Thu 27 Sep 2012
This episode of my vacation journal in Romania covers several monasteries and churches that we visited during the trip. Monasteries in Romania have in many cases an importance and signification beyond the religious dimension. The Romanians are historically deep religious people, and the location of Romania as a Latin nation surrounded by non-Latin peoples, and their adherence to the Eastern European faith (unique among Latin people) in a place in Europe which was for many centuries on the lines of meeting (and many times conflicts) between the Christian Orthodoxy and Catholicism, between Christianity and Islam only increased the meaning and importance of church in the Romanian history. Add to this the fact that in a nation of farmers and shepherds dominated for many centuries by foreign rulers the monasteries, priests and monks were the cream of the educated people and the preservers of faith and language and you will start to understand the role of the church and the fact that many of the monasteries in Romania are monuments of history, art, and religion at the same time.
The first monastery I will tell about is located at Polovragi. Its impressive wood gate reminded us that we were in the district of Gorj, not far from the birthplace of Constantin Brancusi.
1505 is the year the monastery was built, but most of the current structures and especially the church dedicated to the Laying of the Virgin Mary date from 1703, the time of the reign of the last Romanian king of Valachia, deposed and executed by the Ottoman sultan. The Interior paintings on the walls and on the ceiling date from that period and are of great beauty, unfortunately photography is forbidden inside the church.
As we were approaching our second objective, we crossed the village of Horezu, which is the place of manufacturing of traditional enameled pottery characterized by merry forms and vivid colors. Unfortunately a museum that was documenting the tradition closed and we were left with the commercial area on the road, with many shops, quite difficult and confusing for visitors to distinguish between the authentic works and cheap kitsch imitations.
The next objective that day was the monastery of Hurezi (or Horezu as it is somehow named, associating it with the current name of the neighboring village). The building for this complex was started also by Constantin Brancoveanu and was conducted between 1688 and 1714. The original structure was preserved as it was built three centuries ago, and the complex is protected by UNESCO. The church in the middle is dedicated to the saints Constantin and Elena (Constantine and Helen).
The arches at the entry in the church are a combination of painting, colored ceramics and curbed pillars, specific to churches and monasteries of Valachia.
The murals were painted in the years 1702-1703 by Andrei, Istrate and Hranite, three church painters well known during that time. The theme of the Last Judgment is quite frequent for the external walls of the monasteries in Romania, one will find it also at Voronet, and other monasteries in Bucovina. The main difference in the conception here is that the external walls are painted only in the pridvor - the terrace at the entry of the monastery and not all around as on the famous walls of the monasteries in Bucovina, which means less paintings, but better preservation, as the pridvor is in the Valachian monasteries completely covered by a roof.
I have to rely again on external sources for the images of the exquisite painting and of the altar inside the church, part of it recently renovated.
There is an active monastery life going on in Hurezi (as well as in the other monasteries that we visited) so that the dormitories, eating and studying places, as well as the economic facilities which rely on traditional agricultural and crafts are well maintained and interesting to visit for people who can allow spending more time in the surroundings.
Back in time by a few days here we are in Orsova where we visited one church and one monastery – this time both modern, built during the 20th century. The Orsova Catholic Church is one of the very few such religious buildings built during the Communist regime, which has in its sad record much more demolitions of churches, synagogues and mosques than building of such places. I have heard many people including friends of mine who belong to the noble profession of architecture expressing critical views related to this building. I actually liked it, the only critics I could bring is related to the fact that the state of preservation is not too good, the church looks much older than its 40 years (it replaced an old church covered by waters when the Iron Gates dam was built). Otherwise especially its interior looks like an aerial and well lit compound with interesting ideas inserted on the theme of the Cross.
The history of the Sfanta Ana (Saint Anne) monastery was much more agitated. Built between 1936 and 1939 it was not consecrated at the end of its building because of a bureaucratic conflict with the religious authorities. Then the war broke, the communists took the power and opening new monasteries was not part of their charter. Part of the time during the communist rule the complex was a restaurant, the troitze (praying places with crosses and statues) on the road to the hill were destroyed. Only in 1990, one year after the fall of the Communism the monastery was consecrated.
The setting is fabulous, on a hill dominating the city of Orsova, with a view to the Danube that reminds me the view to the Sea of Galilee from the Mount of Beatitudes (where another beautiful Catholic church is located). The wood work on the terraces is of special beauty and refinement and they resonate with the fully wood-carved churches in the North of Romania.
Most of the original painting of the building was destroyed by covering it with white paint during the Communist rule. The current interior painting belongs to Grigore and Maria Popescu.
A small museum preserves and honors the activity of the benefactor of the church, the man who financed the whole project. I have mixed feelings about this personality, who was a Romanian patriot and a fine journalist, but also a fierce nationalist and a collaborator with the antisemitic regime of dictator Ion Antonescu, who ruled Romania during the war and was the principal responsible of the crimes of the Romanian Holocaust. His newspaper Curentul (The Trend) was allowed to appear during the war because of the right and extreme-right positions it was expressing while most of the other newspapers were shut down. Secaru had the good luck of being abroad at the fall of Antonescu, so the process in which he was judged and condemned to the death sentence for collaboration and other crimes of war was judged in absentia and the sentence was never carried out. He lived in exile for the rest of his life (most of the time in Germany) and died in 1980. In 1990 his remains were brought back to Romania, and a few years later buried again in this monastery.