(I was just about to publish this post about the lapidar in Durrës to Mujo Ulqinaku when I was informed by Vincent, of the Albanian Lapidar Survey, that it has been removed from its original site due to some sort of commercial development. The plans for the statue in the future are unknown. If I get more information I’ll update the post. Until then I consider the following to be a contribution to the maintenance of Albania’s proud revolutionary history and to remind visitors to Durrës – Albanians and foreigners alike – of what used to stand close to the waterfront.)
The first shots in Albania’s National Liberation War (although it wasn’t called that at the time) were fired on 7th April 1939 when the Italian Fascist forces invaded the port city of Durrës (as well as other locations along the coast). For years the country, ruled by the self-proclaimed ‘King’ Zog I (even before he was dead he was planning a dynasty!) had been a puppet state of the Italian Fascists and when the invasion did take place no official structure was in existence to defy the invaders. It was therefore left to brave individuals, such as Mujo Ulqinaku, to take up the banner of resistance. His sacrifice is commemorated by a monument close to the coast where the invasion took place.
Italian Fascist Invasion 1939
(The white building on the hill was the palace that Zogu left in a hurry on being informed of the imminent Italian Fascist invasion.)
The statue has the figure of Mujo (although it doesn’t look much like him from the available photos) standing with three-quarters of his body outside of some fortified structure. He’s not wearing a uniform – which might be a bit strange as he was a member of the Royal Border Guard, a branch of the Royal Albanian Army – but is in civilian dress.
However, there’s a political statement here. If Mujo was in his officer’s uniform it would give the impression, to the casual observer years after the event, that there was some sort of organised resistance to the Italian invasion. In fact, the head of that very ‘Royal’ Albanian Army was running as fast as his little feet (or more accurately, someone else’s little feet) could carry him to safety. As soon as he was aware of the invasion instead of standing at the head of his army and preparing to meet his death he decided on the cowards option and was spirited out of the country, eventually ending up in Britain, and having a very nice war indeed, thank you very much, in a large country house a long way even from the bombs raining down on London let alone the destruction being inflicted on ‘his’ country.
The statue represents an idealised representation of the action that Mujo took on that Friday. Armed only with a machine gun he fought until he was killed. He never left his post. It was reported that he had killed and wounded dozens of Italian soldiers with his machine gun.
Mujo Ulqinaku Statue
Mujo’s loose jacket is thrown out behind him in his animation. He has his right arm fully extended, pointing in the direction of the sea and the invading forces. He is looking back to others of his countrymen (but not at that time countrywomen, they would only be involved when the Communist led National Liberation Front was established after the Conference of Peze) to see why they are not with him, to see why they are holding back when their country is under such a dire threat. Some did join him at that time, but not that many. It took, again, Communist organisation to rally Albanians in their thousands to fight the invader in an organised manner in order to defeat them.
In his left hand, the arm fully extended due to the weight, he holds a heavy machine gun. By all reports that was all he had to face the invader. He just dug in and kept firing until a shell from one of the Italian warships eventually destroyed him and his position.
Mujo Ulqinaku with machine gun
This stance is repeated many times on the lapidars throughout the country. This idea of rallying the masses to the cause, to bring as many people to the battle front as is possible, holding back is no choice as it will lead to oppression and exploitation – a call that is as valid in the construction of Socialism as it is in the opposition to a foreign invading force. This image can be seen in such lapidars as diverse as the magnificent Arch of Drashovice and the sadly neglected lapidar at Sqepur, amongst others.
Mujo Ulqinaku died on the 7th April 1939 but so did many others. At one time this sacrifice by equally brave Albanians was recognised on the column upon which the bronze sculpture stands. However, for reasons I am not aware, when the monument was given a new look it was decided that these other Albanian heroes would have to go.
Mujo Ulqinaku statue with original text
Originally the wording on the column was as follows:
Lavdi deshmorëve të atdheut q[ë ra]në më 7 prill 1939
Glory to the martyrs of the fatherland who fell on 7 April 1939
This was then followed by what exists now, i.e., the name of Mujo Ulqinaku and People’s Hero, and then the list of seven other fighters who lost their lives in the battle against the Italian invasion. Those who gave their lives between 1939 and 1944 from Durrës (or the region) are also commemorated in the Durrës Martyrs Cemetery.
Up to the end of 2011 it was still possible to see the marks of where the names of the other martyrs were attached to the column. However, by 2014 there had been some ‘restoration’ work and unless you know what you’re looking for it’s not possible to tell that there has been an alteration.
Presumably at the same time a plaque with the same information was fixed to the wall of the Venetian Tower, across the road to the south of the monument. This ancient monument is now a private cafe. Sometimes the manner in which the Albanians have allowed their cultural heritage to be taken over by private, commercial interests surprises even me – when I thought I was almost immune to the stupidity of people world-wide when it comes to the theft of public assets.
The new plaque on the wall has:
Të rënët e 7 prillit (The fallen of April 7th)
Mujo Ulqinaku, Heroi i Popullit (People’s Hero)
(At present I don’t know if this plaque is still in this location. Without the near-by statue the information it contains is slightly confusing.)
But by not replacing the names in their original location the ‘new’ local government is, itself, making a statement about how to commemorate the resistance of the Durrës workers against the Italian Fascist invasion. They turn collective resistance into a personal martyrdom, an individual act. They turn Mujo from a representation of resistance into a lone fighter against foreign intervention, they take away the politics of anti-Fascism. And now he has been taken away as well.
Mujo Ulqinaku alongside Venetian Tower
In an artistic sense, when looking at other lapidars in Durrës, we can see that the monument (within sight of, and no more than 50 metres away from, Mujo) is a much larger monument to the Partisan, a monument that looks more and more neglected as the years go by. The monument to the collective is sacrificed to that to the individual.
The fact that the monument has been moved from its previous home to ‘an unknown location’ is a worrying development.
On top of years of neglect and both political and mindless vandalism we now have the removal of monuments due to commercial interests whose aesthetic in contemporary Albania is non-existent. Witness the neo-Classical monstrosity which is the private Albanian College, Durrës, which sits on the site of the long abandoned and derelict Durrës Tobacco factory – the location of a brave strike against Fascism, in 1940, when the Albanian people were still prepared to fight for their dignity – which was a hundred metres or so from the lapidar’s location for many years.
The monument used to be was located at the junction of Rruga Taulantia (which runs parallel to the coast) and Rruga Anastas Durrsaku. This is only a few metres from the seashore and very close to where the conflict in April 1939 would have taken place. Therefore an obvious location for the statue.
To place it in any other location wouldn’t make sense but to confine it to some sort of storage would be to refuse to accept the lessons of history. Someone really fighting (and dying) for the independence of his country is denigrated whilst the politicians, every year at the end of November, head down to Vlora to ‘celebrate’ the so-called ‘Independence’ of 1912. Real independence in Albania is in inverse proportion to the statements made about it.
Celebrating solidarity and the willingness towards self-sacrifice in the common cause the statue of the Five Heroes of Vig once stood in one of the central squares of Skhodër, in northern Albania. After a period ‘out in the wilderness’ – close to the city rubbish dump and subject to crass, petty thievery it has now found a new permanent home in the centre of a roundabout to the north of the city.
The statue commemorates events that took place in the small village of Vig in 1944, just before the victory of the Partisans over the Germany Fascists, their hangers-on, collaborators and lackeys.
On August 21, 1944, at Vig in the Mirdita highlands, 5 long time partisans went to talk to the peasants who were under the thumb of the feudal chief, Gjon Markagjoni, ‘a tool of the fascist occupiers’.
5 heroes of vig
From left to right: Ndoc Dedo (Teli), Ndoc Mazi (Minuku), Naim Gjylbegu (Besniku), Hidajet Lezha (Hida), Ahmet Haxhia (Tigri).
Informers let the fascists know of their whereabouts and 200 Nazi troops were sent to capture or kill the five. The fight went on for 6 hours, the Communists fighting to the last bullet, and all of them being killed.
5 Heroes of Vig – Pandi Mele
The incident was depicted in an Albanian film of 1982 called Besa e Kuqe (Red Faith), directed by Pirro Milkani.
Ahmet Haxhia 1926-1944
Nom de guerre Tigri (Tiger). From a lower middle class family from Skhodër. Joined the Albanian Communist Party at the beginning of 1943 and worked in the town as part of the organising resistance amongst young people. In December of that year joined the Partisan unit based in the Miradita region. The youngest of the five.
Hydajet Lezha 1920-1944
Nom de guerre Hida. Born in the town of Lezha. Joined the Albanian Communist Party in early 1943 and, as an orphan, it was here where he found his true family.
Naim Gjylbegu 1920-1944
Nom de guerre Besniku (Faithful). Was involved in the Skhodër Communist Group, the forerunner of the Albanian Communist Party, when still in his teens. In October 1942 became a member of the regional Committee of Communist Youth. Soon after arrested and tortured for his activities but once released became commander of the local CETA – guerrilla organisation.
Ndoc Deda 1918-1944
Nom de guerre Teli (Wire). Born in a village in the Milot region into a peasant family. Organised revolutionary activity in the ranks of the old army later leaving to join the Partisans in the middle of 1943 and in October of that year joined the Albanian Communist Party.
Ndoc Mazi 1920-1944
Nom de guerre Minuku. Was born into a poor working class family in Skhodër. Was a member of the Skhodër Communist Group before it morphed into the Albanian Communist Party, Suffered from tuberculosis but still worked underground in, first, Durrës and later in Skhodër before joining the Partisan army in the Mirdita region.
The statue, whose name in Albanian is ‘Monumenti i Heronjve të Vigut’, is the work of Shaban Hadëri (28th March 1928 – 14th January 2010) who created the statue of Isa Boletini – also in Shkodër – and collaborated on two of the most important existing monumental statues in Albania – Mother Albania, in the National Martyrs’ Cemetery in Tirana, and the Independence Memorial in the city of Vlorë.
Hadëri joined the Partisan resistance to the Fascist invasion at the age of sixteen in 1944 and was able to follow his artistic education following the success of that war of liberation and the opportunities the Communists provided in terms of education.
This statue has gone through good times and bad. It originally started out as a concrete statue, of a little more than life-size, and was installed in the square beside the Rozafa Hotel in the centre of Shkodër in 1969.
5 Heroes of Vig in concrete
This original was replaced by a much larger, 5 metres high, statue of bronze. This new statue was similar, with the same idea as the original, but with a few differences. This was mainly in the form of dress and the way they carried their armaments. It remained there until 31st January 2009. On that date it was transported to a site beside the Martyrs’ Cemetery on the banks of the River Kir.
5 Heroes of Vig – Shkoder
When this cemetery was established the location would have been enviable – outside of the city, close to a river and with the mountains of the Dukagjin highlands behind it. However, since the arrival of ‘democracy’ in the 1990s many things have changed. The river, which only has significant water just after the snow melts in the spring, is now a tragic site.
The town’s rubbish dump has been created beside the river, very close to the Martyrs’ Cemetery. One of the results of the greater availability of consumer goods has been a massive explosion in the number of plastic bags. Once they are just dumped in the open air (there’s no attempt at a landfill in Shkodër) all it takes is a light breeze and the bags are everywhere. OK if you like your river beds multicoloured but generally disastrous for the environment.
Rubbish in Kir River
Another legacy of the re-introduction of capitalism is the job of sifting through rubbish dumps, a trade that now spans the globe where, on some of the huge dumps, people both live and work on the detritus of others. At the Shkodër dump there are small groups bagging up whatever there might be of value and now they are really the only ones who visit the area in any frequency.
I’m assuming it must have been someone amongst this group that decided, at the end of 2012, that there was monetary value in the bronze statue of the 5 heroes and have been helping themselves to bits of it. There were certain amongst the politicians of Shkodër city council who, I’m sure, were glad of this news, that being part of their plan in the first place. In the centre of town any vandalism would be obvious but outside in a totally unpopulated area anything could, and did, happen.
This is what you would expect from a council that has changed the name of the road to the railway station to ‘Hungarian Anti-Communist Revolution Road’ as well as pandering to the US with celebrating nationals of that country who have had nothing to do with Albania apart from trying to make it a vassal to a greater imperialist power either in the distant or recent past. It’s in such a fundamentalist Catholic environment that Mother Teresa appears everywhere and the anti-Communist paintings have been commissioned in the Franciscan Church.
The present day ‘so-called’ Socialist Party made noises about the destruction of national heritage and that this showed a total lack of respect for those who had fought for the country’s liberation from Fascism. Despite their silence in the past – when such desecration has occurred and their almost non-existent opposition to the return of Ahmed Zogu’s remains to Tirana in November 2012 – their efforts have resulted in the re-siting of the (cleaned up if not renovated statue) on the northern perimeter of the city.
In its simple composition the statue epitomises the ideas of Socialist Realist sculpture. They form a tight circle so they are supporting, defending and depend upon each other and the direction in which they are looking gives the impression that they are covering the whole 360 degrees. It’s a defensive, rather than an attacking stance and in that way represents the way they dies – surrounded by an overwhelmingly superior force. But at the same time they wouldn’t have just been waiting for the enemy and the (imagined) depictions above try to give a more realistic representation of their ‘last stand’. What we have here is a symbolic representation of unity, solidarity and comradeship.
They are dressed in various clothing styles with one of them appearing to be dressed in a Partisan uniform but whether that would have been the case is unlikely due to the very nature of their mission – the elimination of a locally known tyrant and collaborator.
There’s a look of determination on all their faces together with a tranquillity as if they understand the circumstances and the inevitable acceptance of their lot, their fate. In the sort of war they were fighting any Partisan had to realise that once they had taken up arms they had to accept that all might not go well. This was total war and the Nazis would give no quarter – but then neither would the Partisans. Anyone who didn’t accept this should stay at home, let others do the fighting. Victory necessitated sacrifices – aim should be to make those as small as possible.
It’s very difficult with any degree of certainty to say exactly which of the five figures represents the real person and as they are in a circle there’s no real starting point so I’ll start with the figure that most clearly seems to be in uniform.
The uniform is typical of that seen on other lapidars throughout the country. He’s wearing a heavy jacket under which is a thick woollen jumper. He has a wide belt tied, not buckled, around his waist and into this is tucked a pistol. This pistol has a huge grip (similar to that carried by Bajram Curri in the statue to him in the town that bears his name). The pistol is attached to a twisted leather lanyard which goes around his neck, under the collar of the jacket. On his head he wears the typical Partisan cap, with the red star at the front. He is wearing sandals – with thick woollen socks – the strap and buckle on the left foot visible and cords crisscross the trousers of both legs, on the shins.
He is holding what looks like a Beretta Model 38 sub-machine gun with the forefinger of his right hand on trigger and his left hand supporting barrel in front of magazine, the bottom end of the magazine resting against his left knee.. Here is one of the examples of mindless vandalism which this monument has had to suffer and the end of barrel has been sawn off – this must have provided the thief with enough to buy a raki, not much else.
He stands with his legs slightly apart, standing steady, giving an impression of solidity, determination, of not going to move. He is looking slightly to his left.
5 Heroes of Vig – Solidarity
One interesting, human touch is that the left hand of the fifth in the group is placed protectively, supportively, on his right shoulder. This again emphasises the idea that these are Comrades united in a common cause – whatever might be the consequences.
5 Heroes of Vig – Haderi 1984
Carved into the rock against which he is standing, close to his feet be can see the name of the sculptor, Shaban Halil Hadëri, and the date 1984. As I have stated elsewhere, for example the Martyrs Cemetery in Lushnjë, it wasn’t until the mid-1980s that the name of the artist started to appear on Albanian lapidars, demonstrating a softening of the approach towards the idea of individuality in art. As I’ve stated above this particular statue (apart from moving around a lot more than most) existed in an earlier, plaster version which was created in 1969. Although it’s impossible for me to say given that that version was almost certainly destroyed when the new one was installed, I would very much doubt whether Hadëri’s name appeared on the original.
Hadëri also was responsible for the monument to 1920 in Qafe e Kociut (close to Vlora) and also worked with Mumtaz Dhrami and Kristaq Rama on the Vlora Independence Monument.
I must stress, again, that here I’m in no way denigrating the art, skill and imagination of the artist. But, in the end, he was only one of a number of skilled individuals who produced this fine example of Socialist Realism – where are the names of the others?
5 Heroes of Vig – Peasant Partisan
The next in the circle is not in uniform but is wearing the comfortable, winter clothing of a peasant. On his head he has a qeleshe (the felt skull-cap) on his head with a long headscarf wrapped around his forehead with the scarf trailing behind him. He wears a tight-fitting shirt and an open xhamadan (the traditional tight, short waistcoat) which has decorated trimming on the edges. He wears the traditional tight-fitting peasant trousers (tirc) which have the V shape at the front at the bottom, as they go either side the opinga (shoes) but these are without the sheepskin pompom. There are signs of decoration on the opinga. It looks as if there is a great coat hanging from his left shoulder, almost falling to the ground – the bottom edge of the coat can be seen hanging down behind his legs.
Around his waist is an ammunition belt with 4 pouches visible and 5 bullets in each. In holds a bolt-action rifle, his right arm fully extended and gripping the weapon at the trigger mechanism, his forefinger pushed through the trigger guard. His left arm is bent at right angles with his hand holding the gun at the point where the barrel departs from the rest of the mechanism – so the rifle is across his body from bottom right to left by his elbow. This weapon is not in a firing position but we know he is prepared to do so at any moment. Another small detail is the broken ring to which a strap would be attached which can be seen on the butt of the rifle. The end of barrel has also been stolen by the short-sighted, ignorant, rubbish rats.
His head is turned almost fully to the left and sports a moustache – almost always the differentiation that demonstrates a background of the country rather than the town (as is the sort of clothing depicted).
The third is basically in civilian dress, in the clothes of the urban working class. There’s a woollen jumper (with vertical stitching) under his jacket and he wears normal, contemporary trousers. On his feet are closed toe sandals – the straps and buckles of both feet visible. Around his neck is a large scarf, tied with large knot – this is not for warmth as this is the red scarf of a Communist. He is bare-headed.
A narrow, leather strap comes over his left shoulder, across his chest, to an unseen bag/pouch on his right hip. There’s an empty holster on a waist belt, seen under the left hand edge of open jacket, rucking up his jumper. In his right hand he holds an automatic pistol – possibly a luger taken from the enemy (this has also been vandalised and the end, just a few centimetres are missing). This gun, yet again, is not in a firing position but gives the impression that he ready to do so. There’s a sense of dynamism, movement, in his stillness. His arm is away from his body, the wrist bent in towards his leg and the gun pointing down it but could come up at any time – a coiled spring?
His stance the same as the others, feet slightly apart and steady and he is looking partially to his left.
This statue is all about solidarity and comradeship and the connection between the third and fourth of the five heroes is something I’ve never seen before, not even in Albania where the lapidars celebrate unity in struggle and certainly never in any other country. Here we see the left hand of the Partisan being gripped by the right of his comrade.
5 Heroes of Vig – Solidarity, Comradeship and Unity
Their arms are touching from the elbow to the wrist and the hand of the fourth partisan is over that of his comrade hand, with his fingers in the palm and the thumb pressed against the fingers. This grip is returned in the same manner. There’s an impression that this has just happened, it has a vitality and feeling of immediacy. It seems to encompass the fate of the group as a whole. They know their fate, they are heavily outnumbered and the chances of survival are minimal – capture certainly would have led to an end in a Nazi torture chamber. They were not separated in life and wouldn’t be in death.
This is a slightly more intimate, but telling the same story, as the hand on the shoulder of the first Partisan described above.
It’s these little depictions of intimacy and the unexpected introduction of something that is so far from fighting and warfare that makes Albanian lapidars so unique in 20th century Socialist Realist sculpture and art in general. Another example of the unusual and unexpected is the small bunch of flowers in the left hand of the statue of Liri Gero, behind the National Art Gallery in Tirana.
The fourth hero is another who is more in civilian rather than military dress. He is wearing the clothes of the urban working class of the epoch. He has a tight-fitting shirt and his trousers have a turn ups which rest on top of sturdy boots. There’s a long, heavy overcoat but only his left arm is in the sleeve and the coat just hangs across his back. With his right hand grasping that of his comrade this stresses the closeness between them. He is also bare-headed and his stance is the same as the others, steady, rock solid, not going to give in. He looks to his right but not directly at his comrade as he is covering an area around them not necessarily covered by any of the others. An idea of continual vigilance, knowing what’s happening and what might happen next.
Around his neck, and under the collar of his shirt, is a lanyard and unites to become twisted just on his chest, beside a shirt button – many of the lapidars have these tiny details. This is attached to a ring on the butt of a pistol, in a holster, which is attached to his belt and rests on his left hip – most of the gun being obscured by the overcoat.
5 Heroes of Vig – pistol in holster
In his left hand he holds a Beretta Model 38 sub-machine gun, just behind the magazine. This is pointing up from right to left, with the barrel pointing into the air. This is not a firing position and he’s not ready, as some of the others are, to get into a firing position within seconds. He’s a fighter but in this image he is representing more the idea of comradeship and solidarity – which rests very much on the willingness and ability to use arms – rather than depicting the role of a Partisan. Although the end of the machine gun barrel is away from the main body of the sculpture this is still in place, not having suffered the attention of the petty thieves.
The stance of the fifth in the group is different from all the others. He stands side on so we only see the right hand side of his body. He has the look and wears the clothing of a peasant rather than someone from the city. He has short-cropped, curly hair (uncovered) and sports a moustache – often, though not always, an indication of a peasant background. Although his body is in profile he looks straight out at the viewer.
He seems to be dressed in similar clothing to the other peasant of the group already described, with a xhamadan over, this time a loose, short-sleeved shirt, the tirc but with sandals on his feet. Around his waist we can see a couple of ammunition pouches attached to his belt, a full one holding six cartridges and a partial one with two cartridges showing. In his right hand he holds a very long, bolt-action rifle which extends to just above his feet to the height of the shoulder of his comrade on the left. The machine gun of his comrade on his right is almost touching his knee.
5 Heroes of Vig – Weapons
As I’ve mentioned before his left hand is on the right shoulder of the comrade on his left thereby completing the circle and the show of unity.
Although this bronze version is relatively late in the history of Albanian lapidars it encompasses all those elements which had developed over the 40 years of socialist thinking about art. Even though it had its genesis in the 1969 version, where many of these elements were introduced, the present day statue, created 15 years later took those elements and made them much stronger, providing a vitality which was missing in the original and physically tightening the group so their unity is emphasised. In a sense the early version shows the group falling apart whereas the 1984 version shows us that nothing will ever break them apart – even death.
When the ‘Five Heroes of Vig’ had been exiled to beside the Shkodër Martyrs Cemetery – once a clean, quiet and pleasant location beside the river but now the site of the sprawling city rubbish dump – it had a feeling of dirt and neglect, and then it was vandalised. Before it was moved to its present location it obviously underwent a certain level of renovation and looks almost as good as it would have done in the centre of the town.
Apart from the damage done to the ends of the weapons there’s a small amount of written graffiti, more of the ‘I wus here’ kind but things are much better now than when I first saw the statue in 2011.
It’s location is not the best, it’s literally on the edge of town, on the last roundabout before the road leads to the border with Montenegro, but being placed on a circular, stone plinth it’s now in a place where more people can appreciate the story it tells.
From the roundabout next to the Rozafa Hotel (and the buses to Tirana) head north-east along Rruga Qemal Draçini which becomes the town’s market as stalls start to spill out on to the pavement. Continue north until arriving at Sheshi Ura e Maxharrit. This is coming to the end of the town proper and this is where you can find furgons to the towns to the north of Shkodër and the Montenegran border at Hani i Hotit as well as the early morning (07.30. more or less) departure to Thethi.
From the square continue along the SH1, passing the old, now very much overgrown, town cemetery and after about 10 minutes arrive at the roundabout with the lapidar in the centre.
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.
Who placed the arms in the Franciscan Church?
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 hand side 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 atheists meet while the Catholics hold Mass
The second painting depicts an atheist, anti-religion meeting in the city of Skodër. On a banner is the famous phrase from Karl Marx – ‘Feja eshtë opium per popullin’, ‘religion is the opium of the people’. This banner is the red one, placed above the entrance of the Franciscan church when it had been converted into a community centre after discovery of the hidden arms cache and the punishment of the perpetrators. On the white banner the slogan is ‘Fight against religious ignorance’ – ‘Lufte kunder paragjykimeve fetare’.
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.
Crucifixion of Franciscan Friars
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, with a distorted entrance facade on the right and the bell tower 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 both share and differ in style from those of the 1990s.
The first of the latest additions is entitled ‘Fe e dëshmueme me gjak’ which translates to something like ‘Bloody [Religious] Martyrdom’, martyrdom being very much a religious concept and therefore, perhaps, the word religious is slightly redundant.
This follows very closely the style of the two paintings from the 1990s in that it is very much influenced by Socialist Realism but the image is as far from the principles of Socialist Realism as it is possible to get. In fact, this is quite a disturbing image and incorporates all those negative and pernicious aspects of capitalist, going-on fascist, society.
Whether it depicts an actual event I have been unable to ascertain, there’s no indication of such in the immediate vicinity of the painting, or it might just represent religious ‘persecution’ of the Franciscans in Albania’s past. If the previous paintings are anti-Communist this painting is anti-Islam and the devils are now Muslims in general.
As was the case with real Socialist realism imagery there was often a local reference in the painting or sculpture. Here we have reference to Rozafa Castle, which sits on a hill to the south of the present day city. The castle can be seen ion the top right hand corner.
At the base of the hill we have a small settlement of some kind where the only building which has suffered any damage is the small Christian church depicted on the left hand side of the panel. There are cracks in the wall, the roof is caving in and the small cross that would have been over the main entrance has been toppled over. The three or so homes in the picture seem to be intact.
Walking downhill from the building in the forefront (on the right) is a group of nine Albanians, all in traditional dress – seven men and two women. Outside of the church is another group of six Albanians – five men and one woman. What I don’t understand about these people is that they don’t display any emotion at all, unlike the very clear ‘distress’ shown by the Christians just a few metres away on the other side of the nave.
What I don’t understand here is what Sheldija is saying about them. Are they complicit in the ‘crime’ being committed, i.e., are they also Muslims and agree with the fate of the Franciscans or is it that they just don’t care? It’s difficult to tell as there’s no certainty about the date of the ‘event’.
Until the declaration of ‘Independence’ in 1912 the country had been dominated by the Ottoman Empire for centuries and although there might have been attempts by the Catholic Church to make an inroad in Albania (as they tried to do in all parts of the world as part of their imperial attitude towards religion) I can’t see them being able to actually build a church in secret, leading to its destruction when the Turks ‘discovered’ the transgression.
For the central image is the murder of two Franciscan friars by the Turks, represented by the five males in the right hand side foreground. We only get a fullish picture of one of them, the dark-skinned, bare-chested individual on the left of that group. He also holds the only weapon in view and that’s a long sword, blood covering its tip. The fact that there’s no firearms would seem to push this episode back a few hundred years – which I find even more confusing.
But as virtually all images of martyred Catholics I’ve seen in any part of the world the death has to be made even more cruel, more horrendous, more sadistic that it would have been in reality – this by a religious faith that has been destroying religious locations and the people holding non-Catholic faith for centuries.
What we see are two, sharpened wooden stakes that have been set into the ground and, presumably, the friars have been sat on the point so that their own weight forces the stake through their bodies – a favoured form of execution of the 13th century Mongol emperor. This seems to have been used by the Ottoman’s, even into the early 20th century, and the spike is called the Khazouk. If done by an expert the victim could live in agony for a matter of days. The fact that it was in occasional use by the Ottomans is accepted but I have been unable to find any documentary proof that in was used in Shkodër against Franciscans.
But in many ways that’s not what Sheldija is saying. He wants to make the point that the Franciscans were persecuted and the more hideous he can make this claim the better to attract his chosen audience – the ignorant and frightened of Albania who can’t make any sense of the society in which they live.
But as with some of his earlier works Sheldija dabbles in the heretical, equating the martyrdom of the Franciscans with the crucifixion of Christ, there being many references here to what have become, over the centuries, the traditional accouterments surrounding that supposed event.
The base of the Khazouk
Here is depicted the desecration of those items that are an integral part of the Catholic ritual: a crucifix laying in the grass; a chalice used for the Eucharist knocked over and spilling the wine (an allegory of the spilling of Christ’s blood); what looks like a discarded alb – the long, white vestment worn by a priest during a Catholic Mass; and a couple of books, one of which will be the Bible. The tip of the bloodied sword held by the Ottoman in the foreground is touching the cover of on of the books here stressing the idea of violence against the Christian church.
In the bottom right hand corner are the tools used to erect the khazouk; a mallet, three wooden stakes and a couple of stones used to maintain the khazouk vertical with the writhing of the victim.
What of the two victims of this martyrdom? As is always the case with Catholic martyrs not only are they shown with the instruments of their martyrdom they always have a serene look on their faces. And that’s the case here.
The friar on the left looks towards Heaven and holds a small wooden crucifix in his left hand, holding it close to his chest. His right hand hangs down at his side, pointing towards the ground. Behind his head protrudes the sharp, bloodied end of the spike and as he is still alive his own blood runs down the lower end of the stake and blood drips from his feet onto the alb.
The central, and presumably the more important, of the two has his arms outstretched on either side of his body, in emulation of a crucifixion. His right arm is bent slightly and he holds a small wooden crucifix towards the light of the Holy Ghost which emanates from the sky above. This is a common motif found in those paintings of Francis of Assisi as he ‘receives’ the stigmata – the wounds of Christ. As with his companion the blood covered spike appears a couple of feet above his head and his blood flows towards the ground along the wooden stake and from his bare feet.
One of the problems with this painting, in a society that is supposed to be ‘united’ now that Socialism has been dismantled, is that these images perpetuates the divisions within the country that are never far from the surface when religion is concerned.
In many Catholic churches in southern Europe you will encounter paintings, sculptures, of Sant Iago (St James) Matamorros – Moor Killer. The commissioning and the present day existence of these images can be put down to a less enlightened age but the fact that they are commissioned in the 21st century says a lot about the hypocrisy of the current wearer of the Triple Crown in Vatican City.
Most Albanian Muslims won’t be aware of such images – people with strong religious beliefs would never be seen dead in the ‘holy’ place of another faith – but they will tend to harden the attitudes of fundamentalist Catholics (of which there are many in Shkodër.
The other 2012 addition to the Franciscan Church’s decoration is entitled ‘Për fe e atdhe’ – ‘For God and Country’, and depicts (amongst others) the images of eight Franciscans who would later, at the end of 2016, be Beatified – plus one other who was obviously not considered to be saint material.
For God and Country
They were all charged with counter-revolutionary activity and died in the ten years following liberation. Many of them had been ordained and had worked in Fascist Italy and were openly ‘friends’ of the United States. When the US and Britain were actively attempting to subvert the young Socialist state; refusing to accept the revolutionary government and the Albanian Communist Party as the legitimate representatives of the people; sending flotillas of warships to intimidate the people who had suffered so much to rid their country of two fascist armies; and supporting the collaborating monarchist Fascists in neighbouring Greece in a Civil war against the working people and peasantry it was no wonder the state took a hard-line against any such counter-revolutionary activity.
It wasn’t as if the Roman Catholic Church had a spotless reputation when it came to popular movements. The Church was an open and fervent support of Franco, in Spain, against the legitimate government in the Civil war of 1936-39. Eugenio Pacelli (also known as Pius XII) was still in control of the Vatican after collaborating with both the Italian and German Fascists during the Second World War. He had no love of Socialism and supported the violent suppression of the attempts of building socialism in Bavaria (where he was Papal Nuncio) in 1919. And in Albania itself high ranks in the Catholic hierarchy opening consorted with the invading forces of both Italy and Germany.
Catholic priest in league with Hitlerites
So claims of ‘innocence’ by these priests have to be taken with a significant pinch of salt. The time of the ‘revolutionary priests’ of South America were a few decades into the future. All these priests had been brought up in an environment of Fascism and anti-Communism. they wouldn’t easily have dropped that stance and stood with the people.
We know the names of the Franciscans in the picture as their names are stitched into their clothing – as if their mothers didn’t want them to lose their cassocks. The image was painted four years before the decision about the ‘Blessed martyrs’ was taken and in 2012 the expectation must have been that Luigj Palio (the one at the top with the mustache) would have been among their number. He didn’t make the cut, however, for a reason I don’t know.
I don’t find this a particularly good painting – on any level. It lacks the bitterness and hatred of the other three in the building and also any lack of humour. By inter-twining the colours of the Papacy (yellow and white) with those of the Albanian stated (red and black) the artist seeks to give the impression of the close relationship with the present day capitalist country of Albania. However, the Catholics are very much a minority, their heartland being the area around the town of Shkodër itself.
The crown of thorns on the crucified Christ morphs into thick thorns bushes that line the inside of the arch at the top of the picture and then transform themselves into barbed wire around the crosses in the centre of the picture and creeping down to the church candles, symbolising what Sheldija considers to be persecution of religion.
As this is a Franciscan church an image of St Francis of Assisi is included, standing before the crucified Christ, his hands facing the viewer so that the ‘stigmata’ (the wounds of Christ) can be seen in the palms of his hands together with a spot of blood on the outside of his cassock on the right hand side.
One of the friars, Bernardin Palaj, standing on the right hand side of the image, holds a large green book in his hands, symbolising his ‘intellectual’ status.
An image of the very Franciscan church dominates the centre of the picture with the clock and bell tower rising up into the top right corner.
At the apex of the arch is an angel dressed in a purple dress, carrying a large bunch of branches. It’s difficult to make out exactly what they are, they don’t look like olive – which would be a symbol of peace (and also victory – after all the Catholic church has got back what it always wanted in Albania, that is a capitalist state). Another theory would be that the angel is bringing vegetation to cover the guns that the friars were to hide on the basement of the church.
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 him 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 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.
At the same time Shkodër was also the place that the first Communist cells were established that later led to the foundation of the Communist Party of Albania (later the Party of Labour of Albania). Not surprising really, it’s in those locations of the greatest reaction that the seeds of revolt germinate and grow. Then and in the future!
The Franciscan church is in the narrow street Rruga At. Gjergji Fishta which passes to the left hand side of the Intesa Sanpaolo Bank at the bottom end of the pedestrianised street Rruga Kolë Idromeno in the centre of town, just beside the Big Mosque.