The unknown treasure of Transylvania

The unknown treasure of Transylvania

by Mara Popescu*

The sacred vernacular architecture is as important as the history of a people, it reflects the history, its customs and traditions, in few words: traditional civilization.

In the Transylvania area there are still hidden unexpected treasures of architecture, little known by the public or even by specialists.

One of those is the Reformed Church Ákos / Acâş, built in the days when Notre Dame was still in the process of building in Paris, year 1175, according to an inscription found in the church.

Az Ákosi református templom – Source:

The Reformed Church from Ákos (in Hungarian) / Acâş (in Romanian) is the most valuable architectural monument of Satu Mare, and one of the most beautiful Romanesque monuments in Romania, presenting analogies with churches from Herina and Capleni, being closely related with the churches in Jak and Zsambek in Hungary. The church’s monumental towers of Ákos / Acâş are visible from far away. The geographical position, at the junction of Sălaj Hills with the Western Plain, on the river bank of Crasna, favored economic development of the village, which becomes a fair in the medieval period.

On the domain of Ákos, in the second half of the twelfth century, a monastery was founded being the expression of wealth and social status of the family. Initially, the monastery belonged to the Benedictine order as donation from Ákos noble family. The monastery has been also a resting place where it could have kept the memory of ancestors. About the functioning of the monastery we have no accurate data, but the village is first mentioned in 1342 as “Ákosmonostora” (monastery Ákos). Another document, written in 1421, provides information on the monastery’s dedication to “Holy Virgin”, and the content of the right of patronage.

Ákos noble family grows over the centuries XII-XIV, when a lot of other estates and monasteries are added to the family’s heritage. One of the descendants of Ákos family was murdered by the Tartars at the border called Banrekesz, during the great Tartar invasion of 1241. Over the XV century the Ákos family dies one by one, and the monastery decades and it is converted into a parish church. The last Ákos descendants disappear from the village in the sixteenth century. In this period, Ákos / Acâş, as in other places in the area, residents convert themselves to the Reformed religion. The first Protestant priest is stated in 1597.

Ákos – Református templom source: zolipress

The former Benedictine monastery’s church has a basilica plan with a single apse. The decisive element that determines the placement of the building no later than after the Mongol invasion, is the enlarged rectangular area in front of the altar, which is a kind of rudimentary chorus.

The naves are divided by rectangular columns. The central nave and two side aisles have framework.

A tripartite Romanesque window in the east wall of the central nave makes us believe that it must have had originally a different roof. The apse has a semicircular shape. On the west side there is a pair of columns, cross-linked by archivolts. They carry a rostrum, which is a characteristic of monastic architecture. The interior of the church is simple, without any decorations.

Walls and massive proportions of the church did not leave much natural light to enter inside the building. This wasn’t a very important thing, because the monastic liturgy was held at night, under the burning candles’ light.

The whole church is built out of brick, the building is austere, low-profile. A characteristic of this architecture of brick, with walls left unplastered, is the use of bricks with enameled surface. The vertical articulation of the facades is made by some strips, ie masonry strips that come out slightly outside, called lesene or pilaster strip. Under the cornice of the apse and the nave below, you can see a frieze of semicircular arches. This system of parament is of Lombard origin.

The western façade is dominated by two towers above the rostrum, continuing the initial style of the abbey’s church of Cluny, considered as a model for the Benedictine monastic sites. The upper floors of the tower are framed by pilaster strips and are divided by friezes of arches. Bottom floor of the tower is lit by a narrow and high window, and the last two floors with a pair of twin windows.

The superior register of the central nave has windows, which is a characteristic of basilicas. The roof of the lateral naves begins below the line of the central nave’s windows. The central nave’s roof has two slopes, and the lateral ones have only one slope. The roof, imitating the stone models of western Hungary, is made out of brick.

Tatar and Turkish attacks affected the church. The fire of 1642 destroyed the roof of the building and, according to local tradition, until the construction of the new roof in 1732, the liturgy was officiated under the tower. In 1747, the old tower’s helmet struck by lightning, was replaced with a new one. The earthquake of 1834 severely damaged the church, the renovation taking place until the early twentieth century. Renovation works carried out in two stages (1896 and 1902) were led by Frigyes Schulek. Respecting the Romanesque rules, the exterior walls were not plastered.

The old shingled roof of the tower, onion-shaped, was replaced during the restoration with another one, pyramid-shaped, of brick. Also during this period it was built the upper gable and the west porch. Inside, the sanctuary was re-vaulted and the new triumphal arch has now a triforium. Restoration works were generally well done, helping to preserve the value of the church. In recent years, the infiltrated water from the walls was removed by drainage. The excavations carried out before the drainage works have revealed the outer walls of the cemetery surrounding the church and the former chapel’s walls, and inside, the changes made to the sanctuary.

The benches inside the church are made in a traditional style, painted with floral motifs of great artistic value and made in the 1750-1776 in a late Transylvanian Renaissance floral style. The church has a pipe organ, which dates from the early twentieth century and two bells, one made in 1742, the other in 1924.

According to a legend, the Islamic crescent moon was placed on top of the tower because it was said that the Turks did not attack Muslim shrines that had this sign. Perhaps this idea came to the locals after the Turks destroyed the newly renovated church in 1642. Only after 90 years have passed, in 1732, the churchgoers rebuilt the roof and towers and during this period, the the services were officiated outdoors.

Mara Popescu is a Romanian researcher. She is a member of FRH, of Europa Nostra and of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS).

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