By Mark D. Vickers
Lieutenant Colonel Mark D Vickers was the British Defence Attache to Albania, 2005-8, and has retained many links with the Albanian people ever since. He feels a special connection with Shkodra. He has written several articles about the country and its people and painted numerous paintings of Albania which provides him with a catalyst to tell people in other parts of the world about the country which captured his heart.
As the road to Shkodra turns to cross the River Buna, with the confluence with the River Drin behind it, the view of Rozafa Castle dominates the skyline with a welcome from the great city. The stone-walls show strength and a warning to those of mal-intent, almost as if to say that visitors are most welcome with the unmatchable Albanian tradition of hospitality, but that travelers should be under no illusion as to our strength. And then as the road curves around the hill on which the castle is built, suddenly the splendid ochre walls of the “Church of Our Lady of Good Counsel” (“Zoja e Shkodres”, or “Our Lady of Shkodra”) greets us warmly as it looks down over the road, and I feel as if I have arrived home. Rozafa Castle encourages me on my journey as it appears from miles before crossing the Buna and Drin, but the Church makes my heart smile and I know that I have arrived in my glorious Shkodra, one of the most ancient cities in the Balkans, and a beacon of art, music, culture and entertainment, and a place that grabbed my heart like no other.
The church just mentioned is most famous for a single small painting, and one that is no longer even there. The painting, a fresco measuring a modest 40 x 45 cms (15.7 x 17.7 ins), is of Mary holding baby Jesus, but details of who painted it are debatable, and when it first appeared in our beautiful church in Shkodra is unclear. Even though the original painting is no longer physically present in Albania, the legend lives on in the hearts of Albanian Catholics.
One story is that the icon was first discovered mysteriously near the church which is situated in the shadow of the equally legend-rich Rozafa Castle in the Spring of 1467, shortly before the occupation of the city by the Turks.
Shkodra held strategic importance for both the Venetians and Ottomans and had faced occupation by one or other power for 100 years. Since 1396 it had been ceded to the Republic of Venice. The Venetians considered it important as a place of protection for its trade routes, whilst the Turks saw Shkodra’s importance as a stepping-stone for a march on Rome. Since 1444 the Albanian national hero Scanderbeg and his brave followers had been fighting the Turks, with his League of Lezha forming in 1444 to unite Albanian clans in their fight against the oppressors. The League collapsed just 6 years later, but nevertheless some northern areas were still holding out against the Ottomans with Venetian support. Skanderbeg died in 1468, just one year after our story occurred.
Spring of 1467 arrived with mounting gloom for the northern Albanians and from the walls of Rozafa Castle villages could be seen all around burning at the hands of the invading Turks, crops destroyed, and villagers fleeing to the city in hope of food and safety. The pressure inflicted by the Ottomans was mounting daily, and many from the city itself, as well as those desperate ones from surrounding villages, sought refuge in the castle.
According to legend, but use of the word “legend” is not to suggest that it only happened in the fictional fantasy tales of yore, says that on the Feast Day of St. Mark, April 25, 1467, a cloud covered our beautiful church in Shkodra, and at the same time a cloud descended over an old church in Genazzano (25 miles southeast of Rome), Italy. When the clouds evaporated as quickly as they had appeared the mysterious painting had disappeared from Shkodra and miraculously appeared in Genazzano. It was as if the Icon wished to escape from the burning, destruction and looting that was happening at the hands of the advancing Turks.
The painting appeared to be floating above a small ledge with nothing to support it physically, unexplainable in appearance and display. It is said that the bells of the old church inexplicably began to ring, as did other bells of the town which melodiously peeled as if they were the accompaniment of some heavenly choir. When people saw the painting, and having witnessed the amazing events, they exclaimed that the Icon must have descended in the cloud direct from heaven and called it “La Madonna del Paradiso”. Subsequently it assumed the title of the”Madonna del Buon Consiglio” (“Our Lady of Good Counsel”).
The dilapidated Italian church was restored and named the “Church of Our Lady of Genazzano” after the painting. Nearly 5 centuries later the church was virtually destroyed during the Second World War, and yet our mysterious painting remained undamaged. Even today its display is hard to fathom as it continues to apparently float unaided by physical support.
The resting place of the painting, the church at Genazzano near Rome, became a pilgrimage site for Albanian Catholics ever since. Pope Urban VIII made a pilgrimage specifically to see the painting in 1630, as did Pope Pius IX in 1864. The original home of the painting, the church in Shkodra, also became a sacred place of veneration for Albanian Catholics which continued throughout pre-communist days, and once again today it is held dear to the Catholic community.
After the collapse of communism, Pope John Paul II made a historic visit to Shkodra on 25thApril 1993, and acopy of the legendary painting was presented to the Cathedral by His Holiness personally. The church, Zoja e Shkodres, was restored with aide from the Vatican. Pope John Paul II’s 1993 visit was also historic as the last Pope who had tried to visit, Pope Pius II, died en route in 1464.
So it is, and I will not be so impudent as to offer personal opinion one way or the other regarding the wonderful legend of Zoja e Shkodrës and the miraculous painting of Our Lady of Good Counsel. Suffice to say that every time I see that ochre painted church in the shadows of Rozafa Castle, my heart is inexplicable warmed and I feel that my journey is complete.
Zoja e Shkodrës (and The Feast of Our Lady of Genazzano) is celebrated on the 26thApril.
*Cover photo: The painting of Zoja E Shkodrës