Mystical Heritage

Mystical heritage and tradition in contemporary Croatian art

One of this lesson’s basic points is the richness of early christian architecture in Dalmatia. The most known early christian church is St Cross in Nin near Zadar, which historians place in 9th century. The church has a shape of greek cross, with two smaller apses placed next to a middle tentacle, the main apse. Intersection of this cross is topped with a dome. There are multiple windows profilating this building, and they are placed in a very unusual way. Churhes ground-plan is in a shape which is completely irregular. The real time of built and its purpose have never been established. The facts, based on scientific methods are following: no irregularity is accidental, the churh is completely oriented towards the sun, its light entering and under exactly specific angles enlightens exactly specific places in the church on exactly determined dates. We are told what dates are those: winter solstice, spring equinox and holidays related to protector saints of Nin area. Geometrically seen, all the church is in “Golden ratio”.
Golden ratio is the basic measure on which all the European architecture, sculpture and painting are based. Given in numbers, it is the ratio of 3 to 5 or 5 to 8. The bases of Golden ratio techings were created in pitagoreic schools. The builders of St Cross knew not only  the deviations which the irregularities in the angles could bring to the light entering, but they also counted the angle of sunlight emerging from the direction of Holy Mount (Sveto Brdo), the top on the mountain Velebit, under which Nin is situated. If you meet the dawn on Holy Mount in the period of summer solstice, you will see the material evidence of statements given above. This mistery is revealed by the shadow which slowly slides towards the hills and becomes ever so sharper as the sun rises. The shadow of Holy Mount falls exactly in the direction of Nin, giving the impression that the blade of Holy Mount aspires towards the apses of Holy Cross. Very similar to that are the examples of churches in germanic and anglosaxonic countries which were built in the foothills of holy celtic mountains and hills. Obviously, the church of St Cross is bulit as a temple of sun, its age is very indifinite and its purpose is lost in the fog of sincretical fusions of early cults and christianity. Southern part of mountain Velebit is also important by its phenomenon of Mirila.
Deep in the mountain, there were places without church and cemetery, and even deeper in the mountain there were the sheperds’ habitats. Not so long ago, there was a custom connected to death. When somebody from that realm would die, after crying and lamentation by the hearse, the body would be wrapped with the linen cloth and carried on the woodden strecher to the cemetery, before the sunrise. The funerary procession would stop on the special place which was usualy situated on the crooks. They would take the flat stone boards and place them on the ground and the body of the deceased would be layed there. After that, one more regular stone would be placed vertically next to a head, and next to the feet a smaller one. Those two stones were the measure of the deceased and made his or her mirilo. The head of the deceased was facing east, towards the rising sun. After that, the body was taken to a cemetery where it was burried in a way of a church ceremony. Few days after, even more regular and carved stone with symbol engraved was put in the place of the headstone.
Mirila are aligned by the ancestry and the family of the deceased, without any cast or gender separations. Those were the places where people used to rest, and in the old times they were decorated with flowers and were offered food. In general, in the area of Velebit and beneath Velebit where they were disseminated, they were far more respected than the cemeteries. According to the old believes, those were the places where the souls of the sheperds rest, next to the souls of their flock of sheep. They were created on such places where you can see valleys, sinkholes and crooks from. The age and origin of Mirila is impossible to determinate correctly, there are no analogical rituals to them. The ornaments on the headstone vary from the crescent moon, the cross, the stars, sun cross, spyrals to the simple deceased’ initials, full name and surname, or the inscription “God exempts him” “Boga pomilova”. The older mirila are very unskillfuly engraved, with the blunt object, while the younger ones are engraved in the cenotaph fashion.
The shape of the head stone has also alterate, from the completely natural which looks like the part of the ditch or stone hill, to completely regular carved stone of elongate menhiric shape. The custom has completely decayed with the arrival of the roads, the tourism growth and the change of ways of life. Different head stones are found on mirila of Velebit, the youngest being completely carved and finished. After the most regular mirila the ritual vanishes, the only left are the places and monuments. Have the souls once part of the shepherds ended their journey through the mountain? The walk of mirila have reached its end. Every stone can make mirilo. Mirilo can never again be a simple stone.
Symbols which appear on mirila are very often compared to stećci in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Dalmatian Zagora. Stećci are the most important material evidence of the Bosnian christians’ religion, a heretical teaching which appeared in 12th century. That maniheic heresis was very much alike to ce southern french cataric one. Bosnian church, as it has called itself, has known white and black god, and higher impersonation of soul. It has been composed of the circle of consecrated – christians and the circle of unconsencrated – meat people. The consecrated were vegeterians and lived together in common men and women monasteries. They were baptised by placing down John’s gospel on the scalp. Most of the believers got baptised before they died, because the term was that the meat eating must stop.
To understand the phenomenon of Bosnian church, one must understand the natural particularities of Bosnia. High, steep mountains which thread creating the shadow over deep ravines and notches, mediterranean climate which reaches almost to middlie Bosnian through the canyon of Neretva and mixes there with the sharp mountain climate.Mountain plateaus, barren land covered with grass, cut with ditches and sinkholes. In all the medieval Bosnia there was no particulary fertile land and suitable life conditions. Also, in Bosnia there was no discontinuated line of living in the cities since the Roman Empire, as for example, in Istria and Dalmatia. Due to all that and heavy life conditions, people found this simple and close-to-nature religion far mora acceptable and closer. With their ascetism,  the leaders and the priests of Bosnian Church surely have been close to the common people. After Bosnia fell under Turkish imperium, a part of bosnian heretics flee, the other accepted islam, while the rest embraced catholicism and orthodoxy, still keeping heretical rituals in poor parts of the country. When some of the heretics flee to Velebit, it is told that they have brought the knowledge of life and death with them. The facts are that the body has never been burried under stećak, the same as under mirila. Like mirilo, stećak was also a cenotaph, empty grave, while bosnian christians burried the body in woods and groves. Stećci are to be found on high places, crooks, hills and tumuls. The ascetic way of life of the ones consecrated by the church is also close to the way of life of shepherds of Velebit, as well as to old croatian druids. Bosnian christians also didn’t have built temples or buildings of any kind, but they worshipped the energetic places in nature. The system of symbols and ornaments on mirila is similar to that one on stećci – a kind of dolmens of bosnian heretical church. The ornamentics of stećci is a bit richer, as well as the carving technique. While in the case of mirila we can talk about engraving, on stećci we have sometimes very highly done relief.
St Cross church, mirila and stećci are only a small part of Croatia’s and Balkan’s big esoterical heritage. In that area slavic tradition interweaves with germanic, roman, otomanic and jewish tradition in a very unique way. In lot of christian rituals we can trace down the remains of ancient slavic religion and rituals, starting with green George (Juraj), burning the yule-log, Koledars and many other customs. Most of them are connected to the cult of sun, and by that connected also to a summer and winter solstice. The circle Earth does around the sun is identical to the circle of birth and death, in nature as well as in the life of man. Spring and holiday of St George, Djurdjevdan (St George’s Day) in serbian tradition, are connected with a renewated erotic energy. The nature which in the period of holy – green George experiences its newly powerful birth is equal to the sexual energy of Oziris. The very same that, according to Plutarh, by the means of a woodden phallus impregnates Isida with a child Horus.
The very same heritage of that world was crutial for Marina Abramović’s video work “Balcan Epic”, in which she plays with sexual bewitchment and magical power of woman. In most of the sequences Marina establishes direct bound between earth, water, fire and air elements, either with man’s phallus or his active energy or woman’s vulva and her energy of potention and giving birth to a physical world. The stronghold of this work she finds in ancient slavic religions as well as in known european tradition of Valpurga’s night which Goethe refers to in his Faust and Mihail Bulgakov in the novel Master and Marguerite.
Vladimir Dodig Trokut’s works are based on druid-shaman tradition of middle Bosnia and Dalmatian Zagora. Most of his installations are based on alchemy by which the casted and used item is being transformed into a piece of art. By doing so, the items are experiencin their own denial and they are being transformed like led into gold or solid into liquid matter. In the work Jeanne of Arc, he is using some handy woodden boards to make a coffin, not for a dead man nor for an initiation, but for his lost sweetheart.
In the performance K8, the artist Zlatko Kopljar allows nurses to take his blood which is after put into small relic-container-ampule, which is stored in a glass cube. The artist refers to blood as life, magical, ethnical and religious supstance. For himself, blood is the holiest of the holiest. It is the one that inbreeds life into him, the one he creates, breeds and thinks upon. His blood is his personal Grale, in which the artist has become new Parsifal through initiation. Through this act, the Fishermen king turns into nurses.
Guided by my personal experiences from the mount Velebit, together with the experiences of artists that refer to mystical experience, I have made many works in different artistic media. Together with the artist Bojan Gagić and the group of assistants, I have created interactive ambiental performance “Mirila”. In the galleries where we performed, we would build mirila’s replica out of soil, grass and stone we collected from surroundings. Only real part of mirila was the headstone which we brought from Velebit. People who wanted to take part in the performance took their shoes and jewelry off, as we have suggested. After that, they would lay down on mirilo’s replica, they would close their eyes and wait. We measured them, meditated for some time, and after that opened their eyes and helped them get up. All together sounds pretty simple, but it is not. The fact is that that ritual was done only with the dead. Our approach could be justified by the fact that the contemporar art is based mainly on body cult, artist’s body to that. Unlike that kind of performance, we have decided not only to work with another bodies, but also with different emotional and mental matrixes. The essence of our project was bringing the participants into experience of death. According to their own statements, all of them had some kind of abnormal experience, in higly elevated emotional state. The visions were different, but very often they had a memory of a close person who is dead. Also, in today’s world, where any kind of thought on death is lost, it is of greta significance to bring people in the state of questions of death. We performed four times, laying one person after another in closed spaces. The last time it was done in autumn of 2008 on the banks of lake Bundek in Zagreb, with seven persons at the same time. Those persons who participated in that last performance gave written statements about their experience which we have, together with the other texts, inplanted in the book about performance Mirila. In each performance we added new elements, in that way trying to put together the enigma about what the ritual of Mirila was, what was its purpose and what message it gives us today. Just as the wind called bura, blowing through Velebit’s peaks and pine tree slopes, writes down the harmony of oblivion.

Josip Zanki