Current Events 42: The Cathedral of Saint Sava/ Hram Svetog Save, Part 1

June 04, 2021  •  Leave a Comment

       One might have thought that Tito's memorial would be Belgrade's premier tourist attraction.  That distinction, however, belonged to the Temple of  Saint Saba, the grandest Serbian Orthodox church in The Balkans.  Saint Sava, a medieval prince, had been the first Serbian archbishop.  After canonization, he became the national saint.  His importance increased a few centuries later, when the Ottomans punished rebel Serbian Christians by disinterring the saint's remains, burning them, and scattering the ashes.  The current church was erected on the reputed site of the desecration.  Begun in 1935, the church was a magnificent edifice in the Byzantine style, with white marble walls and a copper dome.  It was situated on an elevated plaza and, according to our guide, was visible from almost everywhere in the city.  It was also unfinished.

                                                                       The Temple of Saint Sava

       Our guide told us, with palpable pride, that the church had received no government funding.  It was financed solely from the contributions of the worshippers.  The series of wars that convulsed The Balkans during the Twentieth Century had slowed construction for decades.  The Nazis, never ones to forgo a chance to add to the humiliation of the people whom they subjugated, had parked their trucks and troop carriers inside the steel skeleton of the church.  In postwar Yugoslavia, the project languished.  It was not until the final years of Communism that official permission to resume construction was granted.

       The verdigris-crowned mass of Saint Sava's rose at the end of an avenue of trees.  Our guide admonished us to hasten towards the imposing edifice so that we could hear the church bells at noon.  At twelve precisely, fifty bells rang in an exultant pealing that must have been audible all over the city.  With the sound still reverberating in our ears, we entered the shadowy interior.  It was in the process of being decorated.  Polished granite columns supported a circle of arches in the center of the church.  The recesses above the columns were bare plaster , as were most of the visible surfaces.  Scaffolding and plastic sheeting covered parts of the walls, which soared upwards for several stories.  

 

 

       Clerestory windows around the base of the central dome allowed light to reach the floor where the altar stood.  The altar was rectangular, and covered in embossed silver and gilt panels.  The altar in an Orthodox church usually is concealed behind an iconostasis, a tall, ornate screen.  It would be hidden from the congregation's sight once the services began there.  Only the priests would be permitted to go behind the iconostasis.  I think that the faithful will have to wait a minimum of years to inaugurate Saint Sava's, as most of the mosaics for the walls still were missing.  There were no pews, but there would never be any.  Worshippers in Orthodox churches do not sit unless they are infirm.  The services can last for hours.  When the church is complete, thousands of people will be able to stand within its walls.  I should have liked to see it in all its splendor, but decided that I was privileged  to be able to view the enormous church as a work in progress.  There was even something ethereal about the plastic shrouding, as if an angel had trailed a wing over the concrete blocks.  


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