Home Art Some of the most magnificent frescoes can be found in the “Paris of the Balkans”

Some of the most magnificent frescoes can be found in the “Paris of the Balkans”

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Deep in the southeast Albaniaa small hamlet is home to five churches which have one of the finest concentrations of Orthodox Christian frescoes in the world.

From the outside, the churches of Voskopojë resemble stone barns, reflecting their 18th-century architecture. heritage as Christian gathering places in the Islamic world Ottoman Empire. Inside, however, they reveal painted masterpieces of brilliant blues, reds and yellows that come to life in themes both awe-inspiring (Christ Almighty or Pantocrator) and eccentric (St. Nicholas foils the goddess Artemis). “For us, it’s like the Louvre,” says Albanian Culture Minister Elva Margariti.

The bell tower of St. Mary’s Church stands by the roadside in Voskopojë, Albania. At one time the city had more than 20 Orthodox Christian churches.

Photography by imageBROKER, Alamy Stock Photos

There is no other site in Albania or in the world comparable to the churches of Voskopojë and their 43,000 square feet of frescoes. The government has designated them cultural monuments, and in 2020 it recognized the village center where most of them are located as a historic ensemble. Perhaps more importantly, the frescoes are a striking East-meets-West artifact of a multicultural, multi-religious Albanian identity that many feared would die out under the former communist regime.

It is a small miracle that the frescoes survive. From the end of the 18th century, Voskopojë was ransacked and razed three times in 20 years. It was burned during World War I and bombed during World War II. Of the more than 20 churches that once stood in the village, only six remain, including five with frescoes.

Over the past decades, these architectural and artistic treasures have fallen into disrepair. One church backed what a regional authority called “SOS” level damage under heavy rain in 2021, when its roof partially collapsed. Another was declared in critical condition a year later.

Today, as tourism increases in the region, a group of dedicated researchers and restorers are racing to save the churches. In November, the Ministry of Culture unveiled an ambitious proposal that would bring together art advocates from around the world. Europe and conservation architects to restore them before it is too late.

“The Paris of the Balkans”

Albania has a turbulent history. For thousands of years, the country was occupied by several empires, from Roman At Byzantine to the Ottomans. It was under the latter that Voskopojë prospered, becoming the “Paris of the Balkans” in 1760, as observers wrote.

Voskopojë, then a proper city, controlled a lucrative overland trade route between the Adriatic and Istanbullinking the Ottomans to the Doges in Venicethe Habsburgs in Vienna, and beyond. At its peak, up to 50 craft guilds operated, attracting and training artisans such as tailors, goldsmiths and armorers. The city once had the only printing press in the Ottoman Empire, supplied by the New Academy, a crucible of Clarification ideas founded in 1744.

The city’s economic prowess allowed it to flourish as a center of Orthodox Christian faith and art in the Islam-dominated empire, leading to a boom in church building. But from the end of the 18th century, the city began to decline. In 1769, marauders, probably from the surrounding region, plundered Voskopojë. The residents fled and the once-great city was reduced to a small village. It was further delayed by the great wars of the 20th century.

After The Second World Wardictator Enver Hoxha consolidated his rule over Albania, imposing atheism under his communist regime. Voskopojë’s surviving churches were, at best, neglected, used as warehouses and storage spaces. Elsewhere, churches were demolished. Worshipers secretly hid religious icons under the floorboards of their homes. Priests, as well as imams and other clergy, were executed or sent to labor camps.

Vault with colorful frescoes

A vault inside St. George’s Church in nearby Shipcka is an example of the vibrant frescoes that once decorated Voskopojë’s churches.

Photography by imageBROKER, Alamy Stock Photos

“I think it is important that children (today) know what their ancestors believed, what they sacrificed and what they fought for,” says Fjoralba Prifti, director of the association . National Museum of Medieval Art in nearby Korça, which houses 6,400 icons, many of which were rescued from Voskopojë churches.

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When the regime fell in 1991, villagers gathered Saint Nicolas. “Even though they were afraid, they held each other,” recalls Father Thoma Samaraj, head priest of Voskopojë churches since that time. “God has always told us: “I am in you. »

Time continued to degrade the churches. In 2002 and 2004, they gained dubious recognition on the Monitoring of the World Monuments Fund list of heritage sites at risk. In 2018, they made the film “7 most endangered” list.

“It’s a constant site of intervention, the whole village,” recognizes Margariti, the Minister of Culture. But the situation was worse. “This is the spirit of the Albanians: always resist and always show that they can perpetuate their art, their cultural heritage over the years,” she adds.

Inner beauty

The scars of history are still evident on a recent tour of St. Mary’s Church with Anxhela Zguri, a guide from the government’s Institute of Cultural Monuments and owner of the Guesthouse Bujtina Liana. (Zguri and another guide lead the tours; visitors can contact them by calling the number posted outside each church.) The narthex was destroyed and the nave partially ruined by World War II bombs. Distorted by years of exposure, most of the frescoes “are not in good condition,” she says. Yet it remains an impressive structure.

Built in 1699, it is the largest and oldest of four churches with frescoes still surviving in the village. The other three were built over a few decades and are all laid out in much the same way. Basilica style. (The fifth is in a monastery on a hill overlooking the village.)

The frescoes painted along the portico of St. Nicholas Church were badly damaged due to wars and neglect under communist rule. Some panels have recently been restored.

Photograph by Witold Skrypczak, Alamy Stock Photos

What sets each one apart is the art on the walls. Orthodox art had to adhere to certain principles of religious iconography, and frescoes had to convey the stories of the Bible and early Christianity to an illiterate congregation. The rest depended on the imagination of the painters.

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At Sainte-Marie church, the scenes of the archangels Michael and Gabriel are highlights; Zguri’s 5-year-old daughter imagines that they are flying. Around a bend, a lunette from the church of Saint-Athanase represents the towers of Babylon falling on its unfortunate inhabitants, among other works signed by the brothers Kostandin and Athanas Zografi, prolific artists who added touches of baroque, rococo and Gothic in the orthodox style. in the 18th century. Since then, intruders have damaged many scenes.

The centerpiece of the village, St. Nicholas Church is the estate of David Selenica, a master portrait painter active here in the 1720s, who anecdotally painted the faces of villagers on the bodies of saints. In one panel, Saint Nicholas prays over the body of a sailor, as the waves of a terrible storm rock his ship. The muralist chose to place the saint anachronistically on a four-masted galleon equipped with cannons.

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Revival movement

There is hope for Voskopojë’s remaining churches. Encouraged by the increase in tourism, locals are highlighting the structures, the village and its history. In November, the Ministry of Culture announced an ambitious plan for the restoration and development of the city.

The plan includes the fortification of the masonry and the subsidence of the roofs of three churches. The frescoes will be restored not only by the “former maestros” of the technique, but also by international professors and students in art preservation, on site. Also on the wish list: new lighting for a museum experience, audio guides, virtual tours and even augmented reality.

The exterior of the Saint-Nicolas church. An ambitious plan would aim to shore up the masonry and sagging roofs of three of the five remaining 18th-century religious sites in Voskopojë, Albania.

Photography by imageBROKER, Alamy Stock Photos

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The ministry submitted the proposal to European Bank for Reconstruction and Development for financing, which Margariti said could amount to around two million euros ($2.1 million). The rehabilitation projects would take at least two years.

In the meantime, the maestros have already started work on the frescoes of Saint Nicholas. After six months, two panels were completed. Elsewhere in town, travelers can stay in renovated historic homes and experience the former glory of Voskopojë. In a field just beyond the present-day village, signs mark where the great academy, library and printing press once stood. And at the National Museum of Medieval Art, which welcomed a record 27,000 visitors this year, visitors can see up close a dozen Zografi icons and a rare Selenica, as well as paintings by their contemporaries, sculptures on wood and metal works.

In this pocket of Albania, preservation is personal. Growing up under communist rule, “people my age didn’t know what a church was, what God was,” Prifti says. “It is important that the people of a country know their traditions: where they come from and where they belong. »

Ben O’Donnell is a writer based in Tirana, Albania. Follow him on Instagram.

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