The Wooden Churches of Maramures: When Faith Withstands Time
It would be hard if not almost impossible to imagine Maramures without its tall wooden churches rising proudly above the houses of their traditional villages, quietly, but firmly announcing the visitors they’ve reached the land where people’s faith in God stood strong for centuries.
Almost 100 old wooden churches from Maramures survived for hundreds of years, bringing to the present the talent and imagination of the local artisans who built them in the unique ‘Gothic style of Maramures’. Eight of these wooden churches of Maramures are part of Romania’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites, included on this famous list for their outstanding cultural value. They are found in the villages of Barsana, Desesti, Surdesti, Ieud, Budesti, Rogoz, Plopis and Poienile Izei.
Splendid monuments of the traditional timber architecture, the wooden churches of Maramures appeared in a time when the ruling Austrian-Hungarian Empire had forbidden the locals to build churches with more durable materials. Nevertheless, the solution of the inventive craftsmen of using wood, their traditional construction material, proved to be successful in conveying the message of their religious beliefs over centuries.
The wooden church of Barsana was built as a monastery church in 1720, but was moved on a nearby hill, its current location, in the first years of the following century. The reason appears to be connected to the villagers’ religious beliefs. They considered that the plague victims buried on this hill without a funeral service would only find their rest if the church was moved there.
The wooden church from Barsana was painted in 1806 with themes that vary from the Apocalypse or the Last Judgement. Visiting this UNESCO World Heritage Site will also give you the chance to meet the priest Gheorghe Urda, an excellent guide and story-teller.
Built from pine and fir, the Upper Church of Ieud sparked several controversies as different theories were advanced regarding its construction date. While some believe it was built in 1364, being, therefore, the oldest church of Maramures, other historians suggest the 17th century. The oldest document written in Romanian, the Codex of Ieud, dating from 1391 was discovered in the attic of the church. In the same village, you can visit the largest wooden church in Romania, also known as the ‘wooden cathedral’ or the Lower Church of Ieud, built in 1718 after the Tatar invasion.
Built from oak in 1643, the church of Budesti displays impressing paintings done around 1760, a unique collection of 15th-century wooden icons painted on both sides, an important collection of glass painted icons, but also the coat of legendary outlaw Pintea the Brave.
Thirty-eight meters tall, this church has several distinctive elements like the arrangement of the main belfry, surrounded by four smaller turrets, and the 14 pillars that support the tall double roof.
This is one of the most beautiful and best-preserved wooden churches of Maramures, but also one of the oldest. While the documents of the time indicate 1604 as the construction year, its architecture places it before the 17th century. The interior frescoes, one of the most original elements of this church, were painted in 1794. The frescoes illustrate some classical Bible themes like the Last Judgement, but also some very dramatic interpretations of sins’ punishment like the liar hanged by his tongue or the burning bed and the devil’s violin for those who slept while the priest was preaching.
The wooden church from Surdesti is without a doubt one of the most renowned tourist attractions in Romania. Its imposing 72 meters makes it one of the highest oak buildings in the world and the second highest wooden church in Romania and Europe. Built around 1721, by the artisan Toma Macarie, this UNESCO Heritage Site is considered to be one of the best representations of this architectural style unique to the region of Maramures.
The wooden church from Desesti was built in 1770, after the first church burned during the Tatar invasion from 1717. The interior paintings done in 1780 are well-preserved, illustrating classical Biblical themes, but adding also some particular scenes. A unique element is the painting of different nations – Turks, Tatars, Jews – dressed in traditional costumes in the painting of the Last Judgment. The cemetery of the church has many Celtic crosses, displayed in circle or semicircle, attesting various cultural influences and its old age.
The wooden church from Plopis, built between 1798 and 1805, combines architectural elements from Maramures and northern Transylvania. Forty-seven meters tall, the church is considered to be one of the most integrated religious monuments in Maramures. Back in 1798, when its construction started, 49 families lived in Plopis, a village renowned at the time for the carpentry skills of its inhabitants. Each family contributed with one gold coin to the construction of this splendid church, the 49 coins being later discovered inside the edifice, at the base of the altar.
The church has several distinctive elements like the two rows of windows or the vaulted roof, unique in Maramures. Even today, this wooden church is the only church in Plopis, regularly used for all the religious activities of the village.
Built in 1633, this wooden church survived the Tatar invasion from 1717 that destroyed many other religious monuments in the region of Maramures. The church from Rogoz differentiates itself through its asymmetrical roof, the northern larger side being designed to protect the people standing outside during the religious service. This part of the roof also covers the ‘elders’ table’, where the rich families of the village had assigned seats, their named being carved on the wall of the church.
You’ll need around 2-3 days to discover the wooden churches of Maramures, but take into consideration that you’ll find many other fascinating attractions along the way. It’s better to plan an entire vacation here, but be sure to book an authentic local guest house to discover the famous hospitality of Maramures.
Take a ride with the steam train on the last forestry railway in Europe, at Viseu de Sus.
Hike on Creasta Cocosului, the emblematic peak of Mara-Cosau Valley.
Walk from village to village to discover the true spirit of Maramures.