Plečnik’s Žale Cemetery

Photo: Miran Kambič

Plečnik’s Žale Cemetery is a part of the Žale Central Cemetery in Ljubljana. They are the work of the architect Jože Plečnik, and bear the label of European heritage.

Žale Cemetery , part of Ljubljana's central cemetery, was designed by the architect Jože Plečnik  and is considered one of the most beautiful cemeteries in Europe

It was not Plečnik's intention to create a traditional cemetery. Rather, he wished to imbue this place of last farewells with an ethical significance or, as he himself often put it: "Let us make a garden in which to take our leave of the departed, let us place chapels in it, surrounded by greenery, to act as individual chapels of rest."Plečnik's Žale is full of symbolic meanings. The cities of antiquity, where the dead were buried along the roads leading into the city and cemeteries were part of the city itself, drawing the attention of all who came there to the connection between the living and the dead, were an important inspiration to Plečnik. His plans for Žale were based on a similar conception of death. He designed Ljubljana's central cemetery as a fantastic and sacred place, conceived on the model of an ancient garden with temples. In many ways Žale is reminiscent of the Acropolis in Athens. The entrance to the Ancient Greek temple complex was marked by a monumental gateway, the Propylaea, while at its centre stood the imposing Parthenon. A similar arrangement may be seen at Žale, which is a cemetery complex of chapels of rest, where the main oratory stands on the axis of the entrance colonnades. 

Plečnik's Žale is not only a wonderful architectural achievement, it is also a story about Slovenia, about Plečnik himself and about a moment in time. This is evident from the fact that some of the chapels of rest are named after the patron saints of Ljubljana's parishes, while others have names of particular significance, for example the chapel of St Andrew, named after the architect's brother, the chapel of St Agathius, the patron saint of Carniola, or the chapel of Adam and Eve, to be used when the deceased was a non-believer or of another faith. Through the naming of the chapels, Plečnik introduced an intimate inspira-tion to the cemetery complex. 

The beauty of Žale is that it gives the impression of a park, where elements such as benches, shrines, a fountain, and so on, which Plečnik placed among the greenery, are reminiscent of an idyllic Slovenian rural landscape.

In building Žale, Plečnik also realised an intimate wish of his own: that Slovenia should have its own Slovenian necropolis. The entrance to the cemetery is through a symmetrically designed structure consisting of two wings and matching colonnades. The central section consists of a monumental gateway with a statue of Jesus on one side and Mary on the other, symbolically separating the world of the living from the world of the dead. Plečnik always adds a spiritual meaning to his architectural solutions. At Žale he draws attention to the idea of equality and the rights of all people to a dignified farewell, regardless of their religious beliefs or wealth. In contrast to the seriousness of traditional ceme-teries, Plečnik's park-like layout creates an intimate and light atmosphere. This "garden of all saints" is designed as a place of consolation and hope for the relatives of the de-ceased, which is why Plečnik dressed it in light colours.

Text by Tanja Glogovčan