Travel Report: Church of St Sava, Belgrade.
Church of St Sava, Belgrade.
Belgrade is a city that’s positively blessed with picturesque churches. Among the finest of these structures, I’ve already blogged about the stunning St Mark’s Church. And the exceptionally pretty St Petka’s Chapel and Ruzica Church nestled within Belgrade Fortress.
However, if I had to choose the Serbian capital’s most iconic church, it just has to be the majestic Temple of St Sava. Built in 1935, and in a near constant state of development ever since, this is the largest Orthodox church in The Balkans. Moreover, one of the biggest in the world, according to several online lists.
As you’ve almost certainly worked out, the church stands in honour of Saint Sava, a prince, priest, monk and founder of the Serbian Orthodox Church. So yeah, he was a pretty big deal, one of the most important dudes of mediaeval Serbia. In fact, during his 61 to 66 years on Earth (historians can’t be sure how long he lived), he also played a key role in laying down the first rules of Serbian law.
Amazingly, they say the Church of St Sava stands on the site of the great man’s grave! He spent the last years of his life crossing off the world’s most important holy sights, including grand, gift-adorned visits to Jerusalem, Egypt, Armenia and Bulgaria. At some point during the trip he fell “sick”, before passing away in Bulgaria on the 27th of January 1235.
Church of St Sava, Belgrade.
Initially, the Bulgarians buried him at Holy Forty Martyrs Church in the town of Veliko Tarnovo. Some years after, following relentless requests, the Serbian church succeeded in bringing St Sava home, laying him to rest at Mileševa Monastery. Centuries later in 1594, when the Serbs began rising up against their Ottoman rulers, soldiers fought bearing flags decorated with the portrait of St Sava.
As you would imagine, this did not please Ottoman Grand Vizier Koca Sinan Pasha. Consequently, he arranged for Saint Sava’s remains to be brought to him from Mileševa Monastery. He then proceeded to burn them on a pyre atop a plateau in what some historians insist is the site of today’s church. The act, of course, meant to symbolise the burning of Serbian freedom. And it succeeded… for a while at least.
Like so many of Belgrade’s most important buildings, the Church of St Sava has had a topsy turvy history. With the city under German occupation in 1941, The Nazis employed the unfinished building as an arms depot. Legend also has it that Tito’s Partisans used it as an HQ after capturing it from the Germans in a fierce battle.
Much like St Mark’s Church, St Sava did not flourish under communist rule. Eventually, in the mid 1980s, the government allowed the church to start restoration work and indeed finish its original construction. Thus began a series of ambitious projects, including the addition of the magnificent 4000 tonne dome in 1989.
Exploring the Serbian Capital.
Fast forward to the day Sladja and I visited in August 2019 and St Sava still wasn’t finished. Actually, we arrived to find the entire nave closed off for interior decoration. Entering through a side door on the left hand side of the building, we came into a long, narrow room serving as a makeshift nave.
Here, people could go about the business of lighting candles and saying their prayers. Taking in the scene, I spied a man kneeling in front of a Virgin Mary icon. Then a woman kissing the base of a wooden Jesus on the cross. It was a bit chaotic, with visitors having to walk on a floor of plastic sheets between scattered paint pots and stepladders.
Luckily, we were able to enter the spectacular crypt, a cavernous, recently finished underground hall that houses ancient treasures of The Serbian Orthodox Church.
Designed in the Byzantine style, the crypt looks and feels like a chamber of pure gold. A palatial space with dense pillars, sweeping arches and lavish chandeliers. Furthermore, there’s an abundance of rich paintings and mosaics depicting various apostles, martyrs and saints.
Among the many frescoes, we saw a scene showing the beheading of Prince Lazar of Serbia. Celebrated as one of Serbia’s most powerful rulers and a key figure in epic Serbian poetry, Lazar died while fighting The Turks at the Battle of Kosovo in the summer of 1389. A further fresco honours the building of Ravanica Monastery, where he was buried.
Church of St Sava, Belgrade.
Elsewhere, we marvelled at the marble floor and mosaic windows made of Italian Murano glass. No wonder it has become one of Belgrade’s most sumptuous and atmospheric concert halls.
As much as I loved my two weeks exploring the Serbian capital, I never thought I’d end up living there. But then nobody saw the pandemic coming. “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans” sang John Lennon. Indeed Sladja and I had intended to live and work online across Asia for a year or two.
But in the end we only managed seven months in Cambodia followed by a couple of weeks in Turkey. In need of a long term base that would enable us to stay together, we returned to Belgrade where we could secure our short term future, grab our vaccines and get married. As fate would have it, our apartment in the neighbourhood of Vračar had a little balcony from which there was a decent view of St Sava.
On any given day, in the process of doing chores at the bank, supermarket and various stores, we’d invariably pass St Sava. Two to three times a week, I’d run past the old joint while out on a jogging route through the city.
But I think I liked it most at night. When I could glimpse at the lit up structure through the trees of pretty St Sava Park.
Exploring the Serbian Capital.
Finally, over sixteen months after we first visited, the nave reopened and we were able to see the interior in all its newfound splendour. Finished under the guidance of The Russian Academy of Arts, it is nothing short of a visual feast. Like the crypt, a golden colour scheme dominates, augmented by exceptional mosaics laid out in the Byzantine style of the 11th and 12th centuries.
Painted images depicting Christ’s life lie spread across the four apses. And it’s impossible to take your eyes off of the grand, twelve-sided central wheel chandelier. Made of bronze and decorated with wooden icons, it is the church’s main lighting device. Almost 90 years after its construction, they say Belgrade’s Church of St Sava is “kinda finished”. It’s been a long journey, but the end result is undeniably impressive.
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Wow! The crypt is marvelous. I agree with you, this church is gorgeous and thankfully I got the chance to go there as well, but did not even know the crypt existed. Maybe it was still under renovation.
Hey, it’s quite the building eh, inside and out. It was interesting to see its growth over the years from that first visit to our year living in Belgrade. Thanks for reading and kicking off the comment thread!
The Byzantine crypt is stunning but how amazing is that newly refurbished nave. I’m so pleased that fate played a part and you were able to return to Belgrade to view it in all its restored glory. Hope you’re both enjoying a lovely flag waving Jubilee weekend.
Happy Jubilee weekend Marion! Yes, it was nice to have that long term view of how St Sava developed between the summers of 2019 and 2021. Thanks for visiting.
The interiors look strikingly beautiful. I love the colors!!! The way you write about your experiences make such an interesting read. Awesome work!
Appreciate that! It’s good to see a church with such a troubled history finally come good, so to speak.
The beauty of the finished nave was well worth it. This is a beautiful building Leighton. It looks like poor St. Sava got very little rest, even in death. Amazing how supposedly mature people still do battle over symbolism. One can only hope that future generations are a bit more pragmatic in their approach to life. Happy Sunday. Allan
One can only hope Allan. Thanks for checking out this first batch of Belgrade articles, I’m glad you came along for the ride. A short break now and then a change of continent. Happy Sunday!
Wow! This church puts the spectacular in the word spectacular. It is beyond beautiful. Did I understand you right? The crypt serves as a concert hall? That must be impressive. I think that I would have been a regular visitor had I lived where you did. But then places like that are designed to help you escape the real world. Great post.
Yup, they host concerts in the crypt from time to time. Imagine those acoustics. It would be impossible to count the number of times I popped my head inside the refurbished nave after it reopened. Usually to break up my jog through the city.
What a fabulously adorned church, sumptuous and opulent interior. Really not surprised it’s your favourite, you’d have to go some to beat it. I like the Lennon quote by the way, not heard that before.
Thanks, appreciate it. The quote comes from Lennon’s song ‘Beautiful Boy’ which is on Double Fantasy. A contented and somewhat prophetic song. Hope you’re enjoying the Jubilee and its good weather.
That crypt is absolutely amazing, what a beautiful place.
It certainly is, thanks for coming to take a look.
From the distinctive green Orthodox domes to the jaw-dropping crypt interior, the Church of St. Sava is certainly a must-see while in Belgrade. You’re providing an ever-growing list of beautiful places to visit in Belgrade, once I can make it over!
Glad you like it Rebecca! So now you can decide which one you think is the most beautiful, St Mark’s or St Sava. The first part of my Belgrade series ends here. The second batch, covering our year living in the Serbian capital, will come out later in the year. Hm, or maybe early next. Yikes, there’s too much to do.
I hear you. I have travel posts coming out this fall/winter from my trips LAST year. There’s too much to keep up with!
They did a super job of renovating this church. The Crypt is awesome. St. Sava would be proud.
Cheers John, appreciate you stopping by. As Serbian saints go, ol’ Sava has done well for himself.
Yes, the Temple of St Sava is indeed a picturesque building! And the inside did not disappoint as well – how beautiful is the crypt, as well as that amazing chandelier. It must have been great to see the ‘end result’ of the restoration project (or was it more a building project?) … it’s just lovely!
A building project I think, Corna. Yes, it was great to have a window of sorts into its development over the two trips. Thanks for reading!
Wow! I feel like the crypt should be the entrance to a theater/opera house or something fabulous like that. The nave is spectacular and I just love the picture of the church under the leaves. I was also thinking how I enjoy a little history lesson when I read your posts 🙂
I think you’re right about the opera house vibe Lyssy. Glad the historic stuff isn’t boring, thanks for following our first Belgrade adventure.
It’s nice learning some history without being quizzed on it 🙂
Absolutely beautiful church! I really enjoy the Byzantine style so much that I could easily spend all day just marveling at the artwork. 🙂
Thanks for catching up Meg, that’s a wrap for this Belgrade series.
The church of St Sava looks very impressive. It’s crazy to hear that it still wasn’t finished when you visited in 2019, but glad you were able to return to see the interior of the nave.
Thanks for reading!
Stunning church! Another wonderful post, beautiful pictures and history lesson. Thank you, Leighton.
Thanks guys for following this Belgrade series.
Wow; absolutely stunning!
Thanks for your comment!
A beautiful and impressive decoration. The general shape reminds me of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, at the time the largest church in existence. Will St Sava last as long? I noted the mention of Veliko Tarnovo, the former Bulgarian capital about which I was writing recently. Thanks for sharing.
It’s cool when you discover these blogging crossovers eh? I was in the middle of writing this piece when I saw your Veliko Tărnovo article.
That’s a very mesmerising church, especially inside the crypt ✨
Thanks Cherryl, it’s a real beauty!
That crypt is amazing, and you must be glad the nave was done when you returned! Maggie
Cheers Maggie, I’ve never seen a church evolve like that so it was an interesting experience.
Wow this church is beautiful!
Thanks for stopping by Allie!