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Highlights of Orthodox spirituality.
Churches with exterior mural painting in Oltenia (18th-19th centuries)


Dr. Florentina Udrea, Aurelia Duţu


 The religious art of the 18th and the 19th centuries is characterized by paintings that cover the exterior of the orthodox churches in Oltenia, mostly those from the sub-Carpathian area. We can affirm that the exterior decoration of churches was a tendency of that period, but also an artistic expression preserving the Byzantine aesthetic models. Today the only churches that still preserve exterior mural paintings are those in Oltenia, mostly in the sub-Carpathian area. If, at the beginning of the 20th century, there were still 145 painted churches documented in Oltenia, today, according to reliable informations, only around 80 churches are still preserved. The details of the church painting are a substantial proof of the good taste and of the multitude of colours of mural painting of that time. Structurally, an orthodox church is composed, from outside to inside, of Porch, Narthex, Nave, and Altar (Sanctuary) (the Porch to the West and the Altar to the Est).

The iconography

 The 18th and the 19th centuries are remarcable, for Oltenia, by the density and variety of the churches with mural-paintings. Their existence is due to the founders, donors, painters and mural-painters. The Oltenian founders came from all strata of society: priests, town-dwellers, small merchants, artisans, free holders (peasants), bailiffs (head of districts, smaller areas divided into regions). The teams of painters and mural-painters, exercised their skill inside well defined perimeters like real ''painting schools'': The Dolj School (masters Dinu, Oprea, Manole); The Gorj School (masters Radu, Mihai, Constantin). Their paintings presume numerous theological, historic and philosophic knowledge, but also connections to the local traditions. They were influenced by the philosophic trends of the Romanian society, by ideas of the elite, by the widespread of models certified through publication of folk-writings as Esopia (Esop fables), Alexandria (the life of Alexander the Great), The Physiologist (parables about animals inserted in a Codex by Serafim, the hieromonk from the Bistriţa Monastery) along with the apo`cryphal Legends of the Old and New Testaments, but also themes like The Thanatos (the irrefutable perspective of death), the Annunciation, Admittance in the Church, Holly Trinity, etc. The iconography of Porches and Church Frontages is granted a major role in the epoch. All the repertory displayed at the exterior of monuments has a moralizing, political aspect, suggesting human weakness and virtues (malice, perfidiousness, envy, laziness).
 The cultural aspirations and mentalities of the epoch have left their mark on the exterior painting of the Oltenian cult edifice, the iconographic register summing up representations of philosophers, sibyls prophets, martyrs, weaponed-saints, cynegetic-scenes (hunting/war). Speaking of the scholars, these are Plato, Plutarch, Thucydides, Solo, Aristotle, Sophocles, etc. Their image represents nothing but the desire for moral perfection, prevalence of virtue over sin, the desire for perpetual self improvement of the individual.
 The Sibyls (Tiburtina, Persica, Delfica, Helespontica, Europeia, Himeria, Libica, Frigica - Fefichia) are the maiden –woman, priestesses, young and pleasant beings, but concurrently strong, dynamic and maternal. The Sibyls are considered to have received the prophetic power to compensate chastity; they are inferior to men, and to birth-giving 'women'. The prophets are represented by Isaiah, Jeremiah, Miheia, Ezekiel, Elijah, etc., in the iconography of Oltenia. They hold often various objects in their hands to be associated with their prophecies: Solomon (a golden chest), Noah (the ark), Ghedeon (a flock of wool). The representations of the Weaponed-Saints and Martyrs (George, Dimitri, Theodor, Eustatius, Plachid) originates in the Byzantine artistic tradition which attributes the Weaponed-Martyrs warlike missions. St. Dimitri is a defender, but also a conqueror over the enemies. The Martyrs' iconography is a celebration of the belief in eternal life. The hunting/ war scenes are specific themes in mural- paintings in sub- Carpathian Oltenia, which was covered with vast forest areas, rich in game. The Romanian soldier but also hunter, stands for a symbol of freedom and virtue holder.
 The cynegetic scenes and animal representations mingle and often create confusion. Alexander the Greats' horse, Ducipal, in the body of a unicorn, is an active diurnal symbol, the encounter between life and death is symbolized by the bear, who alike Samson (life), defeats the lion (death). The Votive Portraits, present at first in the Narthex, and then on the exterior walls, seem so much more important, the more they attribute the mural-paintings, from Oltenia the value of a foundation document on one side and prove the forthcoming of a complex iconographic programme and a greater liberty of expression of the mural-paintings. The decorative mural art of the 18th and the 19th centuries distinguished itself through narrative features, but also through realistic elements adding a local coloratura, humor, orality, moralizing spirit. The painting becomes a mirror of the mentalities, of the life-style and the beliefs of the whole community.