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Stecci - Medieval gravestones mirroring the rich cultures of Southeast Europe

Stecci - Medieval gravestones mirroring the rich cultures of Southeast Europe

About the mysterious “stone sleepers“

You can see them on some walking paths. Large, mysterious stones, often in rectangular form with naïve decorations and inscriptions, rise up from meadows and fields like monuments from another time. What is it about them, these mysterious "stone sleepers", as the poet Mak Dizdar aptly described them? The idea of the monuments is not so far off. These hewn limestones are monolithic medieval tombstones, the so-called stecci (singular stecak), which can be admired mainly in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but also in parts of Croatia, Montenegro and Serbia. In 2016, they were included in the UNESCO World Heritage List for their "outstanding universal value" as the common cultural heritage of these countries. But what exactly constitutes this value?

They convey an exceptional testimony to medieval European funerary art, which expresses the various cultural and spiritual influences of Southeast Europe. In their rich decorations, prehistoric, Roman, and early medieval influences are mixed with various Christian symbolism, but also local inscriptions of enormous historical significance. The stecci reflect the people of this region with its cultural diversity, different confessions and rich history, and are still the subject of oral tradition today. They are not to be understood as an ethnic phenomenon and are as individual as the people who rest under them.

Well-preserved-medieval-gravestones-with-decorations-and-inscriptions-in-an-old-cemetery-in-the-evening-sun

The gravestones appear in different forms and two positions - lying or standing. The most well-known and characteristic form is probably the so-called sljemenjak, which resembles a house in appearance. Other forms are slabs, chests, pillars and monumental crosses. Equally versatile are the decorative bas-reliefs. The motifs can be purely decorative, but also have a symbolic or religious character. Very often you can find geometric motifs, human figures, flowers, moon and stars, but also scenes from everyday life, hunting or knights' games. Written decorations are a rarity. Only about 300 out of more than 70,000 gravestones have inscriptions, which are a valuable and an exceptional source for historians. In contrast to the motifs, which sometimes leave a lot of room for interpretation, the inscriptions seem to address the observer directly. The stecci "speak".

"And here lies Asta, daughter of Bogcin Zlousic, but I don't want to lie here. How I would love to walk with you through the fields at dusk and give you the kiss you asked for but didn't get. Even if the sky opens up, I wouldn't regret it or feel ashamed. Wanderer, do not touch the stone. Let those who touch it do what I have not done, for I only now know how unfulfilled devotion burns on the soul. In 1422, when the happy ones rejoiced and I died."

Another significant feature that distinguishes the stecci from the overall corpus of Europe’s medieval sepulchral art is the enormous number of preserved gravestones. It is estimated that more than 70,000 stecci are located at over 3300 necropolises, most of which are formed along important historical roads. The first stecci can be dated to the second half of the 12th century. They prospered between the 14th and 15th century. In the 16th century their use finally ceased. More than 4400 stecci, spread over more than 400 sites, can be found in the territory of present-day Croatia, or to be more precise in Dalmatia. Out of a total of 28 necropolises in all four countries, which have been declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites, you can study two of them during your holiday in Croatia: Velika and Mala Crljivica and the graveyard next to the church of St. Barbara.

Well-preserved-medieval-gravestone-in-a-field-with-water-pools-in-the-evening-sun

The necropolis of Velika and Mala Crljivica is located in Cista Velika, on the road to the village of Cista Provo. It is an excellent destination for an excursion from Split. A total of 102 stecci in all shapes extend over 200 meters. 52 of them are decorated with motifs such as crosses, stars, lilies, but also interesting dancing, hunting and tournament scenes. Cyrillic inscriptions, which are partially still preserved, decorate two of the gravestones. In Konavle, in the southernmost part of Croatia, near Dubrovnik, there is a necropolis next to the church of St. Barbara. It is surrounded by an old stone wall. Once, there was also a road leading to Herzegovina. The site has a total of 102 gravestones, among which chests and slabs are particularly common. Popular motifs include bows and arrows, crosses, grape vines and rosettes. None of the gravestones bears an inscription.

Has this article opened up the mysterious world of stecci to you and aroused your interest? Then plan a day trip to the stecci for your vacation in one of our villas in Dalmatia and walk along the paths of history. "These are just memories of those times when every grain of sand was a big stone and as such it felt huge, impenetrable, motionless and imperishable. And it is the same today. The heart of the stone remains the same, no matter how big the stone is," wrote Nenad Tanovic about the stecci. Perhaps you will also hear the voices of a time long past in the sand…


Maja Kovacevic

8.8.2022
 
+385 1 222 70 50