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Belgrade's Ružica Church


view of the top of a church tower with a fortress wall in the foreground
Ružica Church, Belgrade, Serbia

There are many times when I wander that something unexpected comes along that gives me a profound sense of gratitude for the beautiful and amazing things that surround us if we pay attention.


It happened to me recently during a visit to Belgrade, Serbia’s Ružica Church overlooking the Danube River. Many guidebooks and websites recommend a stop in the church for an interesting reason a hurried visitor might miss: the three chandeliers suspended from the relatively low barreled ceiling.


At first glance, the chandeliers look like any others one might find in a similar small church in the Orthodox world, but a closer look reveals the odd materials used in their construction, bullet and shell casings, bayonets, and knives. These chandeliers were constructed by Serbian soldiers at the close of the First World War.


 When I first entered the church, the nave was filled with high school students, many of whom were perfunctorily making their rounds paying respect to the several saint icons displayed in the nave. Like teenagers around the world, most of them looked like they would rather have been someplace else, not under the direction and watchful eyes of their teachers.


 Before too long, I had the chapel to myself, free to quietly enjoy the interwar-era murals, oil paintings depicting Biblical scenes, Serbian royalty, and historical figures like Tsar Nikolai II.


 The church’s structure was constructed in the early 1500s, a gunpowder storage chamber used by the Ottoman soldiers residing in the surrounding Belgrade Fortress.


 In 1867, after the Serbs took over the fortress, the gunpowder magazine was converted to a church. In 1915, Austrian forces bombed the church, and the building was restored in 1925 to its present appearance. Used as a soldiers’ chapel, the interior strikes a strange balance between a well-ordered military aesthetic and a holy place. I found it oddly relaxing, inviting, and sat on one of the wood benches along the perimeter of the nave, enjoying my moment of solitude.



But I wasn’t going to be alone for long. The clock would soon strike six, time for vespers, an evening chant marking the beginning of a new liturgical day in the Orthodox church.


 I stood and listened to two baritone voices, grounded by the priest’s powerful bass voice, weaving polyphonic Serbian chant, reverberating through the church. Any of the three men could perform in any opera company on the continent and elicit standing ovations. But in this church, there were no adoring crowds, just a guy with his camera, grateful for the chance to hear it.


 I closed my eyes and listened to the three-part polyphony change into a single voice, a droning chant, driven by the rhythmic pulse of the small bells on the censer.


 As the observance progressed, the rays of sun illuminating the nave turned golden, highlighting the metal chandeliers and the metal work on the iconostas, the screen separating the nave from the altar.


 My mind wandered back to an artist in New Mexico I had photographed thirty years ago, a Vietnam veteran whose clay pots took on the forms of bombs and shells. He told me it was his way of coping, to try to create something beautiful out of something so horrific. I wondered if the World War I veterans who crafted the three chandeliers in the Ružica felt the same desire to create something attractive out of the horrors they experienced.


 If that was their goal, it is a success. For those chandeliers, surrounded by the stylized murals and bathed in timeless chant, are physical proof that beauty and good will prevail.

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