Sunday, June 26, 2016

Observations on Romanian Orthodoxy


For the past 13 years or so, my travel preferences have largely been traditionally Orthodox countries, or at least lands that were formerly so.  Coming from a nation upon whose shores our faith arrived relatively recently, I enjoy observing how it is practiced in the “Old Countries.”  I was fortunate to spend 10 days in Romania earlier this month.  The following observations are merely that of a curious traveler and nothing more.  An in-depth critical analysis is definitely not intended, nor am I trying to gloss-over problems and situations within Romanian Orthodoxy.  I look to my Romanian friends to correct any erroneous conclusions contained below.



  1. For the most part, Romanian Orthodoxy appears alive and well.  I made a large, counter-clockwise loop through the eastern half of the country:  Bucharest to Curtea de Arges, Bran, Sinaia, Brasov, Sighisoara, Bucovina, Suceava, Iasi, Neamt, Focsani, and back to Bucharest.  Best I can figure, I visited 29 churches along the way, and saw countless others.  I had occasion to attend parts of several services--Divine Liturgy, some vespers services, and others the nature of which I could not exactly determine.  I would estimate worshippers to be divided about 60/40 between women and men, which is really not that bad at all.  More importantly, I noticed that no particular age demographic predominated--all age groups seemed to be well-represented.   I found this to be true in both urban and rural churches.  The vitality of the Romanian churches was in sharp contrast to what I experienced a few days earlier in Great Britain.  


  1. I noticed quite a bit of new church construction in the country, both in rural and urban locales.  This may not be on the same scale as what I have observed in Georgia, for example, but then there may not be the need for it.  Most villages have at least one Orthodox church, and often more.  The churches are relatively newer than their Georgian counterparts (maybe 16th-18th century as opposed to 8th-12th century in the latter).  In short, there appears to be no shortage of Orthodox churches in the parts of Romania that I visited (certainly thicker on the ground than the ubiquitous English parish churches).  In addition, many homes have small chapels in their front yards, and there is the occasional roadside chapel just for motorists.


  1. I saw several variations of what can be called a distinctly Romanian style, and the new churches under construction are holding true to those earlier patterns.  The churches are characterized by being long and narrow, and quite high, and usually with broad overhanging roofs.  


  1. In the older churches at least, the interior space is a bit different than other traditions.  The narthex is usually quite large.  A low doorway leads into a second chamber, which I once saw referred to as the “funeral room.”  If there are graves of saints or  notables, chances are they are in this room.  Another low doorway leads into the nave, and of course after that is the altar.  The iconostasis is nearly always soaring, quite elaborate, and usually gilded.  Standing in the narthex, one almost has the sense of looking down a long tunnel, through the doorways to the altar in the distance.  


  1. Romania is not uniformly Orthodox.  In Transylvania, the Orthodox churches quickly give way to German Evangelical or Hungarian Catholic churches between Brasov and Sighisoara.  The large Greek-looking Orthodox church in the latter looks almost out of place there.  Heading northeast from Sighisoara, I saw few signs of Orthodoxy until I reached the foothills of the Carpathians again, near Toplita.  In Bucovina, I noticed villages with all three groups represented--though invariably there might be 2 or 3 Orthodox churches, a neglected-looking Catholic church, and an abandoned Evangelical Church.  So, it appears that non-Orthodox adherents in this region might be declining, for whatever reason.  But then, the area east of Neamt and south of Iasi seems to be overwhelmingly Catholic.  Finally, there is no shortage of American-style sects:  Adventists, Jehovah Witnesses, and Pentecostals.  In short, there is more of an American-style religious pluralism in evidence in Romania, than say in Georgia, though Orthodoxy clearly predominates.


  1. I was initially disappointed in the iconography, though this quickly changed as I experienced more of the country.  The older iconography is among the best I’ve seen anywhere.  But I find that of the modern era--roughly corresponding to the Kingdom of Romania during the 19th and 20th centuries--to be just dreadful.  It reminds me very much of the natural, westernized, sweetly sentimentalized iconography that was so popular in Russia during the 19th century.  I am not an iconographic specialist, so that is the only way I can characterize it.  Sadly, the icons that are available for purchase are largely of this variety.  Romanian iconography of the post-Communist period, however, is truly exceptional.  From the reworking in old churches, to the soaring new temples, to the little roadside chapels for motorists, contemporary Romanian iconography is a wonder to behold.  I would hope that this will become more commonplace in small, individual icons as well.   Also, In the older tradition, the iconography--whether inside or out--is often not done in large
    scenes, but rather with dozens, if not hundreds of panels, each depicting a biblical scene.  The iconography is what draws me to these churches, wherever I’m traveling.  While in the Bucovina monasteries, I wondered if there was a single biblical story that had been omitted.


  1. In a number of churches with 19th and 20th century iconography, I was a little surprised to often see the royal family depicted on the west wall.  I am used to seeing medieval princely families--or in Romania’s case, the voivodes and their families--depicted, as they were often the original donors who endowed the monastery.  I thought it a little odd to see the modern era monarchs:  usually King Carol I and Queen Elisaveta and their daughter Maria, and sometimes accompanied by King Ferdinand and Queen Marie and possibly some of their children.  Those two couples were good sorts, and I suppose this is no different than the depiction of rulers of earlier centuries.  I know a bit about the Romanian royals, and I found it almost insulting, however, to have a large cameo of Carol II on the back wall, as is the case in Sighisoara.  


  1. Romanians burn lots of candles--just not in the church.  This was a difference I noticed right away.  There are no interior candles, but lots of people buying them.  All churches have metal boxes outside the church where one can light candles, always divided between commemorating the living on the right, and the deceased on the left.  I found this to always be the case, without exception.


  1. I did not see any pews in the 29 churches I visited around the country.  The grandmothers, however, made good use of the stasidia around the walls.


  1. Romanians kneel during parts of the Liturgy, which is not our normal custom, other than specified services.


11. Romanians have the habit of crossing themselves whenever they pass a church. Not everyone does it, and maybe not even a majority do it, but enough do so that it is noticeable. I found this to be the case in Bucharest and Iasi, as well as in the rural areas. I picked up the habit while I was over there.

5 comments:

Octavian Gabor said...

A very interesting read. A friend of mine sent it to me this morning.
Where is the last icon? Is it from the Petru Voda Monastery? It depicts the martyrs from the communist persecution--often portrayed as praying to the Mother of the Lord.

Mimi said...

Fascinating, thank you

Mimi said...

Fascinating, thank you

elizabeth said...

my church in Ottawa has Romanians and while it is official a Carpatho-Russian church it has a lot of Bukovian (on the Ukrainian side of it) ties. They kneel during the Concentration of the Gifts, which I am guessing is one of the times you were not used to kneeling. I can't tell you how much I miss that kneeling and how reverent it felt and how other churches I have been in since do not have this same sense.

My (protestant) sister and my brother-in-law lived in Romania for over 5 years and I remember my sister being surprised at how Christian all the Christmas carols are (compared to here in the States). I don't think that she understands fully what it means to be in a nation that has been Christian for centuries.

Lovely tour of your time there. Romania is one of the places I most want to go to; so many monasteries there and the piety of the people is still real.

Have you been to Holy Dormition Monastery in Michigan? their church (new) is in what I believe is Northern Romanian style and the iconography and iconstasis there is incredibly beautiful.

John said...

Octavian, the church with the icon depicting the prisoners and the Communist era martyrs is the seminary church at the Neamt Monastic complex.

Elizabeth, I checked out the HD website. Yes, their church is certainly in the northern Romanian style, though you can certainly see them elsewhere in the country, as well. Many churches in Bucovina have even more extreme roof overhangs.