The religious art collection includes icons on glass, icons on wood, church vestments, woodcuts, crosses and religious seals.
Of these, a predominant part is the collection of icons on glass, and another 12 pieces, closely related to the former, are the icon-moulding templets.
The craft of painting icons on glass in Romania emerged and developed as a specialised craft, practised in centres of icon-makers spread throughout Transylvania, but also in Moldavia.
The problem of painting icons on glass cannot be elucidated independently of the development of this craft in other countries. In almost all the mountainous regions of Central Europe (Alsace, Bavaria, Switzerland, Tyrol, Upper Austria, Bohemia, Moravia, Slovakia) the art of glass painting is found.
In our country, this phenomenon has become a legend, the origins of which are linked to a miracle at the end of the 17th century at the Nicula Monastery near Gherla, in the county of Cluj. It is said that in 1699 an icon of the Holy Mary wept. Then the peasants wanted to have copies of this icon and created them themselves.
However, it should be noted that the spread of glass painting in Transylvania is not so much due to the specific technique based on copying a single model, but mainly to the social and cultural conditions in Transylvania at that time. After the inclusion of Transylvania in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1699, the cultural development of the Romanian people was related to the circulation of forms of art and culture specific to Central Europe, but modelled in their own national spirit, expressing the mentality and sensibility of the traditional Romanian village.
In form and content, the Romanian folk icons worked on glass give a surprisingly original touch to the phenomenon. Most often they use conventional elements. The schematisation is almost always naive, but capable of moving, of having feeling. Chromatics play a major role. The colours of the Romanian icons on glass are not strident, the folk artist always knowing how to weight the strong tone, placing it next to a warm one.
The innate decorative sense of the Romanian peasant manifests itself in the use of a geometric surface for a particular theme. A peculiarity of the Romanian icon on glass is the floral and geometric motifs of the decoration. To this is added the symmetry of the decorative compositions, in the sense of a balance in relation to the centre.
The icons painted by Transylvanian craftsmen depict saints who are common in the peasant’s home, painted in their own way, reflecting the depth of their soul. The variety of faces is impressive, with differences from one centre to another, from one school to another.
The thematic range varied according to the centre, repeating until saturation certain faces worked according to the template (called “tipar” at Nicula or “izvod” in the Șcheii Brașovului); at the same time original aspects were presented both in terms of subject and approach. Thus local elements appear in the everyday life of the village world: people in folk costumes, wagons of the Ardelean peasant type, water mills, houses, animals pulling the plough, women spinning, children in the cradle, etc. These components are always transposed to the background of the main theme. Iconic craftsmen also introduce into the structure of the composition elements such as representatives of power, included in the world of Hell as damned characters, family scenes (Mother of God nursing Jesus). The floral elements or the starry sky background, as well as the borders, give a particular touch to certain centres or works of well-known craftsmen.
The main centres of icon-makers known and represented in the museum’s collection are those of Nicula, Gherla (Cluj), Laz and Lancrăm (Alba), Șcheii Brașovului (Brasov), Sibiu and Făgăraș.
The icon painters were generally “country church painters” or “popes” (monks). However, there are also numerous known cases of the laymen grouped in teams or families.
The names of many icon painters have been lost in the mists of time, their art remaining anonymous, dedicated only to God. There are, however, icon painters who are beginning to take responsibility for their creation, signing and dating their works. Such names as Savu Moga or Matei Țîmforea remain registered in the pantheon of great creators, remaining alive in the consciousness of their descendants through their work, mostly preserved in museums or churches.
The main characteristics of the icons made in the Nicula centre are their naive but highly suggestive design and simple, clear composition. Very few characters are used, treated with great simplicity, and the backgrounds are decoratively resolved with ornamental vegetal elements (leaves, flowers) and less with geometric ones, freely arranged in the background. Architectural elements, such as the city of Jerusalem, appear very rarely.
Close to the Nicula centre is the Gherla centre, where icons were painted in a similar style to those of the neighbouring centre. The characteristic features of these works are the white fields decorated with flowers and red bouquets and the inscriptions in Latin letters.
Icons from the Șcheii Brașovului are characterised by: fine design, large and balanced composition, rich and harmonious colouring. Compared to the Nicula icons, they reflect a superior mastery of the means of artistic expression. Icons depicting the Mother of God, with large gold money necklaces, painted on one or two strings around her neck, show these elements of folk costume from Muscel or Bran.
In the Sebeș-Alba area, two important centres have developed since the 18th century, both for the age of the craft and for the beauty of the painting. These are Laz and Lancrăm.
The icons of Lancrăm are distinguished by their faded colouring with a white background in the older ones and a blue background in the newer ones. Characteristic for these pieces is their relatively small size and the fact that more characters appear in them than in those from Nicula.
Nicolae Zugrav and the Costea family, who developed this craft for three generations, worked in Lancrăm. In Laz worked Ion Zugravu, Simion Zugravu and his sons Toma, Ion and Ilie Poienaru, who in turn passed on this craft to their sons Aron, Partenie and Ilie Poenaru II. Other painters from the Rodean and Zamfir families worked alongside them. Most of the icons are dated and signed, and they stand out for their unique refinement within the genre. Often gold or silver leaf is used for the background.
Numerous centres of glass painting have been identified around Sibiu, such as Poiana Sibiului, Săliște, Rășinari, Miercurea, Rahău or Săcădate.
Painting in the region of Sibiu is distinguished both by a remarkable colouring in which the brilliance of gold combines with red and green, and by the finesse and expressiveness of the drawing.
In the 19th century, the activity of the centres in the Olt region also increased. Several famous icon painters worked here, whose names can be identified largely thanks to their dated and signed works.
One of the most important was Savu Moga; he came from Gherla and settled in 1843 in the village of Arpașul de Sus, where he worked for the rest of his life. It is assumed that when he came to Arpaș, he had already mastered this craft. His art is freed from the demands of symmetry and decorative concerns in favour of the narrative elements contained in the theme. His icons are distinguished by the elegance of their design, the variety of their colouring, and the development of multi-register compositions. His favourite themes are “Nativity”, “St. George” and “Resurrection”.
The most original of the icon painters is Matei Țîmforea. A pupil of Savu Moga, he expresses himself in his own way. His favourite themes are wide-ranging and deal with subjects such as “The Making of the World”, “Heaven”, “The Last Judgement”, “The Passion of Jesus”, “The Last Supper” and “St. Elijah”. He shows a lot of fantasy and daring in the way he conceives his scenes, using many characters (taken from everyday reality), angels, fantastic animals, arranged in several overlapping registers.
In the Făgăraș area, other names of icon-makers are also known, such as Ion Pop, Petre Tănase, Ion-Pop Moldoveanu, Ana Tămaș-Dej, Ion Purcariu, all contributing to the development of a specific technique of decorating icons on “glazed” glass. The glazier’s workshops in Transylvania produced a thin glass of 0.5-1.5 mm, which contained numerous air bubbles and “knots, due to imperfections” in the technique of softening, melting and stretching the paste. The surface of the glass thus became glazed, while giving the icon a particular vibrancy.
Icons on wood are another category of objects that have been hoarded and valued in important national and international exhibitions, including the oldest object in the collection: an icon of Saint Nicholas, dated 1698.
The icons of Muntenia are monumental, solemn, with an austere expression and sober colouring. Those in Moldavia stand out for their grace and more vivid colouring. Icons from these areas are less carefully crafted in technical terms, with craftsmen sometimes giving less importance to the wooden support and the preparation layer. The colours sometimes laid down in large patches are combined with regular gold hatching. In this way, the icons acquire a particular brilliance, like enamels or mosaics. From time to time, rich landscapes and architectures are included in their composition, with a tendency to see the depth of space and evoke the silhouette of local monuments. Many of the Moldovan and Transylvanian icons are characterised by a carved and gilded background, worked on a thicker preparation layer, in which Renaissance-type vegetal motifs have been incised.
In Maramureș, a graphic style accentuated by a naive lyricism dominates, and the chromaticism is somewhat more muted. Faces and garments are outlined with a single, strong line in brown or white. The figures of the saints have a slightly pointed oval of the face, the eyes distant and strongly marked. The sky blue accents and brightens these icons, with the patinated silver background, in which palms and oak leaves snake, beautifully harmonised with the central composition.
In Transylvania we see the violent burst of colour and vigorous graphics. Here the backgrounds are carved, forming a network of lozenges, in which crosses are inscribed, like those in altar paintings, miniatures and Gothic embroideries of the 14th-15th centuries. The faces of these icons have a full oval shape, similar to Flemish or German paintings. The eyes are strongly marked by brown outlines and white brushstrokes, highlighting the arches and eye inserts. The drawing and modelling of the hands are typical of this group of icons.
In Banat there is a fine, mannerist drawing and a temperate colouring, without exaltation of the colour spot. The typical icons from this area combine the Brâncoveanu and Balkan traditions with the local, original and daring interpretation of faces and hands.
A special type of object is the hand crosses and religious seals.
Particularly noteworthy are the donations of Marian and Luminița Iacob (185 19th and 20th century pieces from the Muntenia area) and the valuable collection of Constantin Movileanu-Bobulescu (8 19th century pieces from Moldova). Used for the consecration of the presbyters, the religious seals attract attention by the diversity of forms they take.
Stone crosses, tomb crosses, objects of worship (candlesticks, chalices, candles) and religious books complete the typology of the Religious Collection.
The artistic working of stone, a craft that preceded the art of woodcarving in our country, is closely linked to this, especially through ornaments. Stone carving was mainly practised in the Subcarpathian region, where a wide variety of rocks of different qualities are found, and had a pronounced functional character. Alongside this type of stone carving, religious, votive and funerary art developed to a greater extent. The theme of folk stone carving is related to other genres of folk art, such as religious murals and icons on wood. The hieratic schematism emphasising asceticism or suffering, dictated by church doctrine, is repeatedly cancelled out by the naive but powerful realism of the characters. They are presented in forms that reveal, through details of clothing and attitude, resemblances to characters from everyday life, models in the immediate vicinity of the creators.
The museum’s collection contains about 70 specimens of stone crosses, acquired from the counties of Ilfov (Dobroești village), Ialomița (Alexeni village), Hunedoara (Gurasada and Lunca Moților villages), Alba (Țebea village) and Bistrița – Năsăud (Livezi village).
In the collection of religious books there are the Bible, the New Testament, prayer books and the Psalter of Ștefan cel Mare (Stephen the Great).
Since 1997, the collection has been enriched with an exceptional collection of religious manuscripts, the work of the miniaturist Picu Pătruț (1818-1872). A self-taught peasant, originally from Săliște, Sibiu, who became a monk in 1849 at the Cheia Monastery and then returned to his native village, Picu Pătruț created a unique work in the treasury of our art. Miniaturist, hymnographer and imnologist, copyist of some of the most important works of his ancestors and contemporaries, Picu Pătruț is an outstanding representative of the Romanian popular genius of the last century. His work includes original verses in popular style, describing the lives of saints and the main events of the Old and New Testament, but also social, moral and patristic slogans taken from the work of his predecessors and contemporaries, such as Anton Pann, Ioan Tincovici, Ioan Barac or Vasile Aaron. In addition to these, there are numerous colour miniatures with which he illustrated his manuscripts.
Since 1991, six churches have also been acquired, demonstrating once again the ingenuity and skill of the peasant craftsmen in constructing religious buildings, as well as of the church painters who, through their work, have become a source of inspiration for peasant icon painters.
Two of them have been moved to the museum: the wooden church of Bejani, Hunedoara, and the wooden church of Mintia, Hunedoara.
The other four churches at Julița, (Arad), Lunca Moților, (Hunedoara), Troaș, (Arad) and Groșii Noi, (Arad), are preserved “in situ”, making up the presence of the National Museum of the Romanian Peasant in these areas.