Wooden Churches

A collective work, often anonymous, the wooden churches are a reflection of socio-economic and historical conditions, a convincing demonstration of the continuity of a spiritual life of ancient tradition. They are documents of certain authenticity, not only because of their appearance, which reflects the unity of the Romanian people, but also because of the role they have played in the life of the Transylvanian Romanians: national tribune, school, cultural and artistic establishment, realities whose meaning is harmoniously intertwined with their attribute of being a community foundation.


In other words, the wooden churches represent a defining reality for the spiritual geography of the Romanian people everywhere.


The wooden churches are an unequivocal reflection of Romanian unity, fully supporting the statement of the great historian Nicolae Iorga: “the multilateral creation of our people is the same throughout all the provinces”, and at the same time they are a convincing testimony “that the Romanians were everywhere at home in the great Carpathian space and that unfortunately even in modern times, the process of the removal of ancestral possessions and denationalization was carried out to the detriment of our people”.


Among the historical aspects for which the wooden church is established as an eyewitness we highlight the one concerning the ethnic process that occurred in the Transylvanian settlements in the given historical conditions. Poor, deprived of rights and of the possibility of maintaining their own school, after a long resistance, they were either denationalized or expelled from their ancestral land.


For the Romanians from the villages on the Mures, Arieș and Târnave rivers, the wooden churches bear witness to the serious consequences of the denationalization actions to which they were subjected, often accompanied by religious persecution. This is why they also saw wooden religious buildings as signs of hope for national liberation.


Looking at the situation in this light, we can understand the remarkable value of the churches on the Mures: Porumbeni, whose wood preserves the writing of the 16th century, that of Văleni (formerly Oaia), built in 1695 – 1696, under the protopope Toader “with the help and all the expense of the village”, that of Păcureni or that of Valea (formerly Iobăgeni), built from the foundations “by the honest villagers, in place of the scattered one”, that of Sântandrei – Miercurea Nirajului.


Wooden churches have brought from the depths of history, constructive systems, types of plan, decorative patterns, elements that have given them the attribute of documents of the birth, existence and durability of the Romanian people, of its creative spirit.


Being peasant creations, they have many features in common with the traditional house: they are close in size to the house, they are built from the same raw material (wood), using the same techniques (such as “blokbau” or “in wreaths”). In terms of the construction plan, wooden churches (like wall churches) comprise the pronaos, nave and altar, arranged along the longitudinal axis of the building, to which, in some cases, the porch is added (as is common in Transylvania and sometimes in Oltenia, Muntenia or Moldova). These monuments have a remarkable architectural unity in which the knowledge of the use of space is manifested in lines and volumes that express strength and grace, boldness, but also balance and measure.


The decoration of the wooden churches is also similar to that of the peasant houses (from the massive wooden baseboards, the heads of which are often carved in the shape of a stylised horse’s head, to the heads of the rafters supporting the eaves of the roof, the same ornamental system is evident). Thus, alongside linear motifs and geometric compositions (rhombuses, circles, rosettes), we find plant motifs (flowers, vine, trees), either incised or painted in polychrome. The decoration linked to religious symbolism, almost always pictorial (figures of saints, angels, scenes from the Christ cycle, etc.), created by the peasant-painters, follows the same laws of balance and measure.


Some aspects of the technique of execution or iconographic development are dictated by the special forms of wooden architecture and the way in which this material is prepared to serve as a support for a ‘solid ornament’. The pictorial registers generally include the carved wood and icons, altars, vaults or paintings of the founders. The technique used is often tempera applied directly to wood, tempera on canvas, tempera on glazed wood or even fresco on plastered wood.


The painting sets in the wooden churches of Arad (Groșii Noi, Julița and Troaș) and Hunedoara (Lunca Moților and Bejan) which are the subject of this presentation, dating from the 18th and early 19th centuries, are an eloquent proof of the craftsmanship of the peasant painters.


Although the iconographic ensemble of these churches was originally quite rich, today they only preserve scenes from the Christological Cycle – the Last Supper, the Judgement and the Mocking of the Saviour, the Way to Calvary, the Carrying of the Cross, the Crucifixion and the Mourning of the Saviour.


Also preserved in several medallions are moments from Genesis, the image of Mary with the Child or Mary Praying framed by archangels and angelic cohorts, the faces of prophets and women, in the decor of arches, the archangels Michael and Gabriel surrounded by angelic cohorts.


From a stylistic point of view, the painting of these churches represents a synthesis of Byzantine and Gothic (gradually the Gothic component will become paler and the Byzantine one will be accentuated against the background of the new conditions of evolution of the Romanian society in Transylvania, able to maintain active relations with the Romanian Countries, where the development of the arts benefits from the substantial contribution of Byzantine experiences).


The small “architectural reserve” made up of the wooden churches of Groșii Noi, Julița and Troaș (Arad) and Lunca Moților (Hunedoara), which has been under the protection of the National Museum of the Romanian Peasant since 1991, is part of a wider plan initiated by the museum with the aim of re-establishing links with the land and the institutions of the traditional village.