Across the River

At the Table on the Bridge
On a thin line between the only lightly healed wounds and still unsettled graves, in the astonishing beauty of nature and beside the fascinating works of old building masters, artists from the whole world, on this green river which is not a border, build bridges again. The city gallery and Orthodox monastery Dobrun are doing everything so this would continue for a long time

By: Ljiljana Dugalić

A city with a population of eight thousand, at the banks of the Drina, where the God-given nature, building and art live in harmony, Višegrad is slowly growing into a significant cultural center of Serbs from both sides of the river. With five thousand inhabitants less that before the recent war, it was a host of fine artists from the whole world for the fifteenth year in a row. This international artistic gathering began in 1994, with the blessing of Archbishop of Dabar and Bosnia Mr. Nikolai, organized by the Višegrad City Gallery led by a painter haji Branko Nikitović. This inspired the reporter of the National Review to visit the city and the area this summer.
The gathering lasts seven days and is always held in the last week of August. That same week, on August 28, the Dobrun Monastery, 12 kilometers away from Višegrad, celebrates its saint day, Holy Assumption of Virgin Mary. The participants of the artistic colony are always part of the saint day procession in Dobrun.
Gatherings on the Bridge: all participants in the Painting Gathering read the excerpts from the famous Andrić’s novel in their own languagesThe celebration of the Monastery saint day was especially enhanced this year by the arrival of ”Ćira”, the narrow gauge train which arrived to Dobrun from Užice, via the Šargan Eight. It was obvious that the arrival of the train represents special joy according to how Archbishop Nikolai and the people patiently waited at the platform. Neither the pouring rain, nor thunder and lightning prevented them from greeting that train pompously, the first that arrived from Serbia after several decades. As a special tourist attraction, ”Ćira” will be running from Užice to Dobrun starting from October 31.


The Dobrun Monastery, built by the river Rzav which flows into the Drina in Višegrad, was constructed in 1340. During almost seven centuries, it was destroyed and renewed several times. The ktitor of the Monastery is zupan Pribil with his sons. The ktitors’ fresco, preserved to the very day, is on the right wall of the parvis.
The valuable fresco painting in the Monastery was mostly destroyed at the end of World War II. The German occupation soldiers stored ammunition in the Monastery and activated the explosive before retreating. The only saved original fresco painting is on the western wall. The beautiful fresco of Pantocrator is also preserved above the entrance. One can recognize the image of emperor Dušan with his family, empress Jelena and son Uroš, in the old fresco on the northern wall.
The Monastery was a very significant spiritual center of the Dabar area in the past, and had more than 700 monks! Most of them left the Monastery after the Great Serbian Migration in 1690.
Holy Assumption of Virgin Mary 2008 in the Dobrun monasteryThe decomposition of the monastic community from those times continued following this sanctity like ill fate. Three centuries had to pass before the monastic life was reestablished. The Archbishop of Dabar and Bosnia Mr. Nikolai indicated better days for Dobrun in 1992 when, while passing by the desolated monastery, he said that the monastic life would be restored. The present fraternity consists of 5 monks, the prior is father Kalistrat and the spiritual father is father Jovan.
The snow-white church dedicated to the Holy Assumption of Virgin Mary is mostly hidden today. Only a small part of the old bell tower can be seen from the highway. The old quarters for monks and new quarters for guests were renewed in the monastery complex. A museum building was also erected, named Karadjordje’s Quarters, for marking the 200th anniversary of the First Serbian Uprising. It is a multi-floored building shaped as an arc. A gallery and permanent exhibition of works from the previous artistic gatherings are organized in the lower level. Strictly selected by the Artistic Council, the paintings are ”of mainly spiritual content”. Inside the same building, contemporary artworks are exhibited on one side and the exhibits from the rich treasury of the Dabar and Bosnia Archbishopric on the other. ”The exhibition from the Archbishopric treasury firmly testifies about the presence of the Serbian people here since ancient times, that they have cultivated with their hands, spiritualized with ancient sanctities and consecrated with the prayers of saints the area of the country the Serbs lives in, regardless of its present name”, they told us at the museum, obviously satisfied because the Dobrun Monastery is growing into a large completed spiritual center and slowly regaining its previous glory.
– The international artistic gatherings and the Dobrun Monastery are multiply and closely connected – says haji Branko Nikitović, director of the Višegrad Gallery and one of the founders of the colony, for National Review. – A custom which the organizer cherishes is that all artists who participate in the work of the artistic gathering, already after the first introduction, go to the Dobrun Monastery. The monastery fraternity holds a praying service for the successful work of the gathering. Especially touching is the moment when all, regardless of religion, take part in the liturgy and hold lighted candles in their hands. The spiritual connection between the Monastery and the artists, both of Orthodox faith and of other religions, can be felt each day of the gathering.


During the artistic gathering, painters on different locations paint three paintings each; the graphic artists on the press in the graphic workshop of the City Gallery imprint five graphics, sculptors create one sculpture. Those artworks remain in the Monastery and Višegrad City Gallery possession. A special homage is paid to Ivo Andrić and his creative work. At a table on the bridge, holding the novel The Bridge on the Drina in their hands, each artist reads a fragment from the book in his own language. The most frequent subject of the graphic artists who participate at the Višegrad artistic gathering is the famous bridge. Such was the case this year too, under careful surveillance of Biljana Vuković, professor at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Belgrade, a graphic artist herself.
– Artists, graphic artists and professors from art universities all around the world, from the Far East schools of graphic arts, to European and North American schools, passed through the graphics workshop – says professor Vuković. – The Višegrad workshop grew and surpassed local limits, and became prestigious in international proportions, which is confirmed by the fact that there is already a list of artists who applied to participate and are waiting to be invited.
For most participants at the gathering, this is not the first time in Višegrad. This year, an artist from Canada, Elisabeth Mathieu, stands out among them.
– This is my second time in Višegrad – she says. – I come from Quebec, French speaking territory in Canada, and I have brought two works of art. They are two artistic books, both created in 2008, in cooperation with Serbian artists and artists from Canada, Italy, Belgium, Denmark. It is actually a special artistic form of a book-box. It includes artistic achievements, both fine arts and literary, collected in a box together with souvenirs, relics and memories which an artist carries with himself in his soul and luggage.
The center of everything in Višegrad is, naturally, the bridge. Even everyday encounters with it provoke excitement. As if we had gone somewhere far away in the meantime, down the Drina or down the road, and returned again, saw it again after a long time: ”There it is!” And it seems as if it is not a stone bridge on the river, in front of us, but a bridge that is slowly but surely being built in each of us, a bridge between centuries, a bridge between people who used to be there, are there or are yet to come… Perhaps already next year, perhaps to the following artistic gathering.
Our being in two states at the moment is just an illusive political fact. However, life here weaves joy because neither a customs officer nor a frontiersman has been invented for spiritual and cultural space. The spirit freely creates bridges over which we reach desired spaces and the aim anticipated in the distance.


More than a City
Višegrad is one of the oldest inhabited settlements in Republika Srpska. It was mentioned already in the XIV century as a fortification for controlling the caravan road between Dubrovnik and Serbia, as well as the road to Constantinople. It was especially significant after the construction of the famous Bridge on the River Drina of Mehmed-Pasha Sokolović, in the last quarter of the XVI century.
The builder of the bridge, the great vizier Mehmed-Pasha Sokolović, Serbian by origin from the village of Sokolovići, is only one of the Orthodox boys who was abducted from his family as a victim of the Turkish ”tax in blood”, taken to Istanbul, Islamized and raised as a Turkish soldier. Despite the strict military education and brutality he showed towards the nation he originated from, Mehmed-Pasha Sokolović obviously never forgot his Serbian and Orthodox origin. The bridge in Višegrad, whose construction he ordered in 1571, testifies about it.


The bridge was raised, writes Andrić, ”in a place where the Drina bursts with the whole weight of its water mass, green and foamy, from the seemingly closed structure of black and steep mountains”. It took six years until the bridge flashed in the full brilliance of its eleven broken arches on ten pillars. This engineering masterpiece was made according to the design of the famous Turkish architect Koca Mimark Sinan.
Serbian writer Ivo Andrić made the bridge, its ktitor and its builder most famous 390 years later, when he was awarded with the Nobel Prize in 1961 for his novel The Bridge on the Drina. After becoming the main character of such a book, translated into twenty nine languages, the bridge on the Drina began a new life. In 2007, UNESCO inscribed it in its World Heritage List.


Wreath of Chastity
In the place where 6.000 Serbs were killed in 1941, cornered between the fascists who blocked the bridge and the pursuits of the Ustasha butchers led by Jura Francetić, a monument was raised this spring. A simple white marble Honorable Cross. It was consecrated by Archbishop of Dabar and Bosnia Nikolai and Bishop of Mileševa Filaret.
In the crowd of people consisting of Serbs from the Sarajevo surroundings, Sokolac and Rogatica that terrible year, there were also three hundred girls. Seeing that the bridge is blocked and that the villains’ are catching up with them, they joined hands, made a ”wreath of chastity” and consciously stepped into the river and into death. They handed their life to the Drina, so the river would preserve their honor for eternity.


An hour and a half by boat down the river, towards Bajina Bašta, on a high, hardly accessible cliff, there are two caves. The forest holding, which owns the caves, intends to consign them to the church, and Bishop Nikolai gave his blessing for rearranging the lower one near the water into a hermitage. The hermitage will obviously be reachable only by boat. And each hermitage finds its ascetic.


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