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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