Religion is interesting in Albania. Travelling around you can’t help but notice the new mosques and churches (both Catholic and Greek Orthodox) that are appearing everywhere. Whether there’s a real need for so many is debatable, I’ve hardly seen any evidence of what could be called a ‘religious revival’. However, the Catholic Church, in particular, is on the offensive and that can best be seen with the anti-Communist paintings in the Franciscan Church in Shkodër.
When I’ve gone past mosques after the call to prayer there’s hardly as much activity as there is on a regular basis at the mosque in Liverpool 8. And when I’m expecting there to be the 6 o’clock mass in the Catholic Churches there have been even fewer people in the church at that time than there might have been a few hours earlier. Or the churches are locked up. I don’t really know the timetable used by the Greek Orthodox church (and I’m hardly an authority on any other religious sect really) but I’ve not seen crowds streaming from their doors either.
I’ll no doubt return to religion in other posts but in this one I want to concentrate on one particular church and five paintings inside of that church. This is the Franciscan Church (known as The Big Church) in the city of Shkodër, in the north-west of Albania, not far from the Montenegrin border.
Having their headquarters outside of the country, the Franciscans, in 1946, were forced to cease their activities in Albania – as were the Jesuits. In January 1947 a cache of arms and ammunition was found in their church in Shkodër and that led to the state clamping down hard on the order. The priests maintained these arms had been planted by the Albania security forces – but they would, wouldn’t they – and pleaded their innocence. The Franciscans resented this greatly and held that grudge for almost 50 years. However, those were times when efforts were being made by countries such as Britain and the US to do anything, and everything, they could to get a change of government in Tirana, one much more amenable to their political philosophy. We may have to wait another half a century before any material in the secret British Government archives might reveal more definite proof.
In the intervening period the church had been used as a cinema and auditorium but with the counter-revolution of 1990 they got their church back and a few years after that commissioned three new paintings – two more were to follow in 2012.
These are unlike any paintings I personally have seen in any church, of whatever variety of religion.
Here they represent that the gloves are off. They are a declaration of war against any society that has the temerity to challenge their superstition and their right to peddle such ideas to the young, confused, frightened and impressionable. Nowhere have I seen a clearer representation of the virulence of their hatred for socialism and, perhaps, is only comparable with the attitude of the Catholic Church and priests in Spain during the Spanish Civil War (1936-9) and earlier still during the height of the Spanish Inquisition in the 16th century. The arch-reactionary Karol Wotjyla would have loved them.
All the post-Communist, political/religious painters in this church have been painted by P Sheldija – I haven’t been able to find out anything about him. I can only assume that s/he is a local of Shkodër and that s/he’s still alive – at least s/he was in 2012. To the best of my knowledge I haven’t come across any more of his/her work outside this building.
The first one is entitled ‘Shpifja e Madhe’, meaning the ‘Great Lie’ where the Franciscans maintain their innocence and is dated 1996.
What is interesting in this painting, and one of the aspects that unites the first three, is the influence of the Socialist Realist style in the depiction of the images. They depict ‘real’ people in ‘real’ situations. There are those who are obviously ‘good’ and those who are positively ‘evil’. Here there is no muddying of the waters. Communists = BAD, Franciscans = GOOD. And the ordinary people are the ones who suffer in this eternal battle.
Because it is an eternal battle and as the Communists are the Anti-Christ, they are literally the agents of the Devil. The Devil (or his disciples) are behind the Communists in both a literal and figurative sense. They are at the back of the Reds, talking into their ears, inciting them to attack the church and its loyal, faithful and non-violent servants. The Devils have horns, tails and bat like wings. The fires of Hell surround this group.
(We are encouraged to suspend disbelief here and forget the persecution that the Catholic Church perpetrated throughout the centuries, the deaths they precipitated, and the lack of sympathy for any ideas, or religions, which were not totally in accord with what was decreed in Rome. The ‘extirpation of idolatry’ was the term used in this context in South America following the arrival of the Spanish and entailed the physical destruction on any remnants of indigenous faith and beliefs.)
The principal Communist is aggressive, angry. His gun points at the Franciscans, his other fist raised in a threatening manner, a sneer on his face. Two of the Franciscans are in chains, forced to carry armfuls of guns. They are calm, stoical and have an angel of God looking over them. In a painting in a side chapel St Francis holds an infant Jesus in his arms.
At the bottom are the people. A mix of ages, social and ethnic backgrounds, gender and degrees of fear, shock, supplication, confusion displayed on their faces. They are begging, imploring that all this violence ceases.
(A Catholic raised friend who saw these paintings was shocked to see modern weapons depicted in a painting inside a religious building. I was a little surprised at that as I’ve seen an innumerable number of paintings and statues, world-wide, where St James the Moor-slayer is cutting off heads on all sides or where St Michael has been plunging a spear into the devil or his disciples.)
On either side of the painting are quotes from the Book of Psalms. The left had reads:
Qe, bakëqijtë harkun e shternguen
mbi kordë shigjetën vendosen
per t’i shigjetue fshehtas të drejtët.
This translates as:
For, lo, the wicked bend their bow,
they make ready their arrow upon the string,
that they might privily shoot at the upright in heart.
Psalm 11, v2
On the right hand side we have:
Per shkak të mjerimit të vorfenve
per shkak të klithmës së të ndryghunve
tashti do të ngrihem-thotë Zoti-e
do ta shpëtoj atë që e perbuzin.
For the oppression of the poor,
for the sighing of the needy,
now will I arise, saith the LORD.
I will set him in safety from him that puffeth at him.
Psalm 12, v6 – but that’s not quite correct, at least in my Bible. The quote is from verse 5 and not verse 6.
The second painting depicts an atheist, anti-religion meeting in the city of Skodër. On a banner is the famous phrase from Karl Marx – ‘religion is the opium of the people’. On another banner the slogan is ‘Fight against religious ignorance’.
This was also painted by Sheldija and is dated 1997 (signature and date in bottom right hand corner). It is above the title ‘Pavdeksia e fese’ which I think best translates as ‘religion is Immortal’ or ‘Religion can never die’.
The figures in the foreground have turned their backs on all this ‘nonsense’. Like in the previous painting they are a mix of ages and genders. Traditional as well as contemporary dress is depicted. The central figure here is a priest whose stole (the long, narrow sash a priest would wear when saying Mass and which he kisses before putting around his neck) is resting on the head of a bowed man, presumably a form of blessing.
An old woman looks tired and weary and in her hand is holding a rosary, which a young girl shares with her. Another woman also has a rosary in her hand but this one has the cross hanging just above the head of a baby in a cot. A young woman is reading from a Bible and in the background is the building in which the painting now resides, the Franciscan church.
This also has two quotes from the Book of Psalms on either side. On the left is:
Q hyj, e pushtuen paganët pronën tande,
e dhunuen tempullin tand të shejtë,
Jerusalemin e banë një grumbull rrenojash!
ua dhanë kufomat e sherbëtorëve të tu per ushqim shpendëve të qiellit,
mishin e shejtenve të tu bishave të malit.
This translates as:
O God, the heathen are come into thine inheritance;
thy holy temple have they defiled;
they have laid Jerusalem on heaps.
The dead bodies of thy servants have they given to be meat unto the fowls of the heaven,
the flesh of thy saints unto the beasts of the earth.
Psalm 79, verses 1 and 2.
On the right we have:
Kthehu, o Zot! deri kur kështu?
Deh, ki mëshirë për shërbëtorët e tu!
gëzona për ditët që na mundove,
për vjetët që i kaluem në mjerim.
Return, O LORD, how long?
And let it repent thee concerning thy servants.
O satisfy us early with thy mercy;
that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
The carving says Psalm 90, verses 13-15 but it is actually verses 13 and 14. Perhaps the Albanian Bible numbers differently from mine.
The third doesn’t have a title but is a reference to the Crucifixion. Also painted by Sheldija it’s dated (I think) 1997. Instead of Christ hanging on a cross we have two Franciscan friars being tortured by being tied to a tree. One of them looks up to heaven, his face a mixture of pain and serenity knowing that salvation awaits him.
Above him is another priest who seems to have been jammed into a fork of the branches although a rope comes from the branches to his left which presumably goes around his body to stop him falling. He has his eyes closed and is probably dead. It appears that his right arm has been cut off above the elbow as his sleeve is ragged and empty. What could be a tourniquet is around the upper arm. I’m not sure what is represented here.
On either side of the tree, sitting on the ground, are two Communists, both armed and one with the red star on his cap. They are possibly asleep, resting on their weapons. There’s obvious references to the crucifixion of Christ and the way it has been traditionally represented, with Roman soldiers taking the place of the Communist Partisans.
Although the idea is that the Franciscans suffered for their believes it seems to be bordering on heresy to imply that a mere mortal, Franciscan priest has the same authority as the (Son of) God. Even St Francis only went as far as to claim the stigmata.
In the background there’s a depiction of the very Franciscan church on the right and the bell tower of Shkodër Cathedral on the left.
Whilst the first two paintings are in alcoves along the length of the left hand side of the nave the painting of the Crucifixion is in an alcove to the left of the altar, up a few steps.
These were the modern paintings that were displayed in the church quite soon after its reconsecration and that remained the case until 2012 when two more paintings, also by the same painter, Sheldija, appeared on the right hand side of the nave. These are very different in style from those of the 1990s.
Sheldija was obviously educated and trained under a Socialist system and the influence of Socialist realist style was still great in the 1990s, such that – apart from the content – it would have been stylistically indistinguishable from works by his contemporaries. However, like so many ‘intellectuals’ Sheldija sought to bite the hand that had fed it and used his skills to attack Socialism for the benefit of ignorance and obscurantism.
These have been the most political paintings I’ve seen in any of the churches I have visited so far in Albania. It’s not surprising that these should be in Shkodër as this was the Catholic heartland. In that city you don’t come across any Greek Orthodox churches, although there are at least three mosques.