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26 November 2020

Christmas 2020

Croatia: Christmas 2020, 26 November 2020. Images from Delcampe and Hrvatska pošta.

Technical Specifications:

Number: 1314 (Nativity Scene), 1315 (An Angel Over Bethlehem)
Value: 2 x 3.30 HRK
Design: Alenka Lalić, designer from Zagreb
Photo: Marko Vodanović
Size: 35.50 x 29.82 mm
Paper: white 102 g, gummed
Perforation: Comb,14
Technique: Multicolored Offsetprint
Printed by: AKD d.o.o., Zagreb
Date of issue: 26/11/2020
Quantity: 250,000 each

On the hill above Komiža there is one of the most beautiful and picturesque sacral complexes in Croatia: Muster (= lat. monasterium), the fortified church of St. Nicholas, with a tower, a monastery, an inner garden, a bastion.

This monumental ensemble, the value of which can hardly be emphasized, was built from the Middle Ages to the Baroque. It is part of the great Benedictine trans-Adriatic route from Monte Gargano through Palagruža to Dalmatia. Full of historical testimonies and works of art, it seems almost suspended in time. Waiting for the necessary renovation, the most intense part of its life takes place in a beautiful cemetery, and it is best known for the ritual burning of a boat on the feast of St. Nicholas.

Christmas permanently took refuge in that church. Namely, there is an altar with the most beautiful and oldest Croatian Bethlehem. It consists of two parts: the lower scene, on a larger scale, with the Christ Child, Mary, Joseph, an ox, a donkey, and the angels, one of whom, hovering under a starry vault, plays a violin-like instrument. Above this lower scene, stylized and composed of the holy figures themselves, lies the upper world: the landscape, the surroundings and the distance, the magically naïve city of Bethlehem. Everything is covered by an angel on golden clouds bearing the inscription “Gloria in altissimo Deo”, which, with a little smile and turning a small letter into a capital letter, could be translated as “Glory to God on Vis”.

In science this altar with Bethlehem is scarcely mentioned. Its age stayed under the radar while the focus was on the bigger names of art. It is difficult to say what the analysis of its physical substance would show about the age of its origin. Stylistic periods in peripheral environments last a long time and intertwine with each other, but analysis of forms and comparisons with Italian examples point to the early Renaissance, to the fifteenth century as the spiritual background and temporal origin of this altar. In little Bethlehem and its landscape, everything is teeming with life.

The city is walled and has city gates, streets, squares, buildings, churches. On the adjacent hills are two symmetrically placed small fortified towns. The three kings arrive in sumptuous attire on which gilded ornaments are barely discernible. Camels, horses, sheep, donkeys and dogs move around the city, and little people wear the recognizable clothes of their time, and none are the same. And each animal has its own physiognomy and movements. Cypresses, pointed or wide, are not forgotten either. Some of the people wear distinctive marks of their occupations.

Many small characters have been preserved, but many have also disappeared: during World War II Muster was a home to refugees who used figurines as toys for their children. Hence the lack of female characters, more suitable for the role of puppets. Komiža’s Bethlehem is the most poetic small urbanism and small cultural landscape that we have inherited. Everything there is about movement and joy: from angels playing, singing and fluttering in the air, to sheep happily grazing in their pasture. Like when puppets are pricked with needles to convey an evil spell on a larger scale, as if the most careful preservation and restoration of this tiny city would save all our beautiful historical cities and landscapes.

Whoever stands before this altar can enjoy the walk among the green hills, pass by the herds and enter the city. That must have been the intention of the ancient artist: to make a path and doors that lead to Christmas.

Academic Željka Čorak

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