The wooden churches of Maramures, fragile yet enduring art monuments, are by themselves an amazing and distinct world of rural culture. Spread along the valleys of rivers where the first villages of historical Maramures appeared, these wooden churches preserve for the future the pious values and beliefs locals had centuries ago.
One of them particularly, Desesti Church, stands out as one of the best examples of how local artisans and painters transformed wood into art in Maramures.
View from the cemetery
Located on a small hill from the center of the village – surrounded by one of the most beautiful cemeteries you’ve ever seen – this church simply fascinates with its original and breathtaking mural paintings and the perfect balance of proportions.
Like most wooden monuments from the region, Desesti Church dates from the 18th century, when most churches here were rebuilt after series of devastating Tartar invasions.
Respecting the traditional Orthodox separation of the interior space, the church from Desesti has a narthex, a nave, and an altar, separated by an iconostasis from the rest of the church. With more spacious interiors that most wooden churches from Maramures, the monument features all the representative elements of local religious architecture: stone foundation, blockbau building system, tall steeple over the narthex, and, of course, a steep rooftop with two eaves.
While, unfortunately, its builders remain anonymous, its painters carved their signatures into the beams of the narthex where the ample and colorful Last Judgements scene is painted.
The church from Desesti preserves the work of two of the most talented church painters from the 18th century: Alexandru Ponehalski for the iconostasis and Radu Munteanu for the altar, nave, and narthex.
While both their paintings are inscribed in the post-byzantine tradition, their technique opposes two very different styles. A naif and rustic approach characterize Radu Munteanu’s work making it even more spectacular while Ponehalski’s perfect lines balance the entire ensemble.
The nave is an ample representation of scenes from the Old and New Testament, starting with Adam and Eve, with an obvious moralizing intent, emphasizing the sacrifice of Jesus in an ample 16 scenes for the Passion cycle.
The message of the paintings increases in dramatism in the narthex where hell and heaven are vividly represented, with the clear intent to make locals reflect even more about their afterlife and how they should behave if they want to be on the right side of Jesus on Judgement Day.
Still, not only sinners go to hell as groups of Jews, Germans, Tartars, Turks, and French are also painted heading the same way. A clearly political statement in a time when the very existence of the Orthodox Church was threatened by the complicated politics of the region.
Picturesque and festive, the paintings of Desesti Church are the state of the art representation of rural culture in 18th century Maramures, a time when local artisans and painters from all over the Romanian provinces were laying the foundations of a cultural movement for unity.
Mara Guest House is the perfect option if you’re planning to stay in Desesti, one of the most beautiful villages in Maramures. On the shore of Mara River, with a large garden, and the best home-cooked food from organic local ingredients, this guest house is our favorite in the region.
Sunday service is a great occasion to see locals wearing traditional costumes.
If you want to see more paintings by Radu Munteanu, visit the wooden church from Rogoz, also listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The church is located half-way on the cycling route from Mara to Harnicesti, a scenic route through orchards and fields with haystacks.