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Review: Onufri Museum

Attraction - Museum

Berat, 5001, Albania

Dedicated to the master of Albanian religious art

  • By SilverTraveller HMJ

    737 reviews

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  • October 2019
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70 people found this review helpful

The city of Berat in central Albania, can be ‘done’ as a day trip from the capital Tirana, but we stayed for two nights at the Rezidenca Desaret.

The ‘must see’ sight is the imposing Berat Castle high on a hill overlooking the town. Within the castle environs, is the splendid Onufri Museum located in the Church of the Dormition of St Mary.

In the many Orthodox churches we’d already visited, and in the National Museum of Medieval Art at Korça, we’d seen lots of Onufri’s icons.

His works were post-Byzantine and we were told he was innovative and began tinkering with tradition. He’d also travelled to Greece and Italy and been influenced by what he’d seen and many of his frescoes can still be seen there.

Audio guides were available, and a sign stated: 35 artefacts, 90 seconds each, 5,400 seconds, 90 minutes, 1.5 hours, done. However, we had a guide, Mikeli, who really brought the museum to life. Unfortunately, photographs were not allowed inside, but Mikeli said we could discretely sneak a couple as it was quiet. However, the website (www.muzeumet-berat.al) will give you a flavour.

The iconostasis, or altar screen, was carved from walnut wood with lots of flowers, and covered in gold leaf. The icons above the top, were slightly tilted to allow them to be admired more easily. Despite destruction of the frescoes by the communists, the iconostasis remained intact and untouched. It contained three important icons. The first, was Mary, known as the Mona Lisa of Berat because her beautiful eyes were said to follow you. Unusually she held Jesus on the left rather than the right and the icon was encrusted with jewels. Mary and the other two, of Jesus and John the Baptist, were placed in the church at the time of building.

Mikeli, suggested going behind the iconostasis to the altar, which surprised us as this is normally absolutely verboten. However, he pointed out that we were in a Museum and it is only a church for one special day each year, when an early morning service is held prior to it opening for tourists.

Whilst behind the altar, we heard the story of the two Codices of Berat which were only discovered here in 1969: one ancient manuscript was written in silver ink and the other gold. During WW2, only the priest knew where they’d been buried 3m down. The Germans gave him overnight to consider confessing but the next morning, he went out with the icon of the Virgin Mary and swore he didn’t know where they were. His lie was acceptable as when he’d taken the oath to protect it, he’d also sworn he would do anything possible to protect them, which obviously included lying. The communists agreed that the codices were to be regarded as important national historical documents, rather than religious ones, and therefore they were not destroyed during the atheist regime.

Amongst the huge number of icons, Mikeli pointed out three in particular: an unusual embroidered icon and the Life-Giving Source icon. The third icon, had a red banner across the church: Onufri’s mastery in the use of the colour red, led it to being known as ‘Onufri red’. The ‘recipe’ of how it was mixed is not known.

The communists destroyed all the frescoes on the pillars, by scratching them rather than by painting over them, although some traces of colour were just visible in places. The only frescoes remaining were two in the cupolas and they weren’t particularly good examples.

A mosaic on the floor was all about the calendar: 4 points (N, S, E, W), red and white inter-facing triangles that counted the days in the month against the twelve monthly blocks, six points of two interlocking triangles for six days of the week, with the circular day of rest in the middle etc. etc. Oh, for a photo.

The wooden Bishop’s Chair was only to be used by the bishop, who Mikeli said was regarded as a despot, although he realised that the term had a pejorative meaning in English (not a bad word from an Albanian guide).

As well as the icons there was a selection of silver and gold religious items e.g. chalices etc.

A separate ticket is required, and toilets are nearby.

This was a truly stunning museum and like the castle, a must see.

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This review is solely based on the opinion of a Silver Travel Advisor member and not of Silver Travel Advisor Ltd.

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