Croatian Marian Shrines (C)
The shrine of Our Lady of the Islet in Solin
The church of Our Lady of the Isle in Solin is the largest shrine in southern Croatia. This is also the oldest Marian shrine in Croatia. In 1998, it was even visited by the Pope John Paul II. An islet surrounded by the delta of the river Jadro, on which the church is located, is a neat little continent: its surface area is disproportionately tiny compared to the depths of its time. Some hypotheses say this islet is the first place that was settled by the Croats when they first arrived in this region: the existing Roman walls could provide their settlement with protection. Beneath and around the present-day church, one can find layers and layers submerged in centuries. In the 10th century, the Croatian Queen Helena the Glorious (+976), the wife of King Michael Krešimir and the mother of King Stephen Držislav, decided to erect two churches on the Roman ruins: the church of St. Mary and St. Stephen. Thomas the Archdeacon (1200–1268), an annalist from Split, also mentions Helena’s construction projects. St. Mary’s Church was the church for the coronation of Croatian kings while St. Stephen’s Church was their final resting place. It was a three-nave basilica with rectangular pillars, twenty-three meters long, ten meters wide, including a narthex and a porch, in which, according to legend, seven kings were buried. Sources also say that the Benedictines maintained the church in the 13th century. It was likely abandoned and razed during the Ottoman wars in the 16th and the early 17th century. A new church was built before 1670, which was destroyed in a fire in 1875. The construction of a new church in its stead commenced in 1878.
The remains of the old Croatian basilica were found during the construction of the belfry. Thus, the belfry was shifted from the northern side of the church to the southwestern side. Archaeologist don Frane Bulić (1846–1934) recognized the sarcophagus of Queen Helena which was at that time shattered into ninety pieces within the narthex and then read an invaluable Latin inscription on it, which reads in English: “Here lies Helena the Glorious, wife of King Michael, mother to King Stephen. She forswore the kingly brilliance on the eighth day of the month of October. And was laid to rest here 976 years after the embodiment of the Lord, on the fourth indiction of the fifth Moon cycle, on the seventeenth epact and the fifth Sun circle with the sixth. Look, this is her, whom for life was the mother of the kingdom and then became the mother of orphans and the protector of widows. If you look here, thou say: ‘God have mercy on thy soul!’” There is a replica of the inscription on the inner wall of the shrine of Our Lady of the Islet, which denotes the ancient role of it being a mausoleum for Croatian kings.
The church of Our Lady of the Islet is a simple and balanced one-nave Neo-Renaissance structure with a polygonal shrine. It was designed by Emil Vecchietti, an architect and a painter from Split (1830–1901). He got a degree in mathematics, philosophy and architecture in Padova and he privately studied painting as well. He managed a painting school in Split for a time. His students, among others, were Emanuel Vidović, Ivan Meštrović and Toma Rosandić. Vecchietti is the author of several significant historicist edifices of which the most famous are the Municipal Palace and the Theater in Dubrovnik as well as the Croatian National Theater in Split. Vecchietti’s son-in-law, sculptor and stonemason, Pavao Bilinić, carved the main, and now the only, altar in the shrine in Solin according to Vecchietti’s design.
The altar holds the painting of Our Lady of the Islet – made by the Italian painter Giuliano Zasso (1833–1889) in 1881. He developed within the Venetian Academia di Belle Arti, under the influence of the Neoclassical painter Girolamo Michelangelo Grigoletti, and he honed his skills in Rome. The crowned dark-haired Our Lady, with a fair and collected face, sits upon a throne, dressed in a red dress and a blue cloak. Little Jesus, with dark and curly hair in a white robe, crowned as well, is sitting in her lap. Our Lady’s gaze is immersed within herself more than into anything around her while little Jesus is completely directed toward the viewer. Both faces are individualized and, one could say, akin to portraits. The background of the painting consists of a landscape with thin trees, almost fully comprised of an evening sky which is already getting darker in the front, while you can still see the rosy clouds in its depths.
Only in a few places in the world does the sacral function of structure sacralizes the history of the entire people. A people not brought up to treasure the rays of its past, even if they shine through the clouds of myth: as it is, after all, ubiquitous without fail. In ancient Greece, the word “narthex” denoted a little wooden box for keeping medicine, but, in time, it became an architectural term — now denoting a rectangular entry porch of a basilica. Today, the invisible narthex of Our Lady of the Islet and of Queen Helena, the one who consecrated it, would be salutary for the illness called the culture oblivion which haunts our people. Maybe it is not a coincidence that Our Lady of the Islet looks within herself. Those who come to her await a message: “to remember means to pray.”
Shrine of Our Lady of Mount Carmel on Sveta Gora (eng. The Holy Hill) near Gerovo
Since days long past, mountain peaks were considered sacred; due to Heaven’s vicinity, the rigorous climb and the view over the world beyond. Numerous mountain peaks became homes to shrines, which mark the expanses with their wondrous aura. One of those shrines is the church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel or, as it is known among the people, of Our Lady of Sveta Gora. The hill Sveta Gora is located near Gerovo in Gorski Kotar; 975 m above sea level; covered in thick mixed, coniferous and deciduous forest, which changes its colors throughout the year. The Marian shrine looms over the mountain peak. The last stage of the climb to the top includes a wide staircase between the chapels with the Stations of the Cross. Until recently, tall trees grew around the church, and their shadow soothed the weariness of pilgrims. Today, there are no more trees nor shadows, light envelops the edifice on all sides, and the shrine, with its staircase and chapels, looks like a grand sculpture on a dark pedestal from a bird’s-eye view, which became available to us with the removal of the trees. An almost unimaginable beauty unfolds beneath Sveta Gora. A point from which one can behold blue mountain ranges and black forests, makes you think that we still have endless expanses of unblemished realms and endless forests. This illusion is one of the awards for ascending Sveta Gora.
Although the church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, or of Sveta Gora, is situated in the mountains, it belongs to the sea alike: to woodsmen, seamen and fishermen. Her altar holds the inscription “Hail the Star of the sea, Miraculous Mother”. Gorski Kotar, Primorje, Istria and Slovenia are on a pilgrimage to her; alongside Trsat, this is the most significant Marian shrine in the region. The first record of it dates back to 1504 but is probably older by a century. Some say that at one stage it was the votive church of the Zrinski-Frankopan family. Many popes issued bulls of indulgence to pilgrims during the centuries of Baroque. And many fires destroyed its walls, inventory and documents. The present-day structure is of the first half of the 19th century but is also in the spirit of simple yet undying Baroque. The quite wide and bulky belfry, through which you enter the church, almost resembles a modified castle bastion. The beautiful architecture of the concave altar between the marbled columns holds several wooden statues, of which the central one is of Our Lady of Sveta Gora herself, a lovely and valuable Biedermeier piece from 1847. This statue is revered and considered miraculous. One of the miracles of Our Lady of Sveta Gora is the strength of the legendary local giant, Petar Klepac. Her liturgical feast is on the 16 July and a three-day feast ending on the Sunday after the Nativity of Mary (8 September), and the famous Garski Sejmon, the Mountain Fair, are being held at the same time. During those days, a tradition as old as roots, fir branches are blessed...
Gorski Kotar is, in many ways, still uncharted country. Almost like nothing other than geography exists, almost like all of the chapters, besides the Roman limes and the iron ore of the Zrinski family, were passed over; its Baroque was barely noticed, and its 19th century, which was undervalued for its balanced architecture for so long, shall be wiped clean before it is truly valued. Our most beautiful myths and legends we owe to history’s poverty. This is the case with Our Lady of Sveta Gora.
The story goes that shepherds, passing with their flock, saw a statue of Our Lady on a fir. And they came to pray before this statue. They even found their sheep once bowing to the statue. They tried to chase them away, but the sheep stood frozen. The terrified shepherds came down to tell the minister the peculiar occurrence. The minister returned with them and saw the same. He took the statue and took it with him to Gerovo in a church. However, the statue disappeared from the church and returned to its tree. This was understood as a sign and a message, thus, a church was built on the site of the fir with the statue. Up above the world, the church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, or Sveta Gora, is a lively pilgrimage site. She is somewhere between height and depth, and distance. And when her powerful and beautiful bell rings, flying among the peaks and the valleys, all of those dimensions become one.
Academician Željka Čorak