Read, Write, Run, Roam

Church on Sunday: Saint Mary Vlahernas, Berat Castle, Albania


After our first excursion to a Berat church ended at a locked gate, we hired a tour guide to see the churches in Berat’s castle district. Berat tour guides help put the castle buildings in perspective. More importantly, they also hold (or more accurately, pass around) the few keys that open Berat’s medieval churches in the castle. The castle district consists of a stone wall surrounding churches, mosques, and medieval buildings that people still live in today. Though we saw cars climbing up the hill, we had to rely on our own two feet to get there. Only residents are allowed to motor past the ancient walls.

Despite Berat’s history of Ottoman/Islamic Rule, the church exteriors in Berat city are well-preserved. We spent most of our time and camera battery life on the oldest church in Berat: Saint Mary Vlahernas. It dates from the 13th Century and was restored at some point in the 16th Century.

Yet what remained preserved was nearly destroyed during Communist rule, when government officials painted lime over frescoes, removed religious symbols and used churches as storage facilities. The frescoes are falling apart, but one can still see the work of Nicola, son of Onufri.

Nicola was quite talented, but never quite lived up to his father, Onufri. Onufri is known for introducing more realism and individuality into facial expressions. His works are on display at Berat’s ethnographic museum, a treasure trove of iconography. One of the most interesting frescoes exemplifies Berat’s proud inclusionary nature: an icon of Mary with mosque minarets in the background.

He also developed “Onufri Red,” a special shade that, some say, was never repeated again. Onufri took the secret of his red shade to the grave, but fortunately his works–and his son’s works–live on, for now.

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