Stories Washed Away by Time

Romania’s cultural heritage is just beginning to catch the attention of art lovers around the world. In this article, we will discover how this heritage is fading.

text and photos by Bruno Pavan

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Traveling through Romania can be an alienating experience: there are a chronic lack of basic goods and services, endless lines for fuel and a tremendous amount of bureaucratic red tape. Sooner or later the visitor despairs – it appears that little, or nothing, can redeem this country from its abject poverty. And yet wealthy Western Europe is at its back door.

Romania’s ruthless dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu (1965-1989), forced his nation to industrialize – with little regard for economic and ecological factors. Nevertheless, Romania remains primarily an agricultural country that functions much as it did in the 19th century.

Today, however, huge industrial complexes dot the landscape, monuments to Ceausescu’s poor planning. Many are empty shells, but from the smokestacks of those factories that still operate, heavy black soot blankets the surrounding villages.

These oppressive impressions dissolve, however, when one penetrates Romania’s northwestern province of Moldavia. Here one is surrounded by treasures that cannot be found elsewhere.

Whether hiding between mountains or lying among hills, Romania’s medieval monasteries and the frescoes that emblazon the exterior walls of their churches reflect the life and times of this nation located in the heart of the Balkan peninsula.

Modern Romania, which was created in the 19th century, is composed of three former principalities: Walachia, Transylvania and Moldavia. Although most of the people who inhabit these regions are ethnically and linguistically related to the West, most Christians practice Christianity in its eastern, or Byzantine, form; the only Latin people to do so. The overwhelming majority of Romania’s believers are Orthodox. The Byzantine Catholic Church, which was suppressed by the communists in 1948, was reestablished after Ceausescu’s fall.

Throughout much of the 14th century, and for most of the 15th, medieval Romania, like its Balkan and Byzantine brothers, waged war with the Turks.

By the mid-15th century, Walachia and Moldavia had fallen while Transylvania had been absorbed by the Hungarians and Germans. Constantinople, the heart of Orthodoxy, was captured by the Turks in 1453 and became the capital of the Ottoman Empire.

However the princes of Walachia and Moldavia did not lose their autonomy completely. Acting as the vassals of the sultan, these Machiavellian princes collected taxes and paid tribute to the new emperor in Constantinople. Yet they styled themselves as heirs of the Byzantine realm – erecting churches, cathedrals and monasteries.

In 1600 a scheming Walachian prince, Michael the Brave, proclaimed himself prince of Walachia, Transylvania and Moldavia, briefly uniting the region for the first time since the first century.

But Michael’s reign ended one year later when he was captured and executed by representatives of the Holy Roman Emperor, whom he had betrayed.

This devastating period of war, subjugation and dashed hopes was boldly captured in full color by artists – popular historians who painted the exteriors of Moldavia’s churches.

Today historians liken them to pages in a manuscript, images created for communicating faith and legend to an illiterate population.

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Tags: Orthodox Church Art Communism/Communist Romania Byzantine Catholic Church