Cathedral Church of the Assumption of St Mary and the Onufri Museum of Icons

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Things to do


Date of travel

March, 2017

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The Ottomans were muslims, but were happy for the Christians to worship and build churches – as long as they were not seen. The Cathedral Church of is Assumption of St Mary is tucked away behind the main road leading to the Citadel. The only indication is a small sign on the wall pointing to it. Hidden away behind a wall it is easy to miss. This now houses the Onufri Museum of icons and it is the only church open to tourists. Inside the gateway is a large courtyard area with a small shop selling books and icons.

The church was built in 1797 on the foundations of an earlier church. It is a typical orthodox church with a colonnaded porch with a fresco above the doorway.

It is a typical three naved church with two rows of tall stone columns with carved capitals.These still have traces of paint on them and there are the remains of frescoes on the domes. The original wood pews can still be seen. On the left is the carved and painted pulpit. On the right is the bishop’s throne. At the back is a gallery which was used by the women.

The wonderful wooden iconostasis is covered in gold leaf and glows in the dark. To the left of the central Royal door is an icon of the Virgin Mary with the Assumption of the Virgin beyond it. To the right is an icon of Jesus Christ Pantokrator with John the Baptist beyond him. Above is a row of prophets. At the top is Christ crucified on the cross with smaller figures of the Virgin and St John on either side. The smell of incense keeps spiders at bay.

The two smaller doors lead through into the sanctuary with the altar. They have paintings of archangel Michael and Archangel Gabriel who are guardians of the sanctuary. Normally the sanctuary is ‘out of bounds’ to everyone but the priest. As it is no longer use as a church, it is possible to go through the Holy Doors and see what is behind them. The area is empty apart from a small table acting as an altar. The walls are covered with original but now very faded frescoes of saints.

Two very important Codexes dating from the C6th and C9th were kept hidden in the church and were not discovered until the 1960s. They are now kept in the National Archives in Tirana with copies available for students to study. Scholars in London are using them to try and produce a Bible acceptable to both Orthodox and Catholic churches.

A series of rooms behind the church now house the Onufri Museum of icons. Onufri was a very well regarded icon painter in the C16th and particularly regarded for the depth of his red pigments.

Examples of his work are on display along with that of other painters. As the icons no longer regarded as items of worship and are not kissed or touched, they are not protected by glass. They are a wonderful representation of religious art. My camera finger was twitching, but unfortunately you are not allowed to take photographs in the museum. Examples of his art can be seen “here”:http:// and “here.”:

The castle is a fascinating and exciting place to explore. The Cathedral Church of the Assumption of St Mary is a wonderful example of an Orthodox church, especially the iconostasis. The icons are beautiful and the depth of the Onufri Red has to be seen to be believed. This along with the Castle is an excellent visit and ranked along with “Butrint”: as one of the highlights of the holiday.

There are more pictures “here.”:


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