The Wooden Churches of Maramures

Romania's Maramureş county is a land of horses and haystacks, bucolic hills and traditional dress – it’s one of the most untouched corners of Europe.  The region is famed for its wooden churches; old, towering, unique and beautiful, they occupied us for days.
This is the controversial church at Săpânţa Peri monastery, still very much under construction.  Why is it controversial?  Well, it starts with a boast: this is supposedly the tallest wooden structure in Europe, and the townspeople want you to know it.  Standing at over 250 feet (!), it’s certainly a giant.  But the tallest?  In Maramureş, that’s a touchy subject
We arrived at Săpânţa Peri to find picnicking families and a deserted worksite.  Nearby to the church was the shell of a massive, wooden monastic building, shingled roof still unweathered, walls not completely fleshed out, cascades of dormers and rooflines spilling down from a high cupola.  It was a huge structure, but it was still dwarfed by the church, which stuck up above the treeline like a skyscraper.  We wandered through the lower levels of the church, which was open and unfinished, with untidy piles of lumber and beams scattered around.
The church was designed in the traditional style of the region with megalomaniacal plans to be the tallest wooden structure in Europe, which seems like it should make the people of Maramureş proud.  It doesn’t.  The thing is, they already had the tallest wooden building, and it’s not remotely new.
In the tiny town of Şurdeşti, another giant stands much more demurely, hemmed in by leaves and pastoral fields.  Built in 1766, it represents one of the pinnacles of Romanian wooden architecture.  Looking up from the old grave markers and daisies around the base, it doesn’t actually look that tall – but, incredibly, Şurdeşti is only about fifteen feet shorter than Săpânţa’s new church.  Soaring 236 feet (!!), the steeple was, for 250 years, the highest wooden thing on the continent.
And, according to one way of thinking, it still is.
There is a little bell button by the arched gateway to the cemetery for calling the priest – he will sometimes come with the key to let travelers inside.  We pressed the button three or four times, but nobody materialized, which was fine.
What’s endearing about Şurdeşti’s church is how tiny it actually is.  The chapel is not much bigger than the base of the steeple, just a small room and porch designed for a few families to worship in.  Flower boxes and sprigs of pussywillows decorated the exterior, the carvings were simple and unpretentious. This is a church without pomp.  We found ourselves feeling sorry for it, now overtaken by a modern building just miles away.
Not everyone considers the battle of steeples finished, though.  Most people in Maramureş will quickly point out that Săpânţa Peri has an unusual and VERY untraditional (their words) stone base that rises at least enough to disqualify the church from contention.  We sort of agree, though it doesn’t seem as though the Săpânţa Peri base is actually tall enough to be the difference between the two.  Either way, there’s really no comparison.  Şurdeşti is by far our favorite, an old underdog that has charm, character and history on its side.
Maramureş churches aren’t only impressive for their height, though – there’s a wealth of other quirks and beauties among them.
In Budeşti, the old church is nowhere near as tall as some, but it has some of the most amazing paintings.  Many Maramureş chapels are decorated on the inside with icons and murals (unfortunately, most don’t allow photographs inside), but there are few that can match those found at Budeşti.  Painted in two periods – the 1400’s and 1762 - the artwork inside is the reason to visit.
When a village woman - who was probably the priest’s wife, we think she said he was eating lunch -  unlocked the door we were astounded.  Dusky, darkened, biblical scenes literally covered the rough boards of the walls and ceiling, the beams and altar.  The paintings were done in a simple way that suggested a dedicated but untrained hand.  Luckily, we were allowed to photograph the door, which should give you some idea of what was inside.
Budeşti, like many of the wooden churches, was painted as a kind of teaching tool.  The scenes were supposed to help villagers – most of whom were illiterate – learn the stories and lessons of the bible.  This chapel’s most notable paintings were designed, also, to frighten; a whole wall near the door was dedicated to scenes of hell.  Many of the tiny images involved naked sinners being sodomized by devils using nails, pitchforks and bellows to terrifying effect.  It was startling, but also a little humorous (very imaginative).
In Ieud, where we stayed with a welcoming family in a house that overlooked meadows and forest, the oldest of all the Maramureş wooden churches sits on a hill by the river.  Dating from 1364 (and reshingled every several decades since) the church is one of the older all-wood buildings still in use in the world.  Sitting among ancient graves on the site of an even earlier, ruined castle, the fir wood building has survived six and a half centuries of rough winters, invasions, and weekly use.  Intriguingly, the oldest printed volume in the Romanian language was found in the attic some time ago, though it’s now housed in a museum.
Iued’s other, more central church was “only” built in 1717, but was similarly given UNESCO world heritage status for its huge collection of icons painted on glass.  We couldn’t track down the priest, so we never made it inside – but we could see the steeple from our bedroom window.
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