Late Gothic Art and Glagolithic Culture in the Countryside
Belgramoni Tacco Palace, Piano nobile (first floor)
The 15th century bore witness to the transformation of the abandoned and impoverished regions in Istria with numerous votive churches. The building and furnishing of mediaeval churches in Istria was entrusted to the travelling workshops of builders, stonemasons and painters, who were managed by the families of masters and their assistants. Great impetus in the folk artistic design was given by the work of the Glagolitic priests, the Tertiaries, who had settled in Koper and brought the gospel to the neighbouring villages. Carved Glagolitic dedication inscriptions adorn the more prominent houses of the worthies as well. In the hinterland of the coastal towns a few exceptional late mediaeval artefacts have been preserved, which are the result of a spontaneous folk expression and signed by their authors. The stonemason's tradition in a predominantly karst Istrian landscape and the decorative modelling in stone is one of the regular features of folk volition in the working of hard limestone. Glagolitic epigraphy appears in these regions from the 11th century onwards. With sparing words it commemorates the permanent records, actions and self-confidence of the elite Slavic communities and individuals. The Old Slavic literacy, which we owe to the missionary work of Constantine Cyril and his brother Methodius in Moravia in the 9th century, is not limited solely to rural areas or the language of liturgy. In feudal centres and later in urban environments, too, it became the language of official documents. Town archives keep documents, written in the Glagolitic alphabet, which record donations, contracts, legacies and the like.
Glagolitic culture also formed a literary language. Venice, which had become the centre of European printing, had a strong influence on the creation of the first Istrian incunabula, of which a special place is occupied by the Glagolitic Missal of 1483, which is being kept in Ljubljana. The rich symbolic and narrative tradition of holy texts is intertwined with folk theology and iconographic models that reflect the agony of civilisation in the “autumn” of the Middle Ages and announce the imminent religious/spiritual and moral rift of Renaissance Europe. In local workshops we find original patterns contained within classical Christian iconography. The masters show skilful mastery of the stonemason's hammer, the painter's brush or the chisel. The large cycles of the paintings of saints, which began to appear as early as in the 2nd half of the 14th century, are manifested in the Church of St. Stephen in Zanigrad with large painted surfaces, which follow one another in the form of a modern comic strip. Parish priests and other patrons composed painting programmes that bore original messages. As the creator of ideas and later as the interpreter of individual content, the Glagolitic clergy becomes an important provider of culture and education in the life of the virtually illiterate rural environment.
The small Church of the Holy Trinity in Hrastovlje is a unique monument of mediaeval painting on our soil. It was built as a miniature three-nave basilica; its interior painted surfaces have preserved the name of Master Johannes de Castua, who, during the great European Renaissance, created a fresco cycle as an epic record of rural mediaeval folk theology and life knowledge. The surfaces of the frescoes also present a special archive of documents that are incised into the surfaces by random visitors with a sharp object: the Latin and Glagolitic “sgraffiti” bring messages of natural disasters, intercessions, want, the price of grain and so on.