Poreč, Eufrasian Basilica

Also known as Parentium or Parenzo, Euphrasiana
Era 6AD
Location Eufrazijeva ul., 52440, Poreč, Croatia

The medieval basilica church (45x20 metres) at Poreč (Parentium or Parenzo) in Croatia was built by one Eufrasius. It is not certain who this Eufrasius, depicted in the apse mosaic, was but he may well have been the same man as a Eufrasius mentioned as a schismatic bishop in a letter written by Pope Pelagius and dated to 559. As a consequence of the possible identity of the patron, and because of the remarkable similarities between the mosaics here and those at S Vitale, both church and its mosaics have been dated to the mid-sixth century. The church was clearly a rich one, with fixtures and fittings in marble, opus sectile and stucco-work, and forming part of a larger ecclesiastical complex which included, as with churches in both Rome and Ravenna, a baptistery and an episcopal palace. Mosaics survive in the main apse, triumphal arch and two apses in side chapels to the north and south of the central apse. The mosaics have been considerably restored but seem to have retained their basic form. Both east and west facade also contained mosaic. There were also mosaics in the sixth-century episcopal palace complex.

The apse mosaic shows Eufrasius in the presence of the enthroned Mother of God and her Christ-Child. To Mary’s right, angels usher in St Maurus, bringing Eufrasius holding his church, Archdeacon Claudius with a book, and a small boy, also named Eufrasius and seemingly Claudius’s son, holding candles. On her left, three un-named saints are led forward. Above all of their heads, red and blue clouds fill the gold background. Below are a long inscription naming Eufrasius as the patron, panels of ornament, and scenes of the Annunciation and the Visitation to Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist. There are roundels of twelve female saints in the intrados of the arch, flanking a Lamb in the centre, reminiscent of S Vitale. On the face of the arch itself, Christ is shown in the centre seated on a blue globe (something similar is seen at S Lorenzo in Rome, as well as at S Vitale) flanked by the twelve apostles. The piers between the windows depict Zacharias, an angel, and John the Baptist. The side apses show symmetrical but not identical images of a half-length Christ in a cloudy sky, blue and pink of course, crowning two saints in each.

There was clearly a hierarchy of materials used on the basis of their cost and visual properties. The face of the patron Eufrasius was made with a range of colours in smaller glass tesserae that were not employed anywhere else in the mosaics, and of all the figures depicted, only Eufrasius and Christ have more glass than stone in their faces, suggesting both their relative importance and a possibly limited supply of certain materials. Other evidence indicates that supplies ran low and that the mosaicists were forced to improvise with materials other than glass. This is most apparent in the south apse where there is considerably less glass than anywhere else, implying that this was almost certainly the last part of the mosaic to be completed. Here and elsewhere, yellow brick is used in places for yellow glass; to eke out gold tesserae, other colours have been blended in, most notably lime green: this is visible, for example, in the Hand of God and wreath at the crown of the apse.

This mosaic programme, like every other, can be read in a variety of ways, personal, doctrinal and political. The mosaic has a private meaning in the context of the individual prayers of the suppliants. The three saints at the viewer’s right of the apse are unidentified perhaps because it was enough for the patron, for Eufrasius, Deacon Claudius and even the boy to know who they were. The scene suggests that Eufrasius, and also Claudius and his son, should be seen as pious and blessed for they are escorted by saints and angels into the presence of Christ and his mother.

Doctrinally, if the Eufrasius of the church and mosaic were the bishop in dispute with Rome, then the programme may also be a theological statement of Chalcedonian Orthodoxy on Eufrasius’s part, a Trinitarian theological argument rather than one about the nature(s) of Christ. That particular Bishop Eufrasius, like his successor, John, supported Chalcedonian Orthodoxy against Justinian and the Fifth Ecumenical Council held at Constantinople in 553, a Council that was seen by many western bishops as an attack on the orthodoxy of the 451 Council of Chalcedon and its decrees, most especially its definition of the Trinity. This dispute brought the bishops into conflict with the Pope, who sided with the emperor, an argument that lasted into the 580s. Possible Trinitarian elements of the iconography of the programme include details such as the triple-banded orb held by the central angel between the windows of the main apse. By showing Christ as a child held by his human mother, his Incarnation and human and divine natures are emphasised. The figure of Susanna shown on the casket held by Zacharias may suggest the presence of the wrongfully accused - like the schismatic bishop himself; St Euphemia (shown next to the Lamb of God at the crown of the apse arch (the intrados) was also a saint favoured by the Chalcedonian Orthodox, as was true in S Apollinare Nuovo. Politically, therefore, if this was Bishop Eufrasius’s mosaic, then it might be seen as setting him at odds with both the eastern Empire and the pope whilst at the same time asserting his piety and hence his ecclesiastical authority. In conflict with both East and West, Eufrasius might well have wished to show that his place as bishop came from God.

In their appearance, the mosaics of the Eufrasian basilica share similarities with some mosaics in Rome, notably S Lorenzo fuori le mura. But they are unmistakably closer still to Maximian’s S Vitale, even to the extent of possibly sharing the same mosaicists, who may also have worked at Pula. Certainly the two churches share the same masons’ marks. The mosaics may well be the product of the same workshop or of artists trained similarly: the presumed temporal overlap between the two allows for speculation about mosaicists shuttling backwards and forwards across the Adriatic and perhaps even sharing materials between the two sites. Though this is an intriguing picture, the connection could only have been practical, on the level of the workmen. How Archbishop Maximian in Ravenna, that friend of Byzantium, might have felt about the heretic and schismatic Eufrasius in Parentium and his claims to ecclesiastical authority is another matter.