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Serbian medieval state (13th-14th centuries)

Last modified: 2016-11-04 by ivan sache
Keywords: serbia |
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Flag of the Serbian Kingdom, 13th century

[Flag of Serbian Empire]

Modern reconstruction of the flag of the Serbian Kingdom, 13th century - Image by Tomislav Todorović & Mladen Mijatov, 6 January 2006

The oldest described flag of a medieval Serbian kingdom is the one which was the part of the treasury of King Stefan Vladislav I (reigned 1234-1243). The treasury was kept in the city of Dubrovnik, Croatia (which was an independent city-state at that time and much like a "Switzerland of the Balkans", in the financial terms). As reported by Samardžić [szd83]), the description of this treasury, dated 1281, is kept in the archives of the Republic of Dubrovnik and lists as an item vexillum unum de zendato rubeo et blavo - "a flag of red and blue fabric" (zendato - čenda of medieval Serbian manuscripts - was a type of light, silky fabric).

As no detailed descriptions of this flag exist, its modern reconstructions, seen sometimes in TV-reports from the events commemorating 13th-century history of Serbia, show a simple horizontal red-blue bicolour, the colour shades usually being those of the modern flag of Serbia. This flag also seems to have recently provided inspiration for some subnational and political flags in Serbia.

Tomislav Todorović, 6 January 2006

There is not the least evidence that the ancient flag in question was a simple horizontally divided red-blue flag. It could have been anything else including whatever your fantasy allows you. In fact, it would be very surprising if the flag was indeed anything like the modern reconstructions.
However, one should bear in mind that such (probably) erroneous reconstruction has had some influence in the modern times and is therefore worth mentioning.

Željko Heimer, 8 January 2006

Flag of the Serbian Empire, 14th century

[Flag of Serbian Empire]

Flag of the Serbian Empire, 14th century - Image by Ivan Sarajčić, 2 May 2000

One of the oldest historical sources for flags is constituted by maps.
In the monography of the Historical Institute in Belgrade Monumenta Cartographica Jugoslaviae II, (Narodna Knjiga, Belgrade, 1979), Gordana Tomović compares different 14th century naval maps of Balkan peninsula. She notices flags above some place names on a map preserved in Bibliothèque Nationale (National Library) in Paris (Département des Cartes et Plans), made on pergament by Angelino Dulcert (1339) [drt39]:

....above Skopje (Skopi) - red two-headed eagle on yellow field. The topographic name Serbia (Seruja) is placed near the hoist. Flag along with the vignette of city, back then, was characteristic for labeling state capitals. This flag remains the first drawn represention of a Serbian state flag[...]

The caption says:

Picture 12 - Flag above town of Skopje (Scopi) - in today's Macedonia, in 14th century, capital of Serbian Empire.

Ivan Sarajčić, 2 May 2000

Flags attributed to Emperor Stefan Uroš IV Dušan (reigned 1331-1355)

In Hilandar (Chilandariou), the Serbian Orthodox monastery on Mount Athos, two flags (Wikipedia) of medieval origin are kept which are traditionally attributed to Emperor Uroš IV Dušan (reigned 1331-1355).
The flags were studied in detail by Nikola Giljen (Srpske srednjovekovne zastave [Serbian medieval flags]. Belgrade: Fond "Princeza Olivera", 2014).

The first to write about them was the Serbian painter and writer Dimitrije Avramović (1815-1855), who saw them during his visit to Mount Athos in 1846. However, he thought that only one of these flags was dating from the Middle Ages and somehow managed to confuse their descriptions into a single erroneous one, applied to both flags. That description was repeatedly quoted until 1938, when Pera (Petar) J. Popović (1873-1945), architect and heraldist from Belgrade, published his description of one flag in "Contributions for Literature, Language, History and Folklore" (Prilozi za književnost, jezik, istoriju i folklor), a yearly publication by the Faculty of Philology, University of Belgrade. Although Popović had quite correctly described what he saw, the original erroneous description has been still repeatedly quoted for years and the other flag has remained largely neglected until 1983, when a correct description, based on data gathered by the Historical Museum of Serbia, Belgrade was published by Samardžić [szd83], together with a black and white photo; the 1938 description of the first flag was repeated there as well.

Both flags have remained underexplored, though, so their exact dating is yet to be determined - they might really originate as believed, and even have been brought to the monastery by Emperor Dušan himself, for he did stay in the monastery in 1347-1348 while avoiding the epidemic of plague, but may as well originate from earlier or later times, or even two different periods of time. Their original use is also unclear: while they are generally supposed to have been used as the military colors, or maybe (based on their attribution) as the imperial standards, their design may suggest a military use, but as some kind of signal flags. What is known is that they have been regularly used in the monastery as procession banners for centuries, well into the 19th century, until (some time after their 1846 sighitng) they were too damaged by age, use and inadequate storage, something that is yet to be repaired as much as possible, as well as to determine how much of the current flag looks was original, and how much was the result of possible repairings throughout the time of their use.

Tomislav Todorović, 16 May 2016

First flag

[Flag]         [Flag]

Serbian medieval flag kept in Mount Athos, left, current state: right, tentative reconstruction of the original state - Images by Tomislav Todorović, 16 May 2016

The flag that was described in 1938 is now kept in a display case (incomplete view). Popović's rendition (photo, with colours added subsequently) shows the flag' shape as a right-angled triangle, 2.40 m high and 2.75 m long. The length of the third side, 3.70 m, looks erroneous at first sight - the hypotenuse of the triangle should be 3.65 m; however, the photo shows that the edge is visibly curvy, possibly deformed by age and other causes, so its length might have been correctly measured, after all. The flag is made of six pieces of silk sewn together, orange at the top, yellow at the bottom, while the other pieces are green. Another error in the sketch is the inconsistency between the total flag's width and the width of the individual fields, the sum of which is 239 cm; this was probably done while drawing the sketch. The images presented here combine the overall flag width and the widths of orange and yellow fields. An appliqué in shape of Eastern Orthodox cross, made of a single piece of golden fabric, is sewn onto the second topmost green piece. The cross is in a less used shape, with the topmost cross-bar attached to the very top of the pole; this shape is known to have been used in medieval Serbia, though. A large photo of this detail was published by Samardžić, which was used in making of the presented images.
The fringes along the top and fly edges were originally described as green to green-yellow, but the latter color, as the photo clearly reveals, is simply yellow. There seems to be no rule in their distribution; the fringes in two colors may have been originally combined if no sufficient quantity of one color was available, or those in one color may have been used to replace those in the original color when they were damaged. For this reason, as well as the fact that their distribution is not completely visible, they were omitted from the presented images. Last but not least, along the bottom edge of orange field, remnants of yellow silk are noticed in a shade close to the one of bottom field. For this reason, it is supposed that the orange field was added later, as the replacement of an original yellow one when it was deemed too damaged.

Tomislav Todorović, 16 May 2016

Second flag

[Flag]         [Flag]

Serbian medieval flag kept in Mount Athos, reverse and obverse, tentative reconstruction - Images by Tomislav Todorović, 16 May 2016

The second flag also has a triangular shape, with the hoist edge of 267 cm, bottom edge of 220 cm and fly edge of 400 cm. This would mean an obtuse triangle, however according to the photo published by Samardžić, the flag is in a rather damaged state, with several large holes and most of bottom edge missing, the fly edge looks too concave to be intentionally made so, and the existing fabric is so deformed that there are no right angles where they must have originally been. For these reasons, a right-angled triangle with the hoist and bottom edges as above was used as the flag shape in the presented images, as it enables a rather accurate reproduction of the design. (Reconstructions with such shape are used in the sources below, too.)

The flag is made of several various pieces of silk sewn together. The topmost field, 60 cm high, is plain red; a white ribbon, sewn onto it, seems not to be a charge, but rather an attempt to reinforce the stitches closing a hole, for another small hole is visible near it. The second field, 50 cm high, is in natural silk color with woven ornaments in form of stripes composed of alternating white and red rectangles, white next to the hoist; the rectangles now actually look like rhomboids due to the deformations of the fabric, as mentioned above. The third field is light yellow, with an appliqué in shape of a Greek cross in darker yellow color; due to the said deformations of the fabric, the cross now looks like halfway between a cross and a saltire. There are also large holes between the cross and the fly edge. The fourth field is 100 cm high, made of two pieces of the same fabric as used for the second field and displays the same deformations, the difference being that the red rectangles are next to the hoist here; the lower piece is heavily damaged, much of it missing, including most of the bottom edge. Alternating white and red stripes are sewn over the stitches between the fields, thus separating them, ending with a white stripe along the bottom edge, which is also accompanied with yellow fringes, most of them now missing, as does most of the stripe. A yellow stripe is sewn along the fly edge and is accompanied with pale green fringes.
The above is the description of the obverse of he flag. On the reverse, there is no cross on the third field and the stripe along the fly edge is green.

Tomislav Todorović, 16 May 2016

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