The Bled island – a holy place

Slovenia celebrates its Culture Day in February and therefore culture and cultural heritage are at the heart of all February posts. Protection and appropriate presentation of cultural heritage is one of the requirements of sustainable destination development (More information).

The Bled island is small in size, positioned in the western part of Lake Bled. Like the castle, the island is a cultural monument of national importance. Cultural heritage and its symbolic value are the present which our ancestors have passed on to our generations. Thanks to its beauty, Bled has always been a magnet for artists, as well as a place of respect and deep spirituality.

 

A holy place

Sklop4-Blejski-otok-Foto_Tomaz-Sedej© Tomaž Sedej

Archaeologist Andrej Pleterski, a researcher of the so-called 'mythical landscape', has linked the island hypothetically with two more geolocation points, Dobra gora and Gradiška. Together, these three points are to form a ‘sacred triangle’ with a ritual angle of 23°. The ritual angle is the angle between the Earth’s axis and plane of the Earth’s orbit around the Sun, which is the apparent difference in the height of the Sun at the equinox and at the time of the summer and winter solstice. By logically arranging the landscape, Slavic settlers are believed to have created their cult space.

 

Settlement

 

The first signs of settlement date back to the New Stone Age. Archaeological excavations into conducted beneath the foundations of the oldest Early Medieval church revealed an outline of a rectangular building structure, which the findings possibly place in the Early Middle Ages. Due to the chronological placement of the building, scientists are considering the possibility that an older pre-Christian temple might have stood in that same location. Apart from material finds, the archaeologists also discovered an Early Medieval graveyard dating back to the 9th century AD, with 124 documented skeleton burials.

 

History

Jutranji-roza-odtenki-Blejski-otok-Ales-Krivec© Aleš Krivec

The history of the island is summarized in an account by conservationist and art historian Nika Leben. She claims that Lake Bled is a glacial formation from several thousand years ago, while the present-day shape of the island is the result of human intervention. Certain archaeological finds even consider a possibility that the island was settled as early as the New Stone Age, or the Neolithic, but definitely not later than in the 7th century BC. At that time there stood a small temple/shrine dedicated to the Nativity of Mary, which through centuries grew into a pilgrimage church of the Mary, Mother of God. The Bishops of Brixen received the Bled estate as a gift from German Emperor Henry II in 1004. They kept the estate in their possession until 1688, when the church passed into the hands of the Diocese of Ljubljana.

Archaeological explorations of the Bled island in the 1960s confirmed the existence of several wooden dwellings, and the most important finding was an extensive graveyard with over one hundred graves from the 8th and 9th centuries AD. The goods found in several graves confirm the existence of an Old Slavic graveyard or settlement that forms part of the Bijelo brdo culture.



The Bled island – St. Mary’s temple

Bled_jesenske_Jost_Gantar_MALA (18).jpg© Jošt Gantar

Already at that time there was a small shrine on the island which was initially dedicated to the Nativity of Mary. The original wooden chapel was later replaced by a built church with a rectangular flat-roofed nave and a semicircular apse hosting the altar. The chapel’s first mention in written sources originates from 1185, when the church probably hosted a double nave. The extension is believed to have been commissioned by the Bishops of Brixen who received the estate in 1004 in a gift deed from German Emperor Henry II, while further deeds granted until 1073 passed the estate to landlords who had extensive estates in the Upper Sava Valley.

The island was the subject of a dispute with Aquileia since the lands south of the Drava River fell under the Aquileian Patriarchate. The first time, the dispute was resolved in favor of the Diocese of Brixen in the mid-15th century. After the establishment of the Diocese of Ljubljana in 1461, the feud with Brixen continued until 1688, when the island church was finally passed on to the Diocese of Ljubljana (Read more).

 

Legends

Blejski otok pozimi - Bled - Ales Krivec© Aleš Krivec

The legend about the origin of the wishing bell in the island church was already presented in one of the earlier blogs (Read more).

In his poem The Baptism at the Savica, Dr. France Prešeren, Slovenian poet from the Romantic period, set up a temple to the goddess Živa. When crafting his Romantic character of the Old Slavic goddess of Živa, he relied on the older image of the goddess Živa. He also took into account the notes of Janez Vajkard Valvazor and Anton Tomaž Linhart about old Slavic gods. In the mentality of the Slovenian people, Živa has always been connected with life, seeding and harvest. 

According to Prešeren’s literary creation, the goddess Živa had a temple on the island in the middle of Lake Bled. It seems that Prešeren was right about the existence of a pagan temple on the island. The excavations made by archaeologists after World War II revealed the foundations of older structures beneath the present-day church. The findings included the foundations that supported the square-layout wooden building from the time of christianization, i.e. the mid-8th century. 

The next element that features strongly in the old belief in the goddess Živa is the lake. According to the old faith, this was the residence of the dead. The old tradition has evolved into Christian legends about the lake and the one about Lake Bled partly contains prehistoric elements. The wishing bell is reminiscent of the old prophecies made at the entrances of old temples. The character of the rich widow preserved an outline of the former goddess as well as the Lady of the Lake who can grant a wish to anyone who rings the bell.

Romana Purkart, Green Coordinator of Bled