Thursday 22 June 2017

Gračišće landmarks: The Church of St. Mary on the Square

I've decided to do a mini-series on a few of Gračišće's most notable landmarks. I've already written about the crumbling elegance of the Salamon Palace, the 16th century Gothic building that probably attracts the most attention from visitors to the village.

I also wrote about my climb up to the top of the bell tower, from where I enjoyed the amazingly scenic views. 

And I've written about other landmarks like the church of St Euphemia (Eufemija), and the loggia (loža) as part of my Istria abecedary.

This post is about another of the village's six churches. You're probably thinking that that's a lot of churches for such a small place, but as you know, the medieval period in Europe was all about building churches and cathedrals -- and Gračišće used to have seven churches in total! 

Once you come through the entrance gateway and loggia and enter the village, one of the first buildings you'll see is the Church of St. Mary. It has a prominent place on the village's main square and stands out for its handsome stone porch. 

This little church dating back to the 15th century is full of fascinating little details: 

  • It was built by Master Dento in 1425 and commissioned a local nobleman called Petar Beračić. During the Middle Ages it was often patrons from this privileged class who financed the building of churches as well as secular buildings. The names of both the builder and patron are engraved in Latin on a stone plaque to the left of the door.
  • The altar is placed against the eastern wall as was common in the Middle Ages, so that the priest and congregation would face east.
  • The eastern wall is covered by magnificent frescoes depicting the Adoration of the Magi, which also date to the 15th century. At some point they were actually painted over and only discovered much later when the church was being restored. Of the Three Wise Men depicted, one of them is wearing a hat and has detailed features: he's believed to be Petar Beračić. It was common at the time to paint the patron into a work that was commissioned by him. 
  • If you look carefully at the joints between the stones that make up the western wall (to the right and left of the entrance) you'll see the twisted and rusty ends of nails that were hammered in between the blocks of stone. The story goes that on the night of the feast of St. Mary (August 15th), childless women would drive a nail into the wall after walking on their knees from the village's entrance gate. By doing so, they believed that they would conceive.
  • The church's porch was added later, in the 17th century.

Today mass is still held here, but not regularly – usually when the main church is closed for renovations. And of course every year on August 15th, there's a mass dedicated to St. Mary.

The door is kept locked so if you'd like to visit the church, you have to ask for the key. Tip: in every village there's always a dedicated person who has the key to the church. How to find them? It's not that difficult: just ask anyone. Don't be shy to knock on someone's door. They'll be happy to help and thrilled that someone is interested in seeing the 15th century frescoes up close. Or knock on the green door on the square!

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