Travel Report: St Mark’s Church, Belgrade.
St Mark’s Church, Belgrade.
Sladja and I had had a fantastic few hours exploring the sights of Tasmajdan Park. Now, at last, it was time to head inside its most dominant landmark, St Mark’s Church. This handsome Serbo-Byzantine structure opened in 1940 upon the designs of the Krstić brothers, two of Serbia’s most acclaimed architects.
St Mark’s stands on the site of an older wooden structure built in 1836. That first church certainly didn’t have much luck. During World War I Austrian troops destroyed it, while a 1917 reconstruction found itself reduced to rubble by German bombs in World War II. Eventually, city authorities cleared its battered remains so that St Mark’s could flourish.
Apparently, it’s peculiar for a Serbian church to be named after St Mark, one of the lesser celebrated saints in the Serbian orthodox tradition. According to several online articles I read, it may have been a move to reconcile with the Western church.
Unaware that we had chosen to visit on an important day in the orthodox calendar, we made our way into what had once been Serbia’s largest church. Until that is, the construction of Saint Sava Temple knocked it into second place. More on that amazing church in a later article.
St Mark’s Church, Belgrade.
We entered into a cavernous single hall. My first thought was, Wow, where’s all the seating? In fact, there were no pews at all, a common element of traditional Serbian Christian orthodox churches. Indeed churchgoers are used to standing through services. #Hardcore.
For many years the interior wasn’t much to shout about. First, the uncertainty of the Second World War prevented the addition of anything too lavish. Then, with the war finished, the country’s new communist regime couldn’t be bothered to bling the place up.
Amazingly, it wasn’t until recent years that St Mark’s got the makeover it had been waiting on for so long. They definitely made up for lost time. Take the main altar, for example, with its central iconostasis made from marble.
Created in the early 1990s by the architect Zoran Petrović, it features a number of mosaics by the painter Đuro Radlović. He also added the large Mother of God mosaic, cut from Venetian glass, that sits above the altar. It is the largest Virgin Mary mosaic in the world.
Speaking of awesome mosaics, how about this stunning piece, Communion of the Holy Apostles. Đuro Radlović did this one too, which depicts Jesus giving communion to his twelve disciples. That afternoon it lay sprawled across the floor of the church, though it has since joined the other mosaics above the altar.
Exploring the Serbian Capital.
Elsewhere, along the south wall, a marble tomb holds the remains of Emperor Stefan Dušan. Known as Dusan the Mighty, he ruled Serbia from 1331 to his death in 1355. Historians reckon someone poisoned him while he was planning a crusade to drive The Turks out of Europe. His premature passing eventually led to The Turks invading and ruling The Balkans between the 14th and early 20th centuries.
The story of how Emperor Dusan ended up in St Mark’s Church is a long one. Following his death, he was laid to rest at the Monastery of the Holy Archangels in Prizren. That church had been in ruins for centuries by the time excavators discovered his relics and transported them to Skopje. Finally, in 1968, Serbian church leaders negotiated the Emperor’s permanent relocation to Belgrade.
I also came across this wooden model of St Mark’s made by a man called Georg Zivanovic. The Belgrade born craftsmen took nearly twenty years to make it, slowly chipping away at the project until he was satisfied enough to present it to the church. Look closely and there are some lovely details, such as the ruby glass he used for the windows.
Before too long our investigations had to come to a halt. Quite suddenly, a priest appeared waving an incense burner to signal the beginning of the service for The Feast of Assumption. The ceremony, which takes place annually on August the 15th, marks the occasion where The Virgin Mary ascends to heaven after death.
St Mark’s Church, Belgrade.
Finding a discreet corner of the church in which to hide, I observed the various comings and goings of local churchgoers. People stood alert and attentive, listening to the priest’s melodic sermon. Many of them crossed themselves and made sure to stop, bow and leave money in front of the various icons.
Feeling that we might perhaps be in the way, Sladja and I slipped outside into the sunshine, the priest’s words echoing around the hall behind us. Right next to St Mark’s, we took a brief look inside the Russian Orthodox Church (Church of the Holy Trinity).
Erected in 1924, its purpose was to serve the thousands of Soviet refugees who flooded into Serbia after the defeat of the White Army in the Russian Civil War.
Over the years, until the 1940s, the church housed a collection of antique Russian war trophies. These included military flags belonging to Napoleon and some French silver trumpets. It is also the resting place of Pyotr Wrangel, the last commander of the Russian Army in South Russia.
Exploring the Serbian Capital.
In April 1999 the building sustained heavy damage during the infamous NATO bombings. I’m sure this will come up time and time again throughout the course of my Belgrade series. Luckily though the church remains and has, in recent years, undergone a full restoration.
Back to back church visits had left us peckish and thirsty. Thus we settled down at St Mark’s Place, a popular cafe, restaurant and bar located just a stone’s throw from both churches.
It was the perfect spot to enjoy a bit of shade and fine views of St Mark’s’ grand exterior. Not sure as to precisely where we were heading next, Sladja and I ordered a couple of beers and a plate of Mozzarella bites. Sometimes, life is dandy.
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The artwork is just phenomenal. Must have been so atmospheric!
Hey someone! Thanks for reading and leaving a comment. You’re right, the artwork is something else and with the service going on that afternoon there was a special atmosphere within the place.
Imagine standing to sing in church, now there’s a novel idea. Maybe we should try it at football grounds. Hardcore indeed! Being serious though, you don’t have to be a religious type or even a believer, to be moved when you stumble upon a service and are able to eavesdrop on music, devotion…and faith. There’s something indefinably calming about that experience.
Totally agree Phil, there is a magic to these experiences that (in my book anyway) transcends religion itself. Thanks for the read and dropping your two cents.
Prelepo predstavljeno! Svaka čast 👌
Thank you very much! Hvala najlepse!
Wow how gorgeous and that mosaic is incredible! I can’t imagine standing the whole time.
Yeah, the only thing that would make me less likely to attend a church service is the prospect of standing the whole time ha ha. Seriously though, it’s a magnificent building both inside and out. And I’ve read that much has been done to embellish the interior in the three years that have passed since my visit.
Many of my favorite travel memories involve visiting churches. Quite the interesting contrast between those two. I remember the wooden Orthodox churches we saw in Eastern Slovakia. These were several steps up. Loved the mosaics but don’t think I could stand during a whole service. That early exterior shot up through the trees really captured my attention. Nice work.
I’m with you on churches Memo, I don’t seem to tire of them. Also agree on the standing, no thanks.
Really interesting read about the history of these two churches. I loved the mosaics- such incredible detail and color to them! Churches always have some of the best art and best architecture.
Hey Meg, glad you enjoyed the visual feast that is St Marks in Belgrade. This was my first Serbian church so it’s a nice memory. I’ll be publishing the city’s other main church, St Sava, at some point in the next few weeks.
Since we only travel in the U.S, we are enjoying tagging along on your international travels. Thank you for sharing!
Hey guys, so glad you’re enjoying my Belgrade articles. We would both love to only travel in the U.S. one of these years, thanks for getting in touch!
Well, come on over! You could spend a year just exploring Texas!
One of these years we will, I’m sure! I’ve always treasured my adventures in the U.S.
the standard of your articles never seems to waver, you really paint a picture of a city I have never been to and surely never will. keep it up
Thanks Stan! I hope you continue to enjoy these Belgrade adventures, I appreciate all the positive vibes.
The interior of the church is amazing Leighton. The lack of seating does seem to be an Orthodox thing as we found in touring the Russian Orthodox church in Nice. Beer and Mozza bites outdoors in sunny weather. What could be better? Thanks for sharing. Allan
Yeah I’d definitely take summer mozza bites over summer mozzie bites. As things stand, we are probably going to spend 3 months in Serbia this summer after our UK trip. Aiming to tick off some lesser known towns and cities, and hopefully a few more Orthodox churches. Thanks Allan.
Can’t wait to hear the stories. 😀
Thanks for the tour of St. Marks and the history it represents. This may be off the mark, as it were, but the church’s giant circular chandelier, minaret-like towers and lack of seating reminded me of the mosques I visited in Istanbul. Interesting how cultures influence each other, if that is indeed what happened, during the Turkish occupation.
Full “marks” John, for your observations. I hadn’t thought about it but St Marks does have a mosquey feel to it. Thanks for reading!
St Mark’s Church is quite an impressive building! Wow … standing through services … that’s what you call a devoted churchgoer! I have never seen the inside of an Orthodox Church – thank you for showing some great pictures! And mozzarella bites, hmm I like those!
Hey Corna, yup it’s a grand old church and one of two of Belgrade’s big hitters. I think I actually prefer St Sava Church, looking forward to putting that one out soon. Hope you are well there and that you have some more clarity on your short term future.
Thank you Leighton, we are good on this side of the world. Yesterday, things got a little more complicated … but we take it day by day … still don’t know where we’re going, but what we do know, is that we will have a great ‘braai’ with our friends this weekend 😄. Next week, Berto is flying to Johannesburg for a couple of days for a ‘meet and greet’ … and I guess we’ll take it from there …
I’m looking forward to getting the story on your blog!
St Mark’s Church looks beautiful, especially with those colourful mosaics. I’m not sure how I would feel about having to stand through a service! P.S those mozzarella bites look amaaaaazing.
The mozzarella bites are proving popular with readers. Thanks for reading!
I’m amazed at the fortitude of the parishioners standing on hard stone for the duration of a service; impressive! I’m looking forward to your next post.
I wouldn’t stand through a church service. Not even for a plate of mozzarella balls 😉 Thanks for reading!
Never been to Belgrade, but it’s been on my bucket list for a long time. I especially want to go because of St. Mark’s Church. Given that it’d been overlooked and underdeveloped for centuries, its tremendous makeover has certainly made the place all “bling bling!” Definitely a spot worth stepping inside to admire the massive effort to make it what it is today. 🙂
Hey Rebecca, I’m glad St Mark’s appeals and am curious what you’ll make of St Sava, Belgrade’s other iconic church. More on that later!
Whether or not you consider yourself a spiritual person, there’s something special about visiting sacred sites during a trip. Not only do these structures give a sense of place and community, but they are often some of the most stunning buildings in any given destination. Thanks for sharing and have a good day 🙂 Aiva
Thanks for reading Aiva!
St. Mark’s Church looks beautiful with a really ornate and interesting flooring! Thank you for sharing its history and photos as well!
Thanks for checking it out Allie! Appreciate you taking time to contribute to the thread.
It looks absolutely beautiful, I find the churches of Eastern Europe absolutely fascinating. And some cheese bites afterwards, perfect 🙂
Orthodoxy and Mozzarella, an unlikely but winning combination.
They certainly did make up for lost time, what a building! I’ve never heard of a church, that has a service, to not have seating. You’re right #hardcore!! Maggie
I’m glad you liked the look of St Mark’s Maggie. I think St Sava (which I’ll publish soon) is even more impressive!
I wonder how can someone became so consistent about his work….. loved your posts😊.
Hey Foleo, that’s very kind of you to say! Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment.
The mosaic is stunning! I’m not a church person, but oddly the smaller white Russian Orthodox church seems more welcoming and cozy. Nice photo of you – you look happy to be there.
I was over the moon to be there ha ha. I’m currently working on an article about Belgrade’s other main church, St Sava. It’s even more impressive I think.