A swathe of wooden churches stretches across Eastern Europe, from northern Russia to the Adriatic, but in terms of both quality and quantity the richest examples are in Maramureş. From 1278, the Orthodox Romanians were forbidden by their Catholic Hungarian overlords to build churches in stone, and so used wood to ape Gothic developments. It was long thought that most were rebuilt after the last Tatar raid in 1717, acquiring large porches and tall towers, often with four corner-pinnacles, mimicking the masonry architecture of the Transylvanian cities. However in 1997 a tree-ring study showed that the wood used in many churches – notably those of Corneşti, Breb and Onceşti – was far older, the oldest dating from 1367.
In general, the walls are built of blockwork (squared-off logs laid horizontally), cantilevered out in places to form brackets or consoles, supporting the eaves. However, Western techniques such as raftering and timber framing enabled the development of characteristic high roofs and steeples in Maramureş. Following the standard Orthodox ground plan, the main roof covers the narthex and naos and a lower one the sanctuary; the naos usually has a barrel vault, while the narthex sits beneath the tower, its weight transmitted by rafters to the walls and thus avoiding the need for pillars. The main roof is always shingled and in many cases double, allowing clerestory windows high in the nave, while the lower roof may be extended to the west to form a porch (exonarthex or pridvor).
Inside, almost every church has a choir gallery above the west part of the naos, always a later addition, as shown by the way it is superimposed on the wall paintings. These extraordinary works of art were produced by local artists in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, combining the icon tradition with pagan motifs – such as ropes and suns – and topical propaganda against the invading Turks. They broadly follow the standard Orthodox layout, with the Incarnation and Eucharist in the sanctuary (for the priest’s edification), the Last Judgement and moralistic parables such as the Wise and Foolish Virgins in the narthex (where the women stand), and the Passion in the naos.
The first of the major painters was Alexandru Ponehalski, who worked from the 1750s to the 1770s in Călineşti and Budeşti, in a naïf post-Byzantine style with blocks of colour in black outlines. From 1767 to the 1780s, Radu Munteanu worked around his native Lăpuş and in Botiza, Glod and Deseşti, painting in a freer and more imaginative manner. A more Baroque style developed in the first decade of the nineteenth century, with Toader Hodor and Ion Plohod working in Bârsana, Corneşti, Văleni, Năneşti and Rozavlea.
Since 1989, there has been a renaissance of the Uniate or Greco-Catholic faith, repressed under communism and forcibly merged with the Romanian Orthodox Church: many parishes have reverted to Greco-Catholicism, reclaiming their churches; in others, one church is now Orthodox and the other Uniate, while in some villages the congregations even manage to share one church. Many villages have built large, new churches, making it more likely that you’ll find the wooden churches locked – even on a Sunday. Finding the key-holder can be problematic, but ask around and someone is bound to help out. People dress conservatively here, and wearing shorts is not appropriate for visiting churches.
Of about a hundred wooden churches in Maramureş, 35 are left in the north of the county and thirty in the south. Eight were placed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1999: Bârsana, Budeşti (Josani), Deseşti, Ieud (Deal), Siseşti, Plopiş, Poienile Izei and Rogoz.