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Archive for Romania

Buried Treasure of the Fortified Church at Heltau

Courtyard at Heltau

Courtyard of the fortified church at Heltau

As is often true in Romania, many of the sights have dramatic stories that are clothed in myth.  During our visit in Transylvania in September 2010 we were taken to the town of Cisnadie to see the fortified church, which may date back to the 12th century.  Cisnadie was also known as Heltau by the Saxons, and the town itself is now in effect a suburb of Sibiu and site for construction of beautiful second homes in the countryside.  (Apparently Prince Charles picked up a nice little estate somewhere in the area.)  The history includes destruction by the Ottomans, plagues, a major textile factory and guild, and deportations by the Nazis during World War II.  In this view (above) of the enclosed courtyard, you can see an exhibition of photos of the elderly — we were told that these were grandmas and grandpas left behind by recent immigrations of younger people to the west, mainly for jobs.  Many of the elderly are now alone and have no one to care for them.  The courtyard already has a haunted feeling, and it seemed fitting to remember these still living souls who are suffering from years of political upheavals in the region.

Church tower of Heltau with lightening rod

The guide paused by this church tower to tell us the story of its lightning rod.  It was introduced in the late 1700s and was first considered unnecessary and possibly sacrilegious until lightning actually struck in 1797, and then the church elders decided it was wise to keep it after all.

The most exotic story revolved around the buried treasure of Heltau, which was hidden for hundreds of years in a secret chamber under the church.  We were told that only one person in town ever knew where the treasure was buried, and that he or she would tell someone else before they died.  Our guide said this tradition was carried on successfully until the Nazis arrived, and then the treasure was removed for safekeeping at the Brukenthal museum in Sibiu, where it still can be viewed.  ( We had to wonder: was it really safer in a museum?)

This last image of an altar relic was probably taken at Heltau, and I include it because of its beauty, but also because of the Moses with horns (left).  The last one I saw was the Michelangelo statue in Rome, and they always make me chuckle.

Treasures of Sibiu, and Other Oddities

in Art, Life, Romania, Travel     

Main Orthodox Church in Sibiu

The Holy Trinity Cathedral was completed in 1904 and is across the street from the residence of the Romanian Orthodox Archbishop of Sibiu (in other words, this is his church).  The interior is covered with painting in vibrant colors; the style reminded me of Byzantine icons, so I was very surprised to hear that this church was constructed relatively recently.  As you can see, this is a combination of western and eastern traditions, with some figurative art that is “filled in” with repetitive patterns, more like the eastern religions.  In addition to the usual iconography my daughter noticed symbolic eyes painted on some walls, looking in every direction, and we were told that these were the eyes of God always watching us.  There are churches of many different denominations in Sibiu, but the Romanian Orthodox Church is still dominant. We were told that the church now owns a lot of property in Sibiu, including residential apartments in the town center.

Church InteriorIconSnakes and Reptiles

For a complete change of pace, we took a look at a Museum of Pharmacy, part of the Brukenthal that is in a separate small building off the “Piata Mica,” the smaller square in the center of town.  This was like entering a laboratory right out of Harry Potter, with cabinets that had drawers labeled with Latin names of herbs and potions, and maybe not eyes of newt, but you’ll see the preserved snakes and reptiles in one of the photos.Tools

Near the town center our hosts pointed out a narrow building that was a hostel, and they explained that it was not for regular students, but instead that it had become a modern sort of guild.  When the town of Sibiu began to be renovated recently (in particular for its celebration in 2007 as a European Capital of Culture), volunteers came here from all over Europe to help with the repairs and also to learn the trades involved such as stonework, carpentry, and roofing.  The volunteers wear special black top hats and you can see them around town, for example we saw one of them whizzing by on a bicycle.

In the evening we took a break in an upstairs cafe and had Italian-style gelato.  There seemed to be a mirror in the room but at a second glance it was a full glass window separating the room into two sections, smoking and non.  This being Europe, the nonsmoking section was tiny and narrow, and the smoking section was large and crowded with noisy partiers.  (And we could watch each other through a glass wall!)

Riches of the Brukenthal Museum in Sibiu

in Art, Romania     

Winter Landscape With Birdtrap

Riches, not just treasures.  And how things have changed.  When I saw the Brukenthal Museum during the Communist era I had high expectations for some reason; I was only eleven or twelve, but had heard there were major works there.  But it was a disappointment; the collection looked second-rate, and the building was creaky and dirty.  Now, it is one of the jewels of the Great Square (Piata Mare) of the historic city center.  Like so much in Sibiu, the museum has benefited from international attention and money for renovations, and when I saw it again this fall I was amazed and delighted.  The main building was the palace of the Hapsburg governor during the era of Maria Theresa, and we were told that he was a favorite of hers.  The collection bears witness to that, and its major feature is a room full of Old Masters, including a Titian, a van Eyck, and two large stunning Brueghels (one by the elder, and one by the younger).  The Winter Landscape With Birdtrap is shown above; oddly enough, I found this as a copyright-free image on Wikipedia, where it was attributed to another museum.  (But I can tell you it’s in Sibiu, I saw it last month…  Maybe there are two versions of it etc.)  The Slaughter of the Innocent (link here) is a true masterpiece by Brueghel the Elder; the palette is vibrant reds against the white snow, and it takes you a moment to realize you’re looking at murder and pillage.  As I recall this painting was given its own small room, and with good reason.

Another highlight of the museum, and probably less well known, is its collection of ancient gold coins including Roman “aurei” and Transylvanian coins from the 1600s.  This includes special cabinets that were built to house the coin collection (works of art themselves, as you can see here).  This was all very fascinating, and we couldn’t help but wonder what this is all worth now that world currencies are like quicksand and gold is once again ascendant.  To illustrate the point, I accidentally leaned on one of the display cases and a museum guard quickly warned me to stand back, because the cases were wired with alarms. 

Back on the town square we were dutifully told the story of Dracula.  The version my family tells is that there was a ruler in southern Romania named Vlad Tepes, who was hated for two reasons.  The first was that he would punish serious crimes by drowning.  The second was that he imposed high taxes. From a bit of reading I can see that he was considered to be of historical importance to Romania for all sorts of reasons, including as a defender against the Ottoman Empire.  I leave all this to the Dracula scholars.