In 2019, an iconic painting is marking its centennial. Depicting events that happened over 600 years ago, the Kosovka Devojka, or Kosovo Maiden, has become the most widely known image of all of Serbian art. It has become a symbol of charity and mercy, of selflessness, and of bravery. This painting was preceded by others that have not retained the same impact in our collective soul. Legendary, not historic, the Kosovo Maiden is a woman every Serb knows like a sister.
The character of the Kosovka Devojka appears in several folk epics about the Battle of Kosovo. The battle inspired generations of anonymous Serbian folk bards. The only ones known to us by name are the singers who performed them for Vuk Karadžić, the first to record them. Vuk’s publication of Srpske Narodne Pjesme, in turn, inspired the Brothers Grimm and Goethe in their work. It also inspired an unlikely devotee, Mme. Elodie Lawton-Mijatović, a British author married to Serbia’s ambassador in London, Čedomilj Mijatović. She took to our culture wholeheartedly, translating folk tales, songs and poetry for an eager British readership. She made an outstanding effort at not only translating the major Kosovo Cycle epics, but also in bringing them together into a single epic narrative. Dissecting apart events and placing them in chronological order, she fused many well known epics with great skill and creativity.
We first encounter the maiden as she stands by the door of the church in the village of Samodreža, prior to the battle. She is among the people who have gathered to witness the final communion of the Serbian army and its leaders. She is standing by the door as they exit, and three of them notice her. The three are knights and blood brothers.
The first to notice her is Miloš Obilić, the ultimate hero of the battle (assassinating the Sultan Murad under the pretense of surrender and obeisance). Miloš turns to her and says,
Next, Ivan Kosančić, a knight from the Toplica district, exits the church. He addresses her:
Finally, the standard bearer Milan Toplica exits. He too is from Toplica district, near Prokuplje, and completes the legendary trio. He sees her, and says:
And thus, Kosovka Devojka finds herself betrothed on the eve of battle. The epic follows the formulaic threefold repetition, but in fact the three knights are known historical figures. Elodie Lawton-Mijatovic mistranslates kolasta azdija as a chain and koprena as glove; this may be deliberate, changed for meter and meaning. To an English audience, the gift of a glove is definitely taken directly from chivalrous imagery familiar to Western Europeans.
The battle came and went… the Serbs fought an honourable fight, and lost. Serbs are unusual in celebrating a military loss as their national holiday, but what is being celebrated is the courage of conviction and principle. Other southern Serbian and Bulgarian principalities had avoided battle by capitulating to the more powerful Ottomans; Prince Lazar did not. Instead he rallied the divided nobles for what they knew would be their final stand. They faced death, but with honour, choosing to defend their land against all odds. As the epic bards concluded, “Све је свето и честито било, и миломе Богу приступачно” – “Sve je sveto i čestito bilo, i milome Bogu pristupačno” – “With holiness and honour, good in the sight of God”.
After the battle, the wounded needed attention and families ventured out to collect their dead. The Kosovo Maiden needed to know the fate of her betrothed, Milan Toplica. Her undertaking begins early in the morning – a Sunday, in the epic poem, but in reality a Wednesday.
She finds one knight, the military commander Pavle Orlović, clinging to life. She tends to his wounds and asks him what happened to her love. Pavle recounts major events of the battle, and finally tells her:
This leaves the maiden devastated:
The idea of an evergreen withering is a powerful image of how deeply cursed the maiden sees herself at this moment. In a slightly different turn, the poet Dragoljub Filipović links her to the legend of how the weeping willow (žalostiva vrba, or sorrowful willow, in Serbian) came to be:
Filipović wrote a collection of poems inspired by Kosovo while he was recuperating from the Albanian Retreat on the island of Corfu in 1915. Seeing the landscapes of Kosovo, the final region of Serbia before he became a refugee, deeply affected him. His Kosovo Maiden is “beautiful, chaste, pale, melancholy…” and his words capture all that she represents as the embodiment of mercy and ideal of femininity. Although a recent literary work, he stays true to the traditional imagery and to the historic locations.
The epic poems were the oral history of the Serbian people for almost five centuries, before being recorded by ethnographers and folklorists such as Vuk Stefanović Karadžić. They were published and circulated throughout Europe, and had a great impact on Serbs living outside of Serbia, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. One such Serb was the artist Uroš Predić, born in Orlovat, a village in Banat region, educated in Pančevo and sent, on a scholarship, to Vienna to study fine art. Along with Paja Jovanović, he contributed many works that documented ethnographic and historic themes, including “The Happy Brothers” (Vesela Braća), “The Great Migration of Serbs” (Seoba Srba) and “The Hercegovinian Refugees” (Hercegovački Begunci). His oeuvre also included portraits and numerous iconostases.
Predić was commissioned to paint the Kosovo Maiden for the Serbian women’s humanitarian organization, the Kolo Srpskih Sestara, in 1914. They had intended to sell reproductions of the painting in order to fund relief work during WWI. Realities of the Austrian occupation and the war years delayed its completion. After the war, in 1919, Predić became the first president of the Association of Visual Artists of Serbia and he painted a second version of the painting which is today housed at the Museum of the City of Belgrade. His model was a young Belgrade girl, Leposava Stanković (later married Kulik), whom he dressed in Kosovo Serbian urban costume and jewelry from the Ethnographic Museum in Belgrade.
Predić’s Kosovo Maiden may be the definitive one, the enduring one…. But it was not the first one. And this is where it gets interesting, because the the earliest images of the Kosovo Maiden actually came from Croatian artists inspired by the rise in Yugoslavism among Croatian intellectuals. (yes, it was their idea first – in fact after the 1918 armistice, they were first to declare unification with Serbia, even before Vojvodina, Crna Gora, Bosnia and Hercegovina. Oh, the irony!)
And it gets even weirder when we hear how the very first image came to be. Enter Ferdo Kikerec aka Ferdinand Peter Quiquerez-Beaujeau, Hungarian born, of French origin, and Croatian by circumstance. Living a good part of his life in Budapest and then Zagreb (Hungarian Agram), Kikerec painted many scenes inspired by Serbian folk epics, such as The Building of Skadar (Zidanje Skadra) and The Death of Mother Jugović (Smrt Majke Jugovića). Kosovka Devojka was painted in 1879, using two other historic paintings as inspiration.
These two paintings were Alexandre-Evariste Fragonard’s 1836 canvas of “Francis the First at the Battle of Marignan” (François Ier à la bataille de Marignan, 14 septembre 1515), and “Dorottya Perenyi gathering the dead after the battle of Mohacs” painted in 1867 by Soma Orlai Petrics (Petrić), a Hungarian painter, born to a Serbian father and Hungarian mother. Both paintings show the aftermath of great battles, the former highlighting a victorious ruler and the latter a merciful noblewoman. The tone of the latter definitely matches that of the Kosovo Maiden, but what is interesting is that in both there are figures that clearly suggest an inspiration for the pose of the Kosovo Maiden. Using the epic poem’s text and the inspiration of these paintings, Kikerec places the Kosovo Maiden and Pavle Orlović front and centre. He dresses her in a zubun and fringed apron, something he may have been familiar with in seeing Serb village women from Kordun, Banija or Žumberak at the markets in Zagreb. Orlović is dressed in Montenegrin or Hercegovinian costume. Kikerec spent some time in Montenegro, and this may have inspired the choice; the historic Pavle Orlović was Hercegovinian in origin, though, and this too may have been an artistic choice. Predić seems to have relied on Kikerec’s example as a starting point.
Relatively soon after Kikerec’s painting was exhibited and reproduced, some other young Croatian artists offered their versions. Two of these artists would have been intimately familiar with the tales and epics of Kosovo Cycle, as they grew up in the mixed population region of Dalmatia where these poems were sung to the sound of gusle. These were Ivan Meštrović (from the village of Otavice near Drniš) and Jozo Kljaković (from the coastal town of Solin). Kljaković was only 19 when he exhibited his Kosovka Devojka in 1908, while Meštrović was already emerging as the important sculptor we know him as when he carved the Kosovka Devojka in bas relief. The work was going to be part of a Vidovdanski Hram, the Temple to St Vitus’ Day, which he conceptualized but was never constructed. The two men exhibited together at the Belgrade Artists’ Colony, with Kljaković also submitting a portrait of Serbian rebel leader Karađorđe Petrović and the mythic character Vila Ravijojla.
(How well these Croatian artists’ Serbian works have fared in the new millenium is only an online search away. Wikipedia has purged the Kosovo Maiden from Kikerec’s oeuvre entirely, while Kljaković’s painting is now exhibited simply as “Milosrđe” – Mercy. No worries guys, Svilen Konac has got your backs and the internet is forevvver!)
Over the next period, some minor versions followed, such as the Kosovka Devojka by Croatian artist Mirko Rački, in 1914. This one is more of a study of the maiden herself, with interesting ethnographic elements, rather than a painting telling a historical story. In a letter to a friend Rački commented “Radim na trima velikim stvarima “Smrt majke Jugovića”, “Zidanje Skadra” i “Kosovka devojka” – “I am working on three great opuses, The Death of Mother Jugović, The Building of Skadar, and the Kosovo Maiden”. These three folk epics certainly were popular and had a role as the South Slavic voice during the WWI period, and Rački together with Kljaković and Meštrovic were part of the Medulić Group in Split, Dalmatia. The “Medulići” were an emerging artistic movement that exhibited across Europe during the interwar period.
A fairly amateurish version was published as a postcard by Serbian artist Milenko Đurić, while a very dynamic version came from the hand of Serbian artist Nikola Jeremić. Both works emerged in 1910, with Jeremić exhibiting his painting in Paris (where he was living) in 1919. His painting may have also been inspired by the same Fragonard painting that Kikerec drew upon, still housed in the Battle Gallery (Galerie des Batailles) at Versailles. Jeremić lived out the rest of his days in Paris, and was buried at Pere Lachaise Cemetery in 1953. His Kosovo Maiden has much in common with Rački’s but it is difficult to say if there was any mutual influence. Her simple white garment may have just made sense to either artist. Still, Jeremić introduces a very typical triangular pin as her only jewelry, with a fairly plain zubun vest as well. This raises the question, with so many versions, which artist got the Kosovo Maiden right, from an ethnographic perspective.
Kikerec and Predić both loved showing elements of traditional costume in their works, in great detail and with commendable accuracy. Sadly, they both got her very wrong. Kikerec made choices on his own experiences and encounters, showing her and Pavle Orlović in very Serbian clothing, all very moving and very patriotic for the time. Predić errs in a similar way. Riding the wave of euphoria after the liberation of Kosovo and Southern Serbia during the Balkan Wars, and the artistic fascination that he and Paja Jovanović seemed to have shared for the exotic Levantine clothing of those regions, he dresses his Kosovka Devojka in clothing that would not have been around in 1389.
Now, to be fair, he may have gotten some of it right. Predić chose costume pieces based on the impact they would have on canvas. So, under the Ottoman style džube garment, he has dressed his girl in a festive shirt from Kosovo village costume. The type of shirt, known as đurđevojka, retained many techniques and designs from medieval Serbian and Byzantine costume, right up to the 20th century. So, he may have gotten this right. Now, how likely are you to be wearing your best dress on a battlefield? Rački and Jeremić’s workaday dresses may be closer to reality on this point. But, the message of the painting was one of noble sacrifice, of beauty in sorrow. Predić was clearly seeking this deeper meaning.
While we can rule out Meštrović outright (his goal was a visual épopée harkening to classical art, after all) Kljaković may have come close. Like Kikerec and Đurić, the maiden wears folk costume, but Kljaković’s style simplifies the details and lines. The zubun is white, with little embroidery; her uncovered hair speaks to her age and status; her sleeves drawn upward evoke the words of epics that everyone familiar with the legend knows. I personally really like the Kljaković painting, for this reason, among others.
So, taking all of this into consideration, what should she be wearing? If we were to recreate the actual clothing of a Serbian girl in 1389, what would we need?
Even the oldest ethnographic collections fail to preserve Serbian costume from the 14th century. Any garments that are preserved are things like religious vestments or royal regalia, which certainly don’t meet our needs. Fortunately, the five century Ottoman hiatus on external cultural influences meant that our people’s clothing remained relatively conservative over that time period, so what we find in collections, descriptions and depictions of peasant clothing from the 18th and 19th centuries may tell us much about form and material. That said, we can with certainty eliminate any Ottoman influenced garments or materials: the jelek, džube, anterija, fistan, mintan, etc are all out. Thus, in one fell swoop, we eliminate Uroš Predić’s image entirely.
The next question is, who is this girl? Is she nobility, or is she a commoner? Based on what we know from history and epics, there is no indication that the noblewomen accompanied the men as they went into battle. The nobles assembled, with their own recruits and armies, came from far around. Prince Lazar’s capital, Kruševac, was not close to the battlefield between the Lab and Sitnica rivers in Kosovo. Any young woman finding herself in the Samodreža church yard must be a local, a peasant girl. So, we can eliminate another source of historic evidence, the images of women in founders’ compositions (ktitorske kompozicije) in monasteries and churches. These would, of course, be somewhat idealized images of noblewomen. The depiction of common women is limited in frescography, and generally is highly stylized to conform to iconographic canon; generally, what you will see are garments hearkening to biblical or early byzantine times, not necessarily reflective of Slavic dress. We can still gather some information regarding the culture of clothing at the time from the frescoes of certain noblewomen, especially lesser nobility who wore clothing of mixed Slavic and Byzantine origin. For example, it is clear from many compositions that women generally did cover their hair, often with more than one layer and often with embroidered strips or jewelled diadems across the forehead, straps under the chin, etc. We see this is manyThe oldest term known to have been used for headcoverings is krpa, which is Baltoslavic if not Preslavic in origin. We also encounter povez, povezača or in Kosovo itself prevez, which in later centuries designated a bridal headdress but may have denoted head coverings in general long ago. All three of these terms have the meaning of “to tie over”, or “to gather or cover up” (pre + vezati, po + vezati).
We can assume that what was worn in 1389 would be the precursor to the costumes of the Central Balkan type, so we can build on that for determining which garments would have specifically been worn. The basic garment of Slavic women was the košulja, haljina – the long shirt, a type of shift, and the likely material for this in Serbia during the middle ages would have been hemp, konoplja or kudelja, both words with protoslavic origins and in the panslavic lexicon. The ancient patterns retained in the Kosovo costume up until the early 20th century preserved designs from Byzantine and Slavic sources, or even more ancient ones such as the Hallstatt culture, so to reconstruct the Kosovka Devojka, the đurđevojka style of shirt would be most apt.
Some sort of apron or wrap would have been worn over this. We know that up until the 20th century, throughout the Central Balkan zone (and beyond), women considered it inappropriate to appear in public without an apron or wrap of some type. This type of social attitude can safely be assumed to have had ancient roots. So, our maiden will wear a broad apron, a zapreg or pregača (from zapregnuti, to tie around), although it may also have been called by the panslavic term ponjava. Invariably this would have been woven on a loom, in geometric designs using colours derived from nature. The easiest of these colours to derive would have been red, brown, black, yellow and orange. The repertoire of patterns remained fairly consistent to the 20th century over a swath of land stretching from eastern Dinaric regions, across Kosovo and South Serbia, through the eastern mountains and down the Vardar valley. Nothing floral, nothing srmeno (gold applique embroidery) – all very striking, however.
Over this, there is no doubt what came next: the Zubun is by far the most widely worn garment, male and female, throughout the balkans; not just worn by Slavs, but likely of slavic origin. Zubun, zubunac, zobun are all Turkisms, though; along with džube they originate in the Turkish zibin from Arabic giubba…. The older term was probably haljetak, which survives in costume terms ljetak and litak, or possibly also sukno (derived from the material from which it is made) or saja (from Greek sagos, sagum – cape.) The zubun was likely of an undyed cloth, naturally cream-white wool or hemp. Elaborate embroidery is found on the festive zubuni (pl.) of the Central Balkan zone, but workaday zubuni likely had less ornamentation. The Battle of Kosovo was indeed on the feast of St Vitus, but this is not a major feast day for the Orthodox. We also know that the battle of Kosovo was fought on a Tuesday, in June – so a simple, lighter zubun would make sense.
Finally, footwear. Socks would likely have been woollen, but not the type we know today, the knit čarape (another Turkism). Most likely they were sewn from rolled woollen cloth, more of a legging reaching above the knee and held in place by braided straps. These are the bečve (bječve, bičve in other dialects), similar to the heavier skornje made of animal hides and generally reserved for winter wear. The footwear itself, well – why improve upon perfection? The opanak had already been around for centuries.
In my reconstruction, I have made use of a festive shirt from my collection as it is. There is copious research and analysis that indicates that the type of dress worn by Serbian women on Kosovo Plain up until the Second World War has been unchanged in form and ornament since medieval times. I recreated the zubun using heavy hemp cloth rather than wool cloth. Our maiden was wearing a summer garment, after all. I embroidered it with pure wool yarn, colours inspired partly by tradition and natural dyes, but also by the captivating colours of Dušan Ristić’s illustrations. An embroidery salvaged from a fragment of a damaged zubun from Sirinička župa district of mount Šara in Kosovo region has also been used to ornament the bodice. The kerchief is of plain linen cloth, but is worn over a heavier hemp red and white cloth. This choice was inspired by the work and drawings of Jovan Kovačević. The kerchief is held in place by two authentic pins, one of them embossed with an ancient Slavic sun image. Even a century after St Sava, the Serbs of the middle ages remained heavily superstitions and bound to the imagery of the pagan Slav ancestors. This is the only jewelry I chose to include in the reconstructed costume, as the Kosovo Maiden’s heavy task would not have been an occasion for adornment. The fabric for the zapreg apron is a vintage mid 20th century mixed-fibre weave that I chose for the colours (all easily derived from natural dyes) and for the design which very closely mimics that of the most ancient Serbian meanders.
Who comes closest to this estimation of what our Kosovka Devojka may have worn? Probably Jozo Kljaković. Does this diminish the Predić work? Not in the least. It is the zenith, the one that has endured as a symbol. Even as some are actively being purged or obliterated from the collective memory of our neighbours, the Predić painting has that instant recognition, that impact that the rest somehow don’t. Others have not been forgotten; yet, despite being older or just as artistically valued, these artworks are viewed as somehow quaint imitations, or they briefly spark thoughts about another way of seeing the story of the legendary maiden who faced fear and sorrow and stepped onto a battlefield, alone.
She’s been on military medals and national orders. She’s been on t-shirts, album art, and in cartoons. Her tale is read by school children, analyzed by students, and sung by guslari still. There have been versions of here in virtually every medium, from inspiring to absurd. But we love her… she is our sister, the Kosovo Maiden, and her image has been reminding us of who we can strive to be for a century now. Sestro draga, Kosovko Devojko…
For Further Reading:
Ćorović, Vladimir (1995) Istorija Srba. BIGZ, Beograd.
Ćurčija-Prodanović, Nada. Dušan Ristić, illustrator (1964) Heroes of Serbia. H.Z. Walck, New York.
Dvorniković, Vladimir (1939) Karakterologija Jugoslovena. Kosmos – Geca Kon, Beograd.
Đurić, Vojislav (1991) Antologija narodnih junačkih pesama. 14th Ed. Srpska Književna Zadruga, Belgrade
Filipović, Dragoljub. Ed. Dragiša Vasić (1949) Kosovski Božuri. Preporod, Munich.
“Istinska ‘Kosovka Djevojka’: Po Njenom Je Liku Predić Naslikao Svoje Remek Djelo.” IN4S, 9 June 2018, http://www.in4s.net/istinska-kosovka-djevojka-po-njenom-je-liku-predic-naslikao-svoje-remek-djelo/?lang=lat.
Kovačević, Jovan (1953) Srednjevekovna nošnja balkanskih slovena. Srpska Akademija Nauka, Naučna Knjiga, Beograd.
Lawton-Mijatović, Elodie (1881) Kosovo: An attempt to bring Serbian national songs about the fall of the Serbian empire and the Battle of Kosovo into one poem. William Isbister, London.
Maštrović, Ante (1976) Starohrvatska baština. Grafički zavod Hrvatske, Zagreb.
Menković, Mirjana (2009) Zubun: Kolekcija Etnografskog Muzeja u Beogradu iz XIX i prve polovine XX veka. / Zubun Chemise: the collection of the Ethnographic Museum in Belgrade from the XIX and first half of the XX centuries. Čigoja Press, Belgrade.
Živković, Petar Ž. (1937) Skornje. Glasnik Etnografskog Muzeja u Beogradu, vol. 12 pp. 91 – 98