The Rare Sacral Architecture of Socialist Yugoslavia

Updated: Jan 21, 2021

The country of Yugoslavia was one dominated by three primary religions: Catholicism (practiced primarily in Slovenia and Croatia), Eastern Orthodox Christianity (practiced primarily by Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia) and Islam (practiced primarily by the region's Bosniaks and ethnic-Albanians). Like other communist countries of the era, Yugoslavia was a de facto secular state. Upon the onset of the creation of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, the communist government initially took a very hard line stance against all religions in the country, similar to the approach that the USSR. This included restrictions against openly practicing religion, confiscation of church property, bans on religious schooling of children, bans on religious books and literature being published, etc etc. As a result, there was virtually no new construction of religious buildings during the early years of Yugoslavia. ", took more than 12 years of intermittent work to complete, which was largely the result of funding issues, as the project ended up costing nearly three times the initial budget.


However, as the relationship between the USSR and Yugoslavia began to deteriorate in the early 1950s, the country’s stance towards religion departed from that of the Soviet-sphere and was relaxed considerably (yet not completely). It was after this point that concessions were made in a minimal number of cases to allow the construction of new religious buildings. Such construction was often in the form of the rebuilding of religious structures that were damaged or destroyed during WWII (which many were), those demolished by the state or those destroyed via natural causes (such as earthquakes). Meanwhile, during the prosperity of the “Golden Era” of Yugoslavia, the government's general attitudes towards religion became increasingly laid back, which resulted in even more ambitious religious construction projects being considered and undertaken. However, as writer Lidija Butković Mićin notes in a 2015 article, when examining and understanding these works of sacral architecture that were completed in Yugoslavia, one must "take into account the impact of objective obstacles, such as the demotivating slowness of obtaining the necessary permits and the narrow sources of funding for such projects, as well as the likely reluctance of architects to take on religious tasks in an unfavorable social environment."


As a result of the strict, yet sometimes flexible, environment that Yugoslavia's communist party officials often exercised over the construction of religious buildings, those few that were created stand as unique examples not only of religious structures built with the distinct Yugoslav architectural aesthetics, but also significant as they are among the rare examples of religious houses of worship being built whatsoever in secular communist nations. In other words, they exist as singular manifestations of overtly religious works being created within the system of an overtly anti-religious establishment. This article will examine several notable examples and manifestations of such houses of worship that were built in Yugoslavia during this time period. While looking over these examples, make note of recurring themes, styles, contributing architects & artists, as well as the religious denominations creating these works.

 

Parish Church of St. Martin, Škofja Loka, Slovenia

A vintage postcard image of the Parish Church of St. Martin near Škofja Loka, Slovenia. Credit: personal collection

Name: Parish Church of St. Martin

Location: Poljane nad Škofjo Loko, Slovenia, near Škofjo Loko

Author(s): architect Anton Bitenc

Year built: 1965-1967

Coordinates: 46°07'05.0"N, 14°11'02.0"E

Description: Nestled in the foothills of the Julian Alps is the small village of Poljane nad Škofjo Loko. The primary historical feature of this town is the Parish Church of St. Martin (Župnijska cerkev sv. Martina). This church, which is of the Catholic denomination, was originally of a Baroque style up until WWII, having been built during the 18th century. However, during WWII, the church and its bell tower suffered extreme damage as the result of conflicts between Slovene Partisan and Axis occupiers. After the war, efforts were put forward to repair the damaged Baroque church (appeals were even made to Tito himself), but the church ruins were found to be too unstable. As a result, in 1954, the damaged church ruins were razed to the ground. An initiative was then immediately started to build a new St. Martin’s church to replace the demolished one. After much deliberating with the communist government, a permit to construct a new church was granted to the village and construction began in 1965. The new church, designed by Slovene architect Anton Bitenc and unveiled in 1967, was a unique synthesis of modernist styling and traditional Slovene architecture. An altarpiece within the church was painted by Slovene artist Stane Kregar (seen in the above photo). In 1997, the 1967 bell tower visible in the above postcard was removed and a new much taller bell tower was built adjacent to the church.

 

Cathedral Church of Saint Clement of Ohrid, Skopje, N. Macedonia

A vintage postcard exterior view of the Cathedral Church of St. Clement of Ohrid in Skopje, N. Macedonia. Credit: personal collection

Name: Cathedral Church of Saint Clement of Ohrid

Location: Skopje, N. Macedonia

Author(s): architect Slavko Brezovski

Year built: 1972-1990

Coordinates: 41°59'54.4"N, 21°25'34.9"E

Description: Near the city center of Skopje, on the west side of the Vardar River, just off of Partisan Unit Boulevard is the Cathedral Church of Saint Clement of Ohrid (Soboren crkva „Sveti Kliment Ohridski“) and is the largest house of worship of the Macedonian Orthodox Church in the country. Designed by notable Macedonian architect Slavko Brezovski (who was also the author of the Yugoslav Embassy in Brasilia), this Macedonian Orthodox cathedral was begun in 1972 but not completed until 1990 as the result of budget delays and technical hurdles. Built in a rotunda style, the church is roughly 36mx36m wide and has the capacity for over 6000 worshipers. Modeled after the unique roof line of the Church of Agios Athanasioss in Greece, this structure of the church is created from a novel postmodernist arrangement of carefully organized sets of domes and arches, giving the church simultaneously a very contemporary yet traditional atmosphere. Within the inner dome of the church is a massive set of frescoes and religious icons painted by Jovan Petrov. Adjacent to the church is a 45m tall bell tower, atop which are three large Austrian made bells, the largest being over 1000kg.

 

The Cathedral of the Mother Mary, Mostar, BiH

A vintage postcard image of the Cathedral of the Mother Mary in Mostar, BiH. Credit: personal collection

Name: The Cathedral of Mother Mary

Location: Mostar, BiH

Author(s): architects Hildegard Auf–Franić, Ivan Franić & Teodor Kupcevski

Year built: 1975-1980

Coordinates: 43°20'21.6"N, 17°47'53.8"E

Description: Located roughly 1km west of the Stari Most bridge at the center Mostar is the Cathedral Church of the Mother Mary (Katedrala Marije Majke Crkve). This religious landmark was started in 1975 after many decades of the local Catholic diocese battling with the Yugoslav government for permission to build a new cathedral for the town. Construction took five years and it was completed in 1980. The resulting cathedral built was an extremely ambitious postmodern architectural work which was innovative and groundbreaking for cathedral construction, even when compared to cathedrals built in present-day. The structure, which was designed by an architect team that composed was composed of Hildegard Auf–Franić, Ivan Franić & Teodor Kupcevski, was meant to be symbolic of a "Tent of God". In the local language, the expression used for being in the presence of God is 'šatorom Božjim' or literally 'Tent of God' in English. While the superstructure of the cathedral is composed of concrete, the sloped ceilings of the interior are adorned with glowing wood panels, giving the interior a warm and inviting atmosphere.


As the era of Yugoslavia's dismantling came in the 1990s, the church was severely damaged during the subsequent Bosnian War, with artillery shells puncturing many significant holes in the cathedral's roof. However, the damage was subsequently repaired and renovated, during which time a massive bell tower was added in the square in front of the church. The Cathedral of Mother Mary stands as one of only four Catholic cathedrals in Bosnia.

 

Cathedral of Saint Bonaventure, Banja Luka, BiH

An exterior view of the Cathedral of Saint Bonaventure in Banja Luka, BiH. Credit: Bojan Savkovic

Name: The Cathedral of Saint Bonaventure

Location: Banja Luka, BiH

Author(s): architects Ljubo Matasović & Danilo Furst

Year built: 1973

Coordinates: 44°46'30.1"N, 17°11'41.0"E

Description: Situated just northeast of the city center of Banja Luka is the Roman Catholic Cathedral of Saint Bonaventure (Katedrala Svetog Bonaventure), standing as one of only four Roman Catholic cathedrals in Bosnia. This hyper-modernist cathedral, almost futuristic in its ambitious styling, was unveiled in 1973 and designed by Zagreb architect Ljubo Matasović. The original cathedral which existed at this location was a traditionally designed cathedral built in the 1850s, however, it was destroyed as a result of the 1969 Banja Luka earthquake. As a consequence of this dramatic tragedy, the Yugoslav government was quick to grant permission for its reconstruction (as opposed to the lengthy and arduous legal process religious groups often were faced with when attempting to build religious structures).


The unique form of the Saint Bonaventure Cathedral is meant to symbolize a tent, which in this case can be translated two ways. As mentioned earlier, in the local language, the expression used for being in the presence of God is 'šatorom Božjim' or literally 'Tent of God' in English. In addition, after the 1969 earthquake, many residents of Banja Luka were forced to live in tents as a result of their homes being destroyed. On the interior of the church, its stain glass was created by Croatian painter Ivo Dulčić, while mosaics were created by Prijedor artist Rudi Slačal. In 1991, a combination bell/clock tower reaching 42m tall was built next to the church that was designed by Slovene architect Danilo Furst. This concrete tower is also built in a highly modernist architectural style which is characterized by a distinct concrete spiral staircase that snakes up to its five bells.

 

The Zagreb Mosque, Zagreb, Croatia

Two vintage postcards showing the interior & exterior of the Zagreb Mosque & Islamic Center in Zagreb, Croatia. Credit: personal collection

Name: The Zagreb Mosque & Islamic Center

Location: Zagreb, Croatia

Author(s): architects Džemal Čelić & Mirza Gološ

Year built: 1981-1987

Coordinates: 45°47'28.3"N 16°00'41.3"E

Description: Positioned on the southeast edge of the city of Zagreb is the massive Zagreb Mosque & Islamic Center (Zagrebačka džamija i Islamski centar). After the last mosque in Zagreb was de-consecrated in 1948, the city's Muslim community went for many decades without any significant house of worship, which resulted in many within this community making petitions to the government of Zagreb to allow one to be built. After more than 20 years, a resolution was found and permission was granted to create a large scale mosque complex for Zagreb. Construction on this project, done by the Zagreb firm "Tehnika", began in 1981 and lasted six years, being unveiled to the pubic in 1987. The central dome of the mosque departs wildly from traditional mosque architecture, with it instead crafted in a highly modernist style characterized by three seashell-like roof sections folding together in a very elegant and shapely manner. Next to the dome is a towering minaret spire reaching 51m tall. The work was designed by Sarajevo architect Džemal Čelić, with assistance by Mirza Gološ. Artwork within the mosque was executed by famous Bosnian calligrapher Ešref Kovačević. In addition to the mosque, within this complex are also an Islamic school, a cultural center, libraries, and residential facilities.

 

Church of the Holy Heart of Jesus, Podgorica, Montenegro

A vintage photo showing the exterior of the Church of the Holy Heart of Jesus in Podgorica, Montenegro. Credit: Viktor Ganc
A photo showing the interior of the Church of the Holy Heart of Jesus in Podgorica, Montenegro. Credit: Jeroni Rodriguez

Name: The Church of the Holy Heart of Jesus

Location: Podgorica, Montenegro

Author(s): architects Zvonimir Vrkljan & Boris Krstulović

Year built: 1967-1969

Coordinates: 42°26'15.8"N, 19°16'32.6"E

Description: Nestled within the Podgorica neighborhood of Konik is the imposing edifice of the Church of the Holy Heart of Jesus (Crkva Presvetog Srca Isusovog), which is of the Catholic denomination. The original Catholic church of Podgorica was built in 1901 and located closer to the city center, however, this structure was severely damaged in the Allied bombings of the city during WWII. Local authorities in Podgorica (which was named "Titograd" during the Yugoslav-era), prohibited the Catholic parish from rebuilding their destroyed church in the city center,as the site was slated to have a new Yugoslav Army House built on it. However, after years of negotiations, the parish was granted permission to construct a new church on the eastern outskirts of the city. Construction work began on the creation of this new church in 1967 under the design leadership of Zagreb architects Zvonimir Vrkljan & Boris Krstulović. The final work was unveiled during the summer of 1969 after two years of construction.


The Church of the Holy Heart of Jesus is not only unique as far as a work of sacral architecture, it even pushes the envelop of the modernist creations which had been built up until that time in Titograd (of which there were many notable examples for it to compete with). The final product which Vrkljan & Krstulović created was a church space primarily formed of two intersecting sharp triangular bodies crafted from pure bare unadorned concrete, both inside and out. Often described as embodying the dynamic characters "brutalist" architecture, featureless and angular board-formed concrete walls soar to tremendous heights at the church's nave, giving the impression that the ceilings are symbolically opening up to the heavens (emphasized by an unseen skylight). In analyzing his church creation, Krstulović speaks about religion being a very private personal matter, so, as such, explains that he wanted to create a space that was disconnected from its surroundings as a means of enabling the parishioner's spirit to be able to "escape" the church and reach a plane of purer religious transcendence. Next to the church is a 25m tall concrete bell tower which is topped at its apex with a cut-out cross shape formed in negative space. For more info, see this paper by Dragutin Popović.

 

Šerefudin's White Mosque, Visoko, BiH

Name: Šerefudin's White Mosque

Location: Visoko, BiH

Author(s): architect Zlatko Ugljen [profile page] & craftsman Ismet Imamović

Year built: 1980

Coordinates: 43°59'06.8"N, 18°10'48.3"E

Description: Located in the town center of Visoko, BiH, just a few dozen meters west of the Fojnička River, is the Šerefudin's White Mosque (Šerefudinova Bijela džamija). The original Šerefudin Mosque that existed on this site was a centuries old structure that, by the 1960s, had developed such serious structural issues that it was required to be demolished. After the old mosque was demolished, immediate work began in 1967 on initiating efforts to create a new one. As this was a replacement of an old structure, the Yugoslav authorites presented little resistance to the project, especially as this was an era where the federal government was looking to give greater support to the country's Muslim minority groups. The commission for creating this new mosque was awarded to Sarajevo architect Zlatko Ugljen [profile page], who envisioned a defiantly bold non-traditional modernist design for the new mosque. Work began on building the new Šerefudin Mosque in 1968. However, the mosque's construction, undertaken by the local Visoko contractor "Zvijezda", took more than 12 years of intermitent work to complete, which was largely the result of funding issues, as the project ended up costing nearly three times the initial budget. Sources also relate that another factor which slowed the project's construction was some resistance in the local community to the mosque's modernist stylings, a significant factor as roughly 95% of the project's funding came from the local community. Šerefudin's White Mosque was finally unveiled to the public in September of 1980.


Constructed primarily of unadorned and smooth reinforced white concrete, the structure of the mosque is defined by its dramatically sloping roof line of connected triangles which create a tapering inner volume that climaxes at its top with a glowing skylight, almost as if the space symbolically connecting itself to the spiritual world. The interior is also unadorned, dominated by flat white walls which are only punctuated by circles of calligraphy. The mosque's minaret is composed of a white cylindrical tower decorated with a network of green metal tubes. Originally all of the roofs were also white concrete, but metal roofing tiles were added later when leaking became a problem. Multiple organizations around the world commended Šerefudin's White Mosque for its brave and innovative solutions of melding together traditional Islamic architecture with modernist design approaches, with some dubbing it among the most creatively designed sacral buildings in Europe. In 1983 it was granted the Aga Khan Award for excellence in Islamic architecture. In 2019 the mosque was highlighted at an exhibition on Yugoslav architecture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

 

Zym Has Catholic Church, Zym, Kosovo*

A vintage postcard view of the exterior of the Catholic Church at Zym, Kosovo*. Credit: personal collection

Name: Zym Has Catholic Church

Location: Zym, Kosovo*

Author(s): [unknown]

Year built: [unknown]

Coordinates: 42°16'22.3"N 20°37'28.9"E

Description: Situated in the small mountain village of Zym, Kosovo* is the Zym Has Catholic Church (Kisha Katolike Zymi i Hasit), which is a place of worship primarily attended by ethnic-Albanian Catholics of the Has region. While I have not yet determined the exact date of creation of this church, its style would appear to be characteristic of the 1970s, with it almost appearing to be in the architectural style of famous Slovene architect Anton Bitenc. However, I have not yet been able to confirm any information about this church's creation or its author. This church is unique not only because very few churches exist in Kosovo* crafted in the modernist architectural style, but it is also notable as there are very few Catholic churches in the region all together. The exterior of the church is characterized by a cube shaped white plastered facade body sitting on a native stone foundation, with each of the four sides topped with triangular gables. A roofline extends upwards from the top point of each gable to create a dynamic pyramidal roof of eight flat triangular sections. The detached bell tower contains a small roof on its top of the same design. The interior is dominated by the presence of four huge diamond shaped stained glass windows that punctuate the geometry granted to the space by its angular roof. The flat white walls of the interior are additionally brightened by a number of religious sculptures and sculptural relief panels. A circular metal rod chandelier gives the church's nave a final touch of geometric modernism.

 

Parish Church of Sts. Peter & Paul, Kulina, BiH

Name: Parish Church of Saints Peter & Paul

Location: Kulina, BiH

Author(s): architects Ivo Linardić & Boris Skračić

Year built: 1967-1974

Coordinates: 44°58'27.8"N, 18°01'41.4"E

Description: Located in the small Bosanska Posavina village of Kulina, BiH is the Parish Church of Saints Peter & Paul (Župna crkva sv. Petra i Pavla), which is of the Catholic denomination. When the Catholics of the region of Kulina created their own parish split from the Žeravac parish in 1967, they set forth towards the goal of creating their own new parish church. After securing authorization to construct the church by local authorities, the Kulina parish confered on the design of the project with Zagreb architect team Ivo Linardić & Boris Skračić. Work on the project began in 1967, however, it was not fully completely until seven years later in 1974, with such a prolonged construction time possibly the result of funding issues. The completed church is of an enlongated oval shape with white plastered walls, atop which is a curved upwardly sloping red tile gable roof. At the front of the church is a 32m tall white tapering bell tower exhibiting several curved protrusions at its summit. The shape gives the unquestionabe appearance of a boat perched upon the hillside sailing off into the distance. While some sources say this boat shape is a symbolic reference to Noah's Ark, it may also be related to the fact that the village of Kulina sits within the region of the Bosnian town of Brod, which directly translates to "boat" in English. Meanwhile, the interior is restrained and simple in its adornment, its smooth plaster walls decorated only with modest religious wood panel carvings.


The parish church was completely destroyed during the Bosnian War of the 1990s as the Bosnian Serb forces pushed through the region fighting against the ethnic-Croatian population. As many were displaced, all that was left of the church was a heap of ruins. After sitting demolished for many years, the church was finally restored and built back exactly the same in 2005.

 

Memorial Church of Sts. Cyril & Methodius Church at Jajinci, Belgrade, Serbia

An exterior photo of the Memorial Church of Sts. Cyril & Methodius in Belgrade. Credit: personal photo