Jo’s Monday Walk: Macabre Fresco

 Most visitors to Croatia when coming to Istria go to its coastal area and fail to visit its picturesque countryside in the hinterland. The interior of our largest peninsula holds many gems hidden in small medieval churches. One of them is Sveta Marija na Skriljinah (St Mary’s), situated in the woods one kilometre away from Beram, one of the oldest settlements on Istrian peninsula.

The year was 1474 when Vincent from Kastav (Vinko in Croatian) with the help of two assistants painted murals in this tiny Gothic church. The thing that sets it apart from other sacral art in the surroundings is the famous mural of  “Dance macabre” on its west wall (above the entrance).

At the time of the construction, Istria, as many other parts of Europe, was plagued by “Black Death” which influenced the concept of death that was from then onward known as the “Grim Reaper” and shown as a skeletal figure carrying a large scythe. Indiscriminately, it is taking away all castes of society: the bishop, the king, the queen, the pub owner, the child.

The entire wall art in St. Mary’s is divided into 46 painted sections mostly showing scenes from the Bible. The reconstruction and enlargement of the church that happened in the 18th century when a portico was added were devastating for the frescoes on the main entrance where two windows were installed. As it happens, the scene depicting the original sin was completely ruined, and now you can only see Adam’s and Eve’s legs.

It took me five visits to Istria to finally make it to Beram. The church in the woods is only opened for scheduled visits, and you are supposed to go to the village first, find the priest, get the key, and then go to the woods. That autumn morning when I entered Beram, the main church in the village (the one you can see in the photo with panoramic view of Beram) was closed, the priest was nowhere to be found, but we went to the woods anyway. The outer appearance of this little Gothic church (reconstructed in the 18th century as Neo Romanesque) wasn’t promising and the door was closed so we were about to leave when a bus of tourists with a guide holding a key stopped by, and we conveniently sneaked in.

I left the place with mixed feelings: excitement that I finally got to see the frescoes that are not that frequent in our sacral buildings, and disappointment at the oblivion of Saint Mary’s and little efforts made to save it from the ravages of time.


This is my entry for Jo’s Monday walk. Pay her a visit and find out where she is taking you today.


58 Comments on “Jo’s Monday Walk: Macabre Fresco

  1. They cut through Adam & Eve to put in a window? Seems sacrilegious doesn’t it?
    Thanks for the explanations and photos Paula. A very interesting place.


  2. And marvellous it is, Paula ! – most striking indeed !!!
    Erhmmm … I don’t suppose you’d care to share how you insert your super music selections …? I’d love to know how to do that, so I could, every so often, post a wee bit of something I love …


  3. Fantastic place with great murals! I’d love to see this! I made something on the computer once (many years ago) that I called “Dance macabre”. I don’t know where I got the title from, but perhaps I’d unconsciously picked up something about this mural somewhere down the line…


    • 😀 Dance Macabre / dance of death was not uncommon in Western Europe in the Middle Ages :), but it is the first one I saw. I know about the existence of one on Malta and there is a fresco with the same motive on Slovenian littoral on this same peninsula. The track that you could not hear above is from the band called: Dead can dance, and the track is called Saltarello which is a lively dance from the 14th ct Naples. Now, I have loaded you with all sorts of data. Please forgive me, Monday is difficult in its own right 😀


  4. So beautiful Paula! Thank you for taking me to a part of your country I did not visit. Perhaps another time but for now these gorgeous images make me smile.


  5. You know that if I make it back to Croatia some day I will be winkling out just such places, Paula 🙂 This is truly beautiful and I love the music too. Your circumstances reminded me of our failed visit to the monastery in Krakow 🙂 Thank you- I will treasure this!


  6. I tried to leave comments on individual photos but it just jumps to the next photo! Probably something lacking in my software (or me 🙂 🙂 )


    • Hello Jo 🙂 I have seen that Meg had commented on one photo, so it must be possible, but no worries. It is a stressful and busy day here.


  7. What a treat to see this Paula. Like you, I am saddened that the frescos are not being looked after. They would be extra stunning if they were restored.


    • 😀 sometimes I do have one hell of a luck. They charged us a ticket nevertheless for entrance (guiding was in German, and even if I had understood the guide I would not have listened :D) What pisses me off is that we have this little gem before our noses and it is such a work to get in. I appreciate your lovely visit, Sylvia xx


  8. Very interesting info (really enjoyed reading it) and some very fascinating captures – soon I have to kick my self in my a** and visti Croatia – and my first choice wouldn’t be the beach with all the tourists… 😀


    • 😆 you are reading my mind – we have mountains too, but I would not recommend them. Every summer some silly foreigner gets lost or killed up there, and divers too. Croatia can provide a nice break if you are willing to go off beaten tracks 😉 And thank you Drake for this nice comment. How was the game yesterday? Did your guys win?


      • Such fools are everywhere “here I come, see me – ups now I’m dead” – I always calculates risk into what I want to do and isn’t afraid to deselect things – where the only clou is the prestige of daring – I believe Croatia has a lot of worth visting places – and yes the “redmen” won 2 against 1 – so we finished the day with a single whisky after the game… 😀


  9. Gosh, imagine living in those woods back in the day when that was your local parish, if you were lucky enough to survive the Black Death. A fabulous tour and so pleased you finally made it, thank you Paula!


  10. Stunning shots Paula. I would just stay on the road to Beram. Those skies and clouds and the view. Amazing! 😀


  11. How beautiful Paula! I can relate to your mixed feelings at the state of the church. I shall remember to consult you before I plan my trip to Craotia 🙂


  12. Nice. Didn’t know (think) about the Black Plague all the way to Croatia. It did kill some 20 million people I believe. So our ancestors (yours and mine) were the tough ones who survived! Mais la Peste Noire est aussi à l’origine de la Danse Macabre…
    See ya! 🙂


  13. What an effort to see this special place, the bus, key, … Great history and stories to share.
    Finally… teeth cleaned and hair done 🙂


  14. Pingback: Jo’s Monday walk : the village of Giverny | restlessjo

  15. Pingback: ISTRIAN HERITAGE | Lost in Translation

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