CLOSER TO THE SAINTS. THE FRESCOS OF VĂCĂREŞTI MONASTERY 40 YEARS LATER

On lands bought by the Court, the first Phanariote Hospodar of the Danubian Principalities, Nicholas Mavrocordatos had a monastery built, dedicated to the Holy Trinity and considered a “masterpiece of Romanian sacred art”. It was situated near Bucharest, to the south-east of the city, on a wide field atop Văcăreşti Hill, part of the Bucharest Hills. The monastery sat atop a promontory, around 20 meters higher than the floodplains, surrounded by marshlands and pools on the northern, north-western, south and south-eastern sides.

In order to build this monastic sanctuary, Hospodar Nicholas assigned boyars Manolache Rangavi Lambrino, who was a Lord Steward, Matei Mogoşescu, a high-lord and Iane Scarlat Alevra, a Court boyar to support the process. The founder wished for the ensemble to perform several functions – a necropolis for the Mavrocordatos Family, a place of residence for the ruler and a place to hold the valuable library of his honourable dynasty. Because of political vicissitudes, the grandiose ensemble had to be built in several steps. It was admired by all those who paused on these lands during the 18th century, considering the construction “a victory for the old Oriental Orthodox architecture”. It was the last great edifice of old Romanian architecture. The building process for the ensemble took place during two main periods: the two reigns of Nicholas Mavrocordatos (1716-1730) and the six Muntenian reigns of Constantine Mavrocordatos (1730-1763).

In the course of Nicholas Mavrocordatos’ first rule the large, eastern building section was

done, which included the Saint Troica Church, the sovereign residency, possibly the abbacy, a few monastic cells and a kitchen, the bathroom, the refectory, a chapel, the bell-tower and surrounding walls, in various stages of completion.

It is also possible that this is when the second section was conceived, at least on a foundation level. The return of Nicholas to the throne sees the completion of the sovereign residency with a painted church. In June 1721 the holy site is dedicated to the Jerusalem Patriarchy. Construction on the precinct walls carried on until 1723.

The ensemble was blessed in 1723, on September 13th/24th (old calendar). The ruler, along with his family, court members, and Church hierarchs, took part in the ceremony.

The sovereign residency is made up of an underground level, a ground floor and an elevated first floor. The precinct wall is also finalised in 1723. The Father Superior residency is completed after 1719.

In 1716 the ensemble was rectangular-shaped and included a single precinct, at the centre of which construction on the most beautiful 18th century Wallachian church began, rising over 30 meters in height. The wide porch featured massive stone Brancovan style columns (a style of architecture also known as the Wallachian Renaissance) on three of its sides. The top edge of the porch was decorated with a stone rope-shaped moulding – “The Mother of God weaved holy belt”. The foundation was made out of burnt brick, with lime-enriched mortar, entrenched 3 to 5 meters into the ground.

The church porch connected the profane world to the sacred, ecclesiastical space. It featured two calottes separated by a wide median archway. The calottes were replaced by two steeples, decorated with the representations of Saint John the Baptist (southern steeple) and The Virgin Mary with Infant Jesus (northern steeple). The semi-cylindrical dome was decorated with a Tetramorph portraying the Lord Jesus Christ. The porch walls were painted with apocalyptic scenes from the Book of Revelation, a rare Theme scarcely portrayed in the 18th century. The only other church in Bucharest to feature such scenes is the Kretzulescu Church of Podul Mogoşoaei, today Calea Victoriei. The Văcăreşti Apocalypse painting was the most ample and representative depiction of its kind from Romanian Medieval iconography, featuring 21 scenes, which were lost forever, only captured in photographic memory. Through these scenes the Voivode displayed his opposition to the Austrian Empire, who held him captive for a while (November 1716 – September 1718).

The holy monastery’s church was built on a surface of 41 by 17 meters and was the largest place of worship of Wallachia, considered a “veritable synthesis of Wallachian religious constructions”. On the inside, it was covered in approximately 2500 square meters of fresco paintings, and its great pillars, archways, decorated edges and carved doorways gave it a unique look. Through certain details the Văcăreşti narthex plan had elements similar to those of the old Argeş Monastery of ruler Neagoe Basarab and to the Church of the Holy Hierarch Nicholas. Its triconch plan featured a dome atop the nave, an extended narthex with a set of pillars to support the Pantocrator dome, and two additional secondary domes at the corners. The narthex dome was supported by four massive stone columns, with cable moulding and Corinthian capitals, decorated integrally with zoomorphic and plant motifs, and a significant Brancovan style influence. The small spires benefitted from a double support system, on the western corners of the inner portico and on the porch.

The votive painting portrayed Nicholas Mavrocordatos along with wife Smaranda and their children on the left side, western wall. On the right side of the painting one could see Alexander Mavrocordatos, Lady Sultana, the monastery’s Father Superior and the Archbishop of Ungrovlahia. This area of the place of worship housed the tombs for members of the founding family.

The altar iconostasis featured 25 icon representations displayed in two rows.

It is assumed that the hundreds of square meters of frescos were created by mural painters from the “School of Constantinos”, judging by the stylistic elements used. The inscriptions combine the Greek, Slavonic and Romanian languages with Cyrillic characters, which might indicate that the group of people who worked on them was heterogeneous.

The narthex housed the Calendar of Saints, including all the saintly feasts of the year, starting from September 1st, the date that still marks the beginning of the liturgical calendar. It presents a complete list of these feasts, a theme that is not even partially represented after 1730. Considered a “Sistine Chapel of the Romanian people”, the paintings stood out through the use of bright colours, decorating the walls in their entirety. Out of the approximately 2500 square meters of fresco 120 square meters were preserved, representing 80 fragments, selected by Art Historian Alexander Efremov. The extraction work of these fragments was coordinated by University professor Dr. D. Mohanu alongside a series of renowned specialists. The stacco a massello technique was used to detach the wall paintings and save them along with their support (intonaco), thus preserving the layer of colour applied on the fresh support of “organic” lime, connected using the process of carbonation. Among the extracted scenes we mention The Fall of Constantinople or The Dormition of the Mother of God, wonders of post-Brancovan painting, along with a series of insets depicting other various Saints and important religious scenes. The floor was initially covered by bricks laid in a herringbone pattern, which were replaced by marble slabs during the 19th century.

The sovereign residency was an impressive palace for the early 18th century, three levels high. The cellar featured a large square room with a central pillar which marked the start point of four archways, dividing the room in four sections that along with the exterior walls and formed pendants supported four spherical domes. There were also smaller rooms, generally used for storage. The ground floor was split into 6 rooms and other annexes, with stone slab flooring and brick-intersected archways on the ceiling. The interior was lime-washed.

An exterior stone staircase on the southern façade of the building connected the ground floor to the upper level. Here there was a loggia which extended into a double-level colonnade gallery, reaching the chapel and the abbey. The northern side featured another loggia which offered a view towards the city. The chapel was a beautiful construction embellished with white marble columns, the only one of its kind in Romanian architecture. Placed under the protection of the Holy Hierarch Nicholas and Lycia, Archbishop of Myra, the chapel was built on two levels, corresponding to the double-level colonnade gallery. The ground floor also featured a monastery infirmary, displayed in a Greek-cross plan, closed off to the outside on the western side by a thick sturdy wall. The upper floor featured the chapel itself, with thinner walls, following the four-armed floor plan shape of the lower floor. Access to the chapel was gained through the balcony resulted from disconnecting the gallery from the lower level chapel infirmary. Burnt clay tiles covered the roofs. A supple and tall dome rose above the nave, giving the chapel a most elegant appearance.

The votive painting in the chapel portrayed Nicholas Mavrocordatos along with Lady Smaranda and sons Alexander, Iancu and Scarlat on the left hand side, and Constantine Mavrocordatos and Lady Ekaterina along with Metropolitan Ananias on the right hand side. The monastery founders were portrayed holding a model of the church, shown above the entrance. The floors were covered with marble tiles, and also featured the design of a vulture similar to the one found in the monastery’s large church. The Holy Hierarch Nicholas chapel was finalised in august 1736, during the time of Constantine Mavrocordatos, with the care of the monastery’s Father Superior – Ananias, Bishop of Bethlehem. Some adjustments were made to the small apartment of the sovereign residency by creating a “walkway”. The monastic cells built in the northern and southern sides were linked by arched galleries on two levels. All construction work on the second precinct – the servant quarters and barracks, annexes and other rooms – was completed.

The Văcăreşti ensemble covered almost 18 000 square meters of land. It was composed of a large precinct – the sovereign one – with a large church in the middle and the sovereign residence, the Holy Hierarch Nicholas Chapel and abbey, linked by arched galleries, monastic cells and kitchen on one side and the other, and the massive bell-tower, 30 meters high, that connected it to the small precinct, where there were other monastic cells. Exterior access to the small precinct could be gained through a

smaller tower.

For 126 years, until the Wallachian Revolution of 1848, the monastic ensemble served the purpose it had been built for. This period was followed by another 125 years, until 1973, during which it became and was used as a prison. Last came 11 years of “grey survival”, until the 15th of December 1986. Unfortunately the Văcăreşti ensemble was also affected by natural disasters over the years, such as the fire of 1784, which damaged part of the main precinct’s northern side, a series of earthquakes (in 1802, 1829, 1838, 1940 and 1977) that led to the collapse of the steeples and the chipping off of the church cornice etc. and was even affected by a few bombs in 1944.

The plague outbreak of 1831 made the monastery transform into a soldiers’ lazaret. Russian or Ottoman troops were held here between 1806 and 1807. Between 1845 and 1846 Father Superior Iov oversees repair work on the sovereign residency and the steeples, while the church is repainted. Other significant restorative works include the chapel, the tower, the sovereign residency loggia, the monastic cells, part of the steeples and so on. After 1848 the monastery became a dungeon for the leaders of the 1848 Revolution.

Between 1850 and 1864 the settlement is partially abandoned. Yet in 1856 the painting and the holy sanctuary cover were redone. The catagraph of June 20th 1856 recorded the rooms found in the sovereign residency – a salon, seven bolted rooms, large and small, three small halls, a large corridor with carved stone pillars, extending into the archway gallery in front of the chapel. In 1858 the monastic cells were used for the activities of the Bucharest Central Seminar. Until 1868 the entire complex served temporarily as a jail. Afterwards, it became an official public imprisonment facility, and had its buildings modified and adjusted accordingly. A third precinct was built, the exterior one, equipped with strategically placed guard towers.

Among the famous prisoners held at the monastery we mention N. Orăşanu, Ion Valentineanu, R. Ionescu, priests Constantine and Gregory Musceleanu, Mircea Mălăieru,

Constantin Bacalbaşa, Liviu Rebreanu, Tudor Arghezi, G.M. Cantacuzino, C.Z. Codreanu, Radu Ciuceanu, Father Iustin Pârvu and many more.

After 1947 and until 1973 the monastery housed the Văcăreşti Correctional Penitentiary, which became a transit prison and even a means to selectively exterminate political prisoners held by the Communist regime. Attempts at restoring the ensemble were noted between the years 1948 and 1951 (on behalf of the Patriarchy and the Historical Monuments Commission) and between 1952 and 1965/1970 (also at the request of the Historical Monuments Commission).

Starting with 1970, the ensemble is given to the museum now known as the Romanian National Museum of Art. Between the 13th of October 1973 and November 1977 an archaeological research project was set in motion, under the coordination of Professor Dr. Panait I. Panait, as part of an archaeological dig site. The founding of a Museum of Religious Art was proposed, and so, around 1977, the eastern monastery side, with the sovereign residency, gallery, chapel, and, partially, the abbey, was almost entirely restored. More proposals appeared; first to found a Museum of Romanian Culture, then a National Museum of Church Paintings, and, in 1976, the possibility of organising a Museum for the Proletarian Movement began to circulate. For a time the monastery served as storage for the National Library. It was here that the Historical Monuments Committee Archives were kept for a long time.

Despite being declared a historic monument through the Decision of the Council of Ministers No. 661 of 1955, position 94, this did not prevent those who led the country during the 1980s from deciding on the definitive destruction of this architectural jewel. Thus, the day of December 2nd marked the beginning of the end for Văcăreşti Monastery. The pretext used to justify its tearing down was that it was in “a state of imminent collapse”, especially since it had been affected by the March 4th 1977 earthquake.

Its demolition, unanimously seen as “a crime against Romanian heritage”, began towards the end of 1986. Starting with December 19th 1984 the spire crosses are taken down, the steeples razed to the ground along with the porch on December 30th, and the tower atop the narthex suffers the same fate on the first days of the following year. The existence of Văcăreşti Monastery comes to an end on December 15th 1986. Ever since January 24th 1985 there have been written requests for the preservation of this monument on record, the first ones to sign these requests being architect Grigore Ionescu, historians Dionisie Pippidi, Professor Dr. Vasile Drăguț, Radu Popa, Academy members Dinu C. Giurescu and Răzvan Theodorescu. Later, during the month of October that same year, Dr. Virgil Cândea, a renowned connoisseur of old Romanian culture also joined the initiative.

The destiny of the entire Văcăreşti ensemble seems intertwined with the fate of its founder, punished for the sin of having arrested, exiled, and probably killed the Metropolitan Anthim the Iberian.

Grina-Mihaela RAFAILĂ

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