The destinies of Serbian art are the living reflection of its geographical position and the historical events of the country. Placed on the edge of two cultural worlds, the Western and the Byzantine, medieval Serbia has the foundations of its artistic culture intimately linked with Byzantium and the Christian East, but nevertheless it also reflects certain forms of Western art, with which Serbian lands came into contact especially near the Adriatic Sea.
Another determining factor in Serbian art was the political history of the nation. The Serbian artistic culture arises from modest beginnings in the two oldest state formations, on the Adriatic and in the Rascia, acquires vigor and richness of expression as the medieval Serbian state grows, reaches its apogee in the century. XIV, and, after the collapse of this state, under Turkish rule, it was transformed almost entirely into monastic art without creative force. In the ecclesiastical context, the traditions of this art still persist – albeit in more or less Westernized forms, thus contrasting with its own bases – but they no longer have anything in common with the contemporary creative life of Serbian art. So that in Serbia medieval art, which was not followed either by the Renaissance or by the further phases of the art of West, constitutes a closed, isolated, seamless period; and the western era of Serbian art, which reconnects it with the modern art of near and distant centers, constitutes a completely new phenomenon, already belonging to the history of the century. XIX.
Medieval Serbian art was almost exclusively ecclesiastical and religious. Not the cities (the country had almost none), but the numerous monasteries were the centers of its development, in the first place the “zaduzbine”, that is the foundations of the kings, and the foundations of the magnates who followed suit., as well as the monasteries which were the seats of the representatives of the high clergy. This is also a characteristic of Byzantine origin, since during the 11th-13th centuries on the same territory, especially in Macedonia, the foundations of the emperors and magnates of Byzantium, the monasteries inhabited by Greek monks, had a similar function. How important these factors were, is evident if only from the church of Nerezi near Skoplje, of the century. XII, whose paintings are among the most important monuments of Byzantine medieval painting. These paintings cannot yet be attributed to Serbian art, and not even the first Christian works of art among the Slavic populations (at the lakes of Ochrida and Prespa) which, connected with the missionary activity of St. Clement and others, date back around the year 900. The beginnings of Christian art among the Serbs on the shores of the Adriatic Sea, Lake Scutari and the Boiana, as well as in central Serbia and southern Hungary, are also still unclear. The characters of this art become more evident only at the time of the foundation of the Serbian state. But in its development, as indeed generally in the development of the Serbian state.
This appears more evident in architecture. Although the types of construction of churches have numerous variations, they can nevertheless be divided into some fundamental groups, determined rather by the place of origin than by the time.
In the territory of the Rascia the architecture moves from the simple type of the church to a nave, with vault and dome: which, however, already in the most ancient monuments, p. eg, in the church of Polimlje, it shows some divergences from the Byzantine model, of which the most characteristic is the square drum bearing the dome. Although the oldest monument of this era, the church of St. Nicholas in Kuršumlija (circa 1168) reproduces the Byzantine type of church with a square base dome, and not only the technique, but also the style of it is Byzantine, all of the he further architecture of the Rascia intends to expand and enrich the other simple type of longitudinal church with a nave and dome. Thus, for example, the church of the foundation of Nemanja in Studenica keeps almost the same plan, modifying it only with the addition of two small lateral apses to the main one and two low vestibules at the north and south entrances; but the narthex and the nave were covered by a common roof and the external face, made up of polished stone blocks, is similar to the Romanesque style. Other monuments of this group differ even more from the Byzantine models: the churches of Žìča (between 1207 and 1219), Sopoćani (1272-1276), and Visoki Dečani (started in 1327, finished in 1335), with paintings of 1348). The church of Žiča, built externally in alternating rows of brick and stone, reproduces the polychromy of the models of Constantinople, and has stone vaults like the churches of Greece and Macedonia, but with its only nave it follows the western model, the narthex is connected with the nave as in Studenica, and the external walls are devoid of the grooves corresponding to the external arches that carry the dome. In the church of Studenica, the lateral vestibules have also taken on a new function: closed from the outside, open to the inside so as to form a single space with the nave of the church, they recall the side apses of the church on Mount Athos; on the sides of the narthex two rectangular chapels with domes were placed, in front of the narthex itself an external narthex was added in the form of a large vaulted atrium, and in front of it a tower. This type was enlarged and decorated even more in another group of churches, the main one being that of Sopoćani. The parts added to Žiča are placed here, together with the side apses, under a common roof, thus producing from the outside the appearance of aisles of a basilica; the dome, even higher and more slender, rises above a square tambour which has its own stepped roof, so that the entire mass of the church rises in three floors which gradually narrow. The highlight of the Rascia’s architecture is the most original church in Serbia: Visoki Dečani, where the last logical possibilities of this kind were realized. The original form of the single-nave church with dome is transformed there, through the distribution and logical connection of the annexed buildings, into a lower presbytery with three naves with three apses; a higher transept with five naves with two apses crowned by a slender dome supported by a tall square drum; and, in addition, a lower narthex with three naves: the whole has the appearance of three basilicas connected to each other that gradually rise up to the final momentum of the dome. With the facing in alternate rows of light and dark stone, with a colonnade frieze on shelves under the roof, with the plastic ornamentation of the doors and windows, this church recalls Lombard and Romanesque architecture; which is not surprising, given that the main architect was Friar Vita da Cattaro. In Decani, Serbian architecture has strayed more than anywhere else from Byzantine models, and by linking the Byzantine bases with Western elements has created its most original, most picturesque monument.
The architecture of southern Serbia (Serbian Macedonia), where the center of state life moved since the reign of Milutin (1281-1321), has a different character, much more closely linked with Byzantine architecture, especially with its variants in Western Macedonia. Unlike the Rascia, whose architecture presents, in chronological order, the uninterrupted development of a single type, the numerous monuments of this architecture of “Byzantine Serbia”, as it was called by G. Millet, are linked to various Byzantine variants ; however, all have a common pattern: the cross-shaped plant. To a certain extent, Chilandar on Mount Athos already belongs to the group of these churches (founded by Stephen Nemanja, at the end of the 12th century, but rebuilt from the foundations by King Milutin in 1293), where the type of the church of the Athos monastery joins new elements for this region, of a Serbian character, in particular the new type of narthex, as it was in Žiča. However, the churches belonging to southern Serbia are different. Among the five-domed churches the most typical stand out: Staro Nagoričino (1312-1313) and Gračanica (completed before 1321). The first offers an example of the elongated cross plan; its mass is in itself closed, and the rectangular shape is interrupted only by the single apse; the four lateral domes surrounding the main one have a more decorative than structural function. The church of Gračanica, built in the form of a cross on a square base and therefore typically Byzantine, is on the other hand, and no less than Dečani, a classic example of the originality of Serbian architecture, which succeeded in realizing its own tendencies, even within the ambit of the traditions and forms of Byzantine architecture. The plan and the elevation of the church appear to be composed of two crosses inserted in the square, and the effect thus obtained gives the impression of perfect harmony and at the same time of an elementary upward momentum: a character that was already specific to the churches of the Rascia. Churches with a dome and an elongated cross plan are more frequent. In the multiplicity of their variants there is no lack of local traits common to all, which had already been valid here and there in the Rascia: the churches are more compact than the Byzantines, the proportions are narrow and more slender, there is a clear tendency to reach the effects of longitudinal constructions; the dome is high, the exterior is adorned with organically arranged colonnades. The most typical examples are the churches of Cucer (between 1308 and 1316), of Ljuboten (1337) of Lesnovo (1341). Monuments dating back to the last days of Serbian independence – among which are particularly distinguished: Matejić with five domes (foundation of Tsarina Elena, wife of Tsar Dušan), Markov Manastir (foundation of King Vukašin and his son Marco) – imitate partly Constantinopolitan models, and partly incorporating Greek motifs, introducing at the same time architectural elements of the Rascia.
Also in the third group of Serbian architecture, consisting of the churches in the Morava valley which during the last phase of Serbian independence became the center of political and cultural life, a great variety of types dominate, which nevertheless have a common trait: on the sides two apses appear in the transept, a motif coming from the architecture of the monastery of Mount Athos. Apart from that, these churches are to be joined both to the tradition of Rascia and to that of “Byzantine Serbia”, since they are in continuity with both the type of church with a single nave of the Rascia group and with that of an elongated cross; so that the entire development of architecture finds its conclusion in this school of the Morava valley. Thus, p. e.g., the church of Ravanica, founded by Prince Lazarus, belongs to the architecture of southern Serbia, while the Lazarica in Kruševo constitutes a local interpretation and further development of the type and traditions of the Rascia. The most harmonious monuments of this whole group are: the churches of Ljubostinja and Manasija, 1407-1411.
After the loss of independence, the traditions of Serbian architecture did not end. The emigrated Serbs took them with them to southern Hungary, where the whole of Fruška Gora was populated by Serbian monasteries; and also on the other territories inhabited by Serbs rose again in the century. XVII churches and monasteries, in which, despite all the changes, ancient traditions survive.
Belonging to the circle of Byzantine artistic culture, Serbian art did not produce a monumental sculpture: its plastic genius was expressed only in the ornamentation closely connected with architecture. In the Rascia this sculpture mainly took its models from the decorative sculpture of the Romanesque churches, especially the Dalmatian ones, here and there also those of southern Italy, especially Puglia, as in the portal of the church of Nemanja. The greatest wealth of ornamental sculptures can be seen in Visoki Dečani, where one of the windows reveals a close affinity with the models of Kotor. The plastic ornamentation of churches in southern Serbia naturally has a greater affinity with Byzantine models, although here and there it also imitates the motifs and technique of Caucasian sculptures. Decorative sculpture reaches its maximum development in the churches located in the Morava valley. There are also motifs of figures, but they are rare in comparison with the abundance of vegetable and animal motifs, and above all geometric ones, among which the intertwining ones have a large part: the motifs, the technique and the way how they are adapted, reveal relations less with Byzantium than with the Christian East (Caucasus and Russian countries) and with Islamic art.
Little has been preserved of the icon painting of the Serbian Middle Ages; on the other hand, the study of the history of miniature, especially of its most ancient phases, is barely in its initial stage. All the greater therefore is the importance of the numerous documents of mural painting. Together with the most ancient works of Byzantine painting on the Serbian territory (for example, in Ochrida and Nerezi) they on the one hand complete the vision of the artistic history of Byzantium itself in the 12th-14th centuries, on the other they reveal, with clarity equal to that of Serbian architecture, its own original tendencies of Serbian art.
The line of development does not appear unitary even in painting: not so much, however, is it linked to the aforementioned three phases of church architecture, as it reflects the trends of a series of painting schools, which refer to various traditions and transform them in various ways. These differences and varieties already appear in the oldest groups of works in the Rascia and manifest themselves simultaneously. A characteristic example of the dominant local currents in medieval Serbian – and also Byzantine painting in general – are, p. for example, the frescoes of 1236 in the church of Mileševo which take up the ancient traditions of the monumental mosaic painting of the 6th-8th centuries with their impressionistic tendencies, pushing imitation to the point of imitating the mosaic gold background. The link with traditional models is also evident in another group of paintings from the Rascia (Studenica, Žiča, Serbia Gjorgje near Novi Pazar). In them the academic direction of the Comnenian era is expressed above all, but at the same time the influence of icon painting also appears, without however compromising either the monumental character or the subordination to the architecture of the interiors. In other works of this group there appears a certain liveliness of movements and a tendency to express emotions; but the richness of colors decreases. None of these groups lack Western reminiscences, both stylistic and iconographic, and are derived, according to V. Petrović, above all from Sicilian models. At the beginning of the 14th century, new trends emerged in this painting. Although some of its products, eg. the paintings in the church of the Chilandari monastery on Mount Athos still have a monumental character, even in them now the art of miniature is substituted for the ancient models: in Staro Nagoričino, in Žiča, in the church of King Milutin in Studenica, in Gracanica monumentality gives way to compositions in reduced dimensions and characterized above all by the tendency to epic illustration and also by the growing realism of the artistic vision, by the more direct observation of reality and by the greater variety in the arrangement of the human figure. Other paintings connected with this group have a particular nuance, centered on the school of painting represented by the narrative frescoes in Visoki Dećani, which, especially in iconography, reveal undoubted relations with Italian painting. Other frescoes, in Markov Manastir, Lesnovo, Matejić, Psača and elsewhere, have, on the same background, still different characteristics, in which popular tendencies are expressed up to a certain point: the features are somewhat more rude, but the compositions are full of vigor and momentum. The paintings in the church of the Morava valley are also similar to the frescoes of Staro Nagoričino and Gračanica, but – although there are obvious differences of conception between them – the dominant note in all is the growing ornamental trend as well as (according to the Okunev’s definition) a somewhat “baroque” style. In the forefront the paintings of Manasija should be noted.
In this painting as a whole, portraits occupy a prominent place, especially the portraits of kings and their families, and also of other founders, so that perhaps no other European country has preserved in its medieval painting as many portraits of historical personalities as there have been. in Serbia.
The beginnings of the most recent Serbian art are to be found in Vojvodina, where towards the middle of the century. XVIII there is a notable intensification of the artistic movement, especially in the field of painting. It marks the break with ancient traditions: so that already in the second half of the century this painting – apart from a certain rigidity of forms in church painting – is in reality by now completely westernized. The center of all this movement is Novi Sad, and among the artists of Vojvodina Konstantin Daniel (1789-1873), portrait painter and author of numerous iconostases conceived in an almost Catholic spirit, and Jura Jakšić should be noted. Vojvodina even supplied a series of painters in Belgrade, when there, towards the middle of the century. XIX, the artistic activity began to grow. But the lack of their own artistic traditions, the poverty of the technique and the indifference of the public in the face of artistic problems made the life of the artists very precarious. Among the painters who, towards the end of the century. XIX, worked in Belgrade, the portraitist St. Todorović and Gjorgje Krstić, a student of the Munich Academy, a genuinely romantic and first-rate colourist, rich in delicate tones, should be mentioned. Also to the field of portrait and genre painting belong the best works of Uroš Predić, an artist highly cultivated with naturalistic tendencies, in which the influence of one of the most representative Serbian painters, P. Jovanović (v.), Is sometimes sensitive. also by the Czech painter Čermák. Among the most interesting figures of this group from Belgrade is that of Leone Koen coming from a ‘ ancient Jewish family from Belgrade. Romantic attitude, love for elevated and noble themes, tendency to monumentality and light colors, characterize his work; his creative activity, however, was undermined by illness and the lack of understanding that his environment had for him. Very strong temperament, strong individuality and great coloristic qualities had the impressionist Nadežda Petrović (died in 1915). The first landscape painter in Belgrade was Marko Murat of Ragusa, already towards the end of the century. XIX moved to Belgrade. The group of young people from Belgrade is made up of Br. Popović, Petar Dobrović and Jovan Njelić, among whom especially the latter stands out for its experimental tendencies and distinctly ornamental sense. Marino Tartaglia also deserves mention.
In Serbia, as in the other centers of Yugoslavia, up to more recent times the art of painting has occupied the first place in the artistic activity: the part of sculpture was in comparison very modest. It is therefore not surprising that in the older generation of Serbian sculptors one can not detect if not a few eminent personalities, among which P. Ubavkić and Giorgio Jovanović, both representatives of academic naturalism. The situation changed with the revelation of the great art of I. Meštrović (v.), Creator of compositions of great expressive power. The influence of Meštrović was naturally very great also on Serbian art, as on the Croatian one, since, even in the field of art, the ancient borders between the individual parts of Yugoslavia are increasingly disappearing and the artistic language is becoming more and more unitary. This also has its importance for architecture, in which, alongside the older architects (seeYugoslavia: Art), the Krotić brothers are particularly noteworthy among young people. (See tables LXIX and LXX).