I never thought I would find myself falling in love with a tiled roof, but that’s exactly what happened when I first set eyes on the delightful church of St Mark’s, Zagreb.
The 13th-century church is usually only opened to the public for mass, but its main draw for less religious folk like myself, can be seen and enjoyed anytime from Trg Svetog Marka (St Mark’s Square).
It may seem rather odd that political rather than religious symbols have been used so lovingly to adorn this church roof since the late nineteenth century, but when one considers the city’s turbulent struggle for independence, it’s little wonder that the people of Zagreb revere their Croatian identity as much as their religion.
St Mark’s is not the only place in Zagreb where Croatian national identity is publicly celebrated hand-in-hand with religion.
Just a short walk from St Mark’s Church along Kamenita ulica, is the Stone Gate. In medieval times this was the eastern gate to Gradec, a geographically elevated part of Zagreb now known as the Upper Town (Gornji Grad). Legend has it that in 1731 a fire completely destroyed the gate and everything within it, except for a painting of the Virgin Mary owned by a woman who lived in rooms above the gate. Although the wooden frame around it was burnt and destroyed, the painting itself miraculously showed no signs of damage or scorching. The Stone Gate was subsequently rebuilt and turned into a shrine to house the painting which even to this day is believed to possess heavenly powers. The painting still hangs inside the Stone Gate today, albeit behind a huge wrought iron gate, and every evening prayers are conducted in front of it drawing large crowds of locals and pilgrims.
By the Kamenita Street entrance to the Stone Gate stands a statue of a woman (as seen in the photo above) that one could be forgiven for thinking was another representation of the Virgin Mary. This is in fact the statue of Dora Krupić who has no religious significance whatsoever, but is significantly political to Croatians.
Dora was the protagonist to Croatia’s first historical novel The Goldsmith’s Gold, written by Croatian novelist and political activist August Šenoa. First published in 1871, Šenoa’s novel portrays life in sixteenth century Zagreb encouraging his nineteenth century readers to celebrate their Croatian identity in what was then Austria-Hungary. In the novel, the much adored and kind-hearted Dora lives close to the Stone Gate with her goldsmith father (who is also the gatekeeper) until she is killed by an evil local barber in retaliation for her refusal to marry him. It is probably no coincidence that Dora’s statue, sculpted and placed here in 1929, has been made to resemble the Virgin Mary. Although a fictional and political character, Dora and what she represents is clearly held in high regard by locals as much as the Virgin Mary is.
No devoutly Christian capital is complete without a cathedral, and Zagreb is no exception. The gothic Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary is the tallest building in Croatia and takes pride of place in Kaptol in the heart of the city. It too represents national pride and history as much as religious identity being built in honour not just of the Virgin but of two medieval Kings: St Stephen, first king of Hungary and St Ladislaus, king of Croatia, both ruling in the eleventh century.
Although there has been a cathedral here for almost a millennium, the present building is mainly twentieth century, rebuilt after a massive earthquake destroyed it in 1880. It would appear that the building work is still not complete one hundred years on as I’ve never come across a photograph of the cathedral free from scaffolding. My guidebook even scoffs that the twin spires in particular are “seemingly permanently under repair”.
The only way to enjoy the cathedral scaffolding-free these days is either on the back of the Croatian 1000 kuna banknote, or from a scaled bronze model of the city close by on Ulica Tome Bakaća.
Yet, even with scaffolding, the cathedral is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful sights of Zagreb.
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