This is a virtual tour of the world's biggest mosaic piece created by the Russian and Serbian artists in the Cathedral of St Sava in Belgrade.
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The most revered Orthodox saint in the Balkans
The Ottomans burned the relics of St Sava on the Vračar hill in Belgrade on 27 April 1594. One of the most salient political, cultural and religious figures in the history of Serbia, St Sava succeeded in ending the civil war unleashed by his older brothers, founded the Serbian Orthodox Church and became its first archbishop. He also played a special part in the history of Orthodoxy in Russia. A tonsured monk of a Russian monastery on Mount Athos, Sava established an autocephalous church independent of Constantinople, thus setting the bar for the founding fathers of the Russian Church.
By Orjen, used under CC BY-SA 4.0
300 years after the evil-doings of the Ottomans, a decision was made to build a temple in honor of the great son of Serbia at the place of his desecration, but then in 1912 the country was swallowed up by the Balkan wars, followed by the First World War. The idea was abandoned until 1931, when architects Aleksandar Deroko, Bogdan Nestorovic and Vojislav Zadina started designing a Serbian-Byzantine style building with a cross-shaped footing and a massive dome with four turrets around it. Construction began in 1935 and was once again disrupted by war when the Nazi Germany started bombarding Belgrade on 6 April 1941.
1894: a decision to build the cathedral is made
1935: foundation laid for the future cathedral
By Orjen, used under CC BY-SA 4.0
1989: the main dome is erected
45 years later, after 88 requests to the communist authorities of Yugoslavia, Patriarch Herman received a construction permit. Branko Pešić used the surviving blueprints and the existing foundation to restore the cathedral, and the main dome was erected in 1989 under his guidance. Then another war broke out in 1991.

FRATERNAL

HELP

On 20 April 1999, in between the NATO bombardments, two patriarchs from the Serbian and Russian Orthodox Churches – Pavel and Alexy II, held a service at the Cathedral of St Sava praying for the war and suffering in Serbia to end. The cathedral was opened to worshippers only 5 years later, with a completed facade and 49 bells, but still with no interior decorations.
2012: Russia decides to help
Even at that time, the church was unparalleled in the entire Orthodox world. The cathedral has the largest prayer space among all the existing churches, its internal height (65 m) exceeds that of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul by almost 10 meters, and its dome with a diameter of 30.16 meters is larger than the dome of Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow. With 15,000 m² of ​​internal fresco surfaces in the cathedral, Serbia was unable to find resources to do its interior decorations for a very long time.
Russia stepped in to help, as it did many times during the centuries-long history of relations between the two fraternal nations. President Vladimir Putin prompted Russia's involvement in the project to finalize construction of the Cathedral of St Sava in 2012, after a meeting with the Serbian president. Russia’s Gazprom Neft donated money to create a unique mosaic decoration of the main dome, a part of the altar space and the central space of the cathedral. The remainder of decorations, including the mosaic, floors, iconostases, coronas lucis, altars and cathedral gates, was funded by the Serbian government.

EASTERN

CONCHAE

An image of Christ the Almighty (Christ Pantocrator) in the eastern conchae is the largest one in the Cathedral of St Sava, with the arms of the figure standing 17.35 meters apart. To translate Nikolai Mukhin's sketches into mosaics, they had to be printed out in full size. Sometimes the outlines in these copies came out faded, and then the artist drew the lines by hand using tempera – the same way Byzantine masters did a thousand years ago.
The largest mosaic image

ALTAR

APSE

MAIN

ICONOSTASIS

CORONA

LUCIS

The star of Bethlehem in the ornament of the floor symbolizes the birth of Christ
Corona lucis, the main circular lamp of the cathedral that was also designed by Nikolai Mukhin, is the central piece of the overall semantic line of the cathedral. Located between the Christmas star on the floor that symbolizes the birth of baby Jesus and the Ascension on the dome, it represents the heavens, as Saint Symeon of Thessalonica explained. To make it unique, the artist decided to place the text of the “Symbol of Faith” in Serbian on the central circle of the corona lucis. This key tenet about the Son of God sent to Earth reaffirms the belief of Christians in the ascension of Christ.
Corona lucis represents the heavens

MAIN

DOME

The Ascension is an essential storyline for the Serbian Christians
The scene of the Ascension of Christ on the main dome of the cathedral completes the semantic line, showing Christ the Savior in all his heavenly glory sitting on a rainbow that symbolizes the relationship between God and the people. This design first appeared in Greek churches of the 7th-8th centuries and was transformed after the 13th century into a more concise image of Christ Pantocrator, not least because the size of the main dome in new churches was reduced.
In the Cathedral of St Sava, they reverted to the scene of the Ascension not just because the size of the dome (1,248 m²) allowed this. This storyline is of particular importance for Serbia: it was on the 40th day after Easter in 1403 that the despot ("head of the state" in Serbian) Stefan Lazarević proclaimed Belgrade the capital.
The Ascension of Christ in the Cathedral of St Sava has no peers in the Orthodox church art. The only Byzantine dome mosaic piece with the Ascension in the world that has survived to this date can be found in St Mark Basilica in Venice. Nikolai Mukhin used it as a creative benchmark, but the artist introduced a radical change to the composition with his own rethinking of the storyline that relies on the Byzantine, Old Russian and medieval Balkan traditions. Patriarch Irinej approved this vision of the Russian master. To the late head of the Serbian Orthodox Church, construction of the cathedral was a lifetime project. In 2016, he also laid the first piece of smalt in the dome's mosaic, initiating the interior decoration of the cathedral.

NORTHERN

CONCHAE

SOUTHERN

CONCHAE

UNDER

CONCHAES

WESTERN

CONCHAE

...GOD SPEED!

A new symbol of Serbian capital
When they were burning the relics of St Sava on the Vračar hill more than four centuries ago, the Ottomans wanted the fire to be seen from the other bank of the Danube. Today, the hill is the site of a cathedral that you can see from anywhere in Belgrade.

THE SOUL

OF SERBIA

The fraternal peoples of Serbia and Russia have worked together to finalize interior decorations of the Cathedral of St Sava in Belgrade. It took more than 100 years to build the world's largest Orthodox cathedral.
For more than a century, generations of two fraternal peoples have been putting their heart in building the Cathedral of St Sava. The majestic cathedral on Vračar is more than just a masterpiece of architecture.
It is the soul of Serbia.
The project producer: Alexander Dybal.
The project was developed in collaboration between Gazprom Neft and the Gigarama Laboratory.
Our special thanks to the following individuals for their support throughout the project: Bishop Stefan, Protodeacon Mladen Kovacevic, Nikolai Mukhin, Irina Buseva-Davydova, Ekaterina Baleva, Gordana Besic, Oleg Brakorenko, Elena Zborovskaya, Maria Lazarevic, Snejana Milkovic, Vojislav Milovanovic, Olga Ogarkova, Artem Rodionov, Dejan M. Simeunovic, Danica Stanisavljevic, Evgeniy Chelyshev, Oleg Chuikov, Anton Shtolba.
In 2014, the Russian Academy of Arts announced a competition. Its participants were expected to design the mosaic to follow the Byzantine and medieval Serbian art traditions.
The size of the cathedral and its curved surfaces made the job more challenging: you should see the paintings, including the dome mosaic at a height of 65 m above the floor, with no distortion when looking at them from down below.
Nikolai Mukhin from the Russian Academy of Arts managed to create a monumental ensemble where Serbian saints and shrines play a big part in addition to the general Christian storyline. He had already worked on four temples in Serbia prior to this project.
In Mukhin's concept, the first thing you see when entering the Cathedral of St Sava is the Lord Savior's blessing that He delivers with both hands.
The image of Christ as the heavenly lord and judge shows Him as being all‑mighty.
Archangels Gabriel and Michael are portrayed on the wall arch near the conchae with the Pantocrator. At the moment of Christ's ascension, they announced the second Coming of the Savior.
A small arch above the altar space adjoining the semi‑dome with Christ the Almighty shows images of the 12 apostles.
Saints Basil the Great, John Chrysostom, Gregory of Nazianzus and others are depicted between the windows: those who carry the light of the teachings of Christ are called "the torchbearers of the church."
One of them is Saint Spyridon, who is highly revered in Serbia – after the fall of Constantinople, his relics were kept in the Balkans in 1453–1456.
Bishop Teodor of Banat was martyred in 1594, when the Turks suppressed an uprising against the Turkish rule that he led.
The Serbs fought under the flags carrying the face of St Sava – another saint portrayed in the picture.
More than 40 percent of the mosaics in the cathedral are made of golden smalt – 24 carat leaf gold sealed between two plates of transparent glass.
All the images with a total area of 15,000 m² took more than 300 tons of smalt, and more than 600 artists worked to lay out the mosaics.
Altar apse, the space behind the main iconostasis with an adjoining small semi‑dome, is the most sacral place of the cathedral that is significant for many different reasons.
Its various parts symbolize the Bethlehem cave, the cave of the Holy Sepulcher, the table of the Last Supper, Golgotha, the Ascension, the heavens, and the throne of the Holy Trinity.
In Byzantine tradition, the arch above the altar typically featured an image of Virgin Mary praying upright.
A 9th century mosaic from the temple of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople served as a model for the Cathedral of St Sava, with Holy Mary sitting on a throne with baby Jesus.
The apse has a special way of rendering an inseparable connection between death and immortality. A crucifix on the left wall is positioned directly opposite the icon with the Greeting of the Angel to the Myrrh‑Bearers.
The angel who announced the Resurrection of Christ ascends to the fresco of the Church of the Ascension in Mileševa – a White Angel that has become a symbol of Serbia.
The main iconostasis to the right of the image of Christ the Almighty contains the church icon of St Sava located in the most important place of the chancel screen.
The to‑be first archbishop of Serbia began his journey to God as a teenager, when Rastko Nemanjić took monastic vows under the name of Sava in a monastery on Mount Athos.
St Sava's father Stefan I Nemanja, who was the ruler of Serbia, renounced the throne and took the vows after his son. Following his ordination, he lived on Mount Athos, where he contributed to the restoration of monasteries.
In Serbia, Stefan is regarded as the founder of the nation state. He was canonized as Simeon the Myrrh‑Streaming.
Looking somewhat like a tiara, corona lucis reminds you of the Savior's majestic dignity and the Nemanjić dynasty. In Greek, the name of St Sava's father, Stefan, means "crown."
Serbian saints for the corona lucis were painted by the Belgrade artist Jelena Hinic. St Sava is among them, as well.
The lamp seems to be floating in the air, attached with 42 meter long chains to a unique system of almost invisible cables that can take 15 times the load of the lamp.
The chains shine with leaf gold and resemble the sun beams streaming towards the Ascension on the dome.
Four angels around the center of the piece form a cross soaring against a golden background.
It demonstrates that Christianity is open to all parts of the world – a solution that is typical for dome paintings in Serbian churches.
Along the lower circumference of the dome are images of Holy Mary, archangels Michael and Gabriel, and the 12 apostles, as per the Byzantine tradition.
The texts of five short worship songs from the Ascension service that unveil the key essence of the holiday are placed on the dome.
If you add these prayers to the others that are laid out on the cathedral walls, the full text will be 10 km long.
The inventive process of erecting the 4,000-ton dome assisted by 16 articulating cranes was supervised by 1,000 engineers from all over the world.
Blue sky with stars on the ceiling of the dome gallery is placed below the central composition, as if saying that the Lord stands above all things earthly and heavenly.
The row at the base of the dome depicts prophets – Solomon, John, Isaiah, David, Jeremiah, Moses, Ezekiel and Elijah.
Their images are separated by round windows with a traditional Serbian ornament, similar to the unique windows of the 15th-century Monastery of Ljubostinja.
This row also contains the Image "Not-Made-By-Hands" of the Lord, which was symbolically completed by the presidents of Serbia and Russia. In 2019, His Holiness Patriarch Irinej, Aleksandar Vučić and Vladimir Putin laid a piece of smalt into the mosaic.
Sketches for curved surfaces required the creation of scale models in which Nikolai Mukhin drew sketches on a scale of 1 to 10. Any mistake during transfer could become 10 times bigger.
The Nativity of Jesus is the key story of the northern half‑dome.
Events from the earthly life of Christ are shown on the domes of wide wall arches of the northern and southern conchaes.
They are kind of a monumental calendar of the main Christian holidays.
The Nativity conchae portrays the adoration of the Magi, the bringing of baby Jesus to the temple (the Presentation of Christ), baptism in the Jordan (the Epiphany), and manifestation of the divine nature of Christ to the apostles (the Transfiguration).
There is no holiday that celebrates the adoration of the Magi in the Orthodox tradition, but this story has a special meaning for Serbia. The gifts to baby Jesus were originally kept inthe temple of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople.
In 1470, when Hagia Sophia had already been converted into a mosque, Maria, the daughter of Serbian ruler George Branković, took the sacred objects and handed them over to Agiou Pavlou Monastery on Mount Athos.
The dome spandrels traditionally carry the images of four evangelists – the biographers of the earthly path of Christ.
Apostles John, Luke, Mark and Matthew are demonstrated as imprinting the word of God in their inspired books.
Resurrection is the main scene on the southern conchae. The end of the Savior's earthly path is shown across from its beginning, the Nativity, on the northern half‑dome.
In Byzantine iconography, the Resurrection is combined with the descent of Christ into hell. On the second day after the Savior's body was placed in the tomb, He brought the righteous men of the Old Testament, as well as Adam and Eve, out of the underworld.
Above the scene of the Resurrection is a winged image of John the Baptist holding a severed head in his hands. He preached in hell before the descent of Christ.
The stories on the wall arch – the Entry into Jerusalem, the Road to Calvary and the Deposition from the Cross – are placed next to the Resurrection as part of the Passion of Christ.
The Easter cycle ends with the Descent of the Holy Ghost upon the Apostles.
Below the conchae, the role of the Serbian Church in Orthodoxy is demonstrated: Patriarchs Nikon and Kirill and Metropolitans Vasily Ostrozhsky and Peter Tsetinsky are standing beside the saints of the first churches.
These are Athanasius and Cyril of Alexandria, as well as Herman and Modest – patriarchs of Constantinople and Jerusalem.
The space below the semi‑domes shows the creation of the world. And creation of man as its greatest miracle. The miracle theme unites the stories from the Gospel in the piers on the same level.
Two scenes from the Old Testament are also closely linked to the gospel scenes: the fiery ascent of Elijah as a prototype of the Ascension, and the burning bush as a symbol of Holy Mary.
Three sides of the cathedral host choir galleries with an area of 1,444 m² that can hold up to 700 cantors. For better acoustic experience, 400 resonators were installed in the cathedral.
The cathedral's buttress shows the canonized rulers of Serbia, holy warriors and stylites. St Sava, the first Serbian archbishop, is also demonstrated here.
The stylites are shown on the columns: they pray standing upright on a pillar or in a tight tower cell. The rulers hold temples as a symbol of the churches they built.
The western half‑dome is devoted to women: it shows the scenes from the life of Mother Mary, below which is a gallery with images of the holy women.
This design is not typical for churches outside of Serbia, but in Serbian paintings, the Assumption of Mary the Mother of God is a traditional story placed above the western entrance.
The wall arch describes events from the life of the Blessed Virgin that took place before the tidings of joy from Archangel Gabriel.
These are the Nativity of the Mother of God, the Caressing of infant Mary, the Presentation of the Virgin Mary, and the Annunciation.
Helen of Anjou is one of the locally venerated saints. An aristocrat from France converted to Orthodoxy, she became the wife of Stefan Uroš I from the Nemanjić dynasty that St Sava belonged to.
A defender of simple people, St Helen patronized temples and monasteries, many of which were built under her decision.
St Sava's mother Anna Nemanjić followed her husband's suit and took monastic vows as Anastasia in 1196.
She was later canonized as Venerable Anastasia of Serbia.
The cathedral on the Vračar hill is not only a temple dedicated to the glory of St. Sava – it is also a symbol of universal Orthodoxy, with prayers in 24 languages of the world cast in bronze on all of its gates.
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