Friday, May 3, 2013

Looters destroy medieval frescoes in Albania 

Lindsey Tugman
ALBANIA (CBA) -- In the years following the fall of Communism in Albania many Orthodox churches and monasteries fell victims to vandals and looters, many priceless works of religious art have been stolen or destroyed. The recent act of theft at a medieval church that left historic frescoes ruined or badly damaged has finally caused a public uproar.

Several frescoes by highly-revered medieval painter Onufri were vandalized and partially stolen from a 16th-century Orthodox church in southern Albania.

Looters tried to cut through the plaster of Saint Friday's chapel to remove the Saints' aureoles, but managed only to destroy them.

Konstantin Mecka, resident of a nearby village, could not tolerate the destruction of the country's cultural heritage and decided to guard the church, as his forefathers did. He says that he was named after Emperor Constantine the Great, and one of the main frescos depicting him is amongst the looted ones.

"These invaluable works of Onufri are being destroyed by criminals hand due to the lack of care and neglect of the institutions, as you can see the most beautiful frescoes are destroyed. I do this (guarding the church) because my heart tells me to," said Mecka.

Onufri, the most revered icon painter in Albania, lived in the 16th century. In 1554 he settled in a village of Valsh and painted walls of its small church. He is known for using brighter colors and introducing more realistic style of painting and more real and individual facial expressions, breaking with strict conventions of Byzantine style.

Konstantin Shqahu, the Mayor of Gjinar municipality, where the vandalized church belongs to, calls on UNESCO and donors to help to restore "Shen Premtja" church, as it is a Unesco world heritage site.

"We told the institutions in charge that the restoration of St. Friday's church is a problem which should be dealt with but up to now the restoration hasn't started yet. The municipality of Gjinar has small budget and doesn't have resources to fund the restoration," Shqahu told Reuters.

Officials say that only in the past two years more than twenty Orthodox churches and monasteries have been looted.

Another looted and vandalized church in desperate need of restoration is the 13th century church of Saint Kolli. According to the architect and restorer Reshat Gega this church is one of the most important monuments of Byzantine era not only in Albania but on the territory of the former Byzantine empire. The church with unique architecture is in danger of collapsing due to the original construction flaws and negligence.

"I know for a fact that money was available, but it was not used for it (restoration). The blame lies with the Institution for Cultural Monuments and its director, who as I've said earlier created a situation which I now can call criminal without hesitation," said Gega.

For years Albanian public and authorities paid no attention to acts of churches vandalism. But the attitude has changed after Onufri frescoes had been damaged. In response to public uproar, the Albanian Institute for Cultural Monuments has unveiled a plan to install 88 new security cameras in dozens of churches to protect them from looters.

"We have worked out a project that foresees equipping them (monuments of culture) with alarm systems and also hiring private security companies (to guard them)," said the head of the Institute, Apollon Bace.

"Essentially what damaged this institution the most was the change of balance in the structure of the institute between experts and administration. In the past we had more specialists and fewer administrators, today it is the opposite," Bace added.

He said that all the funds allocated by the government were used 100% by his institution, but it is the donors funds that were not efficient.

Paradoxically, but the country's religious art was better protected under the Communist and atheist regime of Enver Hoxha than in the modern-day Albania.

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