Wooden Churches and Their Paintings in the Maramures Region of Romania: A Preliminary Study
Weatherhead, Fran, Antiquity
In Europe the tradition of building in wood, which has roots reaching back into antiquity, is now mostly lost. Wooden architecture does, however, survive in parts of Eastern Europe, particularly in Romania. In addition to their architectural interest, the buildings contain a rich legacy of folk-art.
In northern Romania, in the Maramures region, many of the houses and churches are made of wood. These have walls made of timbers laid horizontally, typical of the once widespread technique of construction in Central and Eastern Europe, and distinct from that of Scandinavian church-building which is frame based and uses vertical wall planks.
Many of the churches contain wall-paintings, although some have deteriorated or have been scraped away, even comparatively recently. It was to study the state of the paintings and to make recommendations for their conservation that a three-member British team went to Romania in August 1992. A lengthy report has been prepared for the Directorate of Monuments in Bucharest; a brief introduction to the wooden churches and their paintings is given here, with a short examination of the church at Surdesti. The problems affecting the structure and paintings of this building are common to the majority of churches in the region.
Most wooden churches in the Maramures date from the 17th and particularly the 18th centuries (Buxton 1981: 216). Documents show that such churches are known to have been built since at least the 14th century (Vatasianu 1982: 306). The building of wooden churches may have been encouraged by a Catholic interdiction of 1271 which forbade followers of the Romanian Orthodox Church from building in stone (Mandrescu 1982: 313), although wood must always have been a common and convenient building material in the area: even now Romania is comparatively well wooded. Comparison of the plans of wood peasant houses and churches shows similarities, and it has been suggested that peasant houses may have had some influence on church design (Tosa 1973: 231, 252). The early churches were mostly destroyed during the Tartar invasions, the last being in 1717; many were subsequently rebuilt (Porumb 1982: 310). Others were lost through decay (Tarnavschi 1982: 311).
Many architectural studies have been carried out on the wooden churches by the Romanians, but these buildings are not widely documented in the West, with the exception of a remarkable book by David Buxton (1981) which places them in a wider East European context.
The paintings date with few exceptions from the second half of the 18th century, and throughout the 19th century. They appear to have been painted, in the main, by travelling artists, often born locally. Particular artists are known and have been extensively studied by Romanian art historians Stefanescu 1968; Pop-Bratu 1982; etc.). In the wooden churches the iconography adopted by the Orthodox and Uniate churches is painted in a folk-art style, with more modern influences coming from Western Europe, including baroque features in the 19th century. Like the medieval wall paintings found in English churches, there is a didactic, moralising content to the subject matter, serving to inform a largely illiterate rural population. The repertoire includes scenes from the Old and New Testaments, along with figures of the saints, and occasionally scenes from Christian tradition, such as the life of the Virgin Mary.
In the Maramures region, 16 wooden churches were visited by the British team, and a detailed study made of the church at Surdesti.
Surdesti, Church of the Holy Archangels
The date the church was built is usually given as 1724 (Dragut 1976: 293; Buxton 1981: 236), or 1738 (Tarnavschi 1982: 313). There is a local belief that it was moved from a previous location (churches are known to have been moved between villages in the Maramures), but close inspection of the building shows no good evidence for this. The walls are made of massive baulks of oak, the usual timber for this purpose -- spruce baulks used in the nearby Iza Valley have not survived so well. …