Monday, January 6, 2014


The drive from Split to Zagreb is absolutely wonderful. There is a brand new autobahn-style freeway that had very little traffic the day we were driving on it. The scenery  is an ever-changing mix of pastures and mountains.
These windmills remind me of the windmill farms not far from where I live.

In addition to the scenery, we were snacking on pain au chocolat as we sped towards our destination. Sigh. Life doesn't get much better!
I have no idea what this golden-yellow building is, but it is just too beautiful not to throw in:
Seasoned travelers by now, we easily found our way to our hotel (okay, so it helped that our GPS was fully functional). We were back at the Premier Astoria, the same hotel we had stayed in on our first night of the trip, and one that we can whole-heartedly recommend.
Picture from here
We still had most of the afternoon ahead, so we dumped our luggage in our room and set out immediately for the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. (We called a cab to take us there, but we discovered that it was only about a fifteen-minute-walk away, and we spent the rest of the day on foot, walking all over the city.)  At 384 feet high, or just over three football fields tall, the Cathedral is the tallest building in Croatia and can be seen from all around the city. The front courtyard has a gold statue of Mary on a tall pedestal facing her Cathedral.
This Cathedral has more or less been a work in progress for the last 800 years. Most of its current Gothic look, including its twin towers, came about during a rebuilding period between the years 1880-1906 after the 8.0 magnitude Zagreb earthquake of 1880 almost destroyed it.
Damage from the earthquake included a collapse of the main nave
and irreparable damage to the tower. Photo from here
Currently, the neo-Gothic spires are undergoing renovation. The first appears to be completed, but the second is still wrapped in scaffolding.When viewed head-on, only the green covering on the base and spire of the right tower is immediately apparent, and the center section appears to be intact,

. . . but on closer inspection, the trompe-l'oeil facade is more obvious.

So many of Europe's large cathedrals compete for space in busy cities, but this gem towers like royalty over everything else and has plenty of open space around it. In addition, there is a fresh cleanliness here and in the other major churches we visited in Zagreb that is rare in other European cities. 
The multi-layered, saint-bedecked entrance . . . 

. . . is ornamented by impossibly dainty stone blossoms and frilly stone lace.

Ever serene, Mary keeps watch over her people:

She is crowned with the stars of heaven:
. . . and guarded by a trio of angels:
"Gothic" is often equated with "gloomy" or "eerie," but the nave of Zagreb's Cathedral of the Assumption is peaceful, airy, and light:

There are so many intricacies to discover that it might be easy to miss the little faces at the bottom of the posts on the pulpit,
. . .  or the leaf-like pattern of the wings of the angel holding up that pulpit:
The brightly-colored patchwork tile floor adds an unusual cheerfulness to this Gothic church:

Besides the Virgin Mary, the Cathedral is also dedicated to two sainted kings: Hungarians St. Stephen and St. Ladislaus, probably the figures in the altar carving on the right:

There are two beautiful matching altars with a striking mixture of marble colors:

This incredibly detailed Last Supper is from the one on the right. I love the painting-like perspective, the two dogs on the floor, the jumble of bodies, and the expressions of each of the apostles. Who carved this, and how long did it take him?

 Another altar has a magnificent crucifixion scene:
 This scene includes a horned Moses directing a mother and child to look at the serpent on his staff (Numbers 21:9), and Abraham being stopped by an angel just as he is about to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice (Genesis 22).  Perhaps these two Old Testament scenes show Jesus' sacrifice and "new law" replacing the Law of Moses?

Aha! Mestrovic! Here you are again! This time it is a bas relief of Christ blessing Zagreb's own Cardinal Archbishop Aloysius Stepinac, a rather controversial man who was an agitator for religious tolerance during World War II and who supposedly helped save the lives of hundreds of Jews (although apparently he had no great love for the Serbs). In 1998 Pope John Paul declared him a martyr and made him a saint, not a universally popular decision. However, Mestrovic knew Stepinac personally and had great respect for him.
In other Mestrovic statues we have already seen, I love the hands. (See here, here, and here.) It is the same here. Note Mestrovic's use of symbolism in the hands, with their straight, rigid fingers and strong right angles.
It's not just a bas relief that honors Aloysius Stepinac; visitors can pay their respects to the actual man, embalmed and lying in state in the Cathedral:
 It is interesting to compare the actual profile with Mestrovic's rendering above, but it is a bit hard to believe this waxy face was once real skin:
As a side note, I got a kick when we left the cathedral and saw "Optika Stepinac" just across the street, seen here with a school field trip happening on the sidewalk in front of it:

More sculptures and paintings honor political leaders and saints:

This Cathedral is famous for its richly colored, finely detailed stained glass windows.

Finally, I saved the best--or at least the most unusual (although maybe not as unusual as an embalmed body)--for last.  On the back wall of the Cathedral is a larger-than-life diorama of the crucifixion. Not so unusual, but the script on the wall behind and above it is. It's not Croatian, not Russian, not Sanskrit, not Chinese . . . what IS it?

It is Glagolitic writing, the oldest known Slav alphabet from the 9th century that may have been created by Saints Cyril and Methodius to facilitate the spread of Christianity. I assume that here it is used to write scriptures regarding the crucifixion. Other than that, I can find nothing on the internet or in our guide book about this moving scene, which shows Jesus nailed to the center cross and flanked by two thieves tied to their crosses, with Mary and John the Beloved looking up from below.
Jesus is looking at his mother, and the scene is clearly at the moment He has given charge of her to John, who is looking at Mary. Jesus' fingers are flared expressively in somewhat of an embrace, or perhaps in agonizing pain.
The thief on the left looks toward Christ, while the one on the right looks away. The one on the right is bald, which I think indicates he was a slave.

This was a moving experience for me, and I wish I knew more about the origin of this tableau. If anyone knows when it was created, who the sculptor is, or any other details, please leave a comment.

Next up: The Church of St. Francis of Assisi via the Farmers Market


  1. This church looks so clean compared to the gothic churches we saw in Europe--no black staining of the stone. Beautiful!

    I could probably do without the embalmed body. What an odd way to honor someone.

  2. I agree that the embalmed body, with its rich red and gold right behind the altar, kind of overwhelmed everything else. The crucifixion at the back is marvelous. I'd not noticed the hands in Mestrovic's relief and they are fun, although certainly nothing like the ones in his three-D sculptures. Zagreb is a great church city. A fun assortment with very different artistic renderings in each one.

  3. I'm taking notes. . . I just read about the Glagolitic alphabet and how some are trying to preserve this. Interesting to see a sample of this--very stylized!