Zugica Bare, Durmitor
Author: Vedran Pean (University of Donja Gorica, Montenegro)
Stećci are unique cultural-historical monuments with complex cultural background characteristic for the wider area of Bosna and Herzegovina, parts of Montenegro, Serbia and Croatia. Stećci belong to the period from the 12th to the 16th century and represent a unique combination of tradition, religion and artistic expression. They can most often be found on mountain plains and hills, often in groups, near old hillforts. They form an ambient compound with the nature they are surrounded by. Stećci still remain mysterious, both to the general public and to scientists, especially when it comes to the social and spiritual aspects of their origin. The time and space in relation to which stećci can be distinguished, however, says something about their complex cultural, ethnological and aesthetic value.
Regarding the overall quantity of documented stećci within the former Yugoslavian territory, noteworthy information from Šefik Belagić indicates that, although, Montenegro possesses the least number of these monuments, they still constitute a crucial component of Montenegro’s cultural heritage.
They differ in their shapes, sites where they are found, level of preservation and abundance of ornamentation. All of that testifies of the main features of the medieval folk culture. The first significant work in which the culture of the stećci is highlighted is the travelogue Out in Dalmatia by Albert Fortis from 1774, and the first documentation of stećci was done by Austria-Hungary. Based on the diverse motifs depicted stećci attest to the varied social standings of the departed. These symbols, despite later acquiring specific meanings, not only signaled religious connections, but also hinted at the actual way of life of individuals or communities.
When it comes to the various forms of stećci in Montenegro, the leading ones are slabs, crates, amorphous forms, followed by gables, crosses and pillars; most often showing scenes of dances (men’s, women’s and mixed rounds) and tournaments (chivalry, soldiers, great men and warriors).
Borders represent ribbons or strips of different composition and appearance, which can be found on many stećci sites. The shapes of twisted zig-zag ribbons, bent vines, rows of rosettes, etc. stand out in particular. The level of development of the stećci craftsmanship is especially evidenced by the fact that on one architectural fragment from the church of Saints Peter and Paul in Bijelo Polje, dated towards the end of the 12th century, a twisted rope motif was found, which corresponds to the architectural style of Romanesque churches in Italy, France and Spain of that time.
Astral motifs suggest the shapes of stellar object (moon, stars and sun). These motifs usually appear as independent ones, but they are often combined with other motifs. The crescent moon motif is present on stećci that can be found in the vicinity of Žabljak and Nikšić. This motif has been variously understood as a decoration, as a heraldic mark or as a religious symbol. Researchers who attend to this issue often point out that it is a symbol of death and rebirth. The crescent moon was a symbol of many peoples, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Etruscans, the Illyrians, the Romans, the Greeks, the Celts, the Slavs, etc.
At the same time, what frames its meaning in the wider context of these areas is the fact that it was also characteristic of old Slavic pagan customs. The star is among the relief motifs that occur most often, right after the crescent and the cross, and is characteristic of all basic shapes and the largest areas of stećci. In Montenegro, it is mainly found in the area around Žabljak. The motif of the Sun on stećci is reflected in the representation of a circle, often shown with the crescent moon and stars. This motif is a symbol of a wider religious character, the cult of the dead, Slavic beliefs, but also later Christian understandings. When it comes to Montenegro, this motif can most often be found in Piva and Nikšić, in the form of concentric wreaths, which are like medallions combined with parallel ribs.
Crosses are a widespread motif on stećci, which can be found in all areas and on all forms of these monuments in Montenegro. A unique specimen is the cross on the stećak in Žabljak. On this stećak the horizontal and upper arms end in the form of a crescent, and the lower vertical arm is bifurcated.
Floral motifs are also widespread, and include trees, spirals, rosettes, lilies and multi-petal leaves. Stećci with a lily motif are rarely found in Montenegro, and they are specific for their distinctly beautiful craftsmanship. The lily is also often considered a Christian symbol of death and resurrection and is associated with Christ’s crucifixion, which is also referred to in Solomon’s Song of Songs. The multi-petal leaf motif can also be found in Montenegro. A particularly interesting example of this motif can be found on the fresco of the monastery church in Morača. Similarly, Miroslav’s Gospel has in several places initials decorated with stylizations in the form of a petal leaf.
Weapons, as a motif, are usually presented independently, but they also often appear in various scenes such as tournaments, hunting, etc. Between the specific examples of this motif there are various differences in types, but also in the territorial representation. When it comes to the stećci in Montenegro, swords, shields, spears, bows, and maces are the most represented.
Occupational symbols mark the occupations of the deceased and are few in number in our areas. They include representations of tools used during work, such as: hoe, scythe, sickle, plow, hammer, chisel, etc. Considering that the research on stećci remains incomplete in Montenegro, there exists a prospect that in the near future, a more comprehensive exploration will be undertaken and some of these motifs, hopefully discovered.
Representations of animals include motifs such as deer, horse, dog, lion, snake, bird, boar, bear, wolf, but also some fictional appearances. Sometimes they appear as individual displays, and much more often in the context of hunting or tournament scenes. When it comes to the specific types of these motifs in Montenegro, the most represented are deer, dogs, lions, snakes, and birds. On one gable-shaped stećak near the village of Vrulje near Pljevlja, in an arcade niche, we find a representation of a deer, while in another, although quite damaged, we can see a representation of a dog. Also, in the village of Žugića Bare, near Žabljak, there is a motif of deer hunting, as well as the motif of a killed animal.
Representations of people are motifs that occur in four main types: head, hand, half-figure and figure. When it comes to the motif of the head, it is mainly depicted as a men’s faces, with eyes, nose, mouth and moustache. In Rudinice in the municipality of Plužine, there is a stećak with a carved human half-figure with eyes, mouth, and nose on the head, and arms folded by the side. In the groups of representations of people, motifs of full figures are among those that occur frequently. It should be noted that there are also certain stylizations, which only resemble the full human figure, but in fact are not. In the vicinity of Nevesinje (Bosnia and Herzegovina) and Nikšić, there are three figures with the same leg position, but with raised hands. An ax hovers above one of these figures.
Scenes represent motifs on which we find human and animal figures. They are divided into depictions of a man on a horse, kolo (circle dance), hunts, tournaments and other scenes. Within these motifs, a particularly interesting example is stećak in Žugića Bare, near Žabljak, where we can see kolo with four mixed figures. Next to the first female figure is a man on a deer, behind which is also a dog. It is not entirely certain whether the woman is touching the deer, but it is particularly interesting that in this example both the rider and the deer are not facing the direction of kolo. On the another stećak in Nikšić, there is a motif of tournament participants, one horseman with a spear and another with a bow and arrow.
Architectural motifs on stećci usually consist of depictions of fortified castles, arcades, shingles, logs and mesh shelters with sub-variants. It is interesting that more than 75% of architectural motifs fall under arcades, which are also one of the most numerous motifs on stećci in Montenegro, which has a total of 38 examples. Beautifully formed arcades of semicircular arches with capitals that represent the later stage of the development of these motifs can be found, on a tall chest from Vrulja in the vicinity of Pljevlja. Arcades with Romanesque arches and twisted columns with figures of saints can be seen, for example, as a motif on the altar of the Cathedral of St. Tripun in Kotor, which speaks of the distinct importance of this motif in the general cultural context of Montenegro over a long period of time. Also, log motifs often appear, which indicate several parallel plastic ribs, which can be found with medallion motifs on chests in Nikšić.
When it comes to the overall context of researching the subject of stećci in Montenegro, the absence of definitive information regarding the identities of monument creators underscores the need for continued scientific inquiry. This gap invites further research to delve into the authenticity of our stonemasonry tradition.