Begun in 1301, the construction of Dubrovnik’s Dominican monastery (Dominikanski samostan) was very much a communal endeavour: owing to its position hard up against the fortifications, the city authorities provided the Dominicans with extra funds, and ordered the citizenry to contribute labour. The monastery is approached by a grand stairway with a stone balustrade whose columns have been partly mortared in, an ugly modification carried out by the monks themselves in response to the loafers who stood at the bottom of the staircase in order to ogle the bare ankles of women on their way to church. At the top of the steps a doorway leads through to a fifteenth-century Gothic Renaissance cloister, filled with palms and orange trees.

The monastery museum

Accessed via the monastery cloister, the Dominican monastery (Muzej dominikanskog samostana) has some outstanding examples of sixteenth-century religious art from Dubrovnik, including three canvases by Nikola Božidarević, the leading figure of the period, who managed to combine Byzantine solemnity with the humanism of the Italian Renaissance. Immediately on the right as you enter, Božidarević’s triptych with its central Madonna and Child is famous for its depiction of Dubrovnik prior to the earthquake of 1667, when both Franciscan and Dominican monasteries sported soaring Gothic spires. The most Italianate of Božidarević’s works is the Virgin and Child altarpiece of 1513, ordered by the Đorđić family (the bearded donor kneels at the feet of St Martin in the lower right-hand corner) – note the concerted attempt at some serious landscape painting in the background.

Much more statically Byzantine in style is Lovro Dobričević Marinov’s 1448 polyptych of Christ’s baptism in the River Jordan, flanked from left to right by saints Michael, Nicholas, Blaise and Stephen – the last was put to death by stoning, hence the stylized rock shapes which the artist has rather awkwardly placed on his head and shoulders. Cabinets full of precious silver follow, including the cross of the Serbian king, Stefan Uroš II Milutin (1282–1321), inscribed with archaic Cyrillic lettering, and a reliquary which claims to contain the skull of King Stephen I of Hungary (975–1038). The Baroque paintings in the next-door room are all fairly second-rate, save for Titian’s St Blaise and St Mary Magdalene – Blaise holds the inevitable model of Dubrovnik while sinister storm clouds gather in the background.

The monastery church

The Dominican monastery church (Dominikanska crkva) is very much an art gallery in its own right. Among the highlights are a dramatic Veneto-Byzantine crucifix, attributed to the fourteenth-century Paolo Veneziano, which hangs over the main altar, and a fine pastel St Dominic by the nineteenth-century Cavtat artist Vlaho Bukovac.

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