Events

"Migration" Icons: Politics and Serbian Cultural Heritage in Bosnia and Herzegovina before and after 1992

November 08, 2006 // 11:00am12:00pm

Despite all the efforts to preserve the multi-cultural character of the four major cities in Bosnia and Herzegovina—Sarajevo, Tuzla, Mostar and Livno—the war has changed each city's ethnic composition, probably forever. One of the major demographic trends is that most Serbs have moved out of these cities. Should they be allowed to take their material culture with them?

Svetlana Rakic presented a brief history of icon collecting in Serbian churches in Bosnia—how the collections were formed and how these icons are related to Serbian national identity, history and current ideology. By understanding some of the historical issues important to the formation of these collections, we can better understand the role these icons played in the formation of Serbian identity in these territories.

Prior to the 1992 war, Serbian churches in Bosnia-Herzegovina housed more than 2000 icons dating to between the 16th to the 19th centuries. After the war ended in 1995, the four largest Serbian collections of Orthodox icons found themselves on the territory of the Bosniak-Croat Federation. Those icons testify to the spiritual expression of a people who endeavored to preserve the awareness of their roots by maintaining their cultural traditions. Not only did the historical circumstances determine the ways in which the icons came to the Serbian churches in Bosnia, but the study of their iconography and style also reveals a close connection with the specific historical circumstances in which they were made.

Under the Communist regime, icons that were not displayed in church buildings (used strictly for religious purposes) were generally piled on the floor and locked up in rooms with no temperature or humidity controls. No one except the clergy could enter those rooms. Thus, in Bosnia icons were "in hiding," so to speak. Since the fall of Communism the icons started coming out of "hiding" but many of them are now "migrating," due to the demographic changes in the country. Serbs were never in the majority in the four cities discussed above, but before the war they did constitute a significant part of the population. There was a meaningful reason for those collections of icons to be preserved and maintained in their original sites. Yet, it is unlikely that Serbs will return to Sarajevo, Tuzla, Mostar or Livno.

Can or should the cultural map of Bosnia stay unchanged after all the demographic changes brought about by the recent war? When discussing this question regarding the Serbian historical church treasures, Rakic urged the audience to keep in mind that there is a limited amount of cultural heritage of the Bosnian Serbs that has survived all the wars and different regimes that competed for supremacy throughout the turbulent history of this region. This observation may not justify the obvious current Church policy (or tendency) to move whatever can be moved to the Republika Srpska. Still, this seems like a "logical" or "rational" thing to do—to move the most valuable cultural treasures from their original sites in the Croat-Muslim Federation, along with the Serb population. The key to this puzzle is in the truth of the statement that "one day things will go back to what they were." But no one from Republic of Srpska seems to think of that day as a real or even preferred possibility.
 

Experts & Staff

  • Christian F. Ostermann // Director, History and Public Policy Program; Global Europe; Cold War International History Project; North Korea Documentation Project; Nuclear Proliferation International History Project
  • Kristina N. Terzieva // Program Assistant
  • Emily R. Buss // Program Assistant

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