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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.