Probably one of the most well-known paintings in the art heritage of Serbia, “Preparing the Bride” by 19th century Serbian painter Paja Jovanović, is a favourite of mine. It has been reproduced on cards, posters, as needlepoint, even on the lids of chocolate boxes, and is a snapshot of a time that has past but is still somehow remembered by the collective Serbian psyche.
Paja Jovanović is best known for paintings like this one. He was enamoured of Serbian folk life, especially of the southern regions which were so very different from his native Banat, in the north. Some of his better known works are Seoba Srba (documenting the Great Migration of Serbs, in 1690) and Krunisanje Dušanovo (The Coronation of Emperor Dušan, the likely zenith of Serbian medieval statehood). As European interest in the Balkans grew, Jovanović used his time away from art school to travel to Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Dalmatia, bringing back many sketches and much inspiration.
The Serbian title, Kićenje Neveste, uses the verb kititi – to decorate or adorn. This is what we see in the scene. The setting is a room inside a Serbian urban home in Prizren. Urban homes reflected the centuries-old Ottoman influence in the Balkans, with a high shelf, seating bench or minderluk, low tables and ornate rugs. The urban costume in cities of the south was very much Levantine in style. These women are wearing silk and satin. Their garments reflect their status, both social and marital: an unmarried girl is sewing, while two married women thread flowers onto a garland. In a corner, a married woman – an aunt or sister of the bride? – wears a long sleeved mintan or salta, and the headress or tepeluk of a young married woman. An older woman, in subdued colours and hair covered, seems to be comforting the bride as she is adorned with various pieces of traditional jewelry, held on a platter by a young girl. On a table beside her we see upper garments that she has yet to don: a mintan, a jelek – the only garment missing is the džube, a long open vest that these women wore with pride. The bride is wearing white, something that was not necessarily a convention of bridal costume but which has crept into practice through urban centres. All of them wear the voluminous dimije, trousers in essence, but essentially like skirts gathered at both ankles. This detail causes many to assume that these are Muslim women, but indeed they are Orthodox Christian Serbs. Jovanović has shown, in a corner, the flickering vigil lamp (kandilo) in front of an icon of St. Nicholas.
Wedding preparations in Kosovo take the whole week, from inviting guests on the Sunday before, to colouring the bride’s hair with henna on the Wednesday, a gathering where the women roast and grind the coffee that will be needed for the wedding feast, and the ritual public shaving of the groom by his young friends and relatives. The traditional wedding day for Serbs was always Sunday (Saturday being reserved, in church tradition, for commemoration of the dead, and thus inauspicious for marriage). The wedding itself has many elaborate rituals, songs and traditions – something for a future blog post.