Worshippers in Horné Krškany must dodge trains to get to church
Photos by James Thomson
Just south of Nitra, in what is now effectively an industrial suburb of the town (its main road is lined with trade outlets and motor repair businesses), is one of Slovakia's older churches.
St Mary's in Horné Krškany is a small, unprepossessing building on a low rise west of the main road; the front section is an ordinary Baroque affair. But the rear section is much older: recent archaeological work suggests it dates from the thirteenth century, and perhaps even earlier.
This discovery is in part thanks to the railway line which runs literally past the front door of the church.
In 1908, an ember from a passing steam train set fire to the church's straw roof, and it remained a ruin until the 1930s, when restoration work in the chancel revealed a fresco on the rear wall. Little significance was attached to it at the time: a curtain was hung to cover the unsightly blemishes.
It is only in the last three years, at the instigation of the present priest, a history enthusiast, that the church has been properly examined by archaeologists. In two years of painstaking work, the floor of the chancel has been lifted, uncovering a surprisingly deep original level, and the fresco has begun to be fully revealed.
The style is early Gothic, suggesting it was painted in the late thirteenth century. Its main part depicts the Last Supper, a fairly common theme for what is regarded as a typical, if rare, piece of village church art.
Of more interest to historians is a small section which shows a kneeling monk and, behind him, a building.
Is this the Benedictine monastery of Nitra?
Photos by James Thomson
It is a small picture, but it is thought that this may be the only known extant image of the Benedictine monastery which was established in Nitra some time between the 8th and 10th centuries. This is important because it was the first such Christian institution to be established in Slovakia, and hence holds an important place in the nation's history.
One theory is that monks from Nitra may have been responsible for building St Mary's and painting its fresco. The monastery was dissolved some time around the 14th century and little is now known about it.
Such small but incremental steps - an archaeologist at the site stresses that much work remains to be done - are the stuff of which history is made. The priest frets that the church is not often used and says he is keen to attract more visitors. But present-day recognition of the fresco's value - Nitra's mayor was paying a visit at the same time as the author - bodes well for its continued, remarkable survival.