The Rare Sacral Architecture of Socialist Yugoslavia

Updated: Jan 21

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 1000