The Serbian Cross: The History of Serbia's National Symbol

Serbias flag on a wooden sign with mountains in the background
Serbia's flag on a wooden sign with mountains in the background | © Gustavo Frazao / Shutterstock

The Serbian cross is not just the national symbol of the country. It features on the flag, the coat of arms, the flag of the Serbian Orthodox Church and seemingly every concrete wall on the country’s streets. What is the story of the Serbian cross? Before the history, let’s take care of the aesthetics.

What is the Serbian cross?

A white cross on a red background, the Serbian cross is thought to be based on a tetragrammic cross of the Palaiologos dynasty from the 13th century, although this has never been confirmed. The similarities are clear for all to see, although the Serbian version comes with four stylised C letters. To clear up any confusion, the C in question is actually the Cyrillic character for the Latin letter S. What do the letters stand for? More on that shortly.

Serbia’s flag on a wooden sign with mountains in the background

Harking back to the glory days

The famous Battle of Kosovo painting by Uroš Predić

Only Unity Saves the Serbs

So what do the four S letters stand for? They unsurprisingly stand for the national motto, a slogan that has been a part of the Serbian mentality since the battles with the Ottomans in the 14th century. The phrase is ‘Only Unity Saves the Serbs’, which translated into Serbian becomes ‘Samo Sloga Srbina Spasava’.
What is the idea behind the phrase? It is a relatively simple one. It is a cautionary warning against foreign domination, a plea to all Serbs to stick together in times of need. It is a central part of the Kosovo myth, a battle that Serbia only failed to win because of Vuk Branković’s treachery (as the legend goes).
The phrase became a major rallying cry following the nation’s fall, and has found its way into countless epic poems and songs over the centuries. It received a major push in the work of Jovan Sterija Popović during the 19th century, although it had long been in use before that time.

Monastery of Prohor Pcinjski is one of the oldest Serbian monasteries situated on the border with the Republic of Macedonia.

A popular graffiti

A crude version of the cross began to spread throughout the late 1980s, scrawled on the walls of the hulking concrete buildings of Yugoslavia. It was a display of Serb nationalism, and as Yugoslavia fell apart in an orgy of violence, the cross became more and more visible. Slobodan Milošević made it a major part of his nationalist propaganda in the 1990s, and the cross became something of a Serbian flag of St. George in the process.
The Serbian cross is still a hugely important visual for the nation and its people; however, the fact that it is routinely rolled out by the most nationalist elements of society has tarnished it somewhat for the wider majority. This has created another division in society, which is ironic considering the message at the heart of this national symbol.

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