One purpose of early religious iconography (ca. 100-313) was to give the illiterate population the ability to follow Scripture via visual means rather than reading print. The brightly colored figures of Christ, the saints and the angels brought inward spiritual enlightenment deep within the souls of spectators and worshippers alike.

In Serbian Orthodox art, most of these works originated on the walls and ceilings of monasteries and churches in the Byzantine city of Justiniana Prima, near today's city of Leskovac. Other forms appeared on wood as altarpieces. All forms were meant to be viewed by candlelight. The gold leafing would glow and illuminate the figures cloaked in deep blues and vibrant vermillion. Iconography also appeared throughout Asia Minor at the hands of the Hittites, Greeks, Persians, Armenians, Romans, Goths, Minoans, Byzantines and Turks.

But how did this art form come into existence, and what is its relevance in today’s modern faith?

In the beginning

Painting of the Virgin enthroned with child

Although early religious iconography originated in the first century, Serbian Orthodox art came to fruition much later. Early Serbian Orthodox painting is the offspring of Byzantine art. It was developed in 1204 after the capture of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade. At this time Greek artists fled to Serbia and influenced a genre of religious art.

Artistic example

Archangel Gabriel, instrument of God

"The White Angel" (c. 1235) by Meister von Mileseva is one of the best-known examples. It is a single detail of a fresco on the wall of the Mileševa monastery in Serbia. The fresco depicts the arrival of the myrrh carriers at the tomb of Christ after his Crucifixion.

The white angel is Gabriel. He sits on a stone pointing to the empty tomb revealing that Christ has risen. Art historians regard this work as one of the most beautiful pieces from the High Middle Ages. Its form continues to speak to the Orthodox worshipper today.

Contemporary

Exterior of Orthodox church in Ontario, Canada

Today, Serbian Orthodox painting is being put to use by priests much as it was centuries ago. Although the majority of worshippers are literate, the purpose of the art still exists to reflect that inward significance of religious teachings.

For example, the Rev. Theodore Jurewicz, an American-born iconographer and painter, just completed a six-year project on the walls of St. Stephen, the Serbian Orthodox Church in Lackawanna, New York. The Rev. Rastko Trbuhovich, parish priest of St. Stephen, has been anticipating the project’s completion in time for the 2013 Easter celebration.

Universality of Serbian Orthodox Art

When asked to comment on the work’s intention, Trbuhovich answers the question by highlighting the importance and relevance of this old artistic tradition. He states that there is a set pattern used in the Orthodox Church that dates back to the end of the first millennium. In terms of public worship, the depiction of Christian narratives in iconography shows that worship is not exclusive to a particular class of worshipper.

Trbuhovich hopes the art will draw visitors to the church while reminding his congregation what Paul said: that we are not separate. Instead, witnesses surround us all.

Iconography is a statement of faith. It bears the inward significance of parables and cradles the faith of followers today just as it did in the 13th century. Its use and appeal is universal and timeless.