Connection of decorative and artistic representations on tombstones from medieval Bosnia with Bogomilism and its religious conceptions was established in the second half of the previous century (XIX century – B.R.) by Franjo Rački. His hypothesis was further developed by Ćiro Truhelka through new researches who was first to systematically study tombstones in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Between two world wars, thesis of F. Rački on the Bogomil character of the stećci was rejected with different sets of arguments by both V. Glušac and J. Šidak. Argumentation used by Glušac, who saw these monuments as part of cultural heritage of Orthodox population of Bosnia and Herzegovina, was based on a fact that majority of necropolises with stećci was concentrated around Orthodox churches or in their vicinity. Šidak, who also negated thesis of Bogomil origin to the artistic representations on the monuments, saw in them general human strive for resurrection, ancient folklore representations of afterlife, remnants of cult of ancestors and influence of culturally developed regions neighboring Bosnia.
Main supporters of F. Rački thesis in the after war period where A. Solovjev, D. Mandić and G. Wild. All three of them used different arguments and plethora of imaginative interpretations of cross, shield, deer, chariot, crescent and some other artistic content to describe them as Manichean and Bogomil symbolism which was completely unknown to inhabitants of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Contrary to thesis of Bogomil and Dualistic origin of artistic representations on stećci, M. Miletić perceived them from the other extreme and saw in them purely Christian symbolic. Artistic content of stećci contains very old decorations, from shapes of deer and horse as symbols of immortality, known in pagan and early Christian beliefs, to younger decorations such as symbols of light, renewal, birth or resurrection, expressed in cross, spirals, wreath, crescent or rosetta, which are encountered on very distant regions of Europe and Asia. Typical Christian symbols are also present, in different shaped crosses, orant, Virgin with the child, resurrected Lazarus, St. Helena, St. Christopher, warrior saints, all taken from the religious frescoes. More worldly representations found on stećci are those of cities, fortifications, towers, scenes from hunts or duels, chariots and funeral processions, all reflections of feudal society monuments where created in.
Huge number of articles, studies, monographs, theoretical discussions and longer or shorter synthetic overviews regarding problematic of stećci and their art was written. This, very extensive literature is filled with excellent works but also with all kinds of assumptions, fabricated facts and leaps of imagination which work more to confuse the researchers and initiate new, mostly sterile polemics then to increase knowledge on this interesting problematic.
Unlike the artistic content, which allowed for a wide range of differing opinions on the symbolic message of every artistic representations in itself, preserved tombstone inscriptions reflect completely authentic religious understandings, and even confessional affiliation of the deceased. Tombstone inscriptions starting with a sign of cross and, in Orthodox Church, standard prayer acclamation “in name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” are more indicative that the deceased belonged to Orthodox faith then to Bogomilism, Catharism or Dualistic religious organization.
The folklore variants of this basic prayer acclamation do not fall into heretical teachings. For example, on one stećak from vicinity of Mostar, tombstone inscription begins in following manner: “in name of the great God, Emperor of heaven and earth”. Another monument from Dračevo bears the inscription: “eternal glory to the merciful God”. Tombstone inscription of “lady Stana” from Trnovac near Uloga, or knyaz Radoslav Širinić from Sopotnica near Goražde, begin with shortened prayer acclamation “in name of God”. Another inscription, this time of the “servant of God Ubilija” says only “IS HS” (Jesus Christ) and in one case inscription goes “in name of the Father and the Son” without mention of the Holy Spirit, which is more probably and oversight from a inexpert transcriber then a conscious change made in order to adhere to certain heretical teaching.
Word “rab” or “raba” (male and female versions for word servant) in front of the personal names of the deceased is characteristic for tombstone inscriptions on jurisdictional area of Serbian Orthodox church since oldest periods until contemporary times and this terms are found in majority of the preserved tombstone inscriptions. That this is standard marking for members of the Orthodox Church is corroborated by tombstone inscription of “servant of God zhupan Pribiš” who lived in the “days of the king Vladislav, true in faith”. One inscription from surroundings of Stolac clearly says for “servan of God, Marija” that she is wife of “priest Dabiživ” while for knyaz Radič from Dračevo, inscription states he is “devout servant of God and ktetor of this temple”.
Those who wrote the tombstone inscriptions always aimed to emphasize the belonging of the deceased to the Orthodox Church with some additional information. So, for example, monument of “servant of God Georgije” says the man died on the “eve of Christ’s day” while through the tombstone inscription of “servant of God” Vujan Dragišić from Njeganovići near Bileća, his kin, as Orthodox believers, pleading God for forgiveness of the deceased sins.
Some epitaphs hold neither term “rab” or “raba” but from written sources we are aware their families belonged to Orthodox faith. On the tombstone monument of Goisava, daughter of Đurađ Baošić and wife of Radič Sanković, buried in 1389, epitaph begins in usual fashion: “here lies lady Goisava” without the common term “servant of God” due to scribes intent to emphasize her noble origin, given that her confession was clear as she was buried in the Orthodox church in Biskupija near Konjic. On the other hand, tombstone inscription of Polihranija, sister of kaznac (tax-collecting officer) Sanko and wife of Nenac Čihorić clearly indicates that she died as Orthodox nun.
Out of 325 inscriptions found on tombstones only four are related with members of the Bosnian church. Inscription on the monument of guest Milutin from Humsko near Foča starts in spirit of the true faith: “in your name, Holy Trinity”. Monument of guest Mišljen from Puhovac near Zenica reads: “here lies good sir Mišljen” for whom “as prescribed, Avram prepared plentiful hospitality”, which is completely in accordance with spirit of the Orthodox hagiographies. The rest of the inscription, where believers pray to their church dignitary “once he arrives before our Lord Jesus Christ” to “mention us, his servants” is likewise written in hagiographic style and spirit of Orthodox faith.
On tombstone inscriptions of starac Bogavac from Boljun in Herzegovina and Ostoja krstjanin from Zgunj there are no theological details.
In second half of the XV century, stećci were taken up by the members of the Catholic Church and the first generation of the Islamized inhabitants of the Bosnia and Herzegovina. Tombstone inscription from surroundings of Travnik, reads it a grave of a man of “true Roman faith” while another one, belonging to Mahmut Branković says he died “in despots’ battle” and “blessed is the hand which cuts and writes”.
Large number of preserved tombstone inscriptions does not possess even a single of these important characteristics which determine religious affiliation of the deceased. Reason for that lays in the fact that kin of the deceased were more interested in emphasizing the noble, lordly, origin of the person in question, while religious affiliation was understood in itself. All of this indicates that arguments in favor of heretical affiliation of medieval Bosnian state inhabitants must be searched for outside stećci and their artistic content
Source: Dragoljub Dragojlović, History of Serbian literature in medieval Bosnian state, Novi Sad 1997
Prepared by: Boris Radaković
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