Church of St. Mary Vllaherna
The Church of St. Mary Vllaherna stands as the oldest church in the city of Berat. Situated in the Kala neighborhood of Berat, on its elevated terrain, the church is surrounded by residential buildings on its western side.
The name of the church, St. Mary Vllaherna, is closely associated with the Byzantine Empire. In Albania, there is no other medieval church dedicated to St. Mary Vllaherna, suggesting that this name was likely borrowed, possibly from Constantinople.
Adorning the interior walls of the church are frescoes meticulously crafted by Nicolas, the son of Onufri. Revered as some of the finest in Albania, these artistic masterpieces have been exceptionally well-preserved over the years.
Executed by Nicolas in 1571, the frescoes vividly depict prophets, saints, biblical scenes, and the Emperor Constantine along with his mother Helena holding the true cross. The remarkable condition of these frescoes elevates the significance of the church, positioning it as one of the most important in Albania for the preservation and quality of its frescoes. The artistry within the church not only serves as a testament to the skill of Nicolas but also offers visitors a captivating glimpse into the rich cultural and historical tapestry of the region.
In its initial state, the church was a cross-in-square type with a dome supported by four internal pillars. The western side featured a narthex, flanked by the north and south aisles, with two additional entrances besides the gate connecting it to the narthex. Inside the naos, there were four supports for the dome system. The eastern pillars and the triconch apse have survived, with the northern and southern walls displaying remnants of the gables of the cross arms and their domes, which collapsed before the mentioned reconstruction.
The church deviates slightly from rectangular shapes in its plan. The naos is covered with square bricks, creating a pattern with stones and bricks. The entrance to the naos is also from the north, through a gate on the southern side, which was later closed. Inside the church, only two pillars remain on the eastern side, while the other two supports on the western side are preserved only in the floor. Above them once stood a system in the form of a cross of vaults and a dome in the center. The apse contains a two-light window with a column in the middle.
The narrow windows illuminate the two lateral spaces. The bema is covered with the arch of the eastern arm of the cross, while the lateral spaces have a cylindrical arch with an east-west orientation. Two chambers, possibly later additions, are in the northern wall of the prothesis.
The northern and southern walls present similar views. The parts belonging to the naos rise higher and are part of the cross arm and addition above the lateral space to create an equal level of the wall. The surface of the cross arm, once in the form of a gable, is occupied by its apse covered with an arch in the middle of which there is a window. The shoulders from the east of the cross arm have a cloisonné. The arch is included within an arcade of bricks placed along the radii circumscribed by a row of bricks continuing vertically along the niches. In the center of the niches is a two-light window covered with stepped arches. Two stepped arches leaning on two small niches cover each of the small niches. The surface of the niches is adorned with zigzag-patterned stones. The two-light window has a column in the middle and a capital made of bricks. The column rests on a socle with several rows of bricks.
From the former window, parts of the skeletal structure and fragments of glass are partially preserved. The lower part of the wall, under the base of the niche, is sloping. It is built with stones and pieces of bricks placed horizontally between the stones, a characteristic also for the 13th-14th-century walls of Berat constructions, including the castle.
The eastern side of the church, belonging to the altar space, is entirely preserved. In its center, there is an irregular triconch apse. Its two-light window is surrounded by two rows of stepped arches.
Two other windows, with arches and shoulders of stepped bricks, are on the side of the apse for the diaconicon and the prothesis. Crosses made of bricks have been drawn on each of these windows. Both the apse and the other eastern walls end in a sawtooth pattern.
**Note:** The church is open from May to October, from 09:00 to 17:00. There is no entrance fee; donations are welcome.