It’s not everyday that you are able to visit a church that opened in 553 AD and then, on top of that, are astounded by the artistic talent you see inside. That’s just what happened last weekend when we visited the Euphrasian Basilica (also known as the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption of Mary) in Poreč, a city on the western coast of the Istrian Peninsula in Croatia that has been around for over 2,000 years. The basilica has been an UNESCO World Heritage site since 1997.
Our day began on a monumental note to begin with as we had traveled from our home in Pula to Dvigrad, the site of the ruins of a medieval castle, which were incredible in themselves, and that I will go into in a later post. We had also stopped in Kafanar and visited another chapel from the 15th century. How much better could our day get? Much, much, apparently.
Tucked away modestly on a street in the city of Poreč, the basilica has origins that go back to the late mid-4th century (That’s about 365 A.D.). Inside the basilica complex there are portions of the mosaic floors from that period that will astound visitors if they really consider the age and the complexity of the mosaic artwork. As someone who has dabbled in mosaic making, I was blown away.
First to create even the most rudimentary mosaic, you need materials. Stones, glass, grout, tools like tile cutters, pencils to sketch, rulers or some sort of plane to keep your pieces measured and in line. Today it is a quick trip to an art or hobby store for some supplies, then online for others as the materials can be difficult to come by. For those artists over fifteen hundred years ago, they would laugh at the relative ease we have acquiring materials. They’d be in awe of how they pop up on your doorstop a few days after you pick them out on a “magic machine.” Materials then would have had to have been carried by ship or by horse or mule through the elements. Or dug up from some remote quarry and transported to the city.
Then after the materials are acquired the artist can begin their work. Some of the people that made these mosaics had to travel great distances, overcome weather, hardships, and illnesses. The Byzantine masters had to cross continents or countries to begin their work. I’m tired just thinking of the days and circumstances that must have had to have endured just to even begin their projects.
While the earlier mosaics are astounding in themselves, the ones from the 6th century are jaw-dropping. When entered the church I felt a mixture of disbelief and awe. There is an arch of Christ with the inscription in Latin saying, “I am the true light” with all of the apostles around him. The one of Mary with Child sitting on a beautiful throne surrounded by angels is breathtaking. The gold tiles sparkled in the evening light and gave the basilica a glowing atmosphere. If you have ever been to San Marco in Venice, you can appreciate the beauty of what I’m describing, but consider this work was done by Byzantine artists four hundred years earlier. And in a small town in Croatia.
When I walked in, I heard a strange sound that seemed otherworldly. Then I realized it was a woman whispering her prayers as she sat on a pew in the church as she looked at the altar surrounded by the sixth century mosaics. I was moved in a deeply spiritual way that I can’t describe. That people’s faith in God so long ago had inspired them to create such beauty brought tears to my eyes. That someone today had such a intense spiritual connection to the church was inspiring as well to me as a non-practicing Catholic.
Croatia never ceases to amaze and surprise me. Knowing it was once a Roman colony, it shouldn’t really surprise me as much, but it does because the history here is so mind- boggling. And the prehistory as well.
I am constantly fascinated here by the places we stumble upon.
And glad I am lucky enough to call it my home for a brief time in my life.