Our final cultural destination in Istria (at least for this trip) is a visit to the truly wonderful frescoes in Beram. These are not in the parish church in the town centre, but in a tiny chapel in the graveyard, just a little way out of town. This is the church of St Mary on the Rocks (Sv Marija na Škriljinah), which looks rather plain on the outside, but is completely covered with colourful art on the inside. It’s believed that a Benedictine Abbey once stood here in the 11th century and this tiny church could originally be part of that.
The frescoes were painted by Master Vincent from Kastav and his assistants, completed in 1474 as inscribed in latin near the door on the south wall. There is only natural light inside the church, and we were there late in the afternoon, so not really ideal for photography. Of course, flash is not allowed, as it would damage the fragile artwork, so please excuse the rather grainy quality of the images. The upper part of the north wall has an 8 metre long Adoration of the Magi complete with medieval knights, musicians, falconers, court jesters and pages.
Below the procession we have the lives of the saints. The one of St Martin shows him cutting his fine military cloak with his sword so he could donate half to a poor freezing beggar in the depths of winter.
Further along the wall, we have the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem. The beast he’s riding looks like a war horse with extra long ears. Was it meant to be a donkey?
And towards the front of the church, behind a priest we have the old testament characters of Daniel, Moses and Ellijah. Were some of these the faces of people who lived in Beram at the time of the painting?
On the opposite wall, we have a number of scenes from the new testament. This one is the Flight into Egypt. I’m surprised they seem to be taking pigs with them, and I love the Istrian landscape behind!
The most famous of the frescoes is the Dance of Death (Danse Macabre), which covers the upper part of the rear wall, with the characters walking in procession from left to right. It’s one of the oldest surviving representations on this theme, a salutary lesson for the parishioners at time when plague epidemics were taking so many lives. At the head of the procession walk the pope, the cardinal and the bishop, followed by the king and queen, a fat innkeeper, a child, a maimed beggar, a knight in armour, and finally a merchant who is attempting to bribe death with gold. Each character is accompanied by death in the form of a dancing skeleton as they move towards the open grave.
This version of the Dance of Death has apparently some unusual features compared with others of the genre. The order of appearance would normally place the knight before his social inferiors, and the skeletons usually have a shroud. In this painting, there’s no narrator, being replaced by a skeleton playing a bagpipe. The quality of the painting has deteriorated over time, and it doesn’t help that two windows were inserted at some point.
The ceiling is rather recent compared to the frescoes, the painted Baroque tabulas replaced the original vaulted ceiling in 1707. Some of the squares have been restored and show a different colour. At the time the ceiling was constructed, the frescoes were covered with plaster, not to be seen again until the 20th century.
To have such an impressively painted chapel, you’d think Beram must once have been an important place. The only reason I can find is that this was a centre for medieval Glagolitic learning. Students from other parts of Istria would come here to study with the priests, writing glagolithic script in the margins of Beram’s liturgical books and carving letters into the fresco-painted walls. Vandalism or useful traces for social historians, I wonder?
To get access to St Mary na Škriljinah, you first need to go and find Sonja in town (the house next to the church), as she is the holder of the key. She’ll escort you back to St Mary’s and explain about the church and the frescoes. A small fee goes towards their preservation.
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