Updated: Feb 13, 2020
The mosaic treasures in Ravenna are world-renowned, numerous, spectacular and a sumptuous feast for the eyes for all lovers of art and history ... we were lucky enough to finally visit the charming town of Ravenna and see these wonders with our own eyes last year. It was something that had been on my bucket-list for some time and I have to admit that it exceeded my high expectations ...
Many people however, have no idea that an extraordinary example of Byzantine mosaics can also be experienced in the heart shaped, culturally rich peninsula of Croatian Istria.
Christianity made its way to Istria in the 4th century AD. It was at this time, under Roman rule, that construction began on the original basilica in the region's capital of Poreč. Over time, the structure fell into disrepair, and it was a few centuries later, under the watchful eye of Bishop Euphrasius and under the strong influence of the Byzantine culture of Constantinople, that the present day Euphrasian Basilica was constructed on the same site. The building stands today in all its glory, as one part of the larger episcopal complex which, in 1997, was deservedly recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Although the entire complex is fascinating, and a real treat for history lovers, the basilica is simply astonishing. Undoubtedly, it is the mosaics in the central apse that are the eye-catching highlight for most visitors: hand-crafted in the 6th century, Byzantine masters laid the tiles individually to capture the optimal light and reflection, and with dazzling results. Within a relatively small area, many classic Christian images are magnificently depicted. The scene both captivates, and leaves you wondering where to focus your attention ...
The basilica is dedicated to Mary, Mother of God, who - depicted centrally in mosaics - sits regally on her heavenly throne. Flanked by angels, she eternally looks out over her congregation and the 18 Greek marble colonnades, which separate the nave from the two exterior aisles. As you study the architecture, if you look closely you will observe the evidence left by a local earthquake that struck in the mid 15th century. The result of the natural disaster was the loss of the stucco work that decorated the arches between the capitals on the southern nave. I like to imagine school groups gathering here for a game of "spot the difference". While I think I have a good eye for detail, I have to admit that I did not notice this initially, and clearly would have lost in that game!
It is such visible signs of the passage of time and history, and what some may call the resulting imperfection or imbalance, that serves in my mind to further enhance the basilica's incredible charm and presence.
For me personally, it is from standing at the far end of the basilica, looking down the nave under Mary's watchful eye, where the true majesty of this building reveals itself. The architecture is stunning in its simplicity: the perfect complement to the intricacy, visual impact and sophistication of the magnificent mosaics. On our first visit, with church music gently playing as I soaked in the scene and the atmosphere from this very spot, it was only then that I realized that we had this hidden gem all to ourselves.
Some feasts are best experienced alone ...
This secret cultural treasure may not match the scale of Ravenna, but on my travels far and wide, there are few spiritual places I have visited that have so persisted in my memory and so captured my enduring attention ... This is one place that is not to be missed when you experience Istria for yourself.