Masterpieces of Church Architecture
The Croatian side of the Adriatic is a region unique for architectural richness – there are so many masterpieces of architecture here that they can serve as navigation waypoints
Along the Croatian Adriatic coast cities small and big unique for their architecture and heritage are anything but rare. Fortresses, city walls, centuries-old churches and buildings, works of art abound here, many of them harboring masterpieces listed on the UNESCO World Heritage list. The city of Dubrovnik, once the only eastern Adriatic city-state to rival Venice, although clearly smaller than Florence or Venice, offers the same Euro-Mediterranean atmosphere, same level of culture and civilization. For almost a thousand years this city was an enclave of European culture in the heart of the Byzantine Empire, so it is little wonder that the city archive offers invaluable insight into the history of the entire Mediterranean and Southeastern Europe. Late Gothic palace Knežev dvor, renaissance tower Minčeta, the cloister of the Franciscan monastery with it’s pharmacy, among the first in Europe, the complex of the Dominican monastery, the baroque church of the city’s patron saint St. Blaise, the cathedral whose square hosts every year the celebration of St. Blaise’s Day (also on the UNESCO list) and the city synagogue with its priceless art collection all are unique ‘points’ on the cultural map of Europe.
Further north lie the cities of Ston, whose salt pans are the oldest in Europe and probably in the world and Orebić, once a center of trade and navigation and now a living museum with several collections of art and documents. Noteworthy monuments include the Church of the Assumption of Mary and the Franciscan monastery with a collection of votive paintings dating between the 17th and the 19th century. The monastery offers a unique view of the nearby Pelješac canal, the island and the city of Korčula and islands south of the island. One of them, the isle of Badija, also has a Franciscan monastery and a church built by local masters. The island of Hvar and the city of the same name abound in cultural monuments from several centuries; among them the monastery of Our Lady of Mercy (1461), the protector of sailors. The monastery can be considered as the first cultural tourism object in Croatia, for its diner – where the monks always welcomed visitors – has for centuries been decorated with paintings and holds several valuable collections; those of 16th century atlases, relics and currency. The city of Split lies twenty miles up north, and is the largest and most important city on this part of the coast, build around the central palace of Roman emperor Diocletian.
The city has three impressive churches and many smaller, the most popular being the Cathedral of the Assumption of Mary whose bell tower is dedicated to the city patron St. Dujam, whose day is the most festive day of the year, celebrated on May 7. The cathedral was built on the ruins of the mausoleum of Emperor Diocletian and its 188 ft. high bell tower is the most recognizable image of the city, but probably more impressive are its doors with 28 images from the life of Jesus carved in wood in 1214 by Andrija Buvina. Another monuments of Christianity include the Church of St. Anthony, and hermit’s caves on the slopes of Mount Marjan and the nearby church whose altar was carved in marble by 15th century sculptor Andrija Aleši and with a 1480 bas-relief showing St. Jerome. Just outside Split is the city of Trogir, a historic town whose cathedral dedicated to St. Lawrence from the 13th century with the portal of Master Radovan is the most significant piece of its kind in the Adriatic. The portal is decorated with images of the birth of Jesus, floral ornaments and images of Adam and Eve. The four stories of the bell tower all date from different periods and are representative of Gothic, Venetian floral Gothic, Renaissance and Mannerism styles. The city of Šibenik is the only eastern Adriatic city not built on Roman ruins. Once a fisherman colony, the city developed steadily through centuries, investing its considerable riches into architecture and arts, so today it boasts the most important work of church architecture in Croatia – the Cathedral of St. James, decorated and built by the most distinguished artists of the 15th century, including Giorgio da Sebenico
The three-nave cathedral built in Gothic and renaissance style has unique apses decorated with portraits of important contemporaries and generous locals who paid for the construction of the cathedral. Thid cathedral is the only in Croatia without a bell tower, but its dome and roof are unique – built with stone plates only, without any binding material. Despite its tumultuous history, the city of Zadar hides several master pieces of church architecture, unique not only in Croatia, but in entire Europe. The city was too often the stage of bloody battles and wars – as recently as in 1944 – but managed to avoid destruction of these jewels. The monumental church of St. Donatus constructed in the 9th century is the finest example and the largest Pre-Romanesque building in Croatia and one of the most impressive churches of the Carolingian period in Europe. The church has three apses and an ambulatory, and is circular in shape, typical of the early Byzantine period. The unique architecture of this church gives it extraordinary acoustics, making it ideal for several festivals and events of Medieval and Renaissance music, held annually. This short ‘navigation’ through church architecture of the Croatian Adriatic omitted many impressive churches and monasteries – among them those on the isles of Lastovo, Korčula and Rab, in the cities of Rijeka, Pula, Rovinj, Poreč and others – but if we told you everything about them, we would take from you the possibility to discover them yourselves and see them through your own eyes.
Photos by I. Pervan and Z. Sunko