I'm not sure when I first became aware of the Danse Macabre, an allegory from the middle ages. I remember it being mentioned in numerous books from that period including Barbara Tuchman in her book A Distant Mirror. Also known as the Dance of Death, the allegory speaks of the universality of death: no matter one's station in life, the Dance Macabre unites all. In the dance skeletons escort living humans to their graves in. Popes, kings, the bourgeois, and commoners alike join in, conveying that regardless of status, wealth, or accomplishments in life, death comes for everyone. At a time when outbreaks of the Black Death and seemingly endless battles between France and England in the Hundred Years’ War left countless thousands of people dead, macabre images like the Dance of Death were a way to confront the ever-present prospect of mortality.
In doing research for our trip to Europe to see our nephew and his young family I considered visiting Slovenia which was relatively close to their home. In looking for possible places to visit I read of a church in Hrastovlje, the Holy Trinity Church. The church itself was not remarkable but the frescoes inside certainly were. Fulfilling a dream I had come face to face with what I had read all these years, there before me was the Danse Macabre.
The Church of Holy Trinity stands on a small elevation above the village, within the walls built for protection. It was sanctified in 1475. This is a three-nave Renaissance church with a polygonal sanctuary and a bell tower added later to its front. Its naves are divided by two rows of columns topped by a barrel vaulting.
How it came to be discovered was quite a tale. It was said that during some repair work in 1949, workman found hidden beneath thick layers of plaster, nearly perfectly preserved medieval frescoes covering almost every inch of the walls and ceiling of the church. The frescoes were painted by Johannes de Castua in 1490.
In the central apse in the conch stands the Throne of Mercy, beneath which lies a row of Apostles below the arches. An unusual scene appears in the northern apse. The three Wise Men are seated on the throne and next to them stand SS. Cosmas and Damian. John from Kastav (Johannes de Castua) signed it and wrote the year of its creation (1490). On the site of the southern apse, above the door, protectors from infectious diseases look upon us: St. Rocco, St. Sebastian and St. Fabian. The arch part of the central nave, above the apse, is adorned with the Coronation of the Virgin. The Annunciation to Mary is to the left and right. In the vault of the central nave are scenes from the Creation of the World made according to etchings of the Dutch graphic artist Master with Scrolls and connected with Pazin frescoes. Months from January to July are painted on the side arches of the southern nave, and August to December on the northern nave which also shows images of years (Annus), time (Tempus) and St. Jerome. All along the northern wall stretches the long procession of the Adoration of the Magi. Herod's Farewell is depicted on the western side, while the cycle of the Passion of Christ covers the western and a part of the southern wall, which bottom part shows a detailed scene of the Dance of Death.