The combination of text and image, when it is not a simple illustration, when there is a stylistic distance between them, can be expressive in different ways. A successful case in this respect is the important volume – or study album – of the monasteries and churches of Transylvania. Thirteenth and eighteenth centuries, Bucharest, 2020, project designed and coordinated by Father Justin Marches, with texts by scholars Anna Domtran, Daniel Domtrane, Cyprien Feria, Mihaela Sanda Salontay and photographs by Daniel Mihail Constantinescu.
There may be sarcastic tension between the text and the image, for example. A written discourse, which at length demands a thesis, and is free from questions and nuances, can be “commented” by an image questioning it implicitly. Through objective comparisons, dealt with in a stylistic register other than that of the text, the picture warns the viewer the reader that a certain critical distance is necessary when reading. This process is fertile. But sometimes he exaggerates and misses his goal. If the text is beautiful and consistent in itself, and the accompanying picture is a parody, then it is no longer a gain of clarity, but rather an inadequacy that can impede an honest reading.
The Study Album on the Transylvanian Churches contains another kind of connection between the image and the text. No tension between the two, no simple documentary parallels, no photo analysis. The text contains the solidity and subtlety of specialized discourse: Anna and Daniel Dumtrane, scholars of religious history and interreligious relations in Transylvania, refer to architecture and painting in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Cyprian Feria, specialist in medieval and pre-modern art in Central Europe, deals With painting the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries, and Mihaela Sanda Salontay, who trained as an art historian and art historian, and has experience studying the heritage of Transylvania, deals with the architecture of the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries. Their discourse includes morphological, stylistic and historical descriptions of the monuments, and data on the history of the societies that built, used, converted and transported some of them (small wooden ships) to a new society. Considerations of preservation, restoration or, conversely, neglect or abandonment have been added in the case of fragile churches whose charm is scarcely found today with sufficient religious and aesthetic delicacy.
The text contains scholarly sobriety, a dedication to documenting the archeology and religious life that shaped it and that, over time, shaped its vertical around. On the other hand, portraits celebrate beauty, expressive detail, embodied symbolism, and theological poetics. It shows the motifs of time on medieval stone vaults and frills, on panels which, through scientific refinement or fragile hieratic, take some of your breath away. I will not mention the churches and monasteries mentioned. There are so many that a gigantic size could cover only a part of the area of Transylvania: Alba, Hunedoara, Soleil, Cluj. A second folder will be allocated to the other party. In a recent presentation of the volume, Bogdan Tetaro Kazaban has already, sensitively, raised many of them.
I only note, glorified by photographs, the charm of settling in the landscape of churches of Cojocani, Galda de Jos, Viştea or Bretea mureşană. Also, the serrated geometry of the crosses that crown the iconic bulkhead of Alon. Or the amazing Kalna altar: a solid wooden table in the shape of a graceful Eucharistic cup. Thus we are presented with a land so rich in sacred art. By their quality, the images prepare the eye, the attentiveness, and the sensitivity of the traveler to a subject, without which he would not, perhaps, perceive the richness, variety, and stylistic quality. Maybe not exist.
To go through the volume means to have before you, always side by side, the dimension of rigor and the dimension of grace, appropriate to the consistent religious life and the successful objects of sacred art. Always move from paying attention to information and studying to understanding through questioning.
There are few things to say. First of all, that the volume has a deliberate ecumenical position. An inventory of Orthodox, Greek-Catholic, Catholic, and improved places of worship in the regions traveled, with their carefully documented histories. You will find, for example, that some churches in the Densuş region were alternatively used collectively by the Orthodox and the Reformation in the 16th and 18th centuries, and that noble families who converted to Calvinism supported the development of Orthodox monasteries in their fields. You will find, at the level of field history, without ideological assumptions, some observations of religious life in the lands of sectarian and ethnic diversity.
THEN: In the introduction, Father Justin Marchech evokes specific events from personal experience, connecting with spiritual vibration, with the generosity and devotion of those who take care of the sanctities investigated. “Our field trip wasn’t just a documentary, it was very much an experience to get to know and meet each other,” he says. It’s like the initial “anthropological tone” that gives a conservative but stubborn meaning to the entire volume. It can be a preparation for a cultural trip, for a path of faith that includes, of course, the aesthetic dimension, for a walk in the open.
Finally, it is the successful rhythm of the combination of text and image, the cryptically innovative arrangement of bibliographic references, and the elegance of the editorial, that make the volume a chosen thing: these are due to the nun Atanasia Vecchi, with her own training in art history.
Thus, the volume gives, it seems to me, an example of a modern, modern and productive assumption of the Christian tradition. Modern because it works on the fertility of the ecumenical situation. Modern because it uses the objective study of the religious field. Modern because it insists on paying attention to heritage. Modern because it is based on the theme of sacred art as a theological expression, like the beauty of spiritual truth. In pre-modern times, the combination of this fact and beauty was associated with the atmosphere of that time, the spirit of society. Although not all products of sacred art were of the same quality, faith did not turn into sentimentality, and kitsch was not taught. Today it is necessary to reposition the two dimensions – the essence of faith and artistic expression – with a functional combination between them in the interest of the public. Modern assumption, finally, because it places culture as an important part of the life of faith (a chapter of the volume is dedicated to the Transylvanian museums, of all denominations, which house exceptional icons and pieces of sacred art).
Tradition is not a thing of the past. It is a storehouse of experience, which can help the mind and taste to form for the life of the soul. But the effort of nurture, research, and creativity takes place in the present of every consciousness and every life.
Anka Manulescu Researcher in the field of religious anthropology.