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Feature 02 Jun 17

Old Art of Icon Painting Thrives in Modern Serbia

Religious icon painting is thriving in Serbia, as the Orthodox Church’s influence continues to increase in the wake of the collapse of communism.

Siri Sollie
BIRN
Belgrade
The art of iconography has seen a new revival in Serbia, after the defeat of communism. Photo: BIRN/Siri Sollie
The art of iconography has seen a new revival in Serbia, after the defeat of communism. Photo: Siri Solie/BIRN

“She has done everything… it is simply alive. There is nothing to add. Maybe it could be different, but she expressed herself – it is her Christ,” Todor Mitrovic, professor of Iconography, says of one of his student’s work at the Serbian Orthodox Church’s Academy of Arts and Conservation.

Painted on a wooden board, true to the canons, orrules, of iconography, Jovana Jankovic, a fourth-year student in the department for fresco painting and iconography hears the evaluation of her icon of Jesus. 

Religious art has become increasingly popular across the region as the Orthodox Church continues to reassert its influence following the collapse of communism.

The Serbian Orthodox Church’s Academy of Arts and Conservation - established in 1993 - was Serbia’s first private arts school.

Located in Kralja Petra street, just next to the Orthodox Cathedral in Belgrade, students at the academy get to immerse themselves in the art of icon and fresco painting, mosaics and sculpture.

As an indication of how popular a niche craft such as icon painting has become today, 32 students - including some from abroad - are currently enrolled at the academy, divided across different branches and levels of education. 

Icons are an integral part of the Orthodox Christian faith. They are portraits of saints, angels, Mary or Christ painted on wooden boards of various sizes. Every Christian Orthodox family will have a house saint, and it is therefore common to see icons in Serbian homes.

They are also essential to Orthodox churches and monasteries, each celebrating a particular saint. Believers worship God through these icons.

At the academy, students not only learn the art itself and therefore preserve the tradition, they are also called upon when churches and monasteries need to restore their icons, with students either making contemporary replicas or restoring the originals on site. 

Mitrovic explains that iconography is an art of rules. The icon is expected to have a clean surface, with no hard brushstrokes. Pure mineral colours, egg or wax, are used, which serve as the glue, depending on whether creating a fresco or an icon.

“One must take into account the role of the icon. The primary role of the icon is truthfulness, not its artistic value,” Mitrovic emphasises.

“The icon can be understood as a communication channel,” Aleksandra Kucekovic, professor of early modern religious art history at the academy, adds. 

”The icon doesn’t have to be beautiful, although it helps it be more efficient in transferring the prayer… You don't pray to the icon itself, you pray to the saint.”

Observing another student at work on an icon of the Archangel Michael, Mitrovic underlines there is still room for creative expression even within the rigid conventions of icon painting.

“These icons have real faces; it often happens that the face of the saint is left resembling a mask,” Mitrovic explains. “It's a question of which convention can be changed, [and] which ones should not.”

“Passions give energy,” the painter, Julia Dubikajtis, jumps in. “Sometimes, when making an icon, it is like you transfer your life force - it feels like magic.”

Born in Poland and raised in Germany, Dubikajtis came to Serbia in 2015 to study the art of iconography.

“I always wanted to be a painter since I was little. But it took years to gather the courage,” she says.

Baptised as a Catholic, Julia explains how she came to love icons after visiting monasteries in Germany: “My love for painting and the church came together in the icon.”

...

In a big and bright studio on the first floor of the academy, Igor Pjanic, another fourth-year student specialising in fresco painting, is working on an icon of King Solomon of Israel.

He explains some of the various choices an icon painter has when creating replicas.

In terms of jewellery, blessings, outfits and biblical verses, the author is free to employ his artistic expression. In case of the latter, freedom is allowed as long as the biblical verse referred to is related to the saint depicted.

A fresco is painted directly on the wall on a wet surface. The scale of the space it occupies, together with working time limitations due to the wet surface requirement, means frescos are a product of teamwork.

 This was one of the reasons why both Jankovic and Panjic chose this specialisation, as they enjoy the creative expression and the result of combined input from various artists.

Jankovic recalls how physically demanding it was to work on a fresco in the basement of the Church of St Sava in Belgrade, where all the artists had to work together in a confined space.

Dubikajtis, on the other hand, chose to specialise in icon painting, which is performed by one person alone on a dry and wooden surface. “I love my own space – my own peace,” she explains.

Alongside their studies, it seems that the students at the academy won’t have any problems finding work.

Both Jankovic and Pjanic will join the successful fresco painter, Slavoljub Radojkovic, in decorating a new church in a small village close to Lazarevac, an hour’s drive from Belgrade.

Radojkovic has already started on the work and the students will join him in July as the whole church is to be decorated. The work is scheduled to last at least two years. 

This article was published in BIRN's bi-weekly newspaper Belgrade Insight. Here is where to find a copy.

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