On the way from central Croatia to the northern and central Adriatic, very soon after the passing through the tunnel of Mala Kapela, in the picturesque lowlying area crossed by the motorway, you will see a little village in the centre of which, on a small elevation, surrounded by ruins, rises the imposing mass of an old building. This is Sokolac Castle, which once belonged to the powerful Croatian dukes or princes of Krk; it includes one of the finest Late Gothic religious buildings in Croatia. In the restless times of the Turkish invasion, people sought security below its powerful walls, and so the settlement of Brinje developed.
Such castles or burgs are one of the phenomena of the European Middle Ages,and constitute the most easily recognisable symbol on the land. Places that today tend to be in ruins were for centuries the centres of the political, economic and cultural life of the country.
The appearance and development of burgs in Croatia is connected with the strongest aristocratic families of the time. Brinje, which is mentioned in historical documents for the first time in 1343 was the most important seat, together with Modruš, of the princes of Krk in the whole area of Lika. In 1412 King Sigismund spent several days in their Brinje, while in 1424 the prince played host to the king of Denmark, Erich VII. As well as them, the Krk princes entertained other important personalities in Brinje. In 1396, for example, Enguerrand VII. Lord of Coucy stayed here on his journey from France via Senj to Buda.
In 1430 the pope of the time authenticated the descent of the princes of Krk from the old Roman family of the Frangipans, hence giving them the right to a new family name and a new coat of arms. Through their political decisions and dynastic marriages, the Frankopans strengthened their economic power, spread their political influence and estates to the more certain northern regions of Croatia. When Bosnia fell in 1463, the Ottomans came extremely close to their old estates, after which King Matthew Corvin confiscated Gacko and part of the Croatian northern littoral area together with the city of Senj, establishing in the area the first organised defence of the border. On the death of Corvin in 1490, the Frankopans re-established their control of their old possessions, but very soon after that, when the Croatian army was crushingly defeated by the Turks at the Battle of Krbava in 1493, years of extreme insecurity ensued. And after the even more disastrous defeat of the Hungarian forces at the Battle of Mohacs, the Frankopans gathered together the representatives of the Croatian nobility at the electoral parliament held in their burg of Cetin, at which on January 1, 1527, Ferdinand I Habsburg was elected king of Croatia. Fully aware that Brinje was indefensible when confronted with the mighty Turkish army of the time, after several years, the Frankopans ceded the castle to the royal authority, which placed a permanent garrison in it. Although Brinje was several times menaced by the Ottoman army, it was never actually taken.
At the time of the princes of Krk, Sokolac was an extremely grand building, dominated by the powerful perpendiculars of the entry tower and the Chapel of the Holy Trinity. The entry into the burg was through a square, three-storey tower, the façades of which were relieved with lesenes linked at the top with blind arcades, making it a unique specimen in the whole of Central Europe. Opposite the tower, the eastern side of the rectangular court was closed by the powerful volume of a two-storey palatine chapel that is unique in Croatian terms, and on the north by a palace, which has its main elevation, relieved with large Bohemian windows, facing south, while on the southern side of the court lay the utility buildings. The prestigious palatine Chapel of the Holy Trinity abuts on its outer side onto the eastern bailey. Because of the steepness of the hill, the chapel rises above a substructure that has the same ground plan and height, but with a more modest interior detailing. The chapel is a central building with two equally long axes.
Opposite the masonry-built choir, the chancel with its polygonal ending continues from the area of the nave to the east; on the south it joins an equal sized space dedicated to Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows. The chapel, very high and featuring an articulated floor plan, is lit evenly by high one- and two-mullioned windows. Raised above the ground between the side chapel and the bailey a sacristy has been wedged. All the four areas of the chapel are spanned with crossrib vaulting, the key stones of which feature the coats of arms of the Krk princes and the powerful Gorjanski family of Slavonia, with whom they were allied by marriage. The princes attended mass in the choir, which they accessed by a wooden gallery from the first floor of the palace. The servants came into the chapel by separate stairs from the courtyard.
After the standing garrison took charge of Sokolac, the one-time grand aristocratic burg became a counter-Turkish fort, and the military engineers had to bring its defences up to date. On the site of the utility buildings they put up a low semicircular bastion; they put a high wall across the courtyard; and secured the whole position with another external defensive wall, reinforced with semi-circular half towers and a square entrance tower. They bricked up all three original entrances into the chapel, and put musket slits where they had been; they opened new entrances into the chapel from the internal side of the newly built wall. In 1653 a new floor was laid down in the chapel, and instead of the Gothic winged altars, new tall and narrow Mannerist altars were installed, into which were worked Gothic statues of the Madonna and Child and a Pieta (around 1430), very likely taken from the older altars.
After a full three centuries, the army abandoned Sokolac. The parish still had to care for chapel, but everything else was allowed to go to rack and ruin. The first modern Croatian historian, Ivan Kukuljević Sakcinski, wrote in 1869 the oldest account of the history of Sokolac. In the same year, famed Zagreb photographer Ivan Standl made the first photographic records of the castle. In 1884, Martin Pilar, studying in Vienna, did the first architectural drawings of the chapel, and chose a design for the reconstruction of Sokolac for his dissertation.
In 1901 the whole eastern façade of the entrance tower collapsed, and in 1917 the chapel was seriously damaged by an earthquake. In World War II, the sacristy was damaged. The shoddily executed repair works following the earthquake and the subsequent poor maintenance led in 1963 to the collapse of a major part of the western elevation. At once came repair work during which the façade was renewed, as was the roof of the chapel, the vaulting and the choir were renovated, and the sacristy was reconstructed. After all these building works have been completed, the restored altars will be placed in the chapel once more.
The attractive substructure of the chapel houses a permanent museum display in which visitors are provided with a succinct account of Sokolac and the role of the Krk Frankopans in Croatian history. The restoration operations were managed by the Republic Institute for the Protection of Monuments of Culture in Zagreb (up to 1971) and by the Croatian Conservation Institute (after 1983). Funding was provided by the RSIZ for culture of the Socialist Republic of Croatia up to 1991 and by the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Croatia after 1997.