Sunday, March 20, 2011

Fortified Saxon churches of Transylania

Birthälm (Berethalom/Biertan) 
The southern part of Transylvania has been populated by settlers from various (mainly the westernmost) parts of Germany, generally termed Saxons in medieval and more recent sources (you can read their history here). These Saxon settlers built some of the most urban settlements of Transylvania - cities such as Kronstadt (Brassó/Brasov), Hermannstadt (Nagyszeben/Sibiu) or Schässburg (Segesvár/Sighisoara). The villages of that region largely preserved their medieval structure to this day, and most are dominated by large medieval churches. Over the course of the 15-17th centuries,  as the territory was under constant threat by the Ottoman Empire, these churches were all fortified - some built into veritable castles. Transylvanian Saxons became Lutheran during the 16th century, thus these churches preserved much of their medieval treasures - including altarpieces, goldsmith works, liturgical textiles, Turkish rugs - to this day. These days, more and more frescoes are also coming to light from under the whitewash in these churches. Owing to the mass exodus of Transylvanian Saxons to Germany during the 1980s-1990s, many of these churches are out of use today, some completely abandoned. However, more and more is done to preserve this rich heritage. The churches of the region of Hermannstadt have been put on the watch-list of the World Monument Fund, while seven churches and the historic center of Schässburg are on the Unesco World Heritage list. International conservation efforts have been quite successful in some cases, as with the Church on the Hill in Schässburg, and Prince Charles has taken an interest in the region, buying property there.

Malmkrog (Almakerék/Malancrav) 

In this post, I would like to call attention to a website aimed at documenting the Saxon churches of Transylvania. The website Fortified Churches provides information on the region in five languages, with photo galleries of many of the churches (browse them under Locations). It is well worth a visit - although the best of course is visit the region in person, something I can highly recommend.

(Pictures in this post are from the Fortified Churches website. See also my earlier post on Abandoned medieval churches in Transylvania).


  1. Excellent post. And you noted two interesting points, above and beyond the preservation issues.

    Firstly who encouraged/forced Transylvanian Saxons to become Lutheran during the 16th century? Was it a national conversion (as in Britain) or each individual prince made up his own mind (as in Germany)? And why Lutheran, of all the Protestant alternatives?

    Secondly how amazing that the newly Lutheran churches preserved much of their medieval treasures. You might have feared that vigorous Lutherans churches would have no place for altarpieces, goldsmith works, liturgical textiles and Turkish rugs.

  2. The Principality of Transylvania had religious freedom. At the 1557 Diet of Torda, it was decreed that "…each person may maintain whatever religious faith he desires" - meaning accepted religions, of course. Germans (Saxons) in Transylvania sticked to the Lutheran faith, while Hungarians became Calvinist or Unitarian (or, in fact, remained Catholic). At the same time, the Romanian populace was (and remains to this day) Eastern Orthodox. Lutherans kept using medieval vestments, etc.