In the middle of Istria stands the church of St. Mary of Skriljine, once a Benedictine monastery, now cemetery church of the small village of Beram. The church location is difficult to find, reason why it is almost unreachable if not accompanied by special guide
Beram, a small medieval village, was built on the remains of a small prehistoric settlement. The church has an area of just three square miles, and the only source of light beyond the door are small monofora windows and lunettes. The name “Skriljine” refers to the original floor made of rectangular limestone slabs, while the coffered ceiling is decorated with cherubs and floral motifs.
The church preserves in its inside a great cycle of frescoes dating back to 1474, made by a local master named Vincent of Kastav with the help of his other collaborators. These paintings are the testimony of the late Gothic style in Istria.
The frescoes had been commissioned by the Confraternity of Beram, of which we have confirmation thanks to the Latin inscription painted on the southern wall; the main theme is biblical, especially dedicated to the lives of Mary and Jesus; there also are portraits surrounded by acanthus leaves depicting saints. In the fresco of St. Micheal, where he kills the devil, a Glagolitic incision is visible with the words “Strike St. Mickey!”
Due to renovation works the paintings were damaged and covered, to be later restored in 1913.
The Adoration of the Magi, by Vincent himself, has a strong sense of rhythm, the horses are mangled and have two legs instead of four, but the absolute masterpiece of the cycle of frescoes is the “Dance of death”.
It is one of the oldest representations of the theme, inspired by the plague of 1348. This representation is located above the entrance door, thus forcing all the faithful to walk under it. It is the only scene with this type of iconographic motif in all Croatia.
We find ten characters in this “dance”: the king, the queen, the pope, the cardinal, the bishop, the innkeeper, the mutilated, the knight, the merchant and the child, the whole of them dancing together, symbolizing the equality of men in the face of death, no matter their social status or age.
The merchant, who is the last character to take part in the procession, attempts to corrupt death with his money.
Each one of the characters is flanked by a dancing skeleton, who is naked and doesn’t wear the usual shroud.
Some of the skeletons play wind instruments and the mandolin, guided by the rhythm of Death itself that plays a bagpipe.