The Hidden Treasure of Belgrade

architect Jože Plečnik
project Church of Saint Anthony of Padua, Belgrade, Serbia
written by Snežana Ristić

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Far from the Belgrade city centre, almost at its periphery, there is, at first sight, a very well preserved monastery, and a parish church of Saint Anthony of Padua. It belongs to the Franciscan Province of Bosna Srebrena. Squeezed among the low residential buildings, on a small site, and closed off behind a tall fence, it does not seem to belong to the location. Belgrade is noted for its disorderly plan, unusual urban solutions and often developed ad hoc; therefore the location of this architecturally important building is not surprising. It is a result of a set of circumstances.


Franciscans have been present in the area since the 15th century. They returned to Belgrade upon the invitation of the archbishop of Belgrade and Smederevo Rafael Rodić, and in 1926 bought the estate situated between Bregalnička and Pop Stojanova Street. There they built the monastery, and later the church, as well.


In late 20th century, in 1986, a Viennese architect Boris Podrecca organized a great retrospective exhibition in Beaubourg in Paris, where he presented a Slovenian architect Jože Plečnik to the world. He revealed to the French a fascinating oeuvre of an architect not adhering to any trend, an architect whose work equalled that of the great names of European architecture of the time. The exhibition, somewhat reduced, was later moved to the Exhibition and Convention Centre (Gospodarsko razstavišče) in Ljubljana. It was an opportunity for the Yugoslav audience, especially that from other republics, to be introduced to the achievements of an architect who was at the time known only in Slovenia and in Croatia, mostly in the narrow circles of architects and art historians. The world on the other side of the Iron Wall was only discovering modern Czech architecture, and the art of socialist countries. Those were the years when political and social circumstances were setting the path for dramatic changes which were soon to take place. After the exhibition in Paris the world wanted to know more about the architect who was kept hidden somewhere in the political East of Europe. Plečnik’s works were soon published in all relevant professional magazines in the world. He became famous beyond the boundaries of the country he lived and created in, and Slovenia got an architect it was to be recognized for.


Jože Plečnik (1872–1957) worked in the first half of the 20th century, at a time when the young lions of Modernist architecture, of the new and revolutionary style of architecture, appeared on the architectural scene: Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius, Alvar Aalto... They have introduced functionalism into architecture, they have planned cities, they have designed houses made to the measure of man, and they have taken advantage of new construction technologies. Their sunny buildings with large windows and reduced lines stood in opposition to the earlier classical architecture. The ideas of the Modernist movement did not, however, influence Plečnik. There was nothing ordinary or typical in his work. He often used secular elements in sacral buildings while his business, residential, and representative buildings expressed religiosity. He defined the physiognomy of his home town to the extent that it became Plečnik’s Ljubljana.


In the 1920s Plečnik was commissioned to design the church of Saint Anthony by parson Grgić, upon the recommendation of the famous Croatian sculptor Ivan Meštrović. The construction was long and difficult, and lasted from 1929 to 1932. The church was blessed on 8 December 1933. As in all his projects, Plečnik designed the interior, and all the furnishings. Apparently the rotunda was not accidental. To him Belgrade was Orient, and he thus developed the idea of a circular church connected with the Orient and with Orthodoxy.


At the time when the church was built the brick church tower was considered a risky project. Although Plečnik used the material before in Prague and Ljubljana, the 52-meter high brick church tower was built after his death in 1962, thanks to his student, architect Janez Valentinčič. The quality of construction is outstanding, even from the current perspective. The church tower is 52, and the church 25 meters high. The tower is slightly slanted, almost 50 cm now, so it is often compared to the tower of Pisa. There are also discussions on how dangerous this is.


The interior of the church is characteristic of Plečnik, and comparable to his other sacral projects, although the interior works have been interrupted on several occasions, and completed only after Plečnik’s death. Slovenian sculptor Božo Pengov furnished the church working with experienced stonecutters, carpenters and blacksmiths. There are three niches on both sides of the central axis of the rotunda, with the side altars, confessionals and the chapel. Two galleries are situated above the ground floor. The first gallery holds a pulpit and the organ. The large crucifix stands above a bended concrete beam which leans over the main altar. There is not much light in the interior of the church. The row of windows lets in daylight to the matt bricks on the wall, dark marble floor, and the wooden roof. The main altar is made of black marble, interspersed with white stripes. It is oriented in two dominant directions: horizontal direction is emphasized by the staircase, and the altar table, while in the vertical direction there is the tabernacle on several levels. The sculpture of Saint Anthony, situated on the wall above the main altar, was made by sculptor Ivan Meštrović. It is a 2.75 m high bronze sculpture, installed in 1955. The statue of the Sacred Heart on the side altar was made by Božo Pengov who followed Plečnik’s design. He also followed his design while completing the statue of Mary placed in the altar of Our Lady. The statue is almost on the same level as the observer, and somewhat unusual, because of its Eastern characteristics and iconographic elements.


In 1929, when the construction of St. Anthony’s Church began, the first modern house was just completed at the other side of the city, at Neimar. A young Belgrade architect Milan Zloković designed it for himself and his family. He photographed the house as soon as he completed it. Strong diagonal lines, sharp shadows, natural lighting, straight lines… the atmosphere strongly reminds of the photographs taken at the famous Bauhaus school at the time. In the same year, in the very centre of Belgrade, Hugo Elrich designed the headquarters of the Yugoslav Joint-Stock Bank. Radio Belgrade began to broadcast that year, as well. The city had around 240 000 inhabitants, and it was developing and modernising rapidly.


St. Anthony’s Church is not on the list of the most important works of Jože Plečnik. It was also not presented at the Beaubourg exhibition, but Petar Krečić, a former director of the Museum of Architecture in Ljubljana, considers the Belgrade Church of Saint Anthony of Padua as important as the Church of the Holy Spirit in Vienna, the Church of the Assumption of our Lord in Bogojina (Slovenia), the Church of St. Francis in Ljubljana, and the Church of Sacred Heart of Jesus in Prague. He believes that all of the above mentioned churches belong to the group of Plečnik’s most original sacral monumental concepts.


The Church of Saint Anthony of Padua, located away from the main city happenings, and in a modest and demolished residential environment, draws attention by its unusual appearance. It displays a certain serenity and mystery, strength and monumentality in the portals and the columns at the main entrance, and announces a completely different world – as it should be expected from a sacral object. Between the two world wars Plečnik’s Church of Saint Anthony was a miracle at the end of the city. Today it is a live church, a cultural monument which dominates one of the silhouettes of the wider city centre.