Tomb of Archbishop Daniel, Pec
The tomb of Archbishop Daniel - 14th century, Pec

"Not a word is ever uttered about the great church art of Serbia."

To understand the Serbs, look at their art in Kosovo

To understand the Serbs, look at their art in Kosovo, says WALDEMAR JANUSZCZAK.
The Sunday Times: Culture: Art
London, May 16 1999

These depictions of war and persecution are the focus of the country's beliefs Serbia's art and soul I came across a monk on the Internet last week, broadcasting from one of the most beautiful of all the Serbian churches in Kosovo and Metohija - to give the province its full Serbian nomenclature, for a change - from Decani, near the Albanian border. Metohija means "land of the churches". Which is what Kosovo is to the Serbs. They also call it their Sacred Land. If you look at a map of the religious sites in the province you will see immediately why. The landscape is dotted with so many schematic crosses that you wonder where the cities might be fitted in. And how could our bombs possibly miss all these churches and monasteries and convents?

The distressed Internet monk was telling his readers, rather elegantly I thought, that "history in the Balkans is like quicksand", and he was urging fellow Serbs not to allow this quicksand of history to suck them down. "If we cannot move forward now, we will suffer again," he warned.

Unfortunately, the broadcast was dated to the middle of 1998. This was just another piece of ancient Internet junk, floating uselessly on the Web. As it happens, I know the monastery in Decani. I visited it more than 20 years ago as an eager art student trying to acquire a wider knowledge of Byzantine art. The old Orient Express used to go as far as Istanbul, uniting, in steam and bumps, the art of the West with that of the East, and I was able to arrange a hop-off as it passed through Tito's illusionistically coherent Yugoslavia. What an important service that bandit-attracting train used to provide as it chugged through the Balkans and made ignorance more difficult.

It is fair to say, I suppose, that Byzantine art is tough to admire. It talks down to you like a sentencing judge. There's an intrinsic sternness to it. You must enter such dark and inviolately serious churches to encounter it. And then you must appreciate so much repetition. Nevertheless, tourists flock to magnificent Ravenna happily enough; and the delights of ancient Istanbul are always being eagerly sampled. But the glories of Serbian Kosovo remain significantly more obscure. Even today - unbelievably - they appear to us to form a very minor piece of the Kosovo jigsaw, but to the Serbs they have never been that. To the Serbs they constitute an indestructible 700-year-old proof of their rightful ownership of the sacred land.

The monastery of Visoki Decani was founded early in the 14th century, and I wish I could remember it better. I remember that it is approached along a spectacular wooded valley and that the outside is striped in soft marble pinks and whites. The interior, as I recall it, is completely covered from floor to dome with frescoes, executed, I read, between 1335 and 1350. These are considered to be the greatest masterpieces of Serbian religious art. But are they still there? Is the treasury at Decani still filled with those curious golden crosses, so absurdly ornate that they have ceased entirely to be cross-shaped? Are the hand-painted medieval gospels still glistening in their dusty glass boxes? And over the crossing, is there still a giant Christ looking down on you with one of those terrifyingly accusatory biblical stares that are a Byzantine speciality? Who knows?

It is an ugly irony of this dumb and ever dumber war that, even though art played such a critical role in its instigation, nobody appears to have taken the slightest bit of interest in it since the fighting began. Not on our side, at least. It wasn't always so. That gaseous cultural dreamer and professional Frenchman, Andre Malraux, looking out across the beautiful Serbian monasteries of Kosovo, with their dramatic clusters of grapefruit domes and their huge expanses of floor-to-ceiling fresco, was moved to write: "Culture, when it is the most precious possession, is never the past." God, but he was right.

Malraux died in 1976. He had been a liberal, but he died a Gaullist who loved the sound of his own conservatism, and certainly wrote too much. In most modern situations I would rank him as one of the century's most eminently skippable cultural commentators. But in his few sad thoughts on Kosovo, published a quarter of a century ago in one of those impressively convoluted studies of the Slavs that are a Gallic speciality, Malraux revealed himself to be an excellent reader of the Serb mind. Being French, and of the old school, he understood perfectly the power not only of culture but also of history.

Today, in new Britain, it seems to me we no longer understand the power of either. Which is why we have attempted so childishly, in Tony-talk, to reduce the complex Balkan scenario into a simple fairy tale about a nasty dictator leading his people astray. It is why we have ignored, so fully, the art of Kosovo, and failed, so entirely, to appreciate the part it has played in shaping these grim unfoldings. It is why the first battle of Kosovo of 1389 - in which the Christian Serbs were defeated by the Muslim Turks, ushering in 500 years of astonishingly stubborn Serbian cultural resistance to Islam- is written about, in the few instances that it is written about, as if all that it provides is some minor proof of chronic Serbian old-fashionedness. And it is why we have ended up blundering so violently into a game of space invaders in the skies above the Balkans. Because real history means so little to us, we have forgotten how much it continues to mean to others.

And please do not deny that our appreciation of history has shrunk into dumbness. This year was the 350th anniversary of the beheading of Charles I. All year long I have been staggered by the so-what? responses this anniversary has encouraged in New Britain. The Queen's Gallery put on a half-hearted display of royal portraits. A show of Stuart prints popped up at the British Museum. And that's it. A nation that found its rightful monarch guilty of crimes against the state, then somehow found the black determination to try him and behead him, can no longer be bothered to remember why. It couldn't happen in Serbia, believe me.

In fact, I do not think it could have happened anywhere east of Dover. Yet, over here, the national memory of the execution of a king has been discarded as easily as last year's flares. I have been remembering Malraux a lot recently, as I sit here worrying about what has happened to the great storehouses of Byzantine art that are the Serbian monasteries of Kosovo and Metohija, about the fate of which I have been unable to find a single informed word among the millions of others that have been pouring out of reporters and opinion-formers since our bombing began.

That extraordinary three-in-one church, The patriarchate of Pec, for six centuries the headquarters of the Serbian Orthodox faith, set in another spectacular gorge, close to Decani, close to Albania - is it still intact? During those 500 years of Muslim rule by the Turks, Pec and the other monasteries of the Sacred Land provided an obvious and reliable focus for Serb nationalist dreams.

And what about Gracanica? A strange church, as I remember it, with too many domes crowded above too small a nave, located a few miles outside Pristina, and started in 1313. The Turks burnt it down a few decades later. So the Serbs rebuilt it. Burnt down and rebuilt, burnt down and rebuilt - the famous ecclesiastical sites of Kosovo kept the Serbian embers glowing, for century after century, with remarkable success.

So, when the Bosnians converted to Islam, the Serbs didn't. When the Albanians converted to Islam, the Serbs didn't. For 500 years they believed themselves to be fighting a Christian jihad on behalf of the civilised West against the invading eastern Muslims. When the Turks were finally expelled, in the false dawn that preceded the Great War, in came the Bulgarians. And the Austrians. And the Italians. Then the Nazis. Even more clearly than my people, the Poles, the Serbs have had to define themselves through their opposition to their neighbours. And their churches, packed to the rafters with so much stern and rousing and ancient religious propaganda, have been the chief artistic focus of that opposition.

So, when the Croats sided with Hitler, the Serbs didn't. When the Albanians sided with Hitler, the Serbs didn't. Until, finally, in about 1960, under the wonky tarpaulin of Tito's communism, the Muslim population of Kosovo, swollen by wholesale illegal immigration from the mightily poor and pseudo-Maoist Albania, and fattened by the strict Muslim forbidding of birth control, finally overtook and outnumbered the indigenous Serb population. And 40 years of recent history began the process of attempting to outweigh 700 years of historic struggle.

Monasteries had stones thrown through their windows (many had already been converted into mosques). Graves were desecrated. Churches were torched. It is to the defence of those churches that the Serbs clearly believed they were rushing when they invaded, so brutally and quickly, Kosovo and Metohija.

The coverage of the Kosovo conflict has, time after time, struck me with its high-tech ignorance of these powerful low-tech causes. Not a word is ever uttered about the great church art of Serbia. Not enough has been devoted to the deep historical roots of the war. A few brief references have been made to the historic Battle of Kosovo of 1389, but not with any deep ambition to take it seriously.

Not a line, that I have read, has been quoted from the marvellous cycle of epic Kosovo poems with which the Serbs, "a nation of bards", have been indoctrinating their children, from birth, since the victory of the Turks. I suppose, in new Britain, you feel like something of a berk reciting the famous curse of Stefan Musich:

If any Serb, or man of Serbian birth,
Or any man of Serbian kith or kin,
If any such a man comes not with me
To battle on the field of Kosovo -
Never shall he know a son or daughter.
Whatsoever he may touch shall wither:
Vineyard, field of wheat - his sweat and labour
Fruitless, and his generation barren!