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The Danse Macabre of Hrastovlje: a very rare Medieval Fresco hidden until 1949

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The Church of the Holy Trinity of Hrastovlje, Slovenia, is decorated in its interior with a rare example of a “macabre dance” almost completely intact, dating back to the last years of the Middle Ages, in 1490. The hypotheses about the building’s origins are two. According to the first, it is a Romanesque church from the 12th century, while the second sees the church as an Istrian variant of the architecture of the early 15th century Venetian Renaissance. The church is located within a series of defensive walls built by the population to defend themselves from the attacks of the Ottoman Empire of the sixteenth century. The high defensive wall which surrounds the church means that from a distance only the top of the tower can be seen peeking out above the walls. These defensive architectures are found throughout the Slovenian territory and are called “Tabor”.

The church was built on the rock with local stone, and for this reason it has no particular foundations. A special feature is the presence of only two windows, which make the interior a real “loculus”, dark by day and by night. The choice is due to the extreme weather conditions of the area, beaten by the Bora in winter and sunny in summer. The church was modified in 1776, when the entrance was moved and when perhaps (but the date is not certain) were covered the frescoes of 1490 by Johannes de Castua, remained preserved hidden beneath thick layers of plaster until 1949, when the academic Jože Pohlen brought them back into the world. These perfectly preserved medieval frescoes covering almost every inch of the walls and ceiling of the church, and have remained unchanged since 1490.

Among the paintings is a rare and pristine example of the Danse Macabre, or Dance of Death, which depicts characters from all walks of medieval life being led by skeletons to the grave. This painting served to remind the people of Hrastovlje of the fragility of life and universality of death. Naturally, the function of the fresco was by Memento Mori, and it completes a whole series of paintings that characterized the small interior of the church. Some of these paintings include letters in the Glagolitic script, the oldest known Slavic alphabet and now-extinct, created in the 9th century by Saint Cyril, a Byzantine monk from Thessaloniki.

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