The town of Hrastovlje is nestled within the karst landscape of southern Slovenia, amidst hillsides clothed with lush mediterranean vegetation. And on the outskirts of the town stands a fortified church dating from the 13th Century A.D. Though from the outside it appears rugged and weather-worn, the interior is a treasure-house of early Renaissance ecclesiastical art.
History of the Church
The Church of the Holy Trinity was consecrated in 1475, which would place it within the Venetian period, though it may have an earlier foundation date and in fact belong to the Romanesque period: this uncertainty bears testament to the fact that the church’s origins are not well documented. The fortifications were added later, in the 16th Century, as protection against attacks by Ottoman invaders.
The entire interior of this small church was illuminated with a series of frescoes by the artist Johannes de Castua, whose work was completed in 1490 (all of this is attested on an inscription found within the church). For some unknown reason, these frescoes were later covered by several layers of plaster, only to be rediscovered by the sculptor and scholar Jože Pohlen in 1949. Perhaps inadvertently, then, these marvellous Renaissance frescoes were preserved for posterity.
The interior of the church was designed as a ‘poor man’s bible,’ most of the lay population being illiterate and certainly unable to read the Latin of the scriptures. Key stories from both Old and New Testaments are depicted on the walls, from the Creation to Christ’s Passion and Resurrection. There are also depictions of the seasons personified, but most remarkable of all is the Danse Macabre, or dance of death – one of the finest depictions of this medieval art form in Europe.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave
I was reminded of these lines from Gray’s Elegy in a Country Churchyard when looking at this fresco, in which 11 Skeletons take hands with 11 human beings of varied social standing at various stages in their walk of life. From left to right, the precession leads quite literally from the cradle to the grave. Though centuries old, the message is still stark and powerful: perhaps more so to a modern audience to whom death has become something of a taboo subject. In the medieval world, with a much higher infant mortality rate and lower life expectancy, death played a much more prominent role in everyday life. But it comes to us all regardless of how high we climb during our time on earth. To visit this church and receive this pictorial message from the past which still resonates today is a truly humbling experience.
For more stunning images from the interior of Hrastovlje Church, visit me at Instagram @Experimentsinfiction.