There are all over the county of Maramures edifices (simple houses made of wattle and clay, or noble’s palaces) with a sentimental value added to the certificate of patrimony justified by their age or architectural style. They are those constructions blessed by the role they had played as birthplaces or just temporary shelters for Romanians or foreigners who had become (or already were) prestigious personalities of the cultural life in this country or abroad. Those who have passed their threshold humbly confess that the overwhelming presence of the objects which had belonged to those characters (added to history) made them feel something like a tender presence of their ideas.
These former dwelling places have become for some people places for pilgrimage, while for others, an opportunity of meeting with history and culture. As a rule, from an administrative point of view, these houses belong to a museum from the region or to the local communities.
The Vasile Lucaciu Memorial Museum (Şişeşti). Its component parts are the parochial house where the priest Dr. Vasile Lucaciu (1852-1922) used to live, the Church of the Sacred Unification of All the Romanians (1890), with documents and photographs, an a library with 15,000 volumes. Vasile Lucaciu, also called “The Lion of Şişeşti”, was a leader of the Romanian’s national emancipation movement from Transylvania, and one of the artisans of the creation of the “Great Romania”.
The Ion Şiugariu Memorial House (Băiţa). Situated on the steep hill of Băiţa, close to Baia Mare, the house where poet Ion Şiugariu was born (1914-1945) has an out of place look in a would-be residential district. Şiugariu, a graduate of the Faculty of Letters and Philosophy, in 1941 was elected president of the Refugee Students Association from all over the country. He died during the war while fighting in the Tatra mountains. His work was published only posthumously.
The Gheorghe Pop de Băseşti Memorial House. The building dates from 1885-1890 and had been raised by the fief of Transylvanian intellectuals (Vasile Goldiş, Ion Raţiu, Teodor Mihali), artisans of the 1918 Union. Gheorghe Pop de Băseşti, descendent of a family from the nobility, was an active member of the ASTRA Association. In December 1918, at Alba Iulia, he was elected president of the Great Assembly that proclaimed the union of Transylvania with Romania.
The Petöfi Sándor Memorial House (Coltău). The Hungarian poet Petöfi Sándor had lived in the Teleki castle from Coltău between the 8th of September to the 20th of October 1841, spending his honeymoon and writing some of his best love poems. Nowadays he is considered the national poet of the Hungarian people.
The Stan Ion Pătraş Memorial Museum-House (Săpânţa). The house of the famous folk artist has remained as a genuine museum, overwhelming due to the numerous base-relief sculptures painted in his characteristic style. It has three rooms, and a veranda with arcades.
The Ioan Mihaly de Apşa Memorial House (Sighetu Marmaţiei). On the ground floor of the building at No. 1, Tudor Vladimirescu Street, there is an art collection; on the upper floor there is a drawing-room with Louis VI style, and a study. Ioan Mihaly de Apşa was a correspondent member of the Romanian Royal Academy and founder of the Association for the Culture of the Romanian People from Maramures; he founded the Sighet department of the ASTRA.
The Elie Wiesel Memorial House (Sighetu Marmaţiei). At No.1, Tudor Vladimirescu Street is the building where Elie Wiesel, winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace, novelist, dramatist and essayist, spent the first 15 years of his life. The museum was inaugurated in august 2002, in the presence of Elie Wiesel and of the Romanian President.
The Merry Churchyard from Săpânţa
The “Merry Churchyard” from Săpânţa is certainly the most advertised, controversial and commercial brand in Maramures. Confusing and disowned, admired and venerated, commented from different perspectives: ethnographical, folkloric, and philosophical, fascinating because of “the blue of Săpânţa”, visited, photographed by hundreds of thousands of tourists from all over the world – the churchyard with its coloured crosses and witty poems has to be regarded as an original combination between spirit (spirituality, ancient beliefs, conceptions, traditions) and matter (wood, natural pigments).
What is shocking for the modern man’s eye and mind is the final destination of these monuments: artefacts in a necropolis. In other words, grave crosses in a country churchyard. Nowadays people who live in another cultural context (related to Christian dogmas), are used to consider burials as sober and solemn occasions. Therefore it is very difficult for western people to imagine that in the Europe of the 20th century there can be a different kind of religious worship in which the Christian faith is imbued with reminiscences of conceptions about life and death coming from ancient beliefs.
The paradox of “the Săpânţa phenomenon” would be less shocking if the funerary monuments were the object of an itinerant exhibition in famous galleries of the world. The spectators would enjoy the satirical texts and admire the colourful engravings. The mental shock would occur only when they were told that these artefacts are component parts of the funerary monuments enriching a graveyard in Romania.
The questions following this revelation could contain words like: showmanship, kitsch, or marketing for tourists.
In 1935, when Ion Stan Pătraş (1908-1977) was assembling the first of this kind of crosses in the village churchyard of Săpânţa, neither he nor the priest or the villagers could have imagined the dimensions the world tourist industry would acquire in the 21st century. As always, the artistic expression of the material universe in Maramures comes second after the utility of the object. Moreover, any innovation and shade of originality has to have its roots in tradition and has to get the unanimous approval of the community. And so it has happened in the case of the Săpânţa churchyard.
The appearance of this tourist objective on the map of Europe has given rise to numerous speculations about the ancient beliefs described in studies quoting sometimes uncertain historical sources.
Thus, it was a surprise to discover that the inhabitants of Maramures have preserved in their collective memory the conception according to which death should not be viewed with fear or disregard, but be considered as a natural act of integration into the world beyond the grave. A world organized in a similar way like our own, where the ancestors perpetuated the same organization and fulfilled the same functions, and practiced the same activities as before. They were beneficent and protective beings. Therefore the funeral rites were like banquets, with merriment and reconciled soul. At the death of the unwed young ones there were wedding feasts. From time to time, the whole community met in the village churchyard at the “Feast of the Dead”, lighting candles and sharing food and drink over the graves, proving once again that between the world of the living and the world of the dead there is a very narrow, hardly perceptible threshold.
The Merry churchyard from Săpânţa is decrypting its messages as seen from the angle of an approved ethnological reality.