Since ancient times, the Dalmatian Coast has long marked the border between the Roman Catholic West and the Greek Orthodox East and later the Ottoman Islamic East. This made Dubrovnik a critical waystation for Catholic pilgrims enroute to the Holy Land. Furthermore, Dubrovnik was one of the major Maritime Republics active during the Renaissance. Therefore it is not surprising that this ancient, beautiful port city boasts perhaps the best collection of Catholic churches in southeastern Europe. The grandest of these, and arguably the most important Catholic church in the Balkans, is the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, which houses the relics of St. Blaise, one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers of the Church.
Blaise was one of the truly great heroes of the Church at the turn of the 4th century, and one of the last major pre-Constantine martyrs. Little is known of his early life, except that he was born in Armenia sometime around 270 AD, probably in or near Sebastea. He is known to have practiced medicine, and was probably part of the Christian community in Armenia prior to its legalization in that country in 301. According to tradition, he plied his trade among the ruling elite, but in his spare time gave free aid to the poor of the city as well.
Blaise was certainly an active Christian in the early 4th century. Although technically not part of the Roman Empire at the time, Armenia likely suffered at least some fallout from the horrific persecutions of Diocletian ravaging the Christian communities to the west. At the very least Sebastea saw an inflow of refugees. Blaise, who became bishop of Sabastea around that time, probably found himself caring for a very large community of both native-born Christians and refugees from Asia Minor.
Throughout his tenure as bishop, Blaise became known for his care for the sick and infirm. As a physician, most of his work was probably day-to-day care; but miraculous healings were also attributed to him. Crowds came to Blaise from far and wide to seek healing. His most famous miracle was curing a young boy who was choking to death on a fish bone.
Although Christianity was legalized in 313 AD, pogroms against the Christians continued to persist here and there throughout the empire. In 316, one Agricola, the local governor, launched a violent assault on the Christians of Armenia. Blaise was seized, and when he refused to renounce his faith, was brutally beaten and beheaded. A cult instantly grew up around this popular figure, and he was later named not only a saint but one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers of the Church. His relics were moved to Dubrovnik, probably sometime around the Crusades. His shrine is now the most venerated Catholic chrine on the Dalmation coast.
The Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, also known as St. Blaise’s Church, is a large but not giant edifice, with a greater focus on beauty rather than size. Although a church has stood on this spot since medieval times, previous structures were destroyed several times, and the current building largely dates to the 18th century. It is a classic baroque structure with an intricate façade crowned by a statue of St. Blaise. Built of the same white stone that all of the buildings of the city are famous for, the cathedral is most easily distinguished by its towering black dome.
The cathedral interior is traditional baroque design. Focus for pilgrims and visitors is on the church’s treasures. Highlights include a 15th century gold and silver statue of St. Blaise. A reliquary contains his head, his hands and pieces of his throat. The latter no doubt is in honor of the miraculous saving of the choking boy.
The Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary is located inside the old walls on the east side of the city, close to the Rector’s Palace and the Old Port. It is open daily from 8:00am-7:00pm (note that there is a four hour break for lunch starting at noon). There is no charge for admission. Web: http://croatia.hr (official tourism website of Croatia).
Considering its small, compact size, Dubrovnik is home to a surprising number of churches worth a visit. Among the most popular are the St. Savior Church and especially the city’s Franciscan Monastery, which has a wonderful ancient library and other treasures.
Leave a Reply