complementary and contrasting juxtapositions or the delicate gradations of tone show him as an exceptionally original artist. Longin's work strongly influenced a number of Serbian painters from later generations.

Many more signed works were produced in the seventeenth century. The most famous Serbian painters of this period, such as Georgije Mitrofanović, Jovan, Andrija Raičević and Radul, came from Serbia to work for Orthodox churches in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The celebrated Hilandar monk Georgije Mitrofanović, an accomplished artist who had been trained on Mount Athos and had come to work for churches and monasteries in Serbia in the first quarter of the seventeenth century, did all the frescoes for the monasteries of Dobrićevo and Zavala (fig. XIII) in Herzegovina. He also painted icons for the monastery of Žitomislić (fig. XI - XII), and the icon of the Holy Trinity at Foča (fig. 17). The work attributed to Jovan (fig. 26-28) is sometimes connected with a painter who signed his name in cryptic writing, usually read as "Kozma". The somewhat mysterious Jovan-Kozma is credited with many icons dating between 1605 and 1632, found in the famous Serbian monasteries of Morača, Hilandar, Dečani, Piva, and many other churches. Jovan rejected all the influences of the contemporary Cretan school, apparent in Georgije Mitrofanović's work, and showed his immense respect for Longin as a teacher. The same is true of Andrija Raičević and Radul. Andrija Raičević (figs. 19-25) was born in the village of Toci near Pljevlja and worked in old Herzegovina from 1638 to 1673, undertaking commissions for the Patriarch of Peć and other high church dignitaries. One of the last painters who remained faithful to the bounds of Serbian medieval tradition was Radul (figs. 30-41). He also worked for the Patriarch of Peć, the spiritual center of the Serbs from Bosnia, where in the Monastery of the Holy Apostles monks were trained in painting and woodcarving. It was probably Patriarch Maximus who suggested that Radul should be trusted with the execution of the richly carved and gilded iconostasis for the Old Serbian Orthodox Church in Sarajevo in 1674 (fig. XIV), which replaced the one burned in 1656. His work can be traced for some twenty years, beginning in 1665, and most of it is preserved in Serbian churches in Montenegro.

All of those seventeenth-century Serbian painters lived and worked in an environment that did not want anything to do with the artistic achievements of western Europe. Isolated in their faith and their rejection of everything that did not spring directly from the pure tradition of medieval Serbia, these talented artists found their inspiration in the distant past of their country's art.

The great upheavals and terrors of the Austro-Turkish wars of the seventeenth century and the alliance of the Serbs with Austria ended the revival of Serbian medieval art and led to the vast national migration of 1690. From the southern regions of Kosovo and Metohija, ordinary people, together with their Patriarch, clergy, and monks, moved north across the Sava and Danube rivers into a new homeland. This migration meant a bitter parting from their old hearths and sanctuaries, their fields, and the graves of their forefathers. The inevitable encounter with the laws, politics, and religion of Austria, whose subjects they now became, brought the Serbian populace to a spiritual crossroads. Historical events following the great migration of 1690 and the subsequent social changes among the Serbs who lived in the new environment of the Austro-Hungarian lands, inevitably led to the abandonment of the medieval Byzantine tradition and its replacement by new Baroque elements in sacral art.

In the first half of the eighteenth century icon painters from Srem, a region north of the Sava river, created Serbian early Baroque art. With prominent local characteristics which made it into a national style of painting, it differed from what was going on in contemporary Orthodox art in other territories, like Greece and Russia. A new decorative system was created in Serbian icon painting that flourished on the territories under the jurisdiction of the Archbishop of Karlovci in Srem, to which the seat of the Patriarch was transferred from Peć. This new trend basically lasted between 1690 and 1750.

Two clearly different styles, the Byzantine before the migration of 1690 and the Baroque a half a century after it, coalesced in the works of painters from Srem (figs. 60-70). This created a unique hybrid style in Serbian icon painting during the period of transition in the last decade of the seventeenth and the first half of the eighteenth centuries, the so-called zographic style. Most icon painters from this period were still monks. Many icons that illustrate the birth and the development of this transitional style have been preserved in Bosnia. Since this region was still under the Turkish occupation, the local clergy were much more conservative. Therefore the zographic style lasted somewhat longer in Serbian churches in Bosnia than in the Austro-Hungarian lands. Most of the painters from Srem did not sign their icons, but on some icons from Bosnia we can recognize the hand of the same unknown artist that worked for the churches in Srem. One such example is the "Mohovo painter" (figs. 62-63). The name of Nikola on a Deesis icon (fig. 65) is a rare example of a signed work. A few icons from Bosnia (figs. 67-70) can be attributed to Stanoje Popović, a priest from Martinci, whose signed works are found in churches in Serbia. He was among the best early Baroque painters from Srem right before the zographic style - to which he belonged - came to an end.

Beginning with the mid-eighteenth century, the first educated lay painters familiar with Western art began to emerge. Their role was especially important because they directed Serbian church art toward Western ideals. These artists finally abandoned old Byzantine traditions, the traces of which were slight but still apparent in the transitional style. Therefore, in the eighteenth century we observe two different patterns in the development of icon painting among Serbian painters. Namely, the autochthonous, zographic style was followed in the second half of the century by a style influenced by Baroque elements imported from Russia or, more precisely, the Ukraine. The Archbishop of Sremski Karlovci decided that Russian Baroque icon painting should become the standard in the Serbian Church as well. With the appearance of educated lay Baroque painters, zographic icon painting came to an end as Serbian art in Pannonia[3] was decisively incorporated into the Western trends of the period. This change is seen in a number of icons from Serbian churches in Bosnia, such as the works of Teodor Stefanović Valjevac (fig. 83), Janko Halkozović (fig. 84), Dimitrije Bačević (fig. 85), Simeon Lazović and his son Aleksije (figs. 87-88), Risto Nikolić (fig. 90), and others.

Serbian icons that were preserved in Bosnia before the current war are an important part of the art which was fostered by Balkan Orthodoxy after its states were conquered by the Ottoman Empire. They testify to the religious, spiritual, and artistic life of the Balkans, which found a vigorous expression among the Serbs throughout the long period of foreign rule, beginning in the fifteenth century and lasting until the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913.

Icons by Foreign Artists

Cretan icons represent the second largest group of sacral paintings found in Serbian churches in Bosnia. They were imported to Bosnia and Herzegovina throughout the whole creative period of the Cretan School, from the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries. In fact, considering all other parts of former Yugoslavia, the greatest number of Cretan icons is to be found in Dalmatia and Bosnia. This can be explained by strong trade and cultural connections between Crete and Venice, thanks to which many merchant ships stopped at different Dalmatian ports. At the same time, important trade roads from Bosnia led over Herzegovina to Dalmatia. During the Turkish occupation of Bosnia, many rich Serbian merchant families donated Cretan icons to their churches. This was especially the case in larger centers such as Sarajevo and Mostar, where the largest number of Cretan icons was in fact to be found.

Reproductions of Cretan icons from Greek, Italian and Russian collections have been extensively published in the last twenty years. However, with a few exceptions, the hundreds of Cretan icons that were preserved in Serbian churches in Bosnia before the current war, have not been studied so far.

After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the island of Crete, which had been under Venetian occupation since 1204, became the most important artistic center in the Greek world. Many scholars and artists who had fled from Turkish occupied territories to Crete even before the fall of Constantinople, contributed to this blossoming. The development of a style which is a direct descendant of the more idealizing and classicizing tendency of Constantinopolitan painting can be traced from the beginning of the fifteenth century. Cretan painters turned almost exclusively to the production of portable icons. They created an independent "Post-Byzantine" school which is the only one of the Orthodox artistic schools that had a legitimate claim to the title during the period from the fifteenth to the mid-eighteenth century. They received many commissions from foreign traders, mainly Venetians, from Catholic bishops in the Greek territories occupied by Venice, from Orthodox monasteries and churches, as well as from Greek and Venetian nobles and other citizens of the Venetian Republic. The development of art on Crete was directly dependent on the development of Cretan towns as important commercial and shipping centers.

Works of the most important Cretan painters who laid the foundations of icon painting on Crete, such as Andreas Ritzos and his son Nikolaos, from the fifteenth century, have been preserved in Ston (Dalmatia), Mostar, and Sarajevo. Cretan fifteenth century painters created icon prototypes based squarely on the Paleologan and earlier Byzantine traditions. The Deesis icon from Sarajevo, a work of Nikolaos Ritzos (fig. 91), is valuable evidence of the crystallization of certain iconographic types and stylistic principles of the Cretan school at the end of the fifteenth century. This characteristic type of a Deesis composition, derived from the art of the Paleologans and introduced into Cretan painting by Ritzos and others, was followed in the next century by many icon painters on Crete. Two Deesis icons from the sixteenth century who specifically followed Nikolaos Ritzos' fifteenth-century model are kept in the Princeton Art Museum and the Athens Museum.

Representations of St. John the Baptist with large wings, as seen on the Sarajevo icon (fig. 110), were very popular in Cretan painting from the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries, as well in the whole post-Byzantine art of Greece, Russia, and other parts of the East Christian world, with variations showing only in details. Giving the messenger of the Messiah the appearance of an angel, the iconographers followed the Prophet Malachi, who referred to the Forerunner as an angel announcing and preparing the way of the Lord on the earth. This iconographic type appeared in Serbia in a fresco as early as the thirteenth century, but icons of the Forerunner with wings gained particular popularity on Crete. The ascetic, exotic, exceptionally tall figure with a certain elegance of posture and gesture, placed in the long and narrow composition, is considered to be a more personal contribution of one of the best Cretan painters, Michael Damaskinos, and was accepted by his contemporaries and followers. The icon from Sarajevo is remarkable both for its simple color harmony of deep olive-green, blue, and blue-gray, and for the precision of the drawing. Elegant and graceful lines preserve the stylistic tradition of the fifteenth century. The large, chestnut colored wings of the Baptist are covered with a dense fine golden striation. His face is delicately modeled with white highlights, and his features and wrinkles are strongly outlined to give him a more impressive character. Due to these characteristics the icon can be dated to the second half of the sixteenth century and attributed to someone in the school of Damascinos.

The "Noli Me Tangere" theme, representing the appearance of Christ to Mary Magdalene after he had been crucified (fig. III), was also among the most popular subjects of the Cretan school of painting. This composition, that retained the perfection and poetic character of Paleologan art, was repeated many times during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. On the icon from Sarajevo, the signature of the painter, Ioannes Siropulos, is written in red capital letters on the gold background, behind the Magdalene's back.

However, the most popular subject recreated after the common models in Cretan workshops was the representation of the Virgin, in the types of Hodegetria. the Virgin of the Passion, or the Glykophilousa. An order for nine hundred Virgin icons that Cretan painters received from Venice in 1499 testifies to the popularity of this particular theme. The iconographic types of the Virgin and Child, found in Serbian churches in Bosnia, all belong to the types that were most popular in Cretan painting.

An icon from Tuzla (fig. 105) shows the oldest way of representing the Virgin with Child in Byzantine art in general - the Virgin Hodegetria, meaning the "Guiding Virgin" or "the Pointer of the Way". The earliest depiction of the Hodegetria type that has come down to us is a miniature of the Rabula Gospels from 586, which is based on a lost earlier Greek source. This popular type reveals the traditional Byzantine idea of Christ being almost self-contained and more spiritually than physically connected with the Virgin. Instead of the complete frontality of the older more hieratic type, on the icon from Tuzla the Child is turned in a three-quarter profile towards the Virgin, while she inclines her head towards him. This shift of postures and directions introduces a note of humanity, sorrow, and an implied premonition. These motherly qualities are somewhat different from the triumphant and superhuman impression made by the traditional Hodegetria. Beginning in the twelfth and especially in the course of the thirteenth century, there developed a representation of a closer and more tender relationship between the Mother and the Child, which hints at the Glykophilousa type (the Virgin of Tenderness).

This icon from Tuzla has all the hallmarks of a Cretan late fifteenth - early sixteenth century masterpiece with strong roots in earlier Paleologan art. The modeling of the face with elements of a Western sensitivity, seen in the sad and serious gaze of the Virgin, her well-drawn brows, broad cheeks, and the care shown in the shaping of her hands with their long fingers, connect this icon with the art of Andreas Ritzos and his immediate followers. A delicate floral pattern stippled on the haloes is characteristic of a group of similar fifteenth-century Cretan icons. Very significant is the Paleologan type of young Christ with large forehead, short nose with rounded top, and chubby hands.

The Virgin of the Passion type became one of the most popular subjects of Cretan painting in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when the icon with this subject from Sarajevo (fig. 124) was probably made. The Child is grasping his mother's arm with both hands and turning his head up towards an archangel holding the Cross in his veiled hands. Another archangel holds the pot with vinegar, lance and reed with sponge. All the movements and the gestures speak of Christ's fear and agitation.

This type of the Virgin holding the Child alarmed by the display of the symbols of the Passion had been known in Byzantine painting since the twelfth century at least. In the fifteenth century and afterwards this theme is seen far more frequently; since its best examples bear the signature of Andreas Ritzos, the invention of the type has been attributed to him. The icon from Sarajevo closely follows the presumed Ritzos prototype. On his famous Virgin of the Passion icons, Andreas Ritzos inscribed a Latin text of a verse on the right side and an epithet for the Virgin on the left. These inscriptions were later copied by Cretan painters but they refused to use Latin script. Instead, they wrote the same text in Greek letters, which is also the case on the Sarajevo icon. On the left side we read AMOLYNTOS-meaning the pure or sinless Virgin. This inscription might be connected with the name of the monastery which was built in Constantinople in 1401 by the Empress Irene Paleologus. The verse on the right refers to the Archangel Gabriel, who earlier announced to the Virgin that she was pregnant and is now showing her the symbols of her Son's Passion, while Christ, now having a mortal body, fears his destiny as he looks at the signs of his torture. The gold background on the Sarajevo icon was crudely overpainted later, but all the inscriptions were left in their original state.

While the Virgin Hodegetria points to the Child who symbolizes the way to be taken by the faithful (representing therefore a Christological doctrine), and the Passion type shows a prefiguration of Christ's Passion, the Glykophilousa type, in all its variants, stresses Mary's maternal side. On the icon from Tuzla (fig. 118) the Child puts his cheek upon his mother's and grasps her hand. In this representation of the Mother and Child shown cheek to cheek (an element that determines the Glykophilousa type), Byzantine art achieved a more human relationship between them than in any other type. The meaning of the icon is centered upon the Virgin's love and grief. This subject became very important for Cretan painters who identified the Virgin's grief with their own in the historically difficult times of slavery under the Turks.

The Virgin had been represented as Glykophilousa even before the iconoclastic period, but in the Comnenian and Paleologan periods the Constantinopolitan image of the Virgin of Tenderness was highly esteemed. This type of Glykophilousa is directly associated with the Virgin of the Passion type as established by the Ritzos workshop Christ's pose and the position of his hands and feet are the same. The most famous examples of the Glykophilousa that served as prototypes for numerous Cretan Virgins, as well as for the ones from Bosnia (figs. 118, 144), were again painted by Andreas Ritzos and are preserved in Milan and Belgrade.

Cretan icons of the Glykophilousa type offer an amazing variety of poses, movements and placements of hands, while the common meaning of the subject always remains the same. A variety of details that characterize this theme makes it very difficult to specify when exactly these changes took place. This difficulty becomes even greater because of the fact that Cretan painters repeated even the slightest details of their prototypes for more than two hundred years.

Example of such variations is the icon from Sarajevo (fig. 109) where Christ is holding a scroll in one arm and caressing his mother's chin with the other. The vivacity inherent in the Child's posture reflects a type of Glykophilousa which is often characterized by a playful attitude and greater liveliness in the Child. Such representations of the Playing Child are usually characterized by Christ grasping the edge of his Mother's maphorion instead of her face, as seen on another icon from Sarajevo (fig. 119), both symbolizing his need for her protection. The earliest representations of Christ pressing his cheek to the Virgin's and caressing her chin are found in Italy in a number of fourteenth century panels. The Child's body is absorbed within the outline of his Mother's form, and its complicated posture with the upward and downward pressures of hand and foot reveals an unusual degree of dynamic force, in contrast with the quiet tenderness of Mother as she presses her Child to her breast and touches his cheek.

This type became very popular in Crete in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The above mentioned icon (fig. 109) is a particularly fine work of Cretan early sixteenth century painting in which faces are modeled with soft drawing and a subtle rendering of the light. The Virgin, who is referred to as "bottomless well of grace and source of compassion" in Church poetry, on this icon conveys such a thoughtful and sad expression, which only great masters are able to achieve. Her sorrow is emphasized by Christ's innocent and playful gesture of reaching for her face. A slight iconographic peculiarity is seen in the folded top part of Christ's himation fluttering behind his back. This element has its origin in a mosaic representation of the Virgin and Child from the Kariye Djami (Church of the Saviour in Chora) at Istanbul made at the high point of Paleologan an, around 1320.

Apart from usual abbreviations of names, there are two written epithets of the Virgin on the Sarajevo icon. One of them reads KIRIA. meaning Our Lady, and the other reads PHANEROMENI. Most of the time the Virgin's epithets are of a mystic or poetic nature, but some of them, like this one, indicate Virgin icons that were venerated in celebrated religious establishments. The epithet Phaneromeni is connected with the icon celebrated on the 15th of July, that was believed to be miraculous and that comes from the Kapudag peninsula in the Sea of Marmara. Otherwise, Phaneromeni is a name frequently used for many villages in Greece and Anatolia, where, according to a legend, the Virgin used to show her miraculous powers.

A further example of the Glykophilousa variant (fig. 114) shows the Virgin holding the Child in a distorted, unnatural position. This icon from Sarajevo belongs to the Pelagonitissa prototype which became popular somewhere in Pelagonia in the vicinity of Bitola (Macedonia) and was often replicated. Some of these icons had the toponym Pelagonitissa inscribed, others did not. This theme, seen in a Sinai icon from the period of the Crusades, is also known from fourteenth-century Serbian icons and frescoes. The Child is very lively, with his back turned towards the viewer and both arms stretched around the Virgin's face. His himation was once richly decorated with gold webbing, now seen only in traces. From the late twelfth century onwards, in many depictions of the Virgin with Child, Christ's traditional antique garb gave way to this more intimate attire suitable for an infant. Christ's unconstrained posture and affectionate gestures reflect the close relationship with his mother. His human nature is further enchanted by the absence of a halo, which is usually the case on similar representations. The Virgin, absorbed in thoughts, is tenderly leaning towards the Child and directing her eyes at the observer. The moving mixture of the Child's playful innocence and his Mother's deep anxiety, seen in her silent sorrowful look, lends distinctive psychological tension to this iconographic type.

As the maternal side of the Virgin's personality was developed on icons, she became even more accessible, similar to an ordinary woman who understood humankind. The intimacy between the mother and child and their emotional interaction are conveyed through movements or gestures, such as feeding (fig. 137), embracing (figs. 109, 118, 119) or playing (fig. 114). Numerous types were established for the image of the Virgin, as manifestations of different human feelings - from calm grandeur (Hodegetria or the Virgin Enthroned), melancholy, serenity, and tenderness (Glykophilousa or Galaktotrophousa), to suffering and compassion (Virgin of Passion). Each of these themes, in its own way exists still on another level - they are all to be "reflected incessantly on the mirror of the beholder's soul, to keep that soul pure, to lift those who bend down, and to give them hope, for they contemplate the eternal prototype of beauty", as suggested in a medieval Painter's Manual.

A group of Cretan icons closely followed Western iconographic traditions and used Latin inscriptions. Such is the icon of the Nativity (fig. 121), in the manner of a Western image of adoration, or two Pieta icons (figs. 127, 147). While such works must have been extremely popular among conservative Roman Catholic circles, their presence in churches and monasteries of Patmos attests that Cretan icons of Italian origin also appealed to an Orthodox clientele. In the period of mysticism, the word pietas signified a religious attitude which was imbued with a self-surrendering love of God and reverence, and which sought mystical union with Christ. The first Pieta came into existence around 1300 in German convents. It was a new creation in art: these sculptures grew out of a meditative contemplation of Christ's suffering in his Crucifixion and served to edify the faithful. The concept of "lying in his Mother's lap" is an expression of trust, faith, surrender, and union in the mystical sense. This subject, which is the Western parallel of the Byzantine Lamentation at the Tomb, became known to Sienese, Florentine, and Venetian painters, by traveling German artists, from the fourteenth century onwards.

Another typical example of a Cretan icon with obvious Italian characteristics is the icon of St. Catherine (fig. 136). Renaissance elements are seen in the contrapposto movement between the lower part of the body and the head, in her dress made of Venetian brocade, her cloak with the ermine fur, and the minute golden monochromes decorating the throne and the bookstand. The oldest known icon of this iconographic type is a work of the famous Cretan painter Ieremias Palladas from 1612 on the iconostasis of St. Catherine's monastery at Sinai.

One of the major characteristics of Cretan icon painting was the repetition of certain iconographic themes and patterns in a large number of icons. This is also true for all the above-mentioned examples from Bosnia. However, some of the most creative artists would at times produce an iconographically unique solution, which was never repeated afterwards. Such is the motif of the Liturgy of the Righteous and Sufferings in Hell icon (fig. 138) by the famous Cretan painter, Georgius Klondzas. Together with his contemporary, Michael Damaskinos, Klondzas contributed to the short renaissance of late Cretan painting. His name was first mentioned in 1562, and he died in 1608. He distinguished himself through his inclination towards the treatment of original themes, such as that of the Sarajevo icon. The icon shows the inside of an Orthodox church full of believers, some dressed in the contemporary Venetian fashion, attending a divine liturgy with angels, a prophet, two holy priests of high rank, and finally, in top center, Christ himself. Above Christ and to his left and right side, there is an inscription on the gold background which reads: "the Lord is present at the entering of the bishops". The appearance of the iconostasis depicted on the icon was inspired by an iconostasis and Cretan icons painted by Klondzas' contemporaries, some of which did in fact decorate the Church of St. George the Greek in Venice. The idea of the Second Coining is implicit in all of three horizontal sections. Numerous inscriptions written on the icon also transmit the message that charity is the road to salvation and that believers have to show utmost respect and humility if they do not want to find themselves in hell. The composition of the icon has a double meaning. It carries a message that any holy temple where liturgy and prayer are held is considered to be a church. At the same time, the icon represents the entire church community and the complex bond between the people and the Church as the only legitimate representative of the Lord.

Apart from the Cretan icons, a number of icons painted in Greek workshops from the mainland also reached the Serbian churches in Bosnia and Herzegovina. One of the most valuable examples, the Deesis icon signed by Neophytos the monk (fig. 157), is the only sample that might have originated on Mount Athos. A figure of the kneeling donor dressed in contemporary Venetian fashion, represented in the lower left, was painted later by a different artist, who was far less skillful. A Greek inscription in the lower right, which reads: "Prayer of the servant Neophytos the monk", either refers to the donor who is presenting his prayer or to the painter who is donating the icon as his prayer. If the name of the monk Neophytos is the name of the painter of the icon, it could be connected with a monk of the same name from Mount Athos, who was a son of the famous Cretan painter, the monk Theophanes Strelitzas. Neophytos the monk painted and signed the richly carved iconostasis in Protaton, the church in Karyes, which is the capital of the Holy Mountain. Works by Theophanes Strelitzas and his two sons, Symeon and Neophytos, were strongly rooted in the Paleologan tradition and they show all the main features of the Cretan school which, even away from its home base, in the employ of a community of monks, was able to function at a high level of artistry. Greek icons dating from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries found in Bosnia remain close to the methods of the late Byzantine Paleologan painting traditions that were still preserved in Cretan painting. Thus the influences of the Cretan style, such as linearly accented features and strong highlights, are apparent in a few high quality icons, like those representing the meeting of the apostles Peter and Paul (figs. 155 and 158) or St. Luke the Evangelist (fig. 160).

With the exception of the small number of icons done in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, most of the Greek icons preserved in Bosnia date from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. They show the features of the conservative icon-painting and of the Levantine Baroque and imply a sign of the creative ossification and decline of late post-Byzantine art. It is not surprising that after two and a half centuries of creative endeavors of the Greek artists who took refuge on Crete, icon painters lost their inspiration when that last stronghold of Byzantine culture fell to the Turks at the end of the seventeenth century. Virtuosity and the subtle technique of Cretan painters were replaced on later Greek icons with broader and more simple linear treatment, as seen on the icons from Bosnia. A separate entity is seen in a group of the so-called "Jerusalem paintings", which were done on canvas in oil, as opposed to wooden icons painted in the traditional tempera technique. Such popular images (figs. 180 and 181) were made during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and were preserved in many Serbian churches in Bosnia. Depicting different holy places in Palestine and often large in size, such icons were brought back by Serbian pilgrims as a proof of their journey.

Russian icons from Bosnia, like the Greek ones, are mostly serial works from provincial workshops, rarely older than the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Since they were intended for the conservative market of Orthodox believers still living in Turkish-occupied territories, they do not reflect a real development of Russian icon painting during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Late Russian icon painting was actually under the strong influence of Western European realism that had already started penetrating into the Ukraine in the second half of the seventeenth century. Instead of the stylistic principles of the Baroque that characterized Russian icon painting of the time, Russian icons from Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as from some other parts of Eastern Orthodox world, were characterized by the simplified and often crude treatment of volume and the rejection of any kind of modernism coming from the West.

A rare exception is the sixteenth century icon of the Virgin of Vladimir from Sarajevo (fig. 184), which follows the iconographic prototype of a famous twelfth- century icon now in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. The famous, often repeated prototype of the characteristic portrayal of tenderness and loving kindness was painted in Constantinople and around 1131 sent to Kiev. From there it went to Vladimir, where it received the toponym Vladimirskaya, and finally came to the Kremlin in 1315. The icon from Sarajevo conveys all the helplessness and sadness of the Mother embracing her Child. Her face expresses the deepest compassion, both for the sufferings awaiting her son and all the misfortunes of humankind. The silver cover of the icon is decorated with stamping, filigree, and semi-precious stones. The carved and gilded wooden frame is of later date and originally was not made for this icon.

Although many of the later Russian icons from Bosnia were mass produced for trade purposes, some of them still preserve the elegant linearity and fine, subtle modeling of drapery with gold, as seen on the icon of the Four Scenes From the Life of the Virgin (fig. 185). A group of icons richly ornamented with silver incisions and stamping (figs. 203-211) is characteristic of the period. Such decorative elements, formed of geometrical and floral stylization's, show a typical Baroque taste for ornamentation. The strong decorative effects of these icons are somewhat subdued today, because the yellowish varnish, which imitated gold on silver background surfaces, is mostly gone. Originally, the black contours of the depicted figures and ornaments, the incised lines and the stamping, effectively stood out on bright yellow backgrounds.

Finally, a small group of icons of Western origin were preserved in the Serbian churches in Sarajevo and Mostar. A very fine example of this kind is an icon from Sarajevo done in Venice in the fifteenth century (fig. 233). It shows the half figure of a dead, naked Christ standing against the cross in a sarcophagus. This representation is usually known as the Man of Sorrows. The image of the Christ of the Passion was used because of its liturgical meaning. It is connected with the Passion service, extending from Maundy Thursday through Holy Saturday. Liturgical language describes Christ as sleeping "the life-giving sleep". This is the death of his human nature by which his divine nature becomes free to descend to the world below. The usual type of this representation, Byzantine in tradition, is rendered here according to Western models, especially those which originated in Florentine and Venetian painting of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The modeling of Christ's flesh is very soft, with a touch of brown shadow and with a transitional greenish tone, so that the figure gives an impression of monochromy and a painterly feeling as well. The exceptionally fine rendering of the wavy hair, Christ's elongated arms and the geometrical perspective of the sarcophagus all derive from an Italian prototype. This relation becomes even more obvious in the stressed melancholy of the face.

The collections of icons from Serbian churches in Bosnia and Herzegovina before the recent war were very heterogeneous and, as a rule, contained specimens of both Serbian and foreign post-Byzantine icon painting. This enormous diversity of icons imported from various parts of the world can be accounted for by the position of Bosnia and Herzegovina as a border land between the East and the West and by four centuries of life under the Turks, when the centers of artistic, cultural, and spiritual life for the Serbs in Bosnia were far away, first in the Patriarchate of Peć in Kosovo, and from the end of the seventeenth century in Sremski Karlovci in the Vojvodina.


1. Or eparchies, as they are called in Eastern Orthodox churches.

2. The earliest surviving portraits of Prince Lazar from Ravanica and Ljubostinja, the churches he founded, date from the end of the fourteenth century and represent him as a donor.

3. Panonia is the ancient name for Hungary and includes lands in the northern party of today's Yugoslavia and Croatia.

Author's note - six years later

The manuscript of this book was completed at the beginning of 1992 and submitted for publication to the publishing house Svjetlost in Sarajevo. In April of the same year I left my home town of Sarajevo in order to shield my eight-year-old son Nikola from the horrors of civil war. A few months later, my family and I found ourselves in the U.S. All that I had taken with me from Sarajevo was my son's teddy-bear, some necessary clothes, and a copy of the manuscript of this book. Everything else, including our eighteenth century family icon of St. Nicholas, was left behind. A year later, the photographer Zoran Dragoljević sent me copies of those slides that he was able to rescue when he fled Sarajevo. In its original form, the book included 297 color photographs and six black-and-white photographs. All the material that Zoran was able to rescue is published in this version of the book.

The text of the book has not been changed or new data incorporated; the only exception is the English "Summary," written in June 1998. Therefore, I feel obliged to include the original "Author's Note," written six years ago. I hope that none of the people I mentioned then will object to being included in my book today. Unfortunately, many of the icons are not to be found at the locations cited in the book. In fact, a few of those locations do not exist anymore, like the Serbian monastery of Žitomislić near Mostar. Some of the icons have been destroyed, damaged, or simply have "changed hands"; others have been moved to more secure places.

My dues for the publication of this book, which the war has postponed for such a long time, go to the Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Monuments in Belgrade, Svetlana Pejić helped with numerous technical problems. The financial help of Franklin College, Indiana, obtained through the understanding and support of Alien Berger, the Vice President for Academic Affairs, Paul Marion, the President, and Richard Swindle, the Vice President of Development, was invaluable.


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© 2002 - Projekat Rastko; Tehnologije, izdavaštvo i agencija Janus; Naučno društvo za slovenske umetnosti i kulture;
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