On the land of the present day Parish Church of St. Blasius, probably in the XIth century, a triple naved early Romanesque basilica, properly orientated, 41 x 19 m in size according to the then measure of the inhabitants, was erected. It was built on uneven land, it cracked and was unstable. At the canon visitation of the Bishop of Pula G. A. Balbi on 11.01.1757, the church was imposed with an interdict. After three years of heated discussions and remediation attempts, it was decided that a new one would be built, the present day neo-Baroque building patterned after the Cathedral of St. Peter of Castello in Venice by the architect Andrea Palladio (+1586). The financial construct of 13,000 golden ducats was approved by the Venetian Senate on 12 August 1760 and the founding stone was set on 15 February 1761. The brotherhood gave their savings for construction, and over ten years 20 % on all products and a further ten years 10 % on wine and oil were set aside. During the construction time of the church, the faithful gathered in the Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel.
According to the project, the church was orientated in the North – South direction, and not the usual East – West. The builders must have certainly had strong reasons for this. Its construction took a full 40 years. The new building pushed out the surrounding graveyard, the corral for holding lost cattle, the Franciscan hospice and location of the old school. In the floor plan it has the shape of a Latin cross of size 56 x 35 m, and it is the largest sacral facility on Istrian soil. The dome rises to a height of 25.00 m. The construction was overseen by Domenico Dongetti, a civil engineer who in 1777 moved to Vodnjan from Pirano. It is divided with walled columns with arched arcades into three naves. The central part of the cross, the choir area and shrine are decorated by Corinth capitals, while the naves with Tuscan style capitals. There are nine marble altars from the XIXth and XXth centuries, and nine council ones facing the faithful. It has 13 paintings from the XVIth, XVIIth and XVIII century. The altars are of great artistic value, made from marble from Verona, Carrara and France. The aumbry for Holy oils is from 1451. The newly built and not yet completed church was opened on the Feast day of St. Blasius, patron saint of Vodnjan, on 3 February 1800, and was consecrated in 1831.
Left of the apse of the church shrine was the old vestry over which, in 1818, a floor was raised for the atelier of the academic painter Gaetano Gresler who moved here from Venice in 1818. Above the entrance to the vestry, the painter had his residential premises with an entrance outside the church. The Town Statute was also kept in the vestry. Underneath the vestry is a crypt for burying priests and respected members of the brotherhood of the Most Holy Altar Sacrament. The facade of the building is adorned by five statues of natural height: St. Blasius in the middle, right of him St. Lawrence and St. Peter, while to the left are St. Quirinus and St. Paul. The statues were carved by Andrea and Giovanni, sons of Venerio Trevisan, a weaver, upholsterer, self-taught musician and painter. On the eastern side of the church there was a raised church storage area which was subsequently added and since 1972 has served for pastoral purposes.
Entering the church from the left side we see the following altars worthy of an artistic interpretation:
The marble christening altar, made from red Verona marble, is adorned by an image of the baptism of Christ from 1891. The baptism font is on the altar. The altar was a gift from the widow Mara Tonighelli.
The marble altar of St. Joseph, replaced the older wooden altar which was moved from the Capuchin Church of St. Joseph. The altar was adorned with an image from XVIIth of the Holy Family with three Capuchin saints: St. Fedel from Simgaringa (+1622), St. Felix from Cantalice (+1587), St. Joseph from Leonesse (+1612). At the foot of the altar are the relics of St. Fortunata from the Roman catacombs.
Altar of the Sacred Heart
The altar of the Sacred Heart at the bottom of the left nave; the shrine is closed off with a marble baluster made from Verona marble, the vaulted ceiling has been decorated with stucco of Venetian masters in 1926, while the silver doors of the tabernacle were created by electrolysis in 1932 by Gualtiero Nassiguerra from Trieste.
In the centre is a large altar made of Carrara marble, whose design was redacted by the well known Italian architect F. Forlani. It was setup on 6 October 1935. The elegant tabernacle is flanked by high columns on which statues of angels have been placed, and which are the work of the Italian master Francesco Terili da Feltre from 1616. Next to the columns are two large Baroque wooden vases dating from the same period.
Earlier, the Altar of St. John the Baptist was located at the bottom of the right nave. Today it is the altar of Our Lady of Lourdes.
The altar of the Crucifix, made from black marble, with an oil on canvas painting by Venerio Trevisan, underneath the cross is the image of St. John.
The altar of Our Lady of the Rosary from 1845, in whose creation the well known Vodnjan local, Giovanni della Zonca also participated.
Altar of St. Joachim and St. Ana, made from black marble, above which is a painting of great artistic value from the XVIIth century, created using a meticulous technique of oil on wood, the work of Venerio Trevisan, originates from the early Romanesque church.
Under the dome is the council altar facing the faithful, made in 1975 according to the design of Parish priest Father Vinko Pereš, in the stonemason’s workshop Delbianco in Krnica.
The church pulpit was created in 1845 by Giovanni della Zonca. At the entrance to the church, on the interior side, there are four big red marble columns from France, which serve as supports for the organ. The first church organ was purchased in 1818 in Venice, the work of the master Giacomo Bassani, had been out of commission since 1924. It was then that a new organ from the Italian workshop of Beniamin Zanina from Camino di Codroipo near Pordenona was purchased, which is still functioning to the present day but it is in dire need of restoration. The book of the brotherhood of the Holy Altar Sacrament also hold payments to the organ players from 1684.
A significant number of precious paintings, valuable fine art heritage from the XVth and XIXth century are located on the premises of the Church of St. Blasius. Among the most valuable pieces exhibited today in the Collection of sacral art of the Parish Church of St. Blasius is certainly the painting of the “Blessed Leon Bembo”, the work of Paolo VENEZIANO (+1362) from 1321. So too in the shrine, on the left side, is the “Last Supper” (2.50 x 3.75 m) of Giovanni Contarini, from 1598. On the right side is the painting “Christ giving authority to St. Peter” (2.50 x 3.75) by the local artist Venerio Trevisan from 1845. At the bottom of the shrine is a painting, altarpiece, with the image of the patron saints of Vodnjan: St. Blasius, St. Lawrence and St. Quirinus with the Madonna in the upper part. The painting is from the first Romanesque church. To the left of the main altar is a painting of the Madonna on a throne with the saints, which is the work of the academic painter Gaetano Gresler, from 1818. On the right side, the art work of the unknown master the “Meeting of St. Paul and St. Peter with St. Francis” which originates from the Capuchin old church particularly stands out. In the left church nave, above the entry into the old vestry (now the Collection of sacral art) the Dinner in Emaus is kept, oil on canvas from XVIIth century. Opposite the pulpit an image of the Immaculate Conception is kept, while in the church one can still also see the art works of the Dream of St. Joseph and Flight into Egypt by unknown Venetian artists from the XVII century. The Stations of the Cross are the work of Venerio Trevisan.
After WWII, the church became increasingly weathered. In 1976 the roof was reset, new gutters were installed and new reinforced glass was put on the windows. In 1981 new electrical installations were put in. In 1982 – 90 the interior of the church was painted when due to lack of funds the imitation marble was removed from the columns and the narrow field which along the entire length of the church separates the mouldings. In 1995, as a celebration of the 200 year anniversary of the church, a thorough renewal began. A new channel was setup on the roof, as well as new copper guttering. The rotting wooden windows were replaced by iron ones. The harsh light made the premises seem unusable, which it why it was decided to protect the premises with stained glass as a whole, the “Ring of salvation” has a biblical message of salvation. The stained glass, according to the design project of the parish priest Marijan Jelenić, was created in the Laboratorio Artistico delle vetrate e dei mosaici of Tito Toneguzzo in Monza.
While whitewashing the church, the paintings were taken down and the Croatian Restoration Institute established that they were in a “dying state”. Some of the paintings were renewed, some were restored. Unfortunately, nothing was undertaken with the “Last Supper” of Giovanni Contarini from 1598. The Croatian Restoration Institute then assessed that in Vodnjan a total of 85,000 work hours were required just for the protection of the wooden sculptures and oil on canvas paintings.
The incorruptible Bodies of the following individuals are kept in the church: St. Leon Bembo (+1188), priest St. John Olinia (+1300), Benedictine abbess St. Nikoloza Bursa (+1512.), and the smaller incorruptible parts: torso of St. Sebastian (+282), the foot of St. Barbara (+288), the tongue of Saint Mary of Egypt (+522) and the right index finger of the Patriarch of Constantinople St. Eutyches (+582). Saint Barbara, St. Sebastian and St. Mary of Egypt are known saints, while St. Leon Bembo, St. John Olinia and St. Nikoloza Bursa are proclaimed saints via facti, after their Bodies were publicly displayed when miraculous healings, receiving of graces and pilgrimages were connected to all three throughout the centuries.
In 1983, the “Collection of sacral art” was founded, and it was opened on 20 December 1984. The now deceased Mrs. Vesna Girardi Jurikić, the one time director of the Archaeological Museum of Istria in Pula, and later Minister of Education and Ambassador of the Republic of Croatia in UNESCO in Paris, has immeasurable merits for its founding. A total of 179 items are exhibited in the premises of the vestry. Dominating are valuable relics, oils, archaeological and liturgical items. The second part of the exhibit was placed on the upper floor and consisted of 534 exhibits. Here books, manuscripts, oils on canvas, polychromatic wooden sculptures dominated, so that this part was called “Library and pinacotheca”. The Collection of sacral art, in total, comprises of 713 exhibits from the 400 A.D. to 19th century, and the sacral exhibition is the largest in scale, in Croatia.
Pilgrimages were made to the church on the Feast day of St. Blasius, patron saint of diseases of the throat, when the faithful are anointed with blessed oils. In the votive days, the majority of the churches in the territory of the Vodnjan parish are visited by processions praying for blessings for the fields leaving and returning to the churches. The processions lasted three days. The last such procession was in 1949.
Next to the Church of St. Blasius, as a separate building, rises the bell tower which according to its style characteristics is reminiscent of the tower of St. Mark in Venice. The tower was built in the position of the old hospice in which the priests ran a school. Next to it was a type of inn, which was run by the Franciscans, and which served to accommodate poor travellers and the homeless. North-east of the “inn” was a fenced off area of the yard – for animals found in other people’s land or causing damage.
The bell tower was built in two phases. In the first phase, in 1815, with a roof at four metres led to the height of the bell. It was called the “parish tower” as opposed to the “town tower” in the citadel. In 1882 the need to extend the area for the bell arose. The parish priest from Bala, Giovanni Deperis created a draft for the new accommodation for the bell and for the construction of the pyramid. Due to financial reasons the design was simplified by the civil engineer Giovanni Sandri. The work cost 7000 forints and lasted for ten months. Thus the bell tower reached a height of 60 m, it was completed and officially handed over for use on 1 May 1883. Ten years later the church bells were worn out. After a collection among the inhabitants, new bells were purchased from Italy and brought over by boat to Fažana. During the course of WWI, two bells were confiscated for wartime purposes, while in 1923 new ones were cast, and these had a total weight of 2,400 kg, and were confiscated in 1942. According to some information, these bells remained unmelted and have been kept in a storage area in Udine. Unfortunately efforts to have them returned have remained unfruitful. Up until recently, only one bell was used, weighing 1845 kg.
On Sunday, 9 May 2010, the Bishop, Monsignor Ivan Milovan, blessed two new bells on the grounds. The middle one has a weight of 1080 kg with images of the Vodnjan co-patron saints, St. Lawrence and St. Quirinus, and the inscription “To the Holy Trinity, eternal glory!! Saint Quirinus, St. Lawrence, Pray for us“. While the lighter one weighs 780 kg with a symbol of the Annunciation, and the inscription: “„Deliver us from eternal death, o Lord!“. On both bells, according to tradition, the time period has also been indicated “During the rule of the Church by Pope Benedict XVIth and the parish of the parish priest Marijan Jelenić, 2010.”
The bells were inaugurated on 30 May on the Feast day of the Holy Trinity and the day of First Holy Communion. They will be rung according to old tradition: the middle one every day for the Angelus prayer and during Sunday Holy Mass, the middle and smaller one during the main Mass on Sunday, the small one for the deceased, and all three during the biggest Feast days and events.