Biertan Fortified Church: The Late-Gothic Masterpiece of Saxon Transylvania
One of the top cultural attractions in Transylvania, the fortified church of Biertan is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites and is one of the strongest of these unique fortifications built here centuries ago. Located in the center of the village one famous for its vineyards, this imposing monument has a history that goes back to the end of the 15th century when its construction started. It’s one of the largest and strongest fortified churches in Transylvania, built when the local Saxons already had a vast centuries-old experience in defending themselves in this innovative way.
Saxon from the very beginning
The village of Biertan was first mentioned at the end of the 13th century. It was part of the Two Chairs unit, and it nearly became a town in the 16th century. In fact, in 1510, the village population was the double of today. Competing with nearby Mosna and Medias for the control over the Chair, locals decided to build a grandiose church on the location of an older one, right in the village center. This was not an unusual practice, the villagers from Saschiz chose the same strategy when they were competing with nearby Sighisoara.
The result is truly spectacular even today. Biertan Fortified Church dominates the landscape of the village. It has three fortification walls, eight towers and the church itself was equipped from the very beginning with solid defensive elements. Beyond political aspirations, the Ottoman threat was still very real to the region and fortified churches were the main defensive structure in the rural world.
Unique church elements
The most important religious center of Saxons from Transylvania for almost three centuries, from 1572 to 1867, during which time is served as a Bishop See, this monument is today one of the best conserved from all the hundreds of fortified churches built after the Saxons settled here. The hall-church was finalized in 1525 in a Late-Gothic style with Renaissance elements visible in the portal doors. It still preserves many of its original elements, including the early 16th century painted pews and a beautiful pulpit carved from one single piece of stone in 1500.
In the church, you’ll also see the original altar — the largest in Transylvania — with 28 painted panels, dated to 1515, partially inspired by the altarpiece of the Scottish Abbey in Vienna. The piece of resistance is, nonetheless, the door of the vestry. Decorated with inlays representing fortified towers and coffins and dated to 1515, the door has an ingenious system that simultaneously activates 15 locks when the door is closed. Used to protect the most valuable goods of the church in case of need, the door was also presented at the World Fair from Paris in 1889.
The main goal of a fortified church during attacks and sieges was to defend the lives of locals. Depending on the time when they were built, several defensive solutions were used. Biertan Fortified Church is one of the best examples of the know-how and experience local Saxon had acquired in transforming churches into real fortresses. In this case, an extra level was built on top of the nave and choir, and the church was surrounded by enclosing walls connected through tower gates.
While most of the towers are closed for visitors, you can still take a peek inside the Mausoleum Tower where the funeral stones of nine Saxon bishops are exhibited. Next in line is the Marriage Prison Tower that represented the medieval alternative to couples’ therapy. A small room with one bed, one plate and one table was the place where couples were locked until they found a solution to their marriage problems. A solution that apparently worked as in the 400 years of use only one couple got a divorce.
Don’t miss the Catholic Tower, it preserves pre-Reformation fragments of frescoes, a very rare case in the Saxon space of Transylvania where Catholicism was replaced by Protestantism. If you look carefully, you’ll recognize Saint George, Virgin Mary with baby Jesus and the Three Kings, plus the scene of the Last Judgement with Christ as the ultimate judge.
A wonderful example of the typical Saxon architecture so widespread in the villages surrounding Brasov, Sibiu and Sighisoara, the fortified church of Biertan is a must-see attraction in Romania. Its grand dimension, its unique and original elements, its monumental Late-Gothic style transform it into a masterpiece of Saxon Transylvania.
Where to stay
For a complete experience, spend the night in a traditional guest house managed by the Foundation Mihai Eminescu Trust. This way, you’ll contribute to the conservation of the cultural patrimony of the village.
Rent a bike to explore the surrounding villages using the available bike trails.
Take a 2 km walk to Copsa Mare where you can visit another splendid medieval fortified church.
Take a one day trip to Medias, Mosna and Alma Vii.
You can visit the monument until 5 pm in April and October and until 7 pm from May until the end of September.