The wooden churches in the Maramureș in the north of Romania date from the 17th and 18th centuries and impress with masterful architecture and beautiful paintings.
The wooden churches in the Maramureș region number about 60 wooden church buildings from the 17th and 18th centuries. 45 of them are on Romanian territory, 15 in Ukraine. Eight Romanian wooden churches were declared World Heritage Sites by UNESCO in 1999 as typical Romanian sacral architecture. The wooden churches, visible from afar thanks to their high pointed tower, have their place on our list of the top 10 sights of Romania.
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History of the wooden churches in Maramures
In Transylvania, it used to be forbidden to build Orthodox churches out of stone, so the faithful resorted to beech, oak, fir and elm wood. For over 200 years, the wooden churches in Maramureș were built in almost every village with a wide variety of stylistic elements. Their tall, slender steeples on the west side are characteristic.
Over time, the wooden churches became better and better built and decorated with masterful carvings. Some carpenters suddenly made a living from building churches. Some of the churches are small and dark, but some have amazing architectural elements. The huge, mostly shingle-roofed roofs and the high tower dwarf the actual church.
The only church without a bell tower is in Cuhea, where instead a so-called hour wood was cut to "ring in" the mass.
The interior decoration resembles that of a "normal" Orthodox church building. The wooden walls are decorated with elaborate frescoes depicting scenes from the Old Testament and the lives of saints.
Where are the most beautiful wooden churches in Romania?
- The UNESCO World Heritage Sites include the wooden churches in the villages of Bârsana, Budeşti-Josani, Deseşti, Ieud-Deal, Plopiş, Poienile Izei, Rogoz and Şurdeşti.
- A prime example of the architecture of wooden churches in Maramureș is the wooden church "Sfinţii Nicolae" in Budeşti-Josani from 1643.
- The "Naşterea Fecioarei" in Ieud-Deal is considered the most beautiful wooden church.
- The oldest wooden church in Maramureș is the "Sfânta Paraschiva" in Poienile Izei, which dates back to 1604.
- The highest wooden church in Romania is the Monastery of St. Michael the Archangel in Săpânța. It also holds the record for the world's tallest oak structure.
- The highest historic wooden church is in Şurdeşti. Its spire is only 6m lower than the monastery church in Săpânța.
Ieud-Deal Wooden Church
As the oldest wooden church in Romania, the wooden church of Ieud has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1999. The original church "Nasterea Maicii Domnului" was built in 1364 and was thus the first wooden church in the Maramureș.
However, nothing more exists of this church and today's Biserica Ieud Deal ("Church on the Hill of Ieud") dates from the 17th century. Unlike most other Romanian wooden churches, the wooden church of Ieud is not made of oak but of firwood.
PICTURES: Wooden church of Ieud
Photo gallery: Ieud Wooden Church
Visit to the wooden church of Ieud
Ieud is on the route between Baia Mare and Sighetu Marmitiei. Just before Vadu Izei, there is a turn-off towards Barsana, which also has a UNESCO wooden church, and Ieud. The church of Ieud is located a little outside amidst lush vegetation and a small cemetery. Since it was built on a hill, the church dedicated to the Nativity of the Virgin Mary is also known as "Barcului", "Church on the Hill".
The Byzantine paintings in the wooden church of Ieud are much younger than the church itself, as they were not made until 1782. Alexandru Ponehalschi is known as the creator, and the church is considered to be his artistic highlight.
In the narthex, sinners face the Last Judgement, and the nave is dominated by images of the Holy Trinity and scenes from the Old and New Testaments.
Inside the church of Ieud, however, it is not only the frescoes that impress, but also elaborate carpets woven by hand and dyed with vegetable dyes, valuable icons made of glass and precious books from the 15th century, also dyed with vegetable dyes.
The greatest treasure of the church is the manuscript "Codicele de la Ieud" from 1391, which was discovered by chance in the attic of the wooden building in 1921 and is the oldest document in Romanian. The Ieud Codex is now in Bucharest in the library of the Romanian Academy.
Wooden cathedral in the centre of Ieud
A wooden church also awaits visitors in the centre of Ieud. It is still used as a place of worship and dates back to 1718. As one of the largest wooden churches in Maramureș, it is also known as the "wooden cathedral".
A visit to the church is also worthwhile, because the entire village of Ieud is a veritable open-air museum due to its historical buildings and is one of Romania's most important tourist destinations, picturesquely situated on the upper reaches of the Iza.
Poienile Izei Wooden Church
The wooden church of Sfanta Cuvioasa Paraschiva in the pretty village of Poienile Izei is one of the most interesting and best-preserved wooden churches in Romania. With its impressive frescoes, it is one of the eight wooden churches in Maramureș and is rightly listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Both the frescoes and the architectural style correspond exactly to the tradition and art of Maramureș, which makes the church of Poienile Izei a valuable monument of the time.
PICTURES: Wooden church of Poienile Izei
Photo gallery: Wooden church of Poienile Izei
The wooden church of Poienile Izei is perched on a small hill in the middle of the village. It was built between 1604 and 1632 "from hundred-year-old tree trunks" and was consecrated to St. Paraschiva in 1637, just like the wooden church of Deseşti. This makes it one of the oldest wooden churches in Maramureș.
Visit to the wooden church of Poienile Izei
The decoration on the entrance door to the wooden church of Poienile Izei already hints at the painting skills inside. The entire interior of the elegant wooden church is covered with numerous ornate paintings, primarily depicting biblical scenes, which, according to an inscription on an altar cloth, date from 1794.
In the vestibule, the Last Judgement is depicted, which impressively shows what happens to the poor sinners in hell. If you look closely at the horror images, you will see slashed thieves, hanged liars and a woman swallowing her aborted child.
In the main room, in addition to the Passion of Christ with Adam and Eve in Paradise, the Assumption of Mary and St. Paraschiva, less violent scenes are also depicted.
In the surroundings of the wooden church of Poienile Izei, numerous decorated crosses of a small cemetery create a picturesque scenery, whose idyll is further emphasised by the lush nature around the small church.
Monastery of the Archangel Michael in Săpânța
The Monastery of St. Michael the Archangel (Sfântul Arhanghel Mihail) in Săpânța has the highest wooden church in Romania and the tallest oak structure in the world, at 78 metres high.
The wooden church of Săpânța, however, was only completed in 2003 as the highest wooden church on purpose. It is only 6m higher than the famous wooden church of Şurdeşti, considered by many to be the most beautiful of all Romanian wooden churches. The church is still called the Church of Peri, as it is considered the successor church of the Monastery of Peri in today's Ukraine, which was destroyed in 1703.
The Monastery of St. Michael the Archangel is impressive for its size, but it cannot match the flair of the centuries-old churches of the UNESCO World Heritage Site.
PICTURES: Monastery of the Archangel Michael in Săpânța
Photo gallery: Monastery of the Archangel Michael in Săpânța
The builders of the wooden church in Săpânța also strictly adhered to the traditional rules. The church is made of one hundred percent solid oak wood, not even the nails are made of iron. Since 2005, the "modern traditional" wooden church as well as a residential house and a separate prayer room have been used as a nunnery for the summer.
The construction of the church was financed by Carmen and Grigore Adamescu, as a sign reveals. The millionaire couple earned a fortune with construction projects, real estate, hotels and insurance and are among the richest businessmen in Romania.
Șurdești Wooden Church
The wooden church of Șurdești is actually called "Church of the Holy Archangels Michael and Gabriel" and has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1999.
The church in Șurdești, 20km from Baia Mare (Frauenbach), was built in 1766 by Ion Macarie from oak wood and has an impressive tower. The characteristic pointed roof reaches a height of 54 metres and is surrounded at its base by four other small towers.
In total, the church is 72 metres high, making it one of the tallest churches in the Maramures. Worldwide, the church of Șurdești is the second highest oak building. It is only beaten - on purpose - by the monastery church of Săpânța.
PICTURES: Wooden church of Șurdești
Photo gallery: Șurdești wooden church
Visit to the church of Șurdești
The vestibule of the church is unusual for this type of architecture and was only added after the church was completed. The two rows of arches in the vestibule are remarkable for their shape and decoration, as are the double-row windows and the frieze in the interior, which was designed in the shape of a twisted dew.
Tip: If you would like to visit the wooden church of Șurdești from the inside as well, you can ask for the key in the neighbouring house.
The masterful murals inside the wooden church of Șurdești are the work of the painter Stefan of Sisesti and were completed in 1783, as an inscription on the ornate iconostasis reveals. The paintings show scenes from the Old and New Testaments and have been amazingly well preserved without conservation.
Also artistic to look at are the embroidered cloths, most of which were handmade by women from the region and include some pieces from the 17th century. Together with images of saints and statues of the Virgin Mary, they decorate the interior of the church, which is reminiscent of a museum with its numerous artistic objects.
Around the church, numerous stone, iron and wooden crosses rise out of the meadow, forming a cemetery in the simplest way.
Plopis Wooden Church
Only a stone's throw away from Șurdești, the church "Sfintii Arhangheli" does not impress with its dimensions, but with its harmonious overall appearance. The Roman Orthodox church is dedicated to the two archangels Michael and Gabriel and is a magnificent testimony to the talented woodcarvers of Plopis, for whom the village is widely known.
The nave is relatively small with a length of 17 and a width of 7 metres. The 47m high tower blends harmoniously into the overall picture with perfectly balanced proportions.
The wooden church in Plopis was built purely of oak from 1798 and consecrated on 12 November 1811. A total of 49 families from the surrounding area contributed to the financing. Each of these families had a coin deposited in the church at that time, which were later found.
PICTURES: Plopis wooden church
Photo gallery: Plopis wooden church
Journey to Plopis
To get to Plopis, you will need your own vehicle, as the tiny village is not connected to the public transport network. Coming from Șurdești on the 182C, a road branches off before Faurești, the last stretch is not even asphalted.
Visit to the wooden church of Plopis
Tip: If the wooden church of Plopis is locked, it is worth visiting the house opposite, where you can ask for the key. Seeing the church from the inside is definitely worth it!
Inside, the painting of the wooden church of Plopis is a masterpiece in itself. No wonder, since it was created by Stefan Zugravul, a successor of those Zugravuls who are also responsible for the amazing façade paintings of some of the famous Moldavian monasteries.
Most impressive are the well-preserved scenes of the Last Judgement, which take up the entire west wall of the nave. Other depictions show the Passion of Christ, the Expulsion from Paradise and figures of the Holy Trinity, as well as the two archangels Michael and Gabriel.
Bârsana wooden church
The impressive wooden church of Bârsana was also declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999. The elegant church Intrarea Maicii Domnului în Biserică ("Church of Mary Temple Walk") stands on a hill in the middle of the settlement and attracts thousands of tourists to Bârsana every year. Its distinctive spire is visible from afar.
Unlike most other wooden churches in Maramureș, the unique frescoes of the Bârsana church are not in Byzantine but Baroque style . They depict scenes from the creation story and the Last Judgement, as well as striking angelic figures covered with eyes.
PICTURES: Wooden church of Bârsana
Photo gallery: Bârsana wooden church
History of the wooden church of Bârsana
However, the prominent place in the centre of the village was not the original site of the wooden church. The church was built as early as 1720, at that time as the monastery church of the Bârsana mon astery on the south-eastern edge of the village. However, the monastery was destroyed at the end of the 18th century and only rebuilt 200 years later.
The picturesque buildings in the middle of an idyllic garden are also worth seeing. The extensive monastery complex was built entirely of wood in the 1990s according to traditional construction methods and is one of the most beautiful monastery complexes in Romania.
From the monastery church to the parish church
When the monastery was destroyed, the church was spared and 15 years later, in 1806, the wooden church was moved to its present location by the inhabitants of Bârsana to protect it from looting. According to legend, this site was chosen because of a cemetery underneath for plague victims who were once buried without a burial ceremony and so are now allowed to rest at least in the physical vicinity of a church.
This makes the wooden church of Bârsana the only wooden church in Maramureș that went from being a monastery church to a parish church.
Visit to the wooden church of Bârsana
When you enter the small church with the mighty pointed roof, you will be stunned. The interior of the wooden church is covered with magnificent paintings. Seemingly every free centimetre was used to depict colourful scenes from the Bible and images of archangels and saints.
A closer look reveals scenes from Paradise, the Last Supper, the return of the prodigal son, St. George slaying the dragon, the "many-eyed cherubim", the birth of Cain and Abel, the kiss of Judas, the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham and the coronation of Mary.
Botiza Wooden Church and Museum
In the small village of Botiza in the remote north of Romania, time could have stood still. Driving through the village on bumpy roads presents a picture that can hardly have changed in the last two centuries.
Men in sun hats and women in headscarves work in the fields with scythes and rakes, children lead cows to the watering trough, women sit on sunny benches in front of the houses spinning and gossiping, and on the road you don't meet cars but horse-drawn carts loaded with a fragrant mountain of hay.
PICTURES: Wooden church and museum in Botiza
Photo gallery: Botiza Wooden Church and Museum
Today, the inhabitants of Botiza not only live more from agriculture, but also increasingly from agrotourism - in complete harmony with nature. There are no hotels or restaurants in Botiza, but there are now around 100 rooms rented out by private families in their houses.
You can recognise them by the signs "Pension" or "Reţea turistică". Here, not only room and shower are included, but also home cooking that couldn't be more organic and an immersion in the rural everyday life of Maramureș.
Visit from Botiza
All roads to Botiza lead over mountain passes because the sleepy village is literally behind the mountains. It is a day's journey by car from Bucharest, and the nearest larger town, Baia Mare, is almost 2 hours away by car. For this very reason, the secluded Botiza is exactly the right location for a Maramureș museum.
The Maramureș Museum of Botiza is characteristically housed in a traditional country house, which, like the famous wooden churches of Maramureș, is covered with shingles and made entirely of wood.
The "Casa Muzeu" or "Casa Berbecaru" not only shows what a real Maramureș house looks like inside and out, but also functions as a guesthouse, tourist information centre and textile workshop where traditional costumes and other regional fabric goods are made.
Origin of the wooden church of Botiza
The wooden church of Botiza was originally built in 1699 in Vișeu de Jos and dedicated to St. Paraschiva, but was rebuilt on its present site in 1899. Its original structure is not quite as well preserved as some other examples, and it was not until the turn of the millennium that the wooden building was generously renovated.
Visit to the wooden church of Botiza
The entrance portal has the typical features of a Maramureș gate and the beams in the design of a twisted rope that encompass the entire church are also typical of this architectural style. The paintings on the interior and exterior walls, characterised by floral patterns, were created in 1899 by Dinoisie Iuga and his daughter Aurelia.
Among the best-known depictions of the Botiza church is Death with his scythe in the interior just above the entrance door. However, the portrait with warnings was created by an unknown artist. Among the images of saints, in addition to the Madonna and Child, are Saint George defeating the dragon, the prophet Elijah on the chariot and Saint Dimitrios.
Church of All Saints (Biserica nouă "Duminica tuturor sfinților")
Right next to the traditional wooden church of Botiza, the modern Church of All Saints (Biserica nouă "Duminica tuturor sfinților") is a stark contrast.
Wooden Church of Deseşti
The church of Deseşti was built in 1770 and has also been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1999. Only solid oak wood and river stones were used for its construction. At that time, it was consecrated as "Cuvioasa Paraschiva" to Saint Paraschiva.
Ten years after construction began, the painter Radu Munteanu created the impressive Byzantine frescoes in its interior, which still awe every visitor today.
PICTURES: Wooden church of Deseşti
Photo gallery: Wooden church of Deseşti
Visit to the wooden church of Deseşti
Deseşti is reached via the DN18, which connects the two towns of Sighetu Marmației and Baia Mara. The church is located in the west of the village and - typical of the wooden churches of Maramureș - is surrounded by a pretty cemetery.
With its characteristic pointed roof, under which the church interior almost disappears, the wooden church of Deseşti is enthroned on an idyllic hill in the middle of the village. The climb up the cemetery hill to the wooden church of Deseşti is via an idyllic stone staircase.
Once on the hill, the elegant bell tower with its typical pointed roof soon appears among the trees. In addition to the enormous shingle roof, the careful ornamentation of the windows, however small, is also remarkable. Surrounding the church is a picturesque cemetery ensemble of wooden and iron crosses, as well as gravestones adorned with flowers in the shade of tall trees.
Tip: The church is usually locked, but a tour of the interior is highly recommended. For the key, a short visit must be paid to the parish priest of Deseşti. The rectory is located coming from the DN18 about 100m before the ascent to the cemetery hill. A small donation for the upkeep of the church is expected.
Artful frescoes inside
The interior of the wooden church of Deseşti consists of three rooms, which have been covered with elaborate paintings since 1780. Typical biblical scenes from the Old and New Testaments are depicted, such as the Last Judgement, the Passion of Jesus and the story of Creation, but also scenes of miracles and parables. Besides the precious frescoes, the antique furniture is also impressive, giving the church a warm, almost homely atmosphere.
After visiting the church, it is worthwhile to linger a while in its surroundings and let the peaceful atmosphere of the surrounding nature take effect on you.
The Maramureș region - an open-air museum
The Maramureș region is a well-known but sparsely visited area of Romania. The wooden villages, colourful garments and traditional customs of the local population have been preserved since the Middle Ages.
Many of the early "church carpenter" families still go about their business today, decorating wooden benches, farm gates and the wooden crosses in cemeteries. Thus, a trip to the wooden churches in the Maramures can be compared to a fantastic excursion to an open-air museum.