Monday, November 08, 2010

Abandoned medieval churches in Transylvania

The Calvinist church of Marosszentimre (Sântimbru) in Transylvania 

I would like to start this post by a poem written by my grandfather, Zoltán Jékely, in 1936. The translation included here is by Bernard S. Adams.1

A marosszentimrei templomban

Fejünkre por hull, régi vakolat,
így énekeljük a drága Siont:
egér futkározik a pad alatt
s odvából egy-egy vén kuvik kiront.

Tízen vagyunk: ez a gyülekezet,
a tizenegyedik maga a pap,
de énekelünk mi százak helyett,
hogy hull belé a por s a vakolat,

a hiúban a denevér riad
s egy-egy szúvas gerenda meglazul:
tizenegyedikünk az árva pap,
tizenkettedikünk maga az Úr.

Így énekelünk mi, pár megmaradt
- azt bünteti, akit szeret az Úr -,
s velünk dalolnak a padló alatt,
kiket kiirtott az idő gazul.

In Marosszentimre Church

As crumbling plaster falls upon our heads,
Thus we the praises of dear Zion sing:
Beneath the pews mice scurry from their nests,
An ancient company of owls take wing.

We in the congregation number ten,
Eleven if we reckon in the priest,
But when we sing, we sound a hundred men.
Down pour the plaster and the dust;

The bats are startled in their attic roost;
Worm-eaten rafters weakened even more.
Eleventh is our solitary priest,
The twelfth among us is the Lord himself.

And so we sing, the few that still remain
—The Lord exacts a price from him that loves—
And those whom wicked time from us has ta’en
Join in our psalmody beneath the floor.

On its most simple level, this poem expressed what is an ever-growing problem of abandoned churches in Transylavania. In several areas of Transylvania, Hungarian population has drastically decreased in a process which had speeded up since the middle of the 19th century. After the Treaty of Trianon (1920), when Hungary ceded Transylvania to Romania, this process reached a dramatic scale, especially in southern Transylvania (the area around Gyulafehérvár cathedral, on which see my earlier post). In a place like Marosszentimre, where my grandfather could write about a Calvinist congregation of ten people, today there is practically no Hungarian congregation. Unlike Hungarians, the Romanian population is Eastern Orthodox, and they have built their own new churches in Marosszentimre and similar places. As a result, there are a number of virtually abandoned medieval churches throughout Transylvania. Managed by the Hungarian Catholic or Calvinist churches, sometimes there is no money for even the most basic maintenance of these structures, and with no locals to carry out simple repairs, many of these churches are virtually on the brink of collapse. The Romanian government or its monument protection agency similarly pays little attention to these places.

The church of Borberek (Vurpar), view from the sanctuary.
Photo by Ákos Horváth, Ágoston Sándor Foundation
During the last two decades, several Hungarian government and non-profit programs were started to inventorize and save as much as possible of this rich heritage. The largest state program was coordinated by the László Teleki Foundation from 1999 to 2006 - see this website for more information. The Foundation and the program were both shut down in 2006 - although the Foundation continues to work successfully as an independent non-profit organization. Among other organizations, the Ágoston Sándor Foundation has to be mentioned especially. During the last five years or so, their teams of volunteers have cleaned, covered - and thus essentially saved - over a dozen churches. You can read about the foundation on their website (and see some pictures, if you click on the Hungarian menu item "Beszámolók"). Read also the blog of the reverend of Magyarigen, Botond Gudor - the main coordinator of monument protection programs in the region around Gyulafehérvár.  Hopefully, all this work will soon again receive government funding and will be able to continue - so that the churches do not remain abandoned any more.

I would also like to call attention to the similarly rich architectural heritage of Transylvanian Saxon towns - many of them left in a similar state after the exodus of Transylvanian Saxons to Germany during the 1980s-1990s. You can read this article about these villages in the Guardian (Oct. 2009).

Most of the churches in this condition date from the 13-15th centuries, and many of them preserve important wall paintings. The images below illustrate some of the most important monuments which need to be saved - my photos of them date from the years 2007-2009 (enlarge and click on 'show info' for the names of the locations). Some photos (Kéménd, Marosfelfalu) were taken by Attila Mudrák for our book on  Medieval frescoes in Transylvania.

Note 1: Published in The Journal of Northwest Theological Seminary Volume 22, Number 3, December 2007.


  1. Update on Saxon churches, a conference in Washington, DC:
    Transylvania - Heritage and Future

  2. You can read more about the church of Néma in E-conservation magazine

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