Any tour of the Euphrasian Basilica, the stunning landmark that elevated Poreč from coastal backwater to a major ecclesiastical centre 1,500 years ago, involves more than just admiration of its sumptuous mosaics and early Byzantine architecture.
Here, on the north side of the peninsula that holds the remains of Roman Parentium, visitors are also treated to a history lesson – indeed, the more scholarly ones may find out how the basilica came to be, just by reading the inscriptions that Bishop Euphrasius deliberately left here, almost like clues, in the 550s AD.
© Poreč Tourist Board
The Latin text under the central window in the apse outlines what the bishop found when he arrived here, a ‘ruined temple… in danger of collapse… forestalled by Euphrasius. The shining gold you see he embellished…’.
Bishop Euphrasius did indeed create a golden temple in the Byzantine style of Eastern Christendom, but the church he found, the second to be built on this site, was still standing. In fact, its walls and main pillars were used in the bishop’s reconstruction.
A first church had been built here in the earlier part of the fourth century AD, dedicated to Maurus of Parentium, now patron saint of Poreč, who had recently been martyred. A surviving mosaic in the main apse shows the early Christian symbol of a fish.
© Poreč Tourist Board
Poreč already had a solid Christian community when the second church was constructed in the fifth century, the one Euphrasius describes somewhat disparagingly in his inscription. In the century between it being built and the arrival of Euphrasius, two major events occurred. The Fall of Rome and the Western Roman Empire encouraged the Emperor Justinian of the Eastern Orthodox Church to revive its glory. The other, in 553 AD, the same year that Euphrasius began work on the basilica, he and other regional bishops had been embroiled in a dispute with Rome, the so-called Three Chapter Schism, and had been excommunicated.
Euphrasius, therefore, had a point to prove and, in the Byzantine style promoted by the powers that be, left his fingerprints all over his basilica.
© Dave Jepson/Time Out
You enter through a courtyard bookended by a Classical portal although, like the mosaic above dating to 1900, what you see here was renovated under the Habsburgs, and nowhere near as old as the original Roman street nearby.
To your right is the ticket office – admission is currently a reasonable 40kn, 20kn for children. Note that the basilica isn’t open to tourists on Sundays and closes at 2pm on Saturdays in winter.
First passing two modern chapels to your right, you soon arrive at the main reason for any visit: the original mosaics from a millennium and a half ago. The floor mosaic, in fact, dates back to the fifth-century temple – certain fragments, visible through openings in the floor, to the very first church.
At the back, the walls of the central apse gleam with semi-precious stones, marble and mother-of-pearl, tiling filling every last space. Look up, though, because at the very top is an illustration of Christ, an open book in his hand, apostles on each side. As your eyes move across, Christ appears again, on the lap of the Virgin Mary – beside them, the figure with the halo is St Maurus, the patron saint of Poreč. In a purple robe and wearing a short beard is Bishop Euphrasius himself, a model of the basilica in his hand, which he is extending towards the Virgin Mary. Making up the trio is Archdeacon Claudius, who probably helped oversee the construction at the time.
© Giuseppe Anello
According to modern-day research of the mosaic surfaces, some four-fifths of what you admire here today is exactly as Euphrasius, Claudius and the many craftsmen who worked here would have seen it.
The nearby ciborium, or canopy, was created later, in the 1270s, and modelled on the one in St Mark’s in Venice. The altar was an even later edition, around the 1700s, thieves making off with its panels in the passage of time.
© Poreč tourist board
Many original features remain, however, as you explore the complex: the font in the baptistry across the central nave from the apse, the central hall in the adjoining Episcopal Palace and the Episcopal throne from the 700s. Here Euphrasius would have directed operations.
The bell tower, built in 1520, is also open to visitors keen on gaining a great view of Poreč and the prime location early Christians would have coveted when theirs was still a clandestine, persecuted community.