Tag Archives: Serbian art

Đorđe Krstić – Skull Tower

7 May

The mountain breeze, which was then blowing fresh, penetrated the innumerable cavities of the skulls, and sounded like mournful and plaintive sighs.….”

Đorđe Krstić, Ćele kula (Skull Tower), 1883

Serbian painter Đorđe Krstić’s painting “Skull Tower” is a mass of heavy, earthy brown shades. The tower portrayed is a vague looking building and without knowing the history behind it, we might not even sense the eeriness that is hidden behind a drab, brown facade. The Skull Tower portrayed here is a stone structure embedded with human skulls in the town of Niš, Serbia. It dates back to May 1809 when the First Serbian Uprising took place and the Serbian rebels fought the Ottoman Empire, and, sadly, lost, but not without heroism and bravery. The Serbian leader of the battle, Srđan Sinđelić, realising his side would lose, killed himself and his fellow soldiers by creating a massive gun powder explosion. After the battle, the Ottoman soldiers took the heads of the Serbian men, skinned them and sent them to the Ottoman Sultan who, after viewing them, sent them back to Niš and then the Ottoman side built this tower as a warning to all other Serbs who may be contemplating an uprising. This was a known method for the Ottoman Empire, but still, after some time had passed, they realised that the tower served only to create resentment and not fear with the locals.

This tower built of limestone and sand originally contained more than 900 skulls, but not all are there anymore. In 1878 the Ottomans left the area and a baldachin-type structur was made over the tower and eventually a chapel was made and the tower is now inside it. Đorđe Krstić’s painting doesn’t do justice to the truly eerie and disturbing sight that the tower full of skulls must have been in those days, and probably still is, but French Romantic poet Alphonse de Lamartine left us a better, more vivid and haunting description of the tower. In 1833 the poet visited the wilderness that eastern Europe and the Balkans must have been in his eyes and he saw the Skull Tower. His impressions of it are more atmospheric and eerie than Krstić’s painting:

I saw a large tower rising in the midst of the plain, as white as Parian marble … Raising my eyes to the monument, I discovered that the walls, which I supposed to be built of marble or white stone, were composed of regular rows of human skulls; these skulls bleached by the rain and sun, and cemented by a little sand and lime, formed entirely the triumphal arch which now sheltered me from the heat of the sun. In some places portions of hair were still hanging and waved, like lichen or moss, with every breath of wind. The mountain breeze, which was then blowing fresh, penetrated the innumerable cavities of the skulls, and sounded like mournful and plaintive sighs. My eyes and my heart greeted the remains of those brave men whose cut-off heads made the cornerstone of the independence of their homeland. May the Serbs keep this monument! It will always teach their children the value of the independence of a people, showing them the real price their fathers had to pay for it.

Alphonse de Lamartine’s fascination with that area of Europe and with the tower shows the wild craving and yearning of the Romantic era for all things exotic, unexplored, dark and mysterious, and also touches on the Romantic love of heroism and fight for liberty.