Serbia's icon-painting nuns combine religion and art

On the wooded slopes of southwestern Serbia's Golija mountain, a dozen nuns at the Gradac monastery have devoted their lives to God but have not turned their backs on their lifelong passion: painting.

Twenty years ago Jasna Topolski, already a famous artist who had graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts in Belgrade, arrived at this 13th-century monastery. Today, she is Efimija, the mother superior.

"(As an artist) I thought that art would allow me to find the truth, to resolve the mystery of death, but I had found no answer," the 46-year-old told AFP.

"I started looking elsewhere and realised that the church could provide me with the complete answer" to the big questions about life.

When she decided to join the church, she learned icon painting and undertook to renovate the Gradac monastery, reconciling her spiritual and artistic aspirations.

She was soon followed by several other young women, fellow fine arts students who were equally torn between religion and art.

"Some among them were considering joining the order but were not sure how their artistic sensibility could adjust to monastic life. So when they saw me here, they decided to try. They liked it, so they stayed," Efimija said.

That's what happened to Sister Magdalina, Mother Efimija's closest aide in Gradac. In the convent workshop, she teaches other nuns the art of icon painting.

"The more we paint, the more they (icons) seem to be elusive ...We can never say 'I mastered the technique of painting icons'," Sister Magdalina said.

"I believe that great artists are all believers, even though they are not aware of that sometimes. I don't believe that we can reach such (artistic) depth if there is no (divine) light within ourselves," she added.

The nun painters of Gradac are much in demand and have decorated walls at several orthodox churches, even in neighboring Croatia. But they prefer icon painting.

Icons play a key role in the Orthodox church, and are displayed in churches and monasteries. At home believers usually keep icons of their patron saint, whose feast day is lavishly celebrated by the entire family.

The work of the Gradac nuns and Mother Efimija has won praise from art critics.

"It is high-level art, spiritual but at the same time professional," Serbian art historian Jasa Denegri said.

"I have been working for several days on this icon. I made it for myself," said Mother Efimija as she carefully worked on an icon of Saint Ksenija.

Her room is also her workshop and looks nothing like the austere cells sometimes associated with convent life.

The walls are adorned with religious but also figurative modern pieces in light earth tones depicting animals and flowers.

The mother superior said she tried not to copy ancient icons as many religious painters do.

She believes her paintings reflect the mysterious communion between the artist and the silhouette of the saint that appears slowly on the board of the icon.

"The most important for me is to think about whom I paint. How to show their expression, their look. I have to feel that they are looking at me and that is an opening towards the heavens," she explained.

In Gradac everybody is free to express "their God-given talent", Mother Efimija said.

Father Vitalije, the only man here, is in charge of religious services at the monastery as the Orthodox religion bans women from performing them.

A former engineer, he has set up the monastery's website (http://www.manastirgradac.org.rs).

The nuns regularly exhibit their work in galleries around the country and Mother Efimija now has in mind a special project that will show the nuns' work before and after they joined the order.

"The difference is interesting. In my previous works, I was searching for answers, while today I accept life as it is," she noted.

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