Saturday, July 6, 2013

Church of St. Mary of Blachernae - Berat, Albania

The city of Berat, Albania, has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2008. Berat Castle is a fortress on a hill overlooking the town of Berat and the Osum River. It was built in the 13th century, but replaces successive structures that existed there from before 200 B.C. when the Romans burned it down. It had about 20 churches inside, only a few of which remain. 
Berat, right at the edge of the Osum River, with Berat Castle just visible at the high point on the hill above.
From the rampart of the castle just visible in the picture above, looking down on Berat and the Osum River.
From further down in the castle, looking at the Osum River and the distant mountains. Picture from vicinity of Holy Trinity Church
From Holy Trinity Church, looking further down the Osum River. 
From the 6th to the 18th centuries Berat was the most important place in Albania for copying miniature decorated codices, particularly in the castle which had six scriptoriums. After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the Ottomans controlled Albania and it became a remote part of the Ottoman Empire. Christian art,which had been important there, was displaced primarily by centers in Crete and Mount Athos. However, a man by the name of Onufri founded the Berat School of Icon Painting and helped retain icon painting in the region from the 15th to the 17th centuries. Onufri's son, Nikolla Onufri, followed in his father's footsteps and became a prominent icon painter in his own rite. 

The Church of St. Mary of Blachernae (Kisha e Shen Menh Vllahernes in Albanian) is one of the  churches built within Berat Castle. It is named after the church by the same name near the Palace of Blachernae in Constantinople. We visited the church with a local guide who got a key from the Onufri Icon Museum located in the castle. It was so fun to walk up to the stone fence surrounding the church and have a padlock to the gate opened with a skeleton key. The Church of St. Mary was built in the 14th century and then rebuilt, apparently after damage caused by an earthquake, in 1578. It is built in the form of a Greek cross with four wings projecting from a central dome. It has double entrances, one on the north side and one of the south side. 
Church of St. Mary, back center, and surrounding stone wall. 
Closer look at end of church which is part of the wall. 
Vegetation growing in the wall.
One of two entrances. Judy and our guide. 
Entrance on the other side. Different periods of construction are evident in the stone walls.  Presumably the lower , whiter, stone is from the original church.
The other end of the church. The stone carving of Constantine the Great at the bottom of the wall is of modern construction.
As part of the new construction in 1578, Nikolla Onufri painted new frescoes which remain amazingly vibrant and in relatively good condition today. It was so fun to be all alone, with our guide, in this amazing place, with so much old and amazing art before us without barriers or other constraints. The accessibility of the castle and its churches and the lack of formal control was one of the reasons that Berat was one of my favorite destinations in the Balkans.  
Walls around and above the altar. This is the end of the church  which is part of the wall  in one of the top pictures above. 
More inside wall space to the left of the altar.
Stone and tile patterned floor.

The color in the frescoes is amazing.

I really love this, both the color and the image. 
Dormition of the Virgin Mary, also known as the Assumption.

Another unusual fresco. 

Michael the Archangel
The head of John the Baptist in the hands of an angel.
Mary above the altar, and Christ above Mary.

This looks like one of the Evangelists.

Christianity in Albania
Illyricum was a Roman province that existed between 167 B.C. and 10 A.D. The southern end was the Drin River in today's north Albania up to the northwest end in Istria, Croatia and to the Sava River in Bosnia and Herzegovina to the northeast. The capital was Salona near modern Split, Croatia. The Via Egnatia, a road constructed by the Romans in the second century B.C. started in Illyricum at Dyrrachium (modern Durres, Albania) and extended to Byzantium, which later became Constantinople. It passed through the highlands around Lake Ohrid and through Naissus, Serbia, where Constantine was born. In 10 A.D. the province of Illyricum was split into two provinces: Pannonia in the north and Dalmatia in the south. However, the term Illyricum continued to be used to refer to the western Balkan peninsula and when Diocletian divided the empire into four prefectures, one was named Illyricum, which included Pannonia, Noricum, Crete and all of the Balkan peninsula, but Thrace. 

Romans 15:10 says that Paul the Apostle "preached the gospel of Christ" from "Jerusalem, and round about unto Illyricum..." One scholar states that Paul preached in Shkodra and Durres, both in modern Albania, and that a local bishopric was created in Durres (Roman Dyrrhachium) in 58 A.D. A later bishopric was established in Shkodra (Roman Scodra).  Christians in Albania were under the jurisdiction of the Pope in Rome until 732. In that year the church authorities in the region supported the pope during the Iconoclastic Controversy and the Byzantine emperor Leo III removed the area from the jurisdiction of the pope and placed it under the patriarch of Constantinople. When the split between the Catholics and the Orthodox occurred in 1074, the southern Albanians retained ties to the Orthodox and the northern Albanians switched to the Catholics. 

The Ottomans conquered the area in the 15th century and retained control until 1912. Both the Catholics and the Orthodox retained a foothold, but both lost many to Islam, and more particularly the Orthodox in the south. 

Religious practice was banned in Albania in 1967 making it the only constitutionally atheist state to ever exist. When communism fell in 1991, religious activities started back up. The 2011 census has 58.79% of the population belonging to Islam, 10.03% Catholic, 6.75% Orthodox and 2.5% atheist. But, as you would imagine, after 24 years without formal religion, the population now has a more secular approach.    A 2012 Pew Research study found that only 15% of the Muslims in Albania consider religion a very important factor in their lives, the lowest percentage in the world in countries with large Muslim populations. I suspect that the same may hold true for Christians. Today Albania has four Catholic archiepiscopal provinces (a province governed by an archbishop). The Orthodox in Albania are part of the Orthodox Autocephalous Church of Albania, headed by the Archbishop of Tirane. 


  1. Walking to and through the fortress was like being in a dream--or on a movie set. It was all just so darn old. How has it survived 500 years of weather and war and human beings living in it?

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  3. I'm always surprised how contemporary these ancient frescoes appear-both color and style-wise. Great art is timeless!