Croatia’s Medieval Enigma: The Mysterious Figure Carved on a Marble Relief

Mysterious figure in marble, 11th century. Image: CC BY-SA 3.0

Nestled within the serenity of Jupiter’s Temple in Split, Croatia, a pagan sanctuary turned into a baptistery during the medieval era, and etched onto the marble, an enigmatic relief of the king weaves together the grace of royalty and the allure of historical mystery, captivating all the lovers of medieval history. The enigmatic relief, cloaked in centuries of mystery, is a genuine historical enigma that mesmerizes with regal elegance and a magnetic allure.

Temple of Jupiter, entrance. Diocletian’s Palace, Split, Croatia. Image: Carole Raddato (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Dynamic World of 11-th Century Croatia

The relief is a legacy of the dynamic world of 11th-century Croatia, where political intrigue, social transformation, and international relations wove together a captivating tapestry of history. In the 11th century, Croatia navigated complex political landscapes. The kingdom balanced relationships with neighboring powers such as Hungary, Byzantine Empire, and the Papal States. Also, after the losses in the previous centuries, Croatian rulers tried to return Dalmatia under their government. 

Amidst the political intricacies, 11th-century Croatia witnessed a profound social transformation. The rise of feudalism and the consolidation of power reshaped the societal structure, with nobles assuming influential roles and serfs experiencing evolving status. Moreover, the Croatian people witnessed a cultural renaissance, embracing new artistic expressions, architectural achievements, and intellectual pursuits. The fusion of indigenous traditions with influences from neighboring realms fostered a vibrant cultural tapestry, shaping the identity of Croatia and fostering a spirit of intellectual curiosity.

In the context of international relations, Croatia‘s position as a bridge between East and West bestowed upon it a unique significance. Its location at the crossroads of trade routes facilitated economic prosperity and cultural exchange. Through vibrant port cities such as Zadar and Dubrovnik, Croatia became a melting pot of ideas, goods, and influences, attracting merchants, scholars, and travelers from distant lands. This cultural melting pot not only enriched Croatian society but also positioned the kingdom as an influential player in the global arena, with its merchants and diplomats fostering connections that spanned continents.

Mysterious Figure Carved in Marble 

The relief, portraying a mysterious visage of the Croatian ruler, is the oldest such representation in the country’s history. It is carved in the 11th century.

The relief shows three men. On the right, there is a crowned ruler on the throne. He holds the royal orb in the left hand, and the cross in the right hand. On the left, there is a man who stands. His arms are in a position as if carrying an object that has been subsequently erased. But there are some traces left on his chest and stomach. On the bottom, the third man lies prostrate with his arms outstretched towards the throne, deeply bowing in prayer (proskynesis). Above the scene stretches a wide band adorned with interlaced ornamentation, while below it is a narrow, smooth band with faint traces of erased letters.

The relief of the king exudes an air of grandeur, with its striking details and masterful execution. The king’s countenance reflects authority and wisdom, emphasized by the intricate adornments and noble regalia that envelop him. His serene expression hints at a life steeped in honor and power. It is as if he watches over the Baptistery, imparting a sense of divine protection and guidance to all who enter.

Delving into the symbolism of this magnificent relief, we encounter a tapestry of meanings that intertwine to reveal a deeper narrative. The king’s presence symbolizes the divine right to rule, with his regal attire reflecting earthly power and the divine mandate bestowed upon monarchs. The relief, a fusion of religious and secular themes, pays homage to the intertwining of the spiritual and temporal realms during the Middle Ages.

Moreover, the intricate details of the relief, such as the crown, scepter, and richly textured garments, convey notions of leadership, sovereignty, and prosperity. They invite us to contemplate the delicate balance between earthly kingship and spiritual devotion. The relief thus serves as a reminder of the aspirations and ideals that guided medieval society.

Damnatio Memoriae?

Some experts claim the relief shows Christ the Savior, but others claim it depicts a righteous ruler, the Croatian king. Also, when it comes to the ruler, the opinions are divided. While some state the ruler is King Zvonimir (1075 – 1089), others think it is his predecessor Petar Krešimir IV (1058-1074).

Petar Krešimir IV is recognized as the king by the city and the Archbishopric of Split. J. F. Mücke, Reiffenstein & Röch, Zagreb; Vienna, 1868

Adding to the mystery, the erased inscription fuels the intrigue. So, was it a sort of political damnatio memoriae? It remains an enigma.

11th Century Righteous Leader

Zvonimir’s Oath shows us what did it mean to be a righteous leader in 11th-century Croatia

“In the name of the Holy and Undivided Trinity. In the year 1076 of the Lord’s incarnation, in the 14th indiction, in the month of October. I, Demetrius, also known as Zvonimir, by the grace of God, Duke of Croatia and Dalmatia, from you, Lord Gebizon, having obtained power through the legation of our Lord Pope Gregory from the Apostolic See, in the Synod of the Basilica of St. Peter in Salona, with the unanimous and harmonious election of the entire clergy and people of the Croats and Dalmatians, vested with the banner, sword, scepter, and crown, do devote, promise, and pledge to you that I shall unwaveringly fulfill all that your revered sanctity enjoins upon me. Namely, that in all things and in all respects, I shall observe faithfulness to the Apostolic See; and whatever the Apostolic See or its legates have decreed or may decree in this kingdom, I shall irrevocably safeguard, cultivate justice, defend the churches, act as a procurator for the first fruits, tithes, and all things pertaining to the churches. I shall ensure the virtuous and regular life of bishops, priests, deacons, and subdeacons. I shall protect the poor, widows, and orphans. I shall dissolve unlawful unions, establish legitimate dowries through the ring and the blessing of the priest, and prevent their corruption. I shall oppose the sale of human beings. In all matters that pertain to the state of righteousness, I shall act as God’s agent. I establish that the tribute of two hundred Byzantine coins from all my subjects shall be annually paid to the holy St. Peter on the day of the Lord’s resurrection, by the counsel of all the primates, from the kingdom granted to me. I believe, confirm, and decree that those who will reign after me shall perpetually preserve this. Furthermore, I donate, grant, and confirm to the Apostolic See of St. Gregory the monastery known as Urana, along with all its treasure. Namely, the silver chest containing the relics of the sacred body of the blessed Gregory, along with two crosses, a chalice and paten, two golden crowns adorned with gems, a silver-bound Gospel, and all its movable and immovable goods. This is so that the delegates of St. Peter shall always have a place of hospitality and complete authority, with the understanding that no other authority shall be given, but that it shall exclusively belong to St. Peter at all times, defended and free from any man, by me and my successors. But let whoever, with audacity and reckless daring, deprive the aforementioned monastery of its designated treasure, hear that terrible voice of the judge, which the devil with his angels will hear. Furthermore, since to serve God is to reign, in the place of the blessed St. Peter and our Lord Pope Gregory and those who will succeed them in the apostolic see, I commit and establish by this oath: I, I say, Demetrius, also known as Zvonimir, by the grace of God and the gift of the Apostolic See, from this hour onwards, shall be faithful to the holy St. Peter and my Lord Pope Gregory and his canonically succeeding successors. And whether the Pope himself or future pontiffs or their legates lose their lives or limbs, I shall not be involved in counsel or deed; and I shall knowingly keep secret any counsel entrusted to me to their detriment. The kingdom, which is entrusted to me by your hands, Lord Gebizo, I shall faithfully retain, and I shall never withdraw it or its rightful authority from the Apostolic See in any way whatsoever. I shall receive and treat my Lord Pope Gregory and his successors and legates, with honor and dignity, if they come into my power, and I shall kindly and graciously dismiss them. Wherever they invite me, I shall serve them sincerely and without reservation, to the best of my ability.”

So, protecting the weak, establishing the rule of law, and going against the sale of human beings were, among others the tasks of Zvonimir. 

“I shall protect the poor, widows, and orphans. I shall dissolve unlawful unions, establish legitimate dowries through the ring and the blessing of the priest, and prevent their corruption. I shall oppose the sale of human beings. In all matters that pertain to the state of righteousness, I shall act as God’s agent.”

The oath responds to a question about the meaning of the 11th-century righteous ruler. So, what is the secret of the relief? Who is depicted?

Petar Krešimir IV, the predecessor of Zvonimir, the most powerful Croatian ruler, expanded his government from rivers Raša to Drina, and from Drava to Neretva. Petar Krešimir allowed Rome to interfere in the home affairs of his kingdom and that led to the inner conflict. At the end of his reign, Petar Krešimir fought against Normans who occupied a significant part of Croatian territory but were expelled by the Venetian Republic the year after. 

King Zvonimir was committed to creating justice and the welfare of his people. During his reign, feudal relations developed like in other European states of that era, and he introduced new titles like comes, baron, and vlastelin. Although he put a lot of effort to create welfare for his country, the inner conflicts and intrigues weakened the state. Also, as an ally of the Pope, Zvonimir was often occupied with war for the interests of the Pope. The people weren’t satisfied with that fact, so Zvonimir was killed at the assembly by Knin in the year 1089.

Petar Krešimir IV or Zvonimir? What is the secret of the marble relief? Image: AI

The scene of the relief lefts an observer with a deep appreciation for the fusion of art, history, and spirituality that characterizes this masterpiece. The relief’s ability to transport us back in time, evoking a sense of wonder and awe, is a testament to the enduring power of art to transcend centuries and captivate the human imagination.

Both kings were dedicated to the welfare of the country. But they were also a subject of intrigues. As there is no inscription, it’s hard to decipher which king, or who is on the relief. It appears that attempts were made to erase their memory, but history’s defiance has preserved the enigma, leaving us to unravel the legacy.

Zvonimirova zavjernica, Filozofski fakultet Sveučilišta u Zagrebu, URL:

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