Some of the most magnificent frescoes can be found in the ‘Paris of the Balkans’

Preservationists in Albania’s Voskopojë are racing to save hundreds of 18th-century Orthodox masterpieces in time-ravaged churches.

Deep in southeastern Albania, a tiny hamlet holds five churches that have one of the most magnificent concentrations of Orthodox Christian fresco art in the world.

From the outside, the churches in Voskopojë resemble stone barns, a reflection of their 18th-century heritage as Christian gathering places in the Islamic Ottoman Empire. Inside, however, they reveal painted masterworks of brilliant blues, reds, and yellows that come to life in themes both awesome (Christ the Almighty, or Pantocrator) and eccentric (St. Nicholas outsmarts the goddess Artemis). “For us, it’s like the Louvre,” says Albania’s Minister of Culture, Elva Margariti.

There are no other sites in Albania or in the world quite like the Voskopojë churches and their 43,000 square feet of frescoes. The government designated them Cultural Monuments and, in 2020, it recognized the village center where most of them are located as a Historic Ensemble. Perhaps more importantly, the frescoes are a striking East-meets-West artifact of a multicultural, multireligious Albanian identity many feared would be extinguished under the former Communist regime.

It’s a minor miracle that the frescoes survive at all. Beginning in the late 18th century, Voskopojë was ransacked and razed three times in 20 years. It was burned in World War I and bombed in World War II. Of the more than 20 churches that once stood in the village, only six remain, including the five with frescoes.

In recent decades, these architectural and artistic treasures have fallen into disrepair. One church sustained what a regional authority called “SOS”-level damage under heavy rainfall in 2021, when its roof partially collapsed. Another was declared in critical condition a year later.

Now, as tourism in the area rises, a cadre of dedicated researchers and restorers is racing to save the churches. In November, the Ministry of Culture unveiled an ambitious proposal that would bring art preservationists from all over Europe and conservation architects to restore them before it’s too late.

‘The Paris of the Balkans’

Albania has a turbulent history. Over thousands of years, the country was occupied by several empires, from the Roman to the Byzantine to the Ottoman. It was under the last that Voskopojë thrived, becoming the “Paris of the Balkans” by 1760, as observers wrote.

Voskopojë, by then a bona fide city, controlled a lucrative overland trade route between the Adriatic and Istanbul, linking the Ottomans to the doges in Venice, the Habsburgs in Vienna, and beyond. At its peak, as many as 50 craft guilds operated, attracting and training artisans like tailors, goldsmiths, and gunsmiths. For a time, the city had the only printing press in the Ottoman Empire, fed by the New Academy, a crucible of Enlightenment ideas founded in 1744.

The city’s economic prowess enabled it to flourish as a center of Orthodox Christian faith and art in the Islam-dominated empire, leading to a boom in church building. But beginning in the late 18th century, the city began to decline. In 1769 marauders, likely from the surrounding region, pillaged Voskopojë. Inhabitants fled, and the once grand city was reduced to a small village. It was set back further by the major wars of the 20th century. 

After World War II, dictator Enver Hoxha consolidated his rule over Albania, enforcing atheism under his Communist regime. The surviving Voskopojë churches were, at best, neglected, used as warehouses and storage spaces. Churches elsewhere were demolished. The secretly faithful hid religious icons under floorboards in their homes. Priests, as well as imams and other clergy, were executed or sent to labor camps.

“I think it is important for [today’s] children to know what their ancestors believed, what they sacrificed, and what they fought to save,” says Fjoralba Prifti, director of the National Museum of Medieval Art in nearby Korça, which holds 6,400 icons, including many saved from the Voskopojë churches.

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When the regime fell in 1991, villagers gathered at St. Nicholas. “Although they were afraid, they had each other,” recalls Father Thoma Samaraj, head priest of Voskopojë’s churches since that time. “God always told us, ‘I am within you.’”

Time has continued to degrade the churches. In 2002 and 2004, they earned dubious recognition on the World Monuments Fund’s “watch” list of at-risk heritage sites. In 2018, they made Europa Nostra’s “7 Most Endangered” list.

“It is a constant intervention site, the whole village,” acknowledges Margariti, the minister of culture. But it has weathered worse. “This is the spirit of the Albanians—always resisting and always showing that they can carry on their art, their cultural heritage, through the years,” she adds.

Inner beauty

The scars from history are still evident on a recent tour of the Church of St. Mary with Anxhela Zguri, a docent with the government’s Institute of Cultural Monuments and owner of the Bujtina Liana guesthouse. (Zguri and another docent lead tours; visitors may contact them by calling the number posted outside each church.) The narthex was destroyed and the nave partially ruined by World War II bombs. Warped by years of exposure, most of the frescoes “are not in good condition,” she says. Yet it remains an impressive structure.

Constructed in 1699, it’s the largest and oldest of the four churches with frescoes that still stand in the village. The other three went up within a few decades, and all are laid out in roughly the same basilica style. (The fifth is in a monastery on a hill overlooking the village.)

What distinguishes each is the art on the walls. Orthodox art had to adhere to certain principles of religious iconography, and frescoes had to convey the stories of the Bible and early Christianity to an illiterate congregation. The rest was up to the painters’ imaginations.

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At the Church of St. Mary, scenes of the archangels Michael and Gabriel are highlights; Zguri’s 5-year-old daughter imagines they are flying. Around the bend, a lunette painting at the Church of St. Athanasius depicts the towers of Babylon falling on its hapless denizens, among other works signed by brothers Kostandin and Athanas Zografi, prolific artists who added Baroque, Rococo, and Gothic flourishes to Orthodox style in the 18th century. Trespassers have since defaced many scenes.

The centerpiece of the village, the Church of St. Nicholas is the domain of David Selenica, a portraiture master active here in the 1720s, who anecdotally painted the faces of villagers on the bodies of saints. In one panel, St. Nicholas prays over a sailor’s body, as waves from a fearsome storm roil his ship. The muralist chose to put the saint anachronistically on a four-masted, cannon-bedecked galleon.

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Revival movement

There is hope for Voskopojë’s remaining churches. Encouraged by an increase in tourism, locals are shining a light on the structures, the village, and its history. In November, the Ministry of Culture announced an ambitious plan for the restoration and development of the town.

The plan includes fortifying the masonry and sagging roofs of three churches. The frescoes will be restored not only by the “old maestros” of the technique, but also by international professors and students of art preservation, on site. Also on the wish list: new lighting for a museum experience, audio guides, virtual tours, and even augmented reality.

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The Ministry has submitted the proposal to the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development for funding, which Margariti estimates could run about two million euro ($2.1 million). The rehab projects would take at least two years.

In the meantime, the maestros have already begun work on St. Nicholas’ frescoes. After six months, two panels have been completed. Elsewhere in town, travelers can stay in renovated historic mansions and learn about Voskopojë’s former glory. In a field just beyond the existing village today, signs mark where the great academy, library, and printing press once stood. And at the National Museum of Medieval Art, which saw a record 27,000 attendees this year, visitors can see a dozen Zografi icons and a rare Selenica up close, along with paintings by their contemporaries, woodcarvings, and metalwork.

In this pocket of Albania, preservation is personal. Growing up under the Communist regime, “people of my age did not know what a church was, what God was,” says Prifti. “It’s important for people of a country to know their traditions—where they came from and where they belong.”

Ben O’Donnell is a writer based in Tirana, Albania. Follow him on Instagram.

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