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25 Feb 14

Anti-Red Fresco Gives Montenegrins the Blues

The controversial fresco in a Podgorica church depicting Communist leaders in hell is an unprecedented blend of an ancient art form and modern politics.

Milena Milosevic
BIRN Podgorica

Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro, is a city of contrasts these days. In the main shopping mall, Delta City, items symbolizing life in former Yugoslavia have been on show and attracting visitors this February.

A typical old-style living room with bits of Yugoslav iconography, and a Fića, a popular small car produced by the Zastava car factory in the Serbian town of Kragujevac, stand as symbols of the one-time Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

"Sense the spirit of the good old days," the advert for the exhibition reads.

Just a few kilometres away, in the Church of the Resurrection, which belongs to the Serbian Orthodox Church, one of the country’s main faith communities, a fresco doesn’t depict the former Socialist state as such a cozy place.

On the contrary, on a red background, close to some devil-like creatures, three heads can be seen, one wearing a hat with a red star, the well-known Communist symbol.

After the fresco was featured in local media and interpreted as depicting the former Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito - along with the ideological fathers of Communism, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels – all burning in hell, photographs from inside the church spread fast across social networks and the global media.

Florian Bieber, an expert on the Balkans, was not impressed on his Facebook account. “Tito really does not look like Tito, but more like some dorky tourist who bought an old Yu-hat at the buvljak (market place),” he wrote.

Whether it looks like Tito or not, nobody can question the presence of the Communist symbol on the fresco - and that alone, many agree, sets a precedent in the art of fresco painting in Orthodox churches.

Odd Attitude of Church:

Nemanja Marunic, a Serbian fresco painter, says that it is unusual for frescos to feature popular or contemporary themes. “It is a kind of painting that should transcend space and time,” he explained.

Mirko Djordjevic, who writes on the political role of the Serbian Orthodox Church, also sees the painting in the church as unusual.

"Fresco painting is a canonical form of painting and personalities and symbols are depticted in line with strict canonical rules. This represents something close to a scandal," he maintained.

The painter of the controversial fresco remains unknown. The Metropolinate of Montenegro and the Littoral did not reply to a question from BIRN about the name of the painter and declined to specify who the depicted personalities are, either.

"As for the people in the frescoes, it is difficult to guess and assume who exactly was the artist’s inspiration (and whether it was anyone) because of the complex creative nature of the artistic process," protodeacon Igor Balaban told BIRN.

“God has the final judgment about all people, including those named in your question (about Marx, Engels and Tito),” he added, noting that although some media reports on the issue were clearly against the Church, it was good that matters concerning Orthodox ecclesiastical painting had finally reached the global media.

The Montenegrin media, on the other hand, were more interested in reports that the speaker of parliament, Ranko Krivokapic, was also depicted in the fresco, frying in hell alongside the pioneers of Communism.

Other reports also suggested that the Prime Minister, Montenegro's long-time leader, Milo Djukanovic, was depicted in another part of the church and in more favourable terms - among those who funded and helped its construction.

Djordjevic adds that such political frescos never existed before in the history of the Serbian Orthodox Church, and believes that it demonstrates a new right-wing ideology.

“In condemning the Communist ideology, the Church has itself acted in an ideological manner," he argues.

At the same time, the fresco does reveal and recall the tense relations of the Serbian Orthodox Church with the former Socialist state.

Yugoslavia did not pursue the hardline form of Communism and was percieved as relatively liberal in comparison to the rest of Eastern Europe.

However, the Church and the former socialist regime did not go hand in hand. Many percieved religious communities as important drivers of the nationalism that flourished during the period when Yugoslavia dissolved.

Djordjevic, however, insists that the Church in former Yugoslavia was more or less free. "It is another issue that some Communists were atheists," he said.

In reality, the relations of former Yugoslav leader Tito towards the state’s numerous religions were highly ambiguous, which is why the treatment of the Church under the Communist regime remains a hotly contested issue among historians and experts.

Vladimir Bakrac, a sociologist focusing on issues of religion, says that if it bears the Communist symbol, the fresco in Podgorica should be interpreted in the context of the socio-political circumstances of the former Socialist republic. He thinks that these circumstances were not favourable to any religious organization, and especially not to the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro.

"It is a generally known truth that the then, atheist-leaning regime persecuted the Orthodox Church, clergy and believers… so I think this is a form of revanchism - a response to something I would call a 'historic memory,'" he said.

Random passers-by seem unfazed by the row over the fresco and over the Church’s attitude to the old state. “I didn't notice the fresco, but it [the fresco] is not surprising. Communism and Church never quite got along,” Milica Radovic says.

Her husband, Aleksandar, thinks the fresco is drawing far too much attention.“People outside the Church spend too much time interperting affairs within the Church, but those in the Church also comment on social affairs more than they should," he opines. "Everything is thus too mixed up."

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