Wooden Churches of Maramures, Romania

Wooden Churches of Maramures

The complex of wooden churches in the historical area of Maramuresh in northern Romania was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004. All eight churches, built in the XVII-XVIII centuries from logs, have a common architectural style – and at the same time, each of them is very individual.

Maramures is a poetic region on the border of Romania and Ukraine, where folk traditions are particularly strong even today. Many of the locals wear national costumes and handmade headdresses in everyday life, adhere to ancient customs, and remember and perform rituals that are many centuries old. Traditional wooden architecture and carvings make almost every local village look like an ethnographic museum. There are literally hundreds of wooden churches in Maramures, but only eight of them are recognized as part of the world’s cultural heritage. The historical area of Maramures belonged to the Dacian ancestors of the Romanians two thousand years ago. Neither the Roman occupation, nor the migration of the Goths, Huns, Vandals, Slavs and other peoples, nor the Hungarian expansion, were able to dilute the national identity of the local inhabitants. It is from these places that the Mushatine dynasty, to which Stefan the Great, the most famous Romanian in the history of this nation, belonged in the fourteenth century, originated. In many ways, the isolated location of this historical area has contributed to the preservation of folk traditions. During the days of Easter and Christmas people from all over Romania come here, to the north of the country to join the folk culture – songs, dances and colorful festivals, original carpets and ceramics, woodcarving, painting on glass. And, of course, to stand at the service, light a candle and read a prayer in one of the local wooden churches, the oldest of which is 300-400 years old. As already mentioned, the most interesting are eight of these churches, located in Budesti, Desesti, Barsana, Poienile Izei, Ieud Deal, Surdesti, Plopis, Rogoz. Their distinctive architectural style developed where Byzantine and Western European temple architecture met and fully absorbed the centuries-old traditions of local wooden architecture. This applies both to the appearance of the temples of Maramures and to the unique interior of each of them. By the way, all these churches are active – in them and in our time there is a full annual cycle of services. Church of the old monastery Byrsan is consecrated in honor of the feast of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It was built in 1711 by a village priest, together with his sons and the locals, to thank the Lord God for saving them from a plague epidemic in a place with the unusual name of Părul Călugărului (Monk’s Hair). The church was dismantled 28 years later and moved to the valley of the river Iza, where it became a cemetery – the pogost in this place appeared in 1717 after a battle of local residents with the Tatars. But even here it did not stay long by historical standards. In 1795 the church was dismantled again and moved to another cemetery, where those who died during the plague epidemic of 1742 were buried. Already here, the interior of the church was painted by the artist Hodor Toader, who combined the Baroque and Rococo styles in his work. The painter depicted scenes of the Last Judgment, the Passion of Christ, and other subjects of the Old and New Testaments. Some of these paintings have not survived to our time. But the skillfully carved ornaments of the temple, both outside, and inside are perfectly preserved. Another of the eight churches is located in the village of Jehud and is consecrated in honor of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This austere and elegant at the same time, it also dates from the beginning of the XVIII century. The interior of the church, including the doors, is painted with frescoes by the artist Alexandru Ponehalschi, who completed his work in 1782.

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It was in this church that a manuscript from the late 14th century was found in 1925 and is now preserved in Bucharest, in the library of the Romanian Academy – and is considered to be the oldest manuscript written in Romanian in Cyrillic letters. The Church of St. Nicholas in Budesti is one of the oldest: it was built by local architects in 1643. The church is surprisingly preserved in its original form – carvings, paintings – and is very impressive in its monumentality. It is in this temple that the valuable collection of XVII-XVIII century icons painted on wood and on glass is located. But there is an even older church in Maramuresh. This is the church of Saint Paraskeva in Poienile Izei (Poienile Izei), which was built in 1604-1632. In the XVIII century the church was expanded – and the painting of its interior was completed in 1794. The frescoes on the northern and western sides reflect the events of the Book of Revelation of John the Apostle (The Apocalypse). The Church of the Holy Archangels in Surdesti, which stands on a hill amidst orchards, is 72 meters high and is considered to be the highest wooden Christian church in the world. It was built after the Tatar invasion in 1721, which was the last in the history of the country. There are two more UNESCO-listed wooden churches dedicated to the Archangels Michael and Gabriel in the villages of Plopish and Rogoz. The latter church was built in 1633. But it was painted only in 1785 by painters Radu Munteanu and Nicolae Man. In 1834 a gallery was added to the western aisle. This church is very unusual in plan: polygonal, with a rectangular nave and a heptagonal altar part. Besides, the church has an asymmetric roof: one of its slopes is longer than another. The church of the Archangels Michael and Gabriel in Plopis was built of spruce timbers in 1796-1798. The floor of the church is oak. Like the other wooden churches of Maramuresh, the church in Plopisce has a square tower-shaped bell tower on the west side. Both the eight most famous and all other churches built according to the traditional Maramuresh technology are built without a single nail. The Norwegian spruce grown in this part of Romania is used for their construction and is considered extremely valuable and ideally suited for temple construction. The tradition of original wooden church architecture in Maramures can be traced back to the 16th century, but it probably has deeper roots. And nowadays in this region of the country there are many craftsmen able to create expressive buildings in an authentic style, but more often their works are residential buildings and tourist facilities for various purposes: small hotels, cafes, souvenir shops.


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Maramures is a legendary land, located in the north of Romania, surrounded by hills and mountains. The visiting card of this beautiful region is the excellent craftsmanship and rich cultural life of the local population. It is considered that of all Romanian provinces in Maramures and Bukovina you can feel spiritual life best of all, here are very well preserved interesting ancient rites and customs. Centuries-old traditions of ancestors are a part of everyday life here. Locals still dress in national clothes, wear unusual local traditional headdresses.

In Maramuresh there is a continuous tradition of wooden architecture.Maramureshans amazing wooden carvings have long acquired a well-deserved fame and impresses the guests of this region.Almost every yard, every residential house of local farmers is like part of the picturesque and ancient museum of the village.Everything is decorated with ornaments: gate, gate, fence, house, buildings, trio at the crossroads. The peak of the art of Maramurescans is one of the most interesting religious buildings in the world – wooden churches. 8 wooden churches of Maramures district are included in the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. All were built in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but they slightly differ in architectural style.

Let’s learn more about them …

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Maramures is called the soul of the Romanian countryside. With its picturesque settlements, green hills and flowering meadows, Maramures is the epitome of rural life in Romania. Visitors to this beautiful region have the chance to travel back in time, to witness a very different era, a different way of life. Life here is simple and there are many artificial and unnecessary things that often seem to us that we cannot live without.

Maramures, a unique destination. During the century, here have carefully preserved the culture, traditions and way of life of peasants from times gone by. Maramures is a kind of testament of tradition, of the romantic age of simplicity and moral values which nowadays we only read or hear about from our grandfathers. Few customs have changed over the centuries in Maramuresh. Families remain in the same villages as their ancestors. Crafts and traditions are passed down from generation to generation. Folk clothes are handmade and worn with pride. The church continues to be the soul of the village. Neighbors know each other and help each other. Life in the region of Maramuresh is as if shrouded in mystery. Visitors to Maramures pass mountain passes, descend into lively valleys where village traditions open up to them like a resurrected museum, landscapes that even the most whimsical travelers can enjoy.

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At present, the province of Maramures is divided into two parts: northern Maramures belongs to Ukraine and southern Maramures belongs to Romania. Archaeological excavations have shown that the area has been inhabited since Neolithic times. Two thousand years ago, Maramures belonged to the Dacians, the ancestors of the Romanian nation. The remains of Dacian fortresses have been found in many settlements: Sighet, Oncesti, Slatina and Birsana. In the 2nd century AD, the Romans conquered Dacia and its capital Sarmizegetuza, but the Romans never reached Maramuresh, the tribes of free Dacians remained here to live. Fleeing from Roman occupation, many Dacian tribes from western and central Dacia also came to Maramuresh.

The region of Maramures is surrounded on all sides by mountains and forests and this has helped the locals to maintain their identity during the migrations of the Goths, Huns, Vandals, Slavs and other peoples. It is claimed that the traditions preserved in the region of Maramures are most of all related to the cultural heritage of the Dacians. In the 20th century, Romanian ethnographers traveling through the province of Maramures, were surprised to discover that “the Dacians descended from the Trajan Column” and live here.

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– The first documented mention of Maramuresh dates back to 1199. At that time the expansion of the Hungarians into Transylvania had already begun. In Maramuresh there were small principalities led by local governors. – At the end of the 14th century, Maramuresh was completely conquered by the Hungarian Kingdom. – In 1353, the Maramureshian Voivode Dragos, a military commander subordinate to the Hungarian King Louis I, crossed the mountains and founded the Principality of Moldavia, vassal to Hungary. – In 1359, another leader of the Maramuresh region, Bogdan of Kuhia attacked the heirs of Dragos and became the new ruler of the Principality of Moldavia; he rebelled against the Hungarian king and managed to win over the Hungarian army, thus becoming the first leader of the already independent Principality of Moldavia. His daughter Margareta got the nickname Mushata (beautiful in the old Romanian language), she married the voivode Costea, and this is where the famous in the history of the Principality of Moldavia Mushatin dynasty begins, the greatest representative of this dynasty Stephen the Great (he is now considered the greatest Romanian in the entire history of this nation). – In 1538, after the defeat of the Hungarians at the Battle of Mohacs, Maramuresh became part of Transylvania, an autonomous principality, vassal to the Turkish Empire. – Beginning in 1688, Maramuresh already became part of the Habsburg Empire. – Following the Paris Peace Treaty (1919), the northern part of Maramures passed to Czechoslovakia, in 1939 to Hungary, in 1945 to the Soviet Union, and from 1991 to the Ukraine.

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– At present, about 40 thousand Romanians live in the northern Maramuresh in the Ukraine. The border separating northern Maramures (Ukraine) and southern Maramures (Romania) runs along the river Tisza. – In 1968 to the “old” region of Maramures added neighboring areas: Baia Mare, Tara Chioarului, Tara Lapusului and Tara Codrului

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Maramures County has an abundance of cultural, natural and historical attractions. Maramures is known in Romania for its folk clothing, carpets, woodwork, traditional hay hats, carol masks, ceramics, icons painted on glass and wood, chorinca (moonshine made from plums), folk dances, folklore festivals and the hospitality of the inhabitants. The isolated location of the region has contributed to the preservation of ancient traditions. The national costume is the pride of the Morošan (inhabitants of the Maramuresh provinces).

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The pure and sincere faith, the sacred customs during the holidays, the rituals inherited from the ancestors were preserved. Together with Bukovina (the land of painted monasteries), the Maramures are considered to be the most archaic and authentic Romanian provinces. During the Easter and Christmas holidays, many Romanians travel north to Maramures and neighboring Bukovina to spend their vacations.

Maramuresh has always been famous for skilled craftsmen, especially master woodcarvers. There is an unbroken tradition of wooden architecture here. Maramureshian woodcarvings and ancient wooden churches are famous throughout the world.

Just look at the famous Maramureshan Gate! Real masterpieces of art!

Travelling through Maramureshan, one wishes to stop in front of each peasant house and admire the ornaments of the houses and the mysterious Maramureshan gates, richly decorated with traditional motives and Christian symbolism.

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The wooden churches of Maramuresh are famous all over the world and are the spiritual treasures of the locals. Eight wooden churches of Maramuresh are included in the World Heritage List (Unesco): Budesti, Desesti, Barsana, Poienile Izei, Ieud Deal, Surdesti, Plopis, Rogoz. The wooden churches of Maramures, under the auspices of UNESCO, constitute a unique and highly significant architectural ensemble.

These 8 monuments join the other 85 wooden churches of Maramures County, most of them built in the 17th and 18th centuries. The original architecture of the churches is associated with the blending of elements of Byzantine and Western European architecture, the Byzantine plan with a Gothic expression in which the building material – wood – represents the skill and craftsmanship of local craftsmen. The interior wall paintings are also very valuable. The wooden churches of Maramuresh are open as a museum, but they are still operating and services are still held in them.

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The wooden church of the old monastery of Birsan is dedicated to “the entry of the Blessed Virgin Mary into the church” and was built in 1711 in a place called Părul Călugărului by a local priest, together with his sons and villagers, to thank God for protection during the plague. Around 1739 the church was moved to the valley of the river Iza to the cemetery that appeared in 1717 after the battle with the Tatars. The second time the church was moved in 1795 to the center of the cemetery of those who died during the plague in 1742.

The interior of the church was then painted with Baroque and Rococo influences by the artist Hodor Toader. Scenes from the Bible, the Last Judgment, the Old Testament and the Passion of Jesus Christ can be seen here. Unfortunately a part of the paintings were severely damaged and have not survived to this day. Yet now we can see what has been preserved.

And the richly carved ornaments of the church are wonderfully preserved.

The decoration of the church, its exterior and interior design, all that has survived over the centuries, testifies to the genius of the craftsmen and artists who created all this beauty.

The Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary was built in the village of Jeud by local craftsmen in the early 18th century. It is one of the most beautiful wooden churches in Romania. Despite its rather austere architectural style, the church is very elegant.

Frescoes by Alexandru Ponehalschi from 1782 cover almost the entire interior of the church, including the doors.

In 1925, in the attic of the church, an ancient manuscript was discovered that dates from 1391-1392, believed to be the oldest manuscript written in Romanian in Cyrillic letters. The manuscript is now preserved in the library of the Romanian Academy in Bucharest.

The Church of Saint Nicholas in Budesti was built by locals in 1643. The church has been preserved in its original form. This church is the most striking example of a typical Maramures Church and is striking in its monumentality. It is the largest church in the history of Maramures.

Not only artists, but also the best wood carvers worked on this beauty. Here, for example, is the front door.

And of course the paintings on the walls and ceiling. The interior of the church is impressive.

It has a large collection of wooden icons from the XVII-XVIII centuries or even older, and a valuable collection of icons on glass.

The oldest wooden church in Maramures Church of St. Paraskeva in Poienil Izei was built in 1604.

The interior space of the church was expanded in the 18th century, and it was fully painted in 1794.

The western and northern walls are dominated by the theme of the end of the world.

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