The Rise of Roumanian Art and Architecture

Professor in the University of Bucharest. Translated by C. U. Clark

BYZANTINE art seemed to have received its death warrant when Constantinople fell before the Turks. To be sure, its latest period (at the end of the thirteenth and beginning of the fourteenth centuries) had seen the penetration of foreign influences, no longer coming from the East, now totally exhausted, but from the West. Venice, Sicily, Dalmatia, Albania and especially the Morea, in whose harbors mingled French crusaders and Italian traders, brought their artistic tastes and traditions into the gates of Byzantium. The famous convent today known as the Kahzieh-Djami, of Constantinople, the churches of Mount Athos, those of Saloniki, nobler in their proportions, the smaller monasteries of Misithra, where ruled Paleologues, cousins of the Emperor, represent this late phase of foreign infiltration from the Latin world, with all its clarity and joyousness, its reality and life, together with the deep religious faith which underlay its artistic creations.

But when Mohammed's Janissaries occupied the ruined barracks of the last defenders of Eastern Rome, when Saloniki was torn from its temporary Venetian allegiance and passed also under the Sultan's yoke, when the Morea lost both its Greek dynasts and its Latin knights—this new art, which was in full development, vitalized by these currents from the West, had for the moment only a single refuge, guaranteed by the formal engagement of the victor: the Holy Mount of Athos. This shelter was, however, in no position to encourage the further growth of this new artistic movement. The scattered monasteries of the Chalcidic Peninsula were now reduced to their local revenues, were subjected time and again to invasion and extortion, were several times forced to pay ransom to greedy tyrants; so their few monks had no incentive to new building or decoration. The architecture, painting and sculpture of this new era which was dawning for what had been Byzantium, as well as for the rest of Europe, needed for its development a rich, free and Christian country, where the Church could expect devoted sacrifices for its advancement, and where the throne would offer encouragement and employment to artists.

All these conditions were fulfilled in the Roumanian territories. Wallachia, the so-called "Principality of All the Roumanian Country," had taken its rise about the middle of the thirteenth century, with Argesh as its capital, and was already united about 1300. Moldavia, founded by Roumanian emigrants from the Hungarian county of Maramuresh, dates from about 1350. The Roumanian peasantry were energetic and full of vitality, excellent soldiers and politically gifted; their land-owning aristocracy, the boyars, were ambitious and devout—and this at a time when Balkan Christianity was crumbling away at every touch of the Turk; their church organization tried to make up for the lack of a middle class by ostentatious display and by a primitive patriarchal system. The structure was strengthened by an influx of Greeks and Serbs who sought on Roumanian territory the security which the Turks denied them elsewhere. Thus it fell to the two Principalities to carry on the artistic and cultural traditions of Byzantium, transmitted by the Slavo-Byzantines of the Danube region.

Architectural Study—P. Antonesco

A monk of Athos, Nicodemus, who was both Greek and Slav—and perhaps Roumanian also through his Macedonian forebears—brought in the artistic tradition of the monasteries where he had spent a large share of his life, on a small scale, to be sure, but impressive in its mysticism. Passing through the Serb provinces already threatened by the Ottoman power, to the north bank of the Danube, he found at last the Christian security of which he was in search, guaranteed both by the Wallachian prince (at that moment Ladislaus-Vladislav, then Mircea the Great) and by the King of Hungary, Louis the Great, predecessor of the Emperor Sigismund. We do not possess even the ruins of the monastery of Voditza, on the very bank of the river, which was his first foundation. Later invasions have destroyed all trace of it. Tismana, up in the northeast, among chestnut woods under the summits of the Carpathians, has kept its powerful walls, and something of the original plan of its chapel, a Byzantine fourteenth-century construction, entirely worked over in the sixteenth. Cozia, up on its height above the Olt, whose waters rush along directly under the very walls of its tiny chapel, preserves today only the general outline of its original plan. Its church has been rebuilt in harmony with the new art of the seventeenth century; the mortuary chapel opposite, a splendid relic, is only a century older. Across the Argesh, at Cotmeana, there is nothing left but a modest village church.

Princely Church of Argesh

With the Rule of Mt. Athos, this imported architecture made its way far beyond the Olt, with the founding of monastery chapels in the depths of the forests, on the edge of mountain lakes, even in growing towns. When the capital city, Argesh, called a Serb Metropolitan from a town on the other shore of the Danube, he came to a church already well fitted to receive and welcome him. This Biserica Domneasca (princely, i.e., palace-church) had doubtless been begun by 1350, when the church organization was established. It has come down to us in its entirety, with its central dome, of elegant outline, and its double rows of unadorned columns, an impoverished replica of the ancient basilica (whence the Roumanian word for church; biserica, originally baseareca). Recent excavations have brought to light in most fortunate fashion the tombs of the Prince-Founder, Basarab, who probably died in 1352, and of his family. His skeleton was perfectly preserved, still draped with remnants of rich robes adorned with countless tiny pearls; the pattern of the ancient moire could still be made out; the gold buttons shone out from the darkness of the stone sepulchre, and on the belt, at the tip of a finger, gleamed a massive signet ring of the same metal. In every tomb were found rings of precious metal, of western workmanship. These princes, whose wealth and taste are thus attested, were redoubtable enough to be termed "very powerful enemies" by the King of Hungary, and one of the daughters was able to marry the Palatine of Hungary, second dignitary of the kingdom, and a scion of the Polish royal family of the Piasts.

Architectural Study—P. Antonesco

But what makes Curtea-de-Argesh (the Court of Argesh) a pilgrimage spot for art students is its painting, which in artistic value surpasses all else the East can offer at this moment. Under modern additions, and earlier frescoes of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, remarkable in themselves, have now been laid bare majestic types and scenes, with broad and tranquil countenances and flowing robes, with something of the serenity of Giotto's figures in the Scrovegni Chapel at Padua. The date can be fixed by Greek and Slav descriptions and by graffitti on the walls of the fourteenth century. It is doubtless the work of Greek masters of the Oriental school, but they evidently utilized earlier designs or had come under the influence of the new art then arising in Italy—which would not be surprising, in view of Basarab's relations with the West.

We are certain of Venetian influence—either direct or through her Dalmatian outposts —in the church of Deal ("hill"), or St. Nicholas of the Vineyards, near Tirgovishte, the third capital of Wallachia (the second, Campulung, an ancient Teutonic settlement, has lost its ancient monastery as well as the royal chapel, and even the tomb of Basarab's son is housed in a comparatively modern edifice). The Deal church, a square stone building, with sculptured plaques to right and left of the entrance, is clearly Venetian in style; and the inscription, still in Slav, for Roumanian was not adopted for such purposes till the end of the century, is written in Cyrillic characters of altogether Western aspect. Unfortunately the paintings were long ago destroyed, so that those of Argesh, with their Italian air, remain unique.

Neagoe, one of the successors of Ralph (Radu) the Great (founder of the Deal monastery) , married a Serb princess with imperial ambitions; their son bore the Byzantine name of Theodosius. Their desire to surpass earlier magnificence led them to redecorate the new convent church of Argesh and the metropolitan church of Targovishte, which had several times been worked over and recently entirely torn down. With the help of Oriental architects, sculptors and even painters from Transylvania (one a pupil of Veit Stoss), as well as native artists, he presented his country with a strangely beautiful building. The new church of Argesh at once became famous for its tilted towers, its flower-embroidered reliefs, its brilliant fields of gold and azure, and the paintings which adorned it within. These had not entirely vanished at the time of the restoration of the building at the hands of Viollet-le-Duc. Even yet figures like the St. George, with his helmet resting on his shoulder, and his hair falling down in long curly waves, standing alert with sword in eager hand, have a surprising reminiscence of Albert Dürer himself, whose spirit penetrated through Transylvania into this Wallachia which had now long been reconquered by the traditions of Oriental art.

From a painting by Elie Cristoloveanu

Furthermore, the West had used other channels for extending its influence in this domain, ever since the first years of the rebirth of the Roumanian provinces. Poland sent painters to the first of the Moldavian princes who succeeded in making his country into a definite political unit—Alexander the Good, early in the fifteenth century. Married to a Lithuanian princess, this grandson of a Roman Catholic who had founded at Sereth a Dominican monastery (there must have been a Franciscan also), spent large sums to provide his wife with a church of her own faith in the ancient capital of Baia; we can still see the supports of its arches, which have long since collapsed. There must have been a palace close by this church, in which a newly appointed bishop officiated. Simultaneously this same Gothic art entered also from Transylvania, where numerous small churches, of exquisitely harmonious proportions, sometimes sheltered even Roumanian bishops, as at Vad and at Feleac, near Cluj. And we must not lose sight of the influence of Italian art, radiating from the city of Moncastro (Cetatea-Alba, Akkerman) held by the Genoese even after 1400, when the Moldavians took over all the adjacent Bessarabian territory.

Thus we arrive at the epoch of Stephen the Great. For nearly half a century (1457-1504) Moldavia, with weapons in hand, maintained her independence against Pole, Hungarian and Turk, and only yielded to the latter after heroic struggles and on terms which assured her of autonomy in the broadest sense of the word, at the price of an annual payment of tribute to the Porte. Stephen was not merely a great warrior; he was a most devout Christian, and an indefatigable founder of churches and monasteries. These have mostly come down to us. They have the importance of faithfully preserving the record of the foreign currents which affected their art; but they have far greater value in that they are the first representatives of a genuine native Roumanian artistic movement.

Our best examples of this are the monasteries of Moldovitza, and of Neamtz, the churches of Jassy, Dorohoiu, Papautzi (near Botoshani) and particularly of Piatra (at Neamtz). The church is cruciform, like those of Athos, with a long poignee lying between the pronaos, where gathered the women (on Mount Athos, the laity), and the nave itself, the naos, for the men (on Mount Athos, the monks). The two rounded wings contained the stalls. The altar was shut off by a screen of sculptured stone or carved wood. This was all Oriental; but the sculptures about the doors, the narrow windows (except those of the fagade, which was without a door, the entrance being to the right) were Gothic. The superposed and interwoven arches supporting the light dome are a new creation, and the shingled roof is not a mere covering, but brings out with elastic grace the lines of the building. On the outside, the grayish tone of the stone blocks is relieved by the bright red of the bricks and the brilliant hues of the enameled plaques. The stone foundation projects somewhat beyond the walls. Up under the roof, above the higher row of niches, runs a frieze of terracotta discs in brown, blue, yellow and red, whose gay colors light up the whole building, and lend it something of the bright gladness of the Oriental sunlight.

Now these elements are borrowed from the peasant house, the spontaneous creation of a people of outspoken character, cordial friendliness and smiling hospitality. These projecting foundations, this roof which rises and falls like a living creature, these bright colors, these terracotta plaques which recall the flowerpots sheltered under the overhanging eaves, all spring from the treasure-house of popular art. They date from an incalculable antiquity, for their origins, like those of the other Balkan peoples—not to mention the Scandinavians, who are the ancient Goths of the Dnieper and the Dniester—arise from the ancestral civilization of the Thraco-Illyrians.

Before continuing our study of what constitutes the national contribution to Roumanian art, in connection with the climate and with the conditions of peasant life, we must make mention of the remarkable beauty of the painting of that period. In the second half of the fifteenth century it assumes a graver aspect; but from the beginning of the sixteenth, the infinite wealth of the figures invades even the outer walls; the figures spring forth, full of light, from a deep sky-blue back-ground, as at Voronetz, or in the small church at Cozia, or from an even darker green, as at Sucevitza. The influence of Italian art is evident, and the best critics agree in assigning them a value above all that the East had put forth since the great frescos of Argesh, which are chiefly remarkable for their drawing. Nor must we neglect the accessory arts—Transylvanian goldsmiths' work, Byzantine robes and embroideries, crosses in filigree, vases, ciboria, tapestries, the woven monument-curtains bearing the portrait of the occupant of the tomb, hammered silver book-bindings, manuscripts whose miniatures, in a development extending over two centuries, are well worthy of comparison with the product of contemporary Western Europe.

The Moldavian type of church architecture already created evolves and develops. At Pobrata, Slatina, Galata, in the Three Hierarchs at Jassy, we see it providing a separate enclosure for the marble tombs of the princes; twin towers crown its walls, upheld by Gothic flying buttresses. In the last-named church Oriental sculptors carved and gilded every stone and made out of it a work of art. But from the sixteenth century on, it was Wallachia that carried on this type, now become the characteristic church architecture of all Rou-mania. Patterning after the modest balustrade of the peasant house, all overhung with flowers, the church added an open peristyle before the main entrance, flooded with sunlight and fragrant in spring with the perfume of the roses and other flowers of the neighboring cemetery; here the children received their singing lessons from the choir-master, and all the rest of the day this pridvor (for they keep the Church Slav word) remained open for their games.

The Princely Palace of the Brancovans at Mogoshoa, near Bucharest

The Church of the Sfintii Imparati, at Targovishte

For the two or three hundred years following, countless churches in this style arose from one end of the Roumanian territories to the other; it was the supreme manifestation of the national spirit. Since the Roumanian people had developed infinite ingenuity in working wool, wood and even stone, there was a ceaseless progress in decoration, of astonishing richness. The buildings of the wealthy Prince Constantine Brancovan (1688-1714) furnish the proof of this, with their bright paintings on a rich blue field, in which one notes the influence of the great Venetians. Palaces worthy to contain these paintings were built for Brancovan at Mogoshoaia, near Bucharest, and elsewhere. In Bucharest itself the cata peteasma of St. George the New is a surpassing creation of wood-carving. We can follow this style also in the splendid church of the monastery of Vacareshti, built by the Greek who followed Brancovan, Nicholas Mavrocordato, and in the chapel of the Bishop of Stauropolis in the center of Bucharest, engraved like a reliquary. The altar-screens, the panels enclosing the doors and windows, the capitals of the columns, offer material for a new chapter in the history of art.

Here end the artistic creations of the Roumanian race. The nineteenth century, especially in its second half, did nothing but contaminate and ruin. The upper classes failed to show the peasant's genius for harmonizing the influences which beat upon this meeting-point of so many diverse civilizations. Now that the treasures of ancient Roumanian art have attracted general attention, we must hope that they will bear other fruit on their native heath than a labored and awkward imitation, and that their inspiration will not be confined to bestowing fresh and original themes upon foreign artists.