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Euphrasian Basilica – The Masterpiece of Early Byzantine Art

Euphrasian Basilica and its goleden mosaics in Poreč, shining and glittering in its glorious beauty turn heads of every visitor. They also mark the great artistic turn in the history of sacral art. To witness and to understand its significance is the gift Poreč which generously shares with you.

Euphrasius Basilica from the Inside
Euphrasius Basilica from the Inside

On the western coast of the Istrian Peninsula, the largest peninsula in Adriatic, lies the city of Poreč, proudly prolonging its role as one of the Croatian top touristic points year after year.

Standing in the center of an Old World, the heart-shaped peninsula of Istria had a turbulent history. From ancient Greece to these days, all the rulers and armies that went this way left a mark of their own that is still visible in every corner.

The same goes for Poreč and its diverse mix of Baroque, Gothic and Romanesque architecture and Euphrasian Basilica declared Patrimony of Humanity by UNESCO in 1997.

The whole complex of Basilica and three church-naves might be the best-preserved monument of the early Byzantine art.

The Remains of the Roman Empire

It was the middle of the 6th century. The Roman Empire was devastated. The late 5th century was marked by the constant Barbarian attacks on Rome itself and other significant points of the empire. Alaric, Huns, Ostrogoths – they all wanted a fair share.

Somehow dislocated from the Barbaric rampage, Istria was left out of their violent decadence. Nevertheless, lethargy and moral confusion spread over the land and led Istria to the decades of stagnation.

Poreč City
Poreč City

At the end of the 5th century, Istria was part of Theodoric’s Ostrogothic kingdom, but in the age of Justinian, in 539, it fell under the jurisdiction of Byzantine.

Justinian had a great ambition to pull the disunited empire together, not only in a territorial or political sense but also in arts. He wanted to bring back the brilliance of the art of the ancient world, and for a short time, he created an illusion of the one-time great whole.

Euphrasian Basilica: The Impacts of Euphrasius – where the west meets the east

Euphrasius, Bishop of Poreč, came to Poreč at the peak of Justinian’s Reconquista. Here he found the town with a long history with characteristics of the typical provincial town of the later classical period and decided to change it once and forever.

Poreč Old City
Poreč Old City

He built his cathedral on the site of the older city basilica, harmonizing it with a series of accompanying buildings that were together to create one of the great architectural complexes of the time. Euphrasius’ planned to partly assimilate his ambitious ideas with the ancient base he found here, and to the major extent, he would bring in architectural and artistic innovations the like of which the West was still unfamiliar with.

The artistic taste of Bishop Euphrasius was molded on the luxury of the east. Undertaking his great architectural enterprises, he would now enrich the antiquity of the previous Roman city Parentium (the Roman name of Poreč) with the brilliance and stylistic richness of the east.

The Cathedral

His innovations relate to the organization of the space inside the Basilica. But, what leaves every genuine visitor completely stunned are the glittering mosaics that cover the walls of the interior.

The Euphrasian Basilica
The Euphrasian Basilica

The iconographic program shown in the mosaics led to such a controversy that Pope declared Euphrasius a rebel against the church, anathematized him and finally excommunicated him.

But, his great work and his revolutionary ideas are still shining from the walls of his basilica.

Upon his arrival in Poreč, Euphrasius met a well-organized Christian community. So, when he started on his great undertaking, he did not start it from scratch. He was however disappointed with the condition of already existing sacred buildings and a new large basilica developed in the 5th century.

The Latin inscription that explains the motivation behind Bishop’s interventions still stands below the central window in the apse of his basilica:

“Here at first was a shaken and ruined temple in danger of falling, and it was not strengthened by sure power, it was narrow and was not embellished with gold, and the dilapidated roof was held together only by grace. When the concerned priest Euphrasius, devoted to the faith, saw that his seat was in danger of collapsing under the burden with a holy intention he forestalled the ruination, and to make the ruined building more firm he demolished it, having laid the foundations he raised the summit of the temple. What in these days you see shines in gold Euphrasius embellished, finishing what had been started, and gave it great gifts, calling on Christ’s name he marked the church, rejoicing in the work.”

Euphrasian Basilica: To Defy the Laws of Tradition…

The today’s basilica includes an atrium, baptistery, bishop’s palace, mosaics and remains of older sacral buildings. Both the atrium and the baptistery, and all the parts of the walls of the basilica were taken over in large part from the building that Euphrasius found here.
Poreč Old City
Poreč Old City

Where he really left a mark of his own are the decorations of the interior.

And this is also where Euphrasius provoked the anger of the Church.

In a tradition of Christian iconology, a central place in the apse belonged only to Christ. In Poreč, the central place is occupied by the Virgin Mary who is sitting on a throne with baby Jesus on her knee. Imagine the anger it provoked.
But, Euphrasius didn’t stop there.

He subordinated the church to himself entirely. He had his initials inscribed in many of the prominent places, and in the mosaics of the apse he found his way into the space meant exclusively for the saints and the martyrs, and the very Virgin and Christ, showing in a very unambivalent way the place he saw himself in.

The Euphrasius’ Legacy

Euphrasius’ interventions met with many disapprovals and misunderstandings. In his time, the great bishop of Poreč, intentionally or not, messed with the long-time traditions and had to deal with the consequences.
The Impacts of Euphrasius
The Impacts of Euphrasius

But, he left us a remarkable piece of art, the beauty of which outlived all the controversies of the era, only to be admired and glorified as one of the great artistic achievements in history.

It was his cathedral in Poreč where Euphrasius tried to unite the west and the east, if not in any other way than in the aesthetic of the high arts.

We can now enjoy the shine of his mosaics, free of all second thoughts, and perceive the message he wrote to us in glitter and gold.
The message of unity transmitted through the language of artistic expression.

Your CTC Team, S.J.

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