Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Tirana

Tirana Catholic Church - The Last Supper

Tirana Catholic Church – The Last Supper

Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Tirana displays new and interesting murals to replace the frescoes of the past.

Part of Albania’s ‘Cultural Revolution’ in the late 1960s took the form of a concerted attack upon organised religion, whether it be Islam, Orthodox or Catholic Christian. Apart from declaring Albania to be the world’s first atheist state both the infrastructure and the personnel of the different religions underwent radical changes.

Many of the previous religious buildings were converted to general use becoming cinemas, gymnasiums or places that could be utilised by the population as a whole. A significant number of the priesthood were subject to arrest and imprisonment for conspiring against the Socialist state and even though these accusations were denied at the time, both within and without the country, the manner in which some of these individuals have been rehabilitated and lionised by the present reactionary government proves the justified claims of the People’s Republic of Albania.

Since the decision of the Albanian people in the 1990s to destroy everything that had been constructed since the defeat of Fascism in 1944 after they had; finished being robbed by con men with their ‘get rich quick’ pyramid schemes; stopped killing each other for no apparent reason; emigrated from their country in their millions; they turned their attention (for some inexplicable reason) to what appeared to be the most pressing need of the time, i.e., the building or restoration of hundreds of religious buildings.

Any visitor who travels even a short distance in Albania cannot avoid noticing the number of new churches and mosques in virtually every village, town and city. The total destruction of the economy during the madness of the 1990s meant that the resources to pay for this could not have come from within the country itself, even less from the so-called ‘faithful’ who barely had enough to feed themselves.

The resources for all this building programme came from the oil rich feudal monarchies of the middle east (for the mosques), the gangsters of the erstwhile Soviet Union (for the Orthodox churches) and that centuries old bastion of reaction in Rome (for the Catholic churches).

Much of this money has been put into ‘prestige’ projects. The Catholic Cathedral of St Paul and the very recently opened Orthodox Resurrection of Christ Cathedral (Katedralja Ngjallja e Krishti), both in Tirana, are cases in point. Not a lot of this wealth has filtered down to maintain some of the, older, much smaller and more modest, historically important buildings that were placed on a list of structures that were part of the country’s heritage. Even at the height of the atheist campaign more and more of these buildings were being identified and protected yet the present day religious state is ignoring these as they have a very low profile, for example, the two ancient Orthodox churches in Old Himara or the Panagia Monastery Church, Dhermi in the south of the country.

The mosques follow very much a formula in their construction, both inside and out, and the decoration avoids any depiction of people or animals. The Orthodox churches are also formulaic, but in different way, with the icons of the saints that dominate the interior. It is in the Catholic churches, which are in the minority, that you encounter interesting, post-Communist paintings that tell (at least for me) a much more interesting story, a story which cannot be separated from the socialist period.

I’ve already written about the paintings in the Franciscan Church in Skhoder, in the north of the country, here I want to write about a Catholic church in Tirana.

This is the Sacred Heart church (Kisha Zemra e Krishtit), run by the Jesuits, in Rruga Kavajës, less than a kilometre from Skënderbeg Square in the centre of the city. This is the road that you would go along if you were to take the public bus to Kombinat, where you find the city’s main cemetery and the present location of Enver Hoxha’s grave (he’s not been allowed a lot of peace since his death).

Previous frescoes were removed when the church was converted to a cinema in the late 1960s and new ones were completed in 1999 and the painter was Shpend Bengu (born 1962 in Tirana). The murals, although based upon traditional images seen in many Catholic churches throughout the world, have elements that are both interesting and slightly strange, if not to say unique, in Christian iconography. These murals are on either side of the altar.

On the left is a depiction of The Last Supper. This follows the ‘standard’ representations of this mythical event. Christ sits at the middle of the table and is the centre of attention. In front of him is a wine goblet and a chunk of bread – the origin of the Eucharist. The closest one to him, on his right, will be Peter. He has the typical short, curly (greying) hair and is the angry one – you can see he has his right fist tightly clenched. Fast asleep (has he drunk too much of the wine or is this a misreading of the event in the Gospels?) is John. The youngest, because he doesn’t have a beard, will be Philip or Thomas. The others could also possibly be recognised due to the tradition that has grown up over this image.

However, there are a couple of differences in this painting. Whilst all the others are concentrating on Christ one is looking into the distance, seemingly over our heads. Why? I don’t know and can’t even guess. We see the faces of 12 but there is one with his back to us – that is Judas. Traditionally he is depicted in a number of ways at the table. He is nearly always separate in some way, often looking away as if ashamed of what he has already done and is about to do. I’ve even see pictures where he has already left the table to carry out his dastardly deed of betrayal. Here he has his back to us.

Tirana Catholic Church - Judas

Tirana Catholic Church – Judas

That’s not uncommon and might come from the Byzantine tradition of not having an ‘evil’ person looking out of a painting as they could, possibly, corrupt the viewer. This would very much feed into the local Albanian idea of the ‘evil eye’ that I write about in the post about the ‘dordolec’ and superstition in general in present day Albania. What is also interesting about this Judas is that whilst the others are dressed in fine, brightly coloured robes, he wears what looks like an animal fur, something rough, yet again separating him from the rest of the Saints. And, of course, he doesn’t have a halo.

All the faces also appear as if they are of real people. Many Last Supper images are idealised yet in this painting you could very likely meet these people in a present day Albanian bar or cafe, a realism that is rare, Caravaggio being the model for this type of representation. And notice the noses, they are long and straight, just like Albanians today, especially in the north of the country – that becomes relevant a bit later

Tirana Catholic Church - Mary at the Crucifixion

Tirana Catholic Church – Mary at the Crucifixion

To the left of this painting there’s an image of the Crucifixion. This is very strange. Crouching at the base of the cross is Mary Magdalene. She is very often depicted with long flowing hair (often a redhead) and is also dressed in red. This encompasses the legend that she was a prostitute and the colour encourages thoughts of the ‘scarlet woman’ and it is also argued that this shows her love for Christ. But I’ve never seen a Mary wearing such a diaphanous cloak that she appears almost naked. Yes for nymphs of the forest – but not normally in a church. After all she’s supposed to be a ‘reformed’ prostitute.

Tirana Catholic Church - Mary Magdalene - detail

Tirana Catholic Church – Mary Magdalene – detail

On the other side of the altar is a painting of The Annunciation, when the Archangel Gabriel appeared before Mary to tell her she was to bare the son of God. This again follows the normal, traditional format, but not completely. Mary has been reading a book (how such a poor woman would have got the resources to possess such a valuable commodity 2,000 years ago and one produced on a printing press that wasn’t invented for another 1,450 or so years is never explained); Gabriel carries a lily – this represents both Mary’s virginity as well as the idea that this all happened in the Spring – yet I’m not sure if the lily is a native plant of Palestine; and flying above is the Holy Spirit, represented by a dove, this one with a surprisingly bright red beak and feet.

Tirana Catholic Church - The Annunciation

Tirana Catholic Church – The Annunciation

But this painting is different from the norm in one particular way – the Archangel Gabriel here is obviously a very young woman, almost a contemporary of Mary. Often Gabriel can appear androgynous, especially in Renaissance paintings, but here her long flowing hair and facial features are unmistakeably female. For me that’s definitely a first.

And as in The Last Supper these are real people, you could imagine passing such women in the street, there’s no separateness, nothing special about them that identifies them as different from mere mortals. Mary definitely looks surprised, as anyone would be if they were told they were to be having a child without having known any sexual relationship, let alone it being the son of God.

Again look at the noses. These are typical Albanian noses. Whereas, especially in the north, many Albanians have a classic Roman nose, long and straight, also reasonably common is the small, turned up nose that you see in this mural.

For a religious painting I find it quite charming.

‘The Albanians’ Mosaic, National Historical Museum, Tirana

'The Albanians' - Mosaic on the National History Museum, Tirana

‘The Albanians’ – Mosaic on the National History Museum, Tirana

‘The Albanians’ mosaic on National Historical Museum, Tirana, is one of the finest examples of late Albanian Socialist Realism still to be seen in the country.

For most visitors to Albania the example of Socialist Realist art they would have seen is the mosaic, called ‘The Albanians’, situated above the main entrance of the National Historical Museum in Skënderbeg Square, Tirana.

The work is the result of a collective of five Albanian artists – Vilson Kilica, Anastas Kostandini, Agim Nebiu, Justin Droboniku and Aleksander Filipi – and was completed in 1980 for the opening of the museum.

This is huge, covering 400 m², and dominates one end of the main square in Tirana. Fittingly, as it decorates a historical museum, it tells the story of how Albanians have fought against invasion and occupation throughout the centuries. Being one of the smallest states in the Balkan region (until the former Yugoslavia was broken up into smaller and even smaller western friendly ‘nations’) Albania was considered fair game by whatever was the dominant imperialist power around at the time.

Before talking about the mosaic in some detail a quiz question. Take a look at the picture at the top of this post and see if you can work out what is particular to the three women depicted, in a form that you are unlikely to see in any capitalist country?

On the left as you look at it is concentrated almost 2000 years of defiance towards the invaders, going back to the Roman Empire, which later changed to Byzantine control, that being usurped by the Bulgars, from what is now modern-day Bulgaria, in the 7th century. The major, and longest, running battle was against the efforts of the Turkish Ottoman Empire to control the small mountainous country, this being the period when Skënderbeg became the national hero. All these invading cultures have left their mark on the culture, architecture and language of the Albanians. Also among this group is the representation of Albania’s Declaration of Independence in 1912 – the man in a suit with a piece of paper on his hand is Ismail Qemali.

On the right is depicted a very specific and the most recent and most successful National Liberation struggle, the one against, first Italian and later German, Fascism between 1939 and 1944. The red star on the caps of three of the four individuals indicate they are Communist Partisans, where armed men and women fought side by side.

The trio in the centre represent, what was then the present in 1980s Albania, workers in control of their country, the red flag flying, the guns in the hands of the workers and united they are marching forward to a Communist future. That march has been halted, temporarily, but there is still an element of hope depicted in the determined way the trio are walking towards the viewer.

However, what you see is not the original. Sometime after 1990 (I’ve yet to discover exactly when ) the mosaic was ‘depoliticised’, at least partially. There were probably those who wanted to see the total destruction of the mosaic (as has happened in other places, such as the wall of the National Library just across the square from the Historical Museum and the monument to the ‘Four Heroines of Mirdita’) but the compromise was, nonetheless, cultural vandalism.

And the ‘artist’ responsible for this crime was one of the five who created it in the first place. The criminal’s name is Agim Nebiu. He didn’t do so for any political reason, he did it for money. Like so many artists he was/is cheap. One of the problems with ‘intellectuals’ and ‘artists’ under Socialism is that they are so ‘special’ (or they think themselves as such) that they throw a hissy fit if they are expected to create something which might not fit into their ‘artistic’ sensibilities.

If from a working class or peasant background they would never have had the chance to learn their trade if it were not for the Socialist Revolution but once having gained those skills they turn their backs on the people who provided them with previously unheard of opportunities. They adopt the attitude of many ‘artists’ under the capitalist social system, that they should be ‘free’ to ‘express their creativity’. That they hold no debt to those workers who have enabled them to have the luxury of a higher education. When someone throws thirty pieces of silver on the table they grab them with both hands. They declare that now they are ‘true artists’, not following the diktats of the state. They are no such thing. At least prostitutes are honest.

Stars are crucial to Albanian Socialist Realist Art. They determine the meaning of the story. There is no shadow of a doubt that the Fascists would not have been thrown out of Albania, by the Albanian people themselves, if it were not for the political direction given to the struggle by the Marxist-Leninists, those members of the then Albanian Communist Party (later to be renamed as the Party of Labour of Albania).

The self-proclaimed ‘king’ Zog fled when the Italians landed in Durres in April 1939 and lived in luxury in Britain. The nationalists of Balli Kombëtar sat down with the Nazis and were bombarded by the Communist Partisans from the hills of Sauk. True partisans, like young Liri Gero – a true daughter of her country and living up to the meaning of her name (Freedom) and who was tortured to death by the odious Nazis – followed the Communist banner. On that banner was the golden star of Communism.

That star was anathema to the counter-revolutionaries who gained power after 1990 and throughout the country that symbol, so hated by capitalism and its lackeys, has been the target of official and unofficial vandalism.

The mosaic is an example of the official.

Below is a detail of the original mosaic, as it was planned and executed by the group of five artists in 1980.

National Museum Mosaic - original

National Museum Mosaic – original

Notice that there is a large golden star above the head of the woman in the centre of the picture. If you now look at the close up of that middle section below can you spot an anomaly?

Mosaic on National Historical Museum - detail

Mosaic on National Historical Museum – detail

Doesn’t the flag look a strange shape? Flags are normally rectangular but this one looks like it’s a piece of cloth cut totally at random. That’s because the corner of the flag between the woman’s head and her upraised rifle is where the star used to finish. What has happened is that the gold star pieces of ceramic have been removed, replaced by reddish pieces and then a bump of red inserted between the original folds of the flag and the corner. If the flag followed its original shape the corner would have been behind the woman’s head.

The pieces of ceramic are also a slightly different colour and they have a different orientation to the originals. It must have been difficult to get exactly the same pieces at least 20 years after the original was installed – not least because all the factories that would have made the original tiles have been closed down and now lay derelict.

You’ll notice the same disparity if you look above the twin eagle heads on the flag. During the Communist era there was a small gold star here and that also has been obliterated, but a close examination of the area shows that something is amiss.

A third change is to the depiction of the male character on the right of the central female.

Originally he carried a red book in his right hand, holding it against his chest. In the vandalised version he carries something that looks like a sack. This is plainly ludicrous. In all forms of art, especially Socialist Realist art, everything has a meaning. Carrying a book means education (denied the majority of the population before 1944 and something that was a principal aim and achievement of the Socialist society – although there has been much privatisation of education in Albania in the last 25 years the popularity of the annual book fair in Tirana in November shows the love that still exists for books within the country). Carrying an empty sack means … what? The same as in the empty sack … nothing!

To have just removed the book would have meant that the character would look strange. Why have an empty hand across his chest. In the context of the three of them marching it would be more realistic if his right arm was hanging down by his side as people do when marching when not carrying anything.

To have changed his stance would have been a major task indeed so Nebui took the easy way out and substituted the book with the sack.

If it is easy enough to understand why the stars were removed it begs some interesting questions when we talk about a book.

This is tantamount to book burning – which did take place outside what is now the Adrion book shop just across the square during the counter-revolution of the early 1990s. To me it’s also symbolic of the attack on education for all, at the state’s expense, a principal of all Socialist states in the past but something which has also been privatised in all post-Socialist states. Education is now a privilege and not a right.

When I first went to Tirana in November 2011 the whole of the front of the building was covered with scaffolding, which was finally removed in time for the Independence Day celebrations on the 28th. I don’t know what sort of work was carried out on the mosaic but what surprises me is that the red stars on the caps of the Communists have survived.

Now the answer to quiz posed at the beginning. ALL the women are carrying arms! OK, there’s only three of them but that’s still a hundred per cent. And this is quite common in the depiction of women in Albanian lapidars, such as in Fier, Lushnjë, Saranda, Librazdh, Pishkash, the,sadly destroyed monument to the Four Heroines of Mirdita, the first Party Cell in Proger, Liri Gero and the 68 Girls of Fier, the Drashovice Arch and many others yet to be written and posted.

But apart from the ‘official’ re-writing of history we have neglect. Just from the street it is possible to see that the mosaic is starting to crumble. Bits are falling off and there’s obviously no concern to repair a unique piece of art, even from the Social Democrat government at present in place. That shouldn’t be a surprise. Tony Blair, the traitorous warmonger who was able to woo the British population to his mock Tory politic, now ‘advises’ his protégé, Edi Rama, himself the son of an Socialist sculptor and a trained artist, but basically a philistine more intent on self-enrichment than the preservation of his country’s culture.

Close up photos show just how bad the degeneration has become.

At the same time I don’t have a problem with this. I think this mosaic is one of the finest pieces of Socialist Realist Art in Albania but the present population doesn’t deserve it. I see no reason why works of art that celebrate the working class and its struggle for Socialism should exist in a country where the vast majority of its young people want to leave in order to live in a capitalist ‘heaven’, many of its young women populate the brothels of Europe and their principal export is vicious, murderous gangsters. (There’s study to be made why post-Socialist societies produce such scumbags.)

Wonderful as such art is, and making a statement that has yet to be fully developed, celebrating the working class in a manner that has never been made before, a working class that doesn’t struggle for a better future doesn’t deserve such art.

Let them live with the banality of the celebrity culture, reality TV, cake making competitions, Coca Cola and McDonald’s. Until they attempt to change the world for the betterment of themselves and those that follow that’s all they are worth.

The slideshow below shows some of the detail of the mosaic and also, sadly, signs of neglect and cracks in the design itself. If something isn’t done soon we will find pieces of ceramic falling on the heads of those entering the museum.

Saranda War Memorial, Albania

Saranda War Memorial

Saranda War Memorial

Through its monuments and memorials you can tell a lot about a country, its history, its heroes, its respect for itself, the class relationships, the political balance of power, even the state of the economy.

And there are many examples to prove this hypothesis.

I remember reading a letter written by Vladimir Illyich Lenin asking, in no uncertain terms, why Tsarist memorials and street names still existed in Petrograd (as Leningrad was then known, and not the Germanic St Petersburg as it is now called) less than a year after the October revolution – see Lenin Collected Works, Vol. 44, p105.

I have also seen pictures of the statue of Carlos III being transported to storage on a horse and cart. Carlos Bourbon stood in the Plaza del Sol in the centre of Madrid but was taken down during the time of the short-lived Republic in the 1930s. He was reinstated by the Fascist Franco and still stands there to this day in the time of the so-called ‘democratic monarchy’.

The Plaze del Sol is the traditional meeting place for working class and left-wing Madrileños and the square has witnessed many demonstrations and sits-ins as the people protest the ever worsening economic situation in which an increasing proportion of the Spanish population are having to live. But this is not a problem for the present Bourbon family and Carlos sits on his horse looking down his not insubstantial nose at the hoi polio below with contempt. The situation of the Spanish people will not improve until he is again taken away in another horse-drawn cart, in pieces, to be melted down and the present day Bourbons are taken in a similar cart for an appointment with Madam Guillotine.

One of the images that went around the world after the United States led invasion of Iraq was the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in the centre of Baghdad. The Stars and Stripes flag that was originally covering Saddam’s face was quickly replaced by an Iraqi one (it wouldn’t do to give the impression that he was toppled by a foreign invasion force and not a ‘popular’ revolt) and the edited version is the only one that gets shown now. Imperialism has always re-written history.

In Britain the long-term sycophancy and obsequiousness of the British population is shown by the plethora of statues to different members of the monarchy and representatives of the ruling class that have oppressed and exploited the population over the centuries. To themselves and their struggles the working class have little to look to.

One of the finest is the monument to the ‘Heroes of the Engine Room’. This is on the Liverpool waterfront, just a few metres north of the Liver Building at the Pierhead. This was originally designed to commemorate the men who kept the lights working on the Titanic as it was sinking, having been sealed in to the engine room and with no possible chance of escape. It is still known locally as the ‘Titanic’ Monument, the name being changed to recognise that just over two years after the sinking of the Titanic hundreds of men died in the slaughter of the ‘Great War’ in similar circumstances. Britain is littered with statues and monuments to the incompetent and criminal generals who ‘master-minded’ that particular capitalist and imperialist enterprise but you’ll have to look far and wide to find any others to the ordinary workers turned warriors.

Monument to the Heroes of the Engine Room Liverpool

Monument to the Heroes of the Engine Room Liverpool

And following that conflict, again in Liverpool, there wasn’t enough money to pay for a permanent memorial to those who had died in the ‘war to end all wars’. They didn’t return to Britain to ‘homes fit for heroes’ and neither to a memorial to their dead comrades. Throughout the 1920s on Armistice Day (11th November) a rickety wooden construction was wheeled out on to St George’s Plateau in Lime Street, decked in red paper poppies for the short memorial ceremony. When there was a bit of money, collected in the main from ordinary working people, the city was provided with (to my mind) one of the finest – if not the finest – war memorial/cenotaph to found anywhere in Britain.

Liverpool Cenotaph Mourning Panel

Liverpool Cenotaph Mourning Panel

And that brings me to Albania.

During my visits to the country I have attempted to search out the monuments and memorials that were constructed in the period of socialism. Most have been neglected, many have been vandalised, some have been destroyed but many are still in existence and in their different ways tell the story of not only the past but the present in Albania. I will be illustrating and telling the story of those monuments in the future.

So the first one is the small, well maintained but almost hidden and not easy to find (if you don’t know where it is) war memorial in Saranda.

There were certainly memorials in the centre of the town but if they still exist I’ve yet to find them. The language problem (i.e., my inability to speak Albanian) means there are few people to ask and some that might know don’t necessarily pass on their knowledge. The construction that seeks to turn the place into a major tourist destination might have played a role, outright vandalism and reactionary elements would also have played their part.

When it comes to the war memorials I have difficulty in understanding why so many in Albania have been treated in the way they have. I believe the First World War to have been a disaster for the European working class but that doesn’t mean I advocate destruction of the war memorials that are in all but very few cities, towns and villages throughout the British Isles. I’d rather they had died fighting for themselves (as did the workers and peasants in what became known as the Soviet Union) but the lack of any anti-war, Communist leadership and the betrayal by the young Labour Party didn’t make any real and meaningful opposition to the war a viable proposition at the time.

So why have the Albanians allowed their history to be treated in such a shameful manner? More than 30,000 of their people died in the occupations by the Italian and German Fascists. The country’s economy was in pieces, thousands of homes had been destroyed and the isolation imposed upon the country by the victorious imperialist powers because they wanted their own independence meant that they had to build using mostly their own efforts – only the severely damaged Soviet Union coming to their aid.

I might find the answer on day, but I don’t have it yet.

But back to the Saranda memorial.

There are only two main routes out of Saranda (apart from the sea route to Corfu), the road to Butrint (the archaeological site dating back to the Greeks) and the Greek border or the road that leads to the rest of the country. It is by the side of this latter road you’ll find the memorial. The road rises steeply after leaving the coast heading up in the general direction of Lëkursi Castle. Once you get to the brow of the hill, with a view of the valley below and the mountains that you have to go over on the route to Gjirokastra to the north, the memorial is slightly above street level on the right, next to an ordinary house.

It’s a strange place for it to be and I’ve no idea if that is its original location or whether it’s been moved there in the last few years. The pillar looks as if it has been made of relatively modern materials, although the plaque with the names and the red star would be the originals.

This is the sort of modest war memorial can be seen all over the country, although some are difficult to find.

The inscription reads: Glory to the martyrs who fell in the liberation of Saranda on 9th October 1944.

‘Lavdi Deshmoreve’ (Glory to the martyrs) was the slogan that was ubiquitous during the time of Socialism, even being set in huge characters on top of the Palace of Culture (now the Opera House) in Skenderbeg Square in Tirana.