TASC in the Balkans

TASC is proud to be associated with a number of institutions and individual scholars in the Balkan countries, including the Institute for Balkan Studies, SANU, with whom it is hoped to publish jointly an English translation of Kult Cvetih na Balkanu, 'The Cult of Saints in the Balkans'. This is a collection of important essays by young scholars, edited by Dr Mirjana Detelic. It appeared as No. 5 in the series Liceum, published by the University of Kragujevac.

The Serbian Orthodox monastery of Decani

Wall-painting at Studenica

One of the rural 'church site' shrines studied by scholars from SANU. Photograph by Dr Biljana Sikimic

It is also hoped to associate TASC with a proposed large-scale project at SANU, 'Christianity in the Balkans', under the direction of Dr Danica Popovic.

In the meantime, here is a link to a sample pilot dataset of Orthodox religious dedications in Kosovo, including those of a number of rural 'church site' shrines of a type being studied by a team of scholars at SANU over the last several years.

The data has been compiled from the Official Yearbook of the Orthodox Archdiocese of Belgrade (1996) ('ChYearbook'), and a web-published inventory, ‘The Shortened List of the Shrines of Kosovo and Metohija from the thirteenth to the twentieth centuries’, based on a study by Milan Ivanovic, Crkveni spomenici XIII-XX veka (‘Church Monuments, 13th to 20th century’) from Zaduzbine Kosova (‘The Foundations of Kosovo’), Prizren-Belgrade 1987, ‘and other recent publications’ ('WebList'), together with a number of monasteries which appear on publicly sold maps ('Map').

This inventory, largely compiled by Dragan Jovanovic, is published on the Web by the Serbian Orthodox diocese of Rasko and Kosovo. (Only A-M had been completed on-line at the time of writing this page.) This inventory lists between 850 and 1,000 ‘shrine’ sites, most of them either church sites or cemeteries.

In the Yearbook only 39 cases of patronage are specified - a rather low number from which to make any statistical sense. Nevertheless, it is instructive that Nicholas and Mary the Mother of Jesus are both mentioned in nine cases, that is 23 per cent of the total, since in Jovanovic's inventory the popularity of Mary the mother of Jesus is actually exceeded by that of Nicholas. Nicholas was chosen as patron saint in 48 of the 275 cases in which the patronal cult is identified. Mary was chosen in 39 cases - 14.2 per cent as against 17.5.

Compare the situation in Karelia, where, as demonstrated by Irina Tcherniakova on the TASC dataset pages, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries Nicholas was also the most popular patron, mentioned in 22 cases (26.8 per cent), more than one in four. However, Mary was closely in second position (21 cases, 25.6 per cent).

In medieval Novgorod and its region, by contrast, of 295 dedications recorded on the TASC dataset compiled by Jukka Korpela, 31 honoured Mary and 22 Nicholas (Mary 10.5 per cent, Nicholas 7.5). Nevertheless, Mary’s popularity in that case is still roughly only half of what it would be expected to be in many places in the west of Europe, including England.

In a modern Greek diocese picked at random, Nafpaktos and Euritanos, at the base of Sterea, opposite Patras at the mouth of the Gulf of Corinth, the Mother of God (Theotokos) is honoured in 34 out of a total of 180 modern dedications. That is 18.9 per cent, much as would be found in many English dioceses. But Nicholas’s popularity is not much less. He is honoured in 29 dedications, 16.1 per cent.

It is worth noting that 21 dedications in this Greek diocese (11.7 per cent) honour Paraskeva, whose cult is strikingly popular in Kosovo, also. There Paraskeva is found in 24 cases (8.7 per cent of the total). Her cult reached the Novgorodian lands, also, though recorded only in two or three medieval dedications.

How peculiar to south-eastern Europe, therefore, is this profile of Orthodox dedications in Kosovo? In terms of Nicholas’s popularity, it shares something of its character with what is found in northern Europe, but we should not lose sight of the fact that Nicholas enjoyed outstanding popularity in England at the close of the Middle Ages, as he did elsewhere in north-western Europe. Of 245 medieval dedications in Frisia west of the Leuwen See included in the TASC dataset, no fewer than 40 commemorated Nicholas (16.3 per cent) and in only 12 cases (4.9 per cent) did the choice of patron fall on Mary.

St Demetrius

Nicholas is truly a saint held in common veneration across Europe. So is George, though his Orthodox popularity in Kosovo, as elsewhere in the Balkans, is best viewed in tandem with that of his fellow military saints, notably Demetrius and Theodore. So that if his 19 dedications were added to Demetrius’s 10 and Theodore’s one, their combined total would outstrip that of Paraskeva.

In medieval Novgorod, George, Demetrius and Theodore together had a total of 24 dedications, two more than Mary, while in our sample Greek diocese, Demetrius has 19 modern dedications and George 14, a total of 33 compared with Mary’s 34.

A very similar aggregation exercise could be carried out with the two great prophets venerated. Elijah and John the Baptist - both are commemorated in 15 cases in the Kosovo corpus - since the first was understood as the type of the second. Indeed, John was feared by Herod to be the reincarnation of Elijah, and was suspected as such by the populace.

In summary it appears that veneration of military saints on the one hand, and the great prophets on the other, ranks only one step behind that of Nicholas, the meek saint of generosity, discounting the universal cult of the Mother of God. We may note, for example, that the two flanking east-end aisle altars in the nave of the Decani monastery are dedicated in honour of Demetrius on the north and Nicholas on the south.

It remains to mention two further categories. First, the doctor saints: Cosmas and Damian (venerated as a pair as the Holy Anargyroi, the ones without silver, that is, demanding no payment) and Panteleimon, whose name means ‘all-compassionate’. They are commemorated in the Kosovo corpus in eleven and four cases respectively.

Second, we must notice the dynastic saints of Orthodox Serbia: Stephen, Lazar, Sava, Symeon - and perhaps Helen by proxy, for her dedications focus attention not only on the mother of Constantine, but also her namesake, Jelena, the wife of Emperor Stephen Dusan.

The School of South-East European Studies at the University of London invited the Director of TASC, Dr Graham Jones (University of Leicester) to speak about the religious dedications of the Balkans in its 2001-2 Seminar Series.

Web-sites with images and information about churches in the Balkans includes Churches and Monasteries of Nis, compiled by Miša Rakocija and Jelena Rakocija and published by the Studentski Kulturni Centar Niš.

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Last updated: 17 October 2002 11:42
Dr G.R. Jones
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