A chronological and in depth approach to the historical stages favouring the invention of this object – by now a symbol and an acknowledged brand for Maramures – takes one back to an ancient occupational context: sheep breeding practised by a sedentary population who developed a parallel household industry: the processing of wool and manufacturing of clothing for family members.
The story begins in spring, on St. George’s Day, when they measure the milk and take the flocks of sheep, after being shorn, up the mountain. The sheep has become the object of various myth in Maramures (the Mioritic myth), especially due to its economic importance, as it can be learned from a local legend: “The sheep is sacred as long as it has wool” (T. Papahagi, 1925).
The wool shorn in spring is washed in the water of wells or brooks and it is spread out on the homestead in order to dry. The wool is carded with a wooden carder, tied on a distaff, spun, and the yarn is wrapped around the spindle, then yarn balls are made and the yarn is woven on the loom. The spinning and weaving begin during the autumn and continue all along the winter (see Dăncuş, 1986).
This technological process still continues, though on a reduced scale, in the traditional communities of Maramures.
Relic of the domestic textile industry, the spindle had a secondary function, for a long time quite insignificant, being used to hold the yarn only for a short span of time. From a social point of view, the distaff on which they put the wool to be spun used to have a higher value, as the distaffs were made with minute care and intricately carved by young lads for mothers, wives or sweethearts to pride with at women’s traditional evening meetings.
The spindle came out of anonymity the moment when the whorl on the low spindle changed its form due to the technique of jointing pieces of wood, initially used as a solution for jointing wooden structures (beams) without the use of other accessories (nails) either made of wood or metal. Such architectural elements are found also in the wooden churches built in Maramures.
Due to the mobility of the elements of the weight (whorl), the spindle produces a specific sound. Some spindles have a slot filled with pebbles in the middle of the whorl made of jointed pieces of wood, producing a rattling sound like bells ringing. They say this innovation had a practical purpose: it helped women to say awake when they intended to spin a certain amount of wool, during the long winter nights.
Artist Mihai Olos from Baia Mare had an important role in promoting this household object as a brand, and more precisely this technique of jointing. He has widely used this ingenious jointing of elements in making his wooden sculptures well-known and appreciated in the European cultural space. Starting from modules inspired by the folk art from Maramures, at a certain moment of his career, the artist made the project of a genuine world city significantly named by him “olospolis”, in which the architecture of joints has acquired philosophical connotations.
Folk craftsmen followed this trend and tried to value the emblematic potential of this object by producing it serially and selling spindles to tourists at festivals and at specific fairs.
It is to be mentioned that due to the fame enjoyed by this spindle, the architects who made the project for the “Mara” hotel compound (during the ‘80s) have used it as a decorative element, placing a huge “rattle spindle” on the upper part of the building façade, like a church steeple – this becoming an emblem of the municipal centre of the county.
The Seal Engraver
Apparently an insignificant object, usually made of wood (or marble), but kept with piety by maidens in their dowry chest “among the stacked pieces of flowery cloths perfumed with basil and lavender” kept in “little white linen bags”. It used only by women for marking the ritual bread (wafers and Easter pound cake), on holidays, but it may become, in our view, one of the brands of cultural resistance of which the inhabitants of Maramures could be proud.
Bearing different names (pecetar, prescornicer or prostornic), this cultic object used to be found in each household in the villages of the Iza, Mara, and Cosău valleys. Though it has been forgotten or got degraded, luckily three important collections have been preserved: those of the brothers Victor and Iuliu Pop, and that of the priest from Breb, Mircea Antal, whose collection has been included recently in the heritage of the Baia Mare Ethnographic and Folk Art Museum.
The seal engravers are usually between 10-20 cm. in height and are composed of two parts: the inferior part resembles a pedestal in the form of a parallelepiped or a pyramid trunk with an incised religious text – IC-XC-NI-KA or IS-NS-NI-KA – meaning “Jesus Christ’s victory over death”. The wafers bear the seal of the sacred letters, in a ritual gesture “between prayer and the work sanctified by the sealing of the bread” (Ion Iuga, 1993). The upper part can be grouped in two distinct categories: “those with the decorative motifs and forms connected to the Christian rites – roadside crosses or a stylized crucifix – and those with a definitely secular character”.
These cultic objects have a strong tendency towards abstraction. Almost each piece is unique. Some have the form of columns, resembling Brậncuşi’s endless column or Henry Moore’s sculptures.
Despite their miniature sizes, the collections of seal engravers are genuine works of art due to their superior forms: solar rosettes (Cuhea), wheat ears, “1877” obelisk, sandglass (Rona de Jos), Aztec staircase pyramid (Săcel), Thai tower, Brậncuşi’s “Măiastra Bird” (an astounding likeness), the Endless Column, the King of Kings (18th century), “the Chair of the Venerable Mariş from Ieud” (identical with the chairs around the Table of Silence), or church steeples (see Romulus Pop, Galsul pecetarelor, 1993).
A seal engraver from Moisei was carved to look like a helmet with four little towers, very much alike the gothic steeples from the historical Land of Maramures. There are seal engravers with their three arms joined by a semicircle and the three arms transferred inside it, while others resemble the border stones from Maramures.
Sometimes the seal engravers show a naively carved human figure with evident disproportions, but the most frequent theme is that of the crucifixion, treated in an unconventional manner.
The seal engravers are distinguished by their creator’s capacity to synthesize and join the symbolism of agrarian rites (wheat ear, flour), and the art of gastronomy (wafers), religious beliefs (the theme of crucifixion and the inscriptions on the basis) and the art of woodwork. But all these would remain unobserved if the final product had not been enriched with small art works, which would flatter the pride of any consecrated artist. Constantin Brậncuşi considered it a title of glory to promote worldwide with his work motifs and forms originating from the Romanian folk art, forms known and used by the peasants from Maramures when making their seal engravers to be kept in the maidens’ dowry chests, among the basil and lavender scented cloths...