Romanian Glass Icons
Tucked away in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains in the Transylvanian village of Sibiel is a treasure trove of Romanian religious art, which I was privileged to see on a tour of the country, sponsored by New York’s Museum of Biblical Art in the fall of 2008. Just across the cemetery from the town’s 18th century church stands a modest, modern, two-story building, exhibiting an extraordinary collection of icons painted on glass panels.
The founder of this unique museum was Father Zosim Oancea, a Romanian Orthodox priest who spent 15 years in Communist prisons, before he was exiled to this remote parish in 1964. Father Zosim asked villagers to donate their glass icons to the church to preserve and promote this long-neglected form of Romanian peasant art. When this visionary priest died in 2005, the world-class collection of glass icons, now bearing his name, numbered over 600 pieces. It draws folk-art lovers from around the globe and has helped foster a revival in Romanian glass icon-making .
Glass iconography may be identified nowadays with Romania, but the technique originally came from Bohemia and Austria about the time when Transylvania was annexed by the Habsburg Empire in the late 17th century. Long oppressed by Roman Catholic and Protestant landlords of Hungarian and German extraction, the Romanian peasants always remained loyal to their Eastern Orthodox faith and found ways to adapt this relatively cheap art form of their Austrian rulers to suit their own iconographic needs, turning out affordable sacred images on glass to be sold at farmers’ markets and by traveling peddlers.
By the 19th century, glass iconography had reached a level of perfection among the Romanians unsurpassed to this day, boasting its own regional masters and schools of painting. When mass-produced lithographs of holy images took over the sacred art market, glass painting went into decline. The current enthusiasm for traditional arts and crafts, combined with the religious revival, going on now in post-Communist Romania, have given the failing folk art form a new lease on life.
All the glass icons in the Sacred Art Pilgrim collection have been made by modern artists, working in the time-honored way. Since the image is painted behind a glass panel, the usual methods of composition are reversed. The outlines, the lettering, and finishing details have to be brushed onto the glass first before background coloring and sections of gold leaf can be applied, a process allowing for no mistakes! The image is, then, sealed with a coating of varnish, covered with a sheet of paper, and fixed in a wood frame with a protective backing.
Self-taught peasant painters incorporated details of local architecture, flora, fauna, and fashion into their works, and contemporary artists have remained true to these charming variations. (Note the rather odd Jerusalem skyline in the background of The Crucifixion I and the Garden of Eden as apple orchard in Adam and Eve!) Rural artisans also had no qualms about using their sacred images to make political statements. The Resurrection icon presented here shows the guard at Christ’s tomb, wearing the turbans and uniforms of the feared Ottoman Turks.
The theme of my favorite glass panel, The Mystical Winepress, is, as far as I know, unique to Romanian iconography. You can see Christ squeezing grapes into a Eucharistic chalice, plucked from a vine growing out of his wounded side, which is entwined on a cross-shaped trellis. Such beautifully idiosyncratic imagery could only have come out of the life experience of peasants who harvest, prune, and tend vineyards.