All of Istria's Sistine Chapels
Zagreb - Istria, Croatia's westernmost region and largest peninsula, is an interesting place to visit all year around. So if you want to have a good rest, while simultaneously enjoying the beauty of stone architecture which conceals an entire gallery of medieval frescos, then come to Istria
Even when it's too cold to swim in the sea, but there's not enough snow to ski, Croatia remains interesting for tourists due to its amazing diversity, particularly that of its cultural heritage. Istria, Croatia's westernmost region and largest peninsula, is certainly a part of this diversity. Wandering through this enchanting land, one comes across numerous surprises. Small towns made of stone stand atop Istria's many hills. Breathtaking in their beauty, they are even more fascinating for the veritable gallery of frescos concealed within their churches and chapels. Medieval master painters plied their craft on these walls, but they did not restrict themselves to this region.
"Even when the brick-layers, masons and carpenters finished their work, the people of the Middle Ages felt that the church was not yet complete. There was, to be sure, a tangible and visible body, but it was still unclad. Such a "naked" body had to be made complete and perfected by giving it a "skin." And this was a job that the builders left to the painters — and only after the painters washed their hands, put away their tools and drank their last glass of wine could one say that the church was happily completed, and call the bishop to dedicate it." So wrote the late Branko Fucic in the introduction to his book Vincent of Kastav, describing the origins of the many medieval frescos that glitter on the walls of picturesque Istria's little churches and chapels. During the 1470s, painters in Istria had their hands full of work: in Pazin (the seat of an earldom) at the time, a master from Southern Tyrol painted the diocesan Church of St. Nicholas. In 1471, a certain master painted the frescos in the Church of the Holy Trinity in Žminj, while during the same year Master Klerigin from Kopar signed his frescos in St. Mary's Church in Oprtalj. At the same time, the interiors of Istrian churches in Labin, Barban and Vranja were acquiring a splendid coat of many colors...
Never before or after was so much painting done on the walls of Istria's churches as during those years, when the great local Master Vincent of Kastav left his signature on one of the best preserved cycles of frescos in the Church of St. Mary at Škriline in Beram: in the month of November, on the eighth day after St. Martin's, in the year of Our Lord 1474.
Beram, one of those centers of Istrian Glagolitic culture out in the country — like many other small places located in the heart of Istria — was a village by content, but a city by form. It is surrounded by a fortified wall, which protected urban institutions, the town gate, the town loggia and, of course, its church. Even in this urban yet agrarian milieu there were no churches without frescos, for only after acquiring this colorful skin did a church obtain its final sense as a temple of God.
"The fresco was heavenly kitsch," explained Fucic. "A flickering of color and gilding at a time when houses were dim and sooty from the smoke that spread from the low hearths, when the only joyful place full of promise was a painted church. A painted wall was an annunciation of future life, a heavenly Jerusalem which the painting brought down to Earth as if to say: 'if you are good, this is your future...' Every church was a magical box. Why, we had miniature Sistine Chapels in the smallest Istrian villages! But with the passing years, tastes changed. Large, golden, engraved altars, full of color and gold-plating, became the fashion. To dominate the space, everything else had to be toned down. The walls around the altar now had to be empty and clean, so that the altar could sing. And while churches in wealthier regions were renewed and frescos removed, in humble Istria they only disappeared under layers of common paint, because this was the least expensive thing to do. Besides this, the bora and sirocco winds and sea salt also took their toll, so that wall paintings were only preserved in the areas far from the sea, such as Istria's interior. Frescos were later discovered only by chance, if something had to be repaired or if an art conservator happened to wander into a church."
Istria thus remained a terra incognita until after World War II, a forgotten and unknown place in the cultural-historical sense, in which no one was interested in what lay hidden under the layers of paint in the humble houses of God in Oprtalj, Hum, Dvigrad or Draguc. When Fucic thus set off on his research during the postwar years, there was not a day that he did not go out into the field and discover something new, finding previously unknown examples of fresco painting in as many as sixty places! This completely altered the image of Istria, which was no longer just a land of prehistory, Classical Antiquity and Early Christian art, but also a place in which the Middle Ages left their own visible vestiges. Moreover, the signature of a local master, Vincent of Kastav, in Beram, was evidence that even the villages had their own art, that such small settlements like Kastav — in this borderland between the Mediterranean and the continent — had their own artistic workshops.
Somewhat later, Fucic discovered that the best known scenes in Beram, besides the ones painted by Vincent, were also done by two local masters. This, however, does not take away from the importance of Vincent, nor the significance of domestic artists. Even so, not all of the links in Istria's chain have been connected. Frescos are still being discovered, such as that in the Church of St. Elisha in Draguc, which was discovered ten years ago and restored by painter and restoration specialist Vinko Snoj. In addition to the very well-preserved fresco of the commoner Master Anthony of Padua in the Church of St. Rocco, this place between Buje and Pazin thus acquired one more treasure.
Touring all of these chapels and churches is quite an experience. Not only because one attains a picture of this medieval form of decoration, but also because while travelling from town to town one can also experience the full beauty of Istria: its landscapes and unique little medieval urban centers which have remained essentially the same up to the present. This is, after all, what makes them so beautiful and specific.