(DISCLAIMER: This blog is not an official Fulbright Program blog; the views expressed are my own and not those of the Fulbright Program, the U.S. Department of State or any of its partner organizations.)

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Nicula, The Heart of Romanian Orthodoxy

We visited the Nicula Monastery as a guest of Radu, a Romanian Orthodox priest that we met in Cluj.  The monastery is home to the “Holy Weeping Icon of the Mother of God, “ which is considered the heart of Romanian identity in Transylvania. The tradition of painting glass icons began at Nicola as a way for pilgrims to take home reminders of their piety.

The Holy Weeping Icon and Romanian Nationalism
The icon was painted in 1681 by a village priest for the benefit of peasants in his parish. After a few years the icon was given to a larger church in Nicula.  In 1694, Hapsburg officers were visiting the church and noticed the icon was weeping.  This created quite a stir, villagers came with handkerchiefs to collect the tears which effected healings and good fortune. 

The count who ruled over the region took the icon for himself, but the peasants kept a constant vigil outside his castle and asked for it back, threatening to burn his castle.  The count decided to build a church at a nearby monastery to house the icon; some accounts say he was forced to do this by the Hapsburg Emperor.   
The faithful Romanians attribute the tears to the Holy Mother weeping over the Romanian Orthodox Church being forced to affiliate with Rome., “a forewarning to the sad events that were to hit around the year 1700,” according to a plaque at the monastery. The affiliation occurred with the Act of Union of 1698, according to the Wikipedia article on the Greco-Catholic Church of Romania, which allowed the Byzantine rites while giving allegiance to the Pope.  The Hapsburg Empire decreed that all churches in Romania were Roman (Greco-Catholic is the term they use now), the Orthodox holdouts tried to build new churches.  So the Hapsburg Empire prohibited building stone churches (Wikipedia says it was during the 17th and 18th centuries), and the Romanian orthodox found a loophole in building wooden churches, which are so prominent in western Romania. We heard stories of instances where the Austrian army would desecrate Romanian churches by riding their horses into the sanctuaries, thus the explanation for the low doorways in the wooden churches, to keep the horses out.

Painted Glass Icons
During the 18th and 19th centuries, the monastery and icon became a pilgrimage site.  During the holiday Dormition of Mary (August 15) up to  30.000 pilgrims  camp out on the surrounding hills. The priests taught the pilgrims to paint copies of icons on glass to take home with them, a tradition unique to Transylvanaia.  Because they were traced by peasants, they have an innocence and simplicity in their rendering.

The Monastery during Communism
When the communists came the weeping icon was stored for safekeeping in the village, inside a wall in one of the houses.  The pilgrims continued to come to the Nicula valley to show their devotion and also their nationalist pride. As was common with the Communists, the monastery was closed to the public with only a few older monks left to tend the grounds.  It remained open only because of the collection of glass icons which were seen as a Romanian cultural heritage.  When the wooden church and all  the icons burned in 1972, the Communists proposed closing the monastery.  However, the abbot moved a nearby wooden church and asked all the people in the area to donate their glass icons so he could demonstrate to the communists that the church and icons still existed.  The communists relented with their idea.
After the fall of Communism the weeping icon was brought out of its walled storage and placed in the monastery where faithful Romanians come to venerate the image of the Virgin.

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