The traditional architecture of Maramures has a long history and is one of the most important branches of Romanian Architecture.
As time has passed many developments have changed the construction of the village home, but the one constant has been wood. In earlier times the houses were built from round logs. As new methods were developed the logs gave way to thick cut, wooden beams. The joining methods of these homes, always a marvel, have also changed to create a better sealed home.
The wood used in these homes varies depending the valley. The Mara and Cosau Valleys build their homes in oak. The villagers in the Iza Valley from Vadu Izei to Barsana also use oak. Above Barsana the homes are usually built of pine.
The shape of the roof is the same for all traditional Romanian houses. It is called "roof in four waters." This is a roof with four sides sloping away from the crown or top of the roof. The traditional roof is very tall and steep. The oldest are still covered with thatch. The shingle was not introduced until the nineteenth century.
The floor plans for these houses were very simple. The simplest was the home with an entry hall and a living room. the only variation of this basic plan included a porch at the entrance of the home. As the family grew more rooms were added. A pantry would be built near the entry hall. A second living room would be added to the other side of the entry hall. Finally a "beautiful room" or guest room would be added at the end of the hall.
Like almost all of the wooden construction in Maramures these houses were trimmed in elaborate wooden carvings. Window and door frames, archways, rafters, pillars and beams all displayed the mastery of the Maramures wood carvers.
The home of the peasant cannot be understood when it stands alone. One must see the whole yard and the buildings that make up the homestead of the peasant farm. Around the yard are the tools of the peasant's trade. What he has in his yard is specific to his occupation. The stable, the hay loft, storage areas for wood, vegetables and meat, the water well are all signs of a peasant's wealth. His wealth along with the condition of his yard and equipment give him status. This is his income, his life.
The entrance to a Maramures homestead is often marked by an immense wooden gate. These "triumphal arches" have gained world wide recognition owing to their impressive size and the harmony of their construction.
Austrian documents dating from the eighteenth century mention the great number of noblemen from Maramures. In fact, the region had more than any other part of Romania. Among the 15,000 landowners during one census 85% had proof of royal ancestry.
During these times only these royal landowners were given the privilege of building these high gates in front of their homes. The common people were only allowed a small gate which gave them little privacy. The greater a family's gate the greater their status within the community. This custom's roots are so strong that it survives today as homes are still classified in the villages not by property size or house size, but by the size of the gate in front.
In the early centuries, the gate was also seen as a barrier against evil. It was the marker between two universes. There was the safety and goodness of home inside the gate and the evil and unknown of the outside world beyond its arches. Under the central pillar which holds up the two thresholds it was common practice to place money, incense and holy water to give the gate greater power against evil. People, animals and symbols were carved on the wooden gate to provide further protection to the house, the family and their fortune.
The various symbols that adorn these gates had specific significance in the past. Through the years much of the meaning of these elements has been lost and remain only as decoration. Some of what is still known about these symbols follows: The rope is a commonly seen element in Maramures carving. It signifies success, the reaching of new heights. Often the rope is in the shape of a cross within a circle which had strong magical powers. The rosette is the most important of the motifs. It is the symbol of the sun, a source of light which all life depends. The tree of life represents the never-ending nature of life, life without death, eternal fertility. Among the animal forms the snake was very powerful. The snake in very ancient beliefs was the guardian of the house from evil. The face of man was used to protect the house and family from ghosts and evil spirits. Birds, especially the cock, were symbols of the human soul. The fork with three prongs was also a guardian of the house. Other symbols commonly used in the carving of these gates were the wolf's tooth, the pick axe and the pine tree. What these originally symbolized has been lost to time, but their beauty remains.
Maramures is famous for its wooden churches. Known throughout world, these churches represent the pinnacle of wooden architecture on the European continent. For the people of Maramures these churches are the ultimate extension of their wood craft. From the houses, gates and furnishings these churches, are the people's ultimate connection with the land.
The churches are constructed of oak or pine beams laid horizontally on a low foundation of stone. The interiors are divided into the traditional rooms of a Romanian Orthodox church: antenave, nave and altar. The altar is always at the east end of the church, the direction in which Orthodox believe Christ will rise again. A porch may also be a part of the church.
The wooden churches of Maramures have a high tower (40-50 meters) built in the gothic style. Due to its height the tower must be able to survive ferocious winters and strong winds. Great technical expertise is required to build such a tower entirely out of wood. The tower is always balanced in size and position with the body of the church.
Sitting on the highest hill of the village the wooden church stands over the village homes below. The harmony of the village architecture is unsurpassed in the world. The church is this harmony's greatest monument.
The architectural decor in Maramures is the most elaborate and unique of all wooden architecture in Romania. It is distinguished by the deep relief and complex patterns given to the motifs. This brings a volume and strength unmatched in the woodwork of the region.
Working almost exclusively with oak and pine for centuries the carvers have uncovered the secrets of extracting the very essence of the wood. This is apparent on nearly everything made of wood in Maramures from the gates, houses and churches to the simplest wooden spoons and yarn spindles.
Wood was one of the first raw materials processed by man. Wood's general abundance, ease of production by rudimentary method and variety of useful purposes has made it highly valuable from the beginning of civilization.
Maramures has kept many of its ancient traditions alive. Passed down from generation to generation, the customs of this region have changed little. From the simplest of work to elaborate ceremonies the people still celebrate the cycles of life and the seasons in their rituals. Many of these customs rely on objects that have been made of wood since before written history. Special wooden bottles or gourds are still used in weddings. Religious seals, carved from wood, are used to imprint the holy wafers with a blessing. Crosses throughout the region and at every intersection are carved from wood to protect travelers.
In the village of Sapanta lived a particularly gifted carver, Ion Stan Patras. Before his death he created an entire cemetery of grave markers carved in wood and painted bright blue with other brilliant colors. On each cross is written a poem, in rhyme, of the deceased's life and death. The epithets were often humorous; thus the cemetery in Sapanta became known to the world as the "Merry Cemetery."
Another wood sculpture of great importance is the great crucifix monument in the village of Berbesti. This religious artifact is of tremendous value to the people of Maramures and all over Romania. A great many of the regions painted wooden sculptures can also be seen at the Village Museum in Sighetu-Marmatiei.
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