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Istria's Danse Macabre

All are equal in the eyes of death ...

Stepping into the dark interior of the Church of St. Mary on Skriljinah in Beram, it took a little time for our eyes to adjust. As they did, the visual impact was quite astonishing - a small 13th century church with walls fully adorned with a feast of frescoes.

The key attraction which had drawn us to the church was the Dance of Death - an artistic metaphor borne from the late middle ages - a visual representation of death as the ultimate equalizer. The hypnotizing scene was painted in the 15th century, following the destructive impact of the Black Death across the European continent, where the frailty of life and the fact that death treats us all as equals, became abundantly clear to all.

The Dance fills the full width of the west wall.

The Master of Ceremonies, death himself, sets the rhythm on his bagpipes. Characters from every strata of society are lured towards him, and their ultimate fate, in a scene reminiscent of the legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. The trader's gold ducats are of no value; the soldier's armour offers no protection; the power of the Pope, Cardinal, Bishop, King & Queen has no influence. No pity is awarded to the child or the beggar, and the innkeeper, with his ample physique dominating the centre of the scene, stares in front of him, in a seeming trance (exceptionally not induced by the contents of his barrel!). Skeletons accompany the procession with caring and courtesy, some holding hands or guiding with a protective arm around the shoulder, others contributing to the dance itself on horns and lutes.

Death is the conductor, his orchestra are united in his dance ...

Note: The key is kept by a local resident in Beram who will escort you to the church and provide some explanation so the frescoes (if you are lucky enough to have some knowledge of Croatian, Italian or German!). Visit the excellent website for the number to call, or refer to the information board in the centre of Beram.

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