The tourists visiting Maramures cannot but admire one of the most impressive sights of this ethnographical universe: the monumental wooden gates of the traditional homesteads to be found especially in the Mara, Cosău, or Iza valleys, and also in some villages of the Lăpuş Land.
Generally, they are made of oak wood, of three posts supporting the upper part of the gate that is covered by a shingled roof. The gates of this region have often been compared to real “triumphal arches” through which the peasants used to pass with dignity, proud of their noble origin.
The series of monumental gates are a living testimony of a particular historical reality. During the feudal period, in the communities of Maramures, a number of princes (cneaz) appeared who periodically elected their voivode. In time, the nobles’ power and privileges had been attentively fragmented and distributed to a growing number of families. For centuries, the members of this “caste” (with the dimension of a real community!) resisted the attempts to deprive them of their privileges. This is the explanation of the amazing result of an 18th century Austrian statistics that situated Maramures “on the first place in the whole empire as concerns the reported percentage of noblemen of the county’s population.” The number of the registered noblemen with their rank certified by authentic documents was no less than 15,000, most of them being descendants of the local princes’ families.
This fact is extremely important because only the nobles had the privilege to raise high gates in front of their homesteads, while the simple people had the right only to a simple gate.
For a period, Maramures had been a unique imperial enclave populated by peasants of noble origin. The shingle coveredgates with carved posts are relics of a social organization that had functioned up to the 20th century due to the persistence of local traditions and the people’s inborn conservative tendencies.
Nowhere in Europe did anything similar happen.
“The attachment of the local people to these valuable constructions, deeply rooted in the cultural and artistic traditions as well as in the social and political history of Maramures, is illustrated by the fact that the ranking of the homesteads after their gates has been preserved until our days. Even now, when asking them about a man living in their village, the old peasants will point to the gate of the house where the person lives, the gesture signifying the way they rank him” (Francisc Nistor, 1977).
The construction, the carving of the decorative elements, and the passage through the gate had to respect particular rituals based upon a deep faith (with mythical rather than religious connotations).
Thus, the cutting of the oak tree had to be in a night with full moon – in order to keep away any misfortune and all the “evil hours” from around the homestead. Then, the transportation of the timber from the forest had to be done on one of the weekdays when people did not fast (on Tuesday, Thursday or Saturday), according to the belief that thus the wood would bring them luck.
They used to put under the threshold beam “money, holy water, and incense, so that the black plague should not come close”. And for the protection of their fortune and house anthropomorphic figures were carved on the posts.
The carved motifs had (some of them) magical substrata, but the decoding of the elements folk craftsmen most frequently used: the rope, the knot, the solar rosette, the tree of life (“the symbol of life without death”), the snake (guardian of the house), the human figure, birds, the wolf tooth, the fir tree a. s. o., permits access to a mythological, pre-Christian universe.
For the Maramures peasant, the passage through the house gate used to be like a ceremonial act, a mental purification from the evils of the profane world so that to step cleansed into the domestic universe of the household and family. In all traditional cultures the passages through a gate, more or less imposing, has symbolized a change (either surface or structural, physical or virtual).
The Wayside Cross
For many foreign visitors the civilization of wood in Maramures is represented mainly by three elements: the church, the gate, and the wayside cross.
Fully aware of its representative character (as a brand) and in answer to the growing demand for such “products”, folk craftsmen and some specialized firms have lately oriented their main activity to manufacturing and assembling such objects requested by the market. Though only some of these bear the mark of authenticity, most being produced serially, they all contain the specific elements of traditional folk art.
As concerns their cultural value, the most important wayside crosses were those marking a border. “There are testimonies showing that at the beginning of the 17th century, many communities in Maramures had such carved wooden wayside crosses, actually complex monuments, marking borders. Only one of them, the wayside cross of the Rednic family has been preserved on the edge of Berbeşti village. Dated 18th, century, its composing elements and the carving define it as ‘gothic’.” (M. Dăncuş, 1968)
The wayside border crosses, besides their Christian, religious significance, could be related to ancient beliefs (superstitions), deeply rooted in the Romanians’ subconscious. They were usually placed at road forks or crossroads, where people believed that evil spirits had much more strength and could get hold on travellers. Thus, the wayside crosses were integrated into a system of prevention with magic connotations (white magic).
According to some researchers, the wayside crosses from Maramures are the last extant Dacian crosses (the three upper arms passing over the circle), pagan symbols of the Geto-Dacian population’s ancient solar worship (V. R. Vulcănescu, 1987, p. 206, 207, 367, 472).
From the second half of the 20th century, the initial significance of the wayside crosses faded away and they have become especially funerary crosses, probably under the influence and fame of the “Merry Graveyard” from Săpânţa. Thus, an ample process of imposing a brand from Maramures has passed over the borders of the county.
Some more recent instances come to show the importance attached to wayside crosses.
Princess Ileana of Romania, King Ferdinand and Queen Marie’s sixth offspring, former archduchess of Austria, while in exile in the United States, took the veil and became Lady Superior in “Transfiguration” convent from Ellwood City, Pennsylvania. Before her death (on January 21, 1991), she had asked that a carved wayside cross, “like those in Maramures” be set on her grave.
The Great Romanian poet Nichita Stănescu (1933-1983), with four awards from the Romanian Writers Union, Herder prize laureate (1975), and posthumously member of the Romanian Academy, rests in Bellu cemetery in Bucharest and a wayside cross embellishes his grave.
After the 1989 Revolution, a great number of such wayside crosses made in Maramures have been set up in different parts of the country in order to commemorate the “December heroes”. At the beginning of 1990, the first such monument made by Alexandru Perţa Cuza, an artist from the Land of Lăpuş, was set up in front of the Orthodox Cathedral in the centre of Timişoara. Other wayside crosses dedicated to heroes were set up in Baia Mare and in Bucharest – one in front of the Romanian Television and the other at the University.
Any other example would only certify the brand quality of this component of the folk culture “made in Maramures”.