The Ceramics Collection

An important treasure of the National Museum of the Romanian Peasant is the collection of ceramic objects.


Practiced for centuries mostly in the rural centres, some of which still exist today, the pottery is represented in The National Museum of the Romanian Peasant by approximately 14,000 pieces. The initiator of this fund was Alexandru Tzigara-Samurcaș. The royal family’s interest in revigorating and supporting this craft made it possible to organize some national pottery contests. They were organised at the initiative of the Foundation „Princess Maria”, and there were two editions, in 1908 and 1910. An important number of the items produced during the contests were donated or bought for the museum, first of all the winning pieces, whose authors received money prizes (for instance, 100 lei for the first place). These new pieces were added to those already existent in the museum collection, some of them being acquired at the anniversary exhibition celebrating 40 years of rule of King Carol I, organized in 1906 in the Carol Park.


The Ceramics Collection increased gradually, counting around 3,000 pieces in 1953. As the old traditional pottery centres disappeared, unable to face the changes that were taking place in society, and the objects produced in the factories replaced the traditional ones, many of these objects were being acquired by the museum, for the national cultural benefit.


Pots used to prepare food, ewers, jugs, mugs, bowls, dishes, plates, tiles and house stakes are just a few categories of pottery used in the peasant household, which are still manufactured today, and which are well represented in our collection. They prove that there has always been an indestructible connection between the craft and the art of pottery, between its utilitarian and decorative functions.


Due to their shape, proportions, decor and colour, pottery of all kinds have had, besides their practical meanings, artistic virtues as well, deriving from the craftsman’s knowledge, inventivity and imagination, from his mastery of the techniques and trade. The pieces enclosed in this collection participate in the ornamentation of the interior, in fulfilling the rites of passage and highlighting the social hierarchy.


The items that are part of the collection were made following different techniques: hand modelling, the oldest technique of making clay pots, modelling on the „slow” wheel, modelling on the fast wheel (the potter’s wheel) and modelling in patterns.


In order to argue for the idea of unity in variety, we must mention that in Romania all the modelling techniques and ornaments known in the world are attested: incision (with the fingernail, with the comb, or with a metallic prick), fastening, painting before and after the first burning (with the finger, with the horn, with a brush, or a small broom), imprinting with the wheel (of clay or bone) and with wooden or clay seals, polishing with the stone, engobing and lacquering – actually, means of decreasing the porosity of the pots. The big categories of ceramic objects from the museum collection are ceramics with „girdles” from Biniș, Baia Mare, Oboga or Curtea de Argeș; pots painted before burning in Bihor and Banat, or ceramics painted with horn or brush before burning at Vlădești, Horezu, Leheceni, Târgu Lăpuș, Vama, Valea Izei; ceramics imprinted with the small wheel from Marginea, Dănești and Mădăraș; ceramic objects with seals from Oboga and Româna; pots polished with the stone at Marginea, Poiana Deleni, Mădăraș and Săcel; engobed cups, pots and platter from Vlădești.


This collection holds examples of objects from almost 300 centres. There are also the complete inventories of some pottery workshops from Hunedoara and Vâlcea, dating from the 19th century, which can give us a complex image of this craft. Thus, the main stages of preparing the clay before burning (cleaning, fermentation, tempering, modelling, drying, ornamenting) are suggested by the instrument used to perform them: troaca (a sort of pail), mezdreaua, cuțitoaia (a big knife, with two handles), the potter’s wheel,  făchieșul (a wooden instrument used for polishing the exterior side of the pot) and plotogul (a piece of rough leather used to smooth the edge), cornul (the cow horn, that helps decorate the pots) and gaița (a thin brush made of pig hair). The hand mill is not missing either –  a grinder used to finely grind the lead oxides and the sand or stone which were parts of the email composition that was applied on the pots between the two burnings. The presence of these tools in our museum becomes more and more important, especially since the mixing machine tends to replace all these stages that preceded the modelling, to which we can add the spread of the electric potter’s wheel or the electric oven.


In the collection the centres producing black ceramics are well represented: Marginea (Suceava), Dăneşti, Mădăraş (Harghita), Poiana Deleni and Tansa (Iaşi), Şimian (Mehedinţi). The  common element is that the pots are burned only once, and in the absence of oxygen they acquire a black, metallic colour.


Attested since the 17th and respectively 19th century, the Sekler centres near Ciuc: Mădăraş and Dăneşti, were famous for the black ceramics produced there and traded in a large area, which contained Braşov, Mureş and different areas from Moldavia. And this was in spite of the fact that they also produced large amounts of red emailed ceramics, decorated with green or brown-yellow, in certain periods of time. From the large range of pots modelled here we can mention: cabbage meat balls pots, pots for keeping the sour milk, pots for boiling the jam, saucepans for roast meat, patterns for cake, water pitchers having different sizes. The ornamentation is rather scanty, as the production consisted mostly of household goods. The decoration was made by wheel incision.


What is special about the Poiana Deleni centre among other centres of ”smoked” ceramics is the way of decorating it. Thus, on the burnt pots, ornaments of lime water were applied with a brush, following the pattern of geometrical and vegetal motives. Among the latter ones the most famous is the pod twig on which the seeds are also depicted, and the fir tree branch.


An important place in the ceramics collection is held by the objects from Săcel (Maramureş), the only centre in our country where the red unglazed pots are still polished with a stone (like the black ceramics). Through decor and shape, this centre reminds us of Dacian pottery, and through its burning installation it is related to the tradition of the Roman furnace. The Săcel ceramics was produced in a large number of forms: jugs, milk pots, mugs for the religious funeral celebrations, three legged strainer, big platters. These were polished with a stone, the decorative effect being given by the jag stripes and the wavy lines, of a light brown colour, painted with the brush.


Some characteristic pieces belonging to centres from Banat, like Biniș, Birchiș, Jupânești or those situated in the upper valley of Black Criș: Leheceni, Lelești, Criștior, are examples of outstanding artistic accomplishments of red ceramics without email. The emailing of simple or painted pots with motifs like the wave, the spiral, the wheel, the life tree was attested at Leheceni in the early 19th century, but it was definitely practised some time before. This process was initially meant to assure the impermeability of the pots, the artistic qualities were developed in time. Out of the numerous types of pieces obtained on Criș Valley, let us mention the ol (an oblong clay jar used to make the sour milk or to keep and carry water), cantile with a sieve (to prevent the impurities from getting into the pot), the dishes and the big bowls, the recipients for keeping the corn as well as the unglazed stove tiles decorated with vegetal motifs.


There are some more centres producing unglazed ceramics which are present in the museum’s collection, such as those from Găleşoaia (Dâmboviţa), Curtea de Argeş, Calvini (Buzău), and others.

In the patrimony of the collection there can be found enameled ceramics coming from a large number of pottery centres.


In this context we must mention the sgraffito ceramics, of Byzantine tradition, which used to be moulded in Bucovina in the 18th and 19th centuries, known to specialists as ”Kuty ceramics”, after the famous Galitian centre founded by the Armenian potters coming from Moldavia. The bowls, the pitchers, the dishes, the cups and also the stove tiles made by the Guzul craftsmen in the centres from Bucovina stand out both because of the decoration through incision and because of the technique (champeléve).


In the last century, this type of ceramics has been produced in the old centre of Rădăuţi. Constantin Colibaba and his family of potters had an important role in returning this type of pieces to the public (in the first half of the 20th century).

Pots of different shapes and functionalities hosted by the museum come from one of the most famous centres of enameled ceramics – Vama Oaş, nowadays extinct, after several centuries of activity. According to tradition, the craft was brought here by the Slovakian potters and taken over by Romanians and Hungarians, who continued it and left their mark on it. The ceramics made here was intended both for interior decoration and for daily use: plates, milk pitchers, big cooking pots, big bowls for taking the food to the field, dishes, straight pots for boiling which imitate the factory production, but also oluri, pots for the wedding godfather, with a different status.


These white pitchers with a specific shape (the body is a little bulging, directly tied to the tri-lobed mouth) are an essential element of an age-old custom which governed the relationship between the young married and their spiritual parents, the wedding godparents. According to tradition, the wedding godchildren had to give annually, on Easter, such an ol to their godparents. Hung on the girder of the godparents’ house, the pots told the passers-by how many pairs of godchildren that family had.


A wide range of pieces made at Horezu completes the collection, giving new examples of shapes, techniques and decorative motifs. Founded towards the last part of the 18th century, it was initially specialized in making dishes and plates. It diversified its production later by making cups, pitchers, flower pots and fat jars. Elegant vases reflecting partly Oriental influences, the Horezu pots were often meant for the landlords’ households. Based on the production of enameled ceramics, the centre enjoyed a well-deserved fame mainly due to the plates ornamented by jirăvire (the drip of colours from the edges of the pot towards the centre with the help of gaița, the pig hair brush, and the cow horn). Using this procedure, the pots were “enflowered” with motifs like “feathers” or “tears” of great delicacy, resembling a spider web. To realize them, the craftsman would draw on the dry plate a series of lines coloured with the horn, from which he slowly dripped the paint. Then, using the forementioned gaiţă (a small brush made of pig hair), he would intrude and spread the colour very little, while still wet, without interrupting the continuity of the drawing. Usually grouped in concentric circles on the edge of the plate, the decoration obtained like this surrounded a central motif: fish, sun, cock, spiral, church. Other widely used motifs were the vegetal ones (fir tree, clover, stalks), or the geometrical ones (ricrac, dots, lines). For more complex models, the cardboard pattern was used to draw the contours with the pencil. On the white background, seldom green (especially of the old pieces), the brown, red or green motifs made up images of a remarkable chromatic and decorative harmony.


In the Museum’s collection there are also Haban pieces of great artistic and documentary value. The most important one is a guild pot which belonged to the collector Virgil Demetrescu Duval, dated 1632; it is the oldest ceramic object of the collection. Actually, it was a rather usual practice for the chiefs of the guilds to talk to the Haban potters to commission pots of different shapes, with the emblem of their guild as an identity mark. The Habans were an Anabaptist sect persecuted by the Habsburgs, which took refuge in Transilvania, where they settled between 1621-1623, after staying for one century in Poland. By settling at Vinţu de Jos, they influenced the history and economy of this region, acting as an impulse for the development of pottery, as they were already producing a luxury faience, influenced by the one from Delft. They used their own recipes, one of these being the preparation of the opaque enamel from tin. Sgraffito pottery on cobalt blue background spreads from Vinţu de Jos to other secondary centres. Besides enriching the ornamental and morphological repertoir, the Habans invested the pottery with a new function – that of the decorative interior element.


As a result of these impulses, in the 18th century the Transylvanian Saxonic ceramics reached its peak, both from the quality and quantity points of view. The spectacular bloom of this craft can be followed through the evolution of the Saxonic ceramics centres like Saschiz, Chirpăr, Drăuşeni. It is not by accident that one of the most representative types of Saxonic ceramics is the Saschiz ceramics, a region where some groups of Habans lived temporarily, after 1763. Whether they are wine tankard (with „beak” or with wide mouth) or pear-shaped tankards, and flat plates, the pieces produced here are certainly very intensely coloured in blue, having in zgraffito decorations with contours of birds, stags under the tree of life, grapes, flowers or other vegetal motifs.

A different impression in this context is given by the stove tiles (cahla), mugs and pitchers made at Chirpăr, with a round body and a long, straight neck, which are shapes that obviously suffered Oriental influence. The decorative motifs, subject to the same Oriental influences, have the shapes of palmetto, hearts and fantastic flowers, outlined with blue. To these we can add horizontal girdles in relief, painted with yellow.


The above-mentioned Transylvanian Saxonic centres, as well as the one from Bistriţa, whose characteristic element is the sgraffito decor of Byzantine tradition in combinations of green and yellow on a white or blue background, also produced stove tiles. In the museum’s collection there are more than 800 such pieces, from the most diverse centres and epochs, and an important segment is made up of the enameled stove tiles produced at Bistriţa (rectangular and very small).


Besides the ceramics produced in the Saxonic centres, it is worth mentioning the Hungarian pottery. Numerous cancee (tankard) and faience plates made in the local manner but ”of Gyor type”, decorated with specific motifs (mainly floral and vegetal) on a white background, are in the museum collection.


There is also the perforated type of tankard, inspired from a Hungarian model but produced locally in the urban centres of Cluj and Gherla.


We cannot close the presentation of the collection without mentioning the wedding pitchers which come from 15 pottery centres, among which those from Oboga and Româna (Olt), and Curtea de Argeş (Argeş) are special. Most of them were created a century ago for the most important moment in man’s life, the moment he started a family; they bear the mark of an archaic symbolism. Many such items can only be understood by carefully analysing their shapes and ornamental motifs. It is not by accident that some of the most famous unique pieces in our collection have the shape of birds. They are realized with fantastic craftsmanship by modelling them partially with the potter’s wheel, and partially manually, and they represent a hatching hen with its chickens, as well as a stork with babies. The use of such motifs was meant to assure fertility to the new couple.


The range of symbols invoked to help the newly-weds was completed with stylized frogs, serpents, rams, cocks, horses, eagles, and some vegetal ornaments as well (the bunch of flowers, the stalk). The cross, as an atribut of divinity, was not left out of this assemblage of beneficial symbols. Emphasizing the ideea of the young couple’s union, the pitchers from Româna and Oboga often take the shape of androgynous figures, incorporating both male and female features.


One of the few elements of traditional architecture produced in the ceramic centres are the house bolds (carved pillars with sharp tips which fastened the roof rafters), represented in the collection by the pieces from Vâlsăneşti (Argeş), Calvini and Mânzăleşti (Buzău) or Tansa (Iaşi). Most of them date back to the second half of the 19th century. Since then, they have replaced in time, in certain parts of Oltenia, Moldova and Oltenia, the wooden spikes which fastened the big rafters of the roofs. However, besides their practical function of protecting against the infiltration of water, the bolds also had a decorative function. Depending on the ornamental motifs, they could protect the house and family from malefic powers, which explains the great variety of shapes and motifs that characterizes these pieces.


We cannot end this presentation without mentioning a special segment of the collection, which consists of seemingly minor objects – toys and clay miniatures. There are more than 1,000 pieces, representative for the production of this kind, realized at the end of the 19th century in centres like: Vlădeşti (Vâlcea), Pisc (Ilfov), Oboga (Olt). Together with the whistles with human or animal shape, there is a collection of miniatures after household goods: cups, saucepans, pitchers, baskets, inspired from the traditional kitchen tools of Baia Sprie and Baia Mare, moulded in the first half of the 20th century.