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Wooden Churches of Maramureş

By Rachel Heller

What are the Wooden Churches of Maramureş?

The Wooden Churches of Maramureş are a group of churches in the northern part of Romania that date from the 14th to the 18th century. What distinguishes them is their unique style: entirely built of wood, they have tall, graceful steeples on the western end of the building. The steeple tops a rather simple rectangular church with a steep shingled roof.

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Text: Wooden Churches of Maramureş, Romania
Images: Top: an image of Jesus washing the feet of the apostles. Bottom, a wooden church with a steep double roof in neat overlapping shingles.

Inside, the walls of the churches are covered with images portraying Bible stories in a brightly-colored folk art style.

Why are the Wooden Churches of Maramureş a UNESCO World Heritage site?

The Maramureş churches are “outstanding examples of vernacular religious wooden architecture … showing a high level of artistic maturity and craft skills.”

This is a particularly tall one of the wooden churches of Maramures, seen from straight on. The church's roof is very steep and shingled. From its peak, the steeple about 2 times as high as the church, so 3 times the church's height in total. The steeple is square for the lower half of its length., then round from there, and tapering to a point at the top. At the base of the round part are 4 little turrets toped with crosses.
Șurdeşti’s Church of Archangels Mickael and Gabriel.

What can you expect on a visit to the Maramureş churches?

Each of the eight churches included in the UNESCO designation is in a different village, and the villages are widely-scattered across the district of Maramureş. These are very off-the-beaten-path destinations, and you can generally expect to have each church to yourself.

However, they do not stay open all the time. Instead, part of the charm is calling the telephone number posted on the church and then waiting until a villager comes to open the church for you. While you wait, admire the homemade grave markers: another example of folk art.

Once inside, take a good look at the paintings on the walls and ceilings. The space may be small – generally one high-ceilinged room with a small balcony above the back end of the room – but it holds a lot of images. Some also have icons on glass or wood as well.

This panel shows God or perhaps Jesus at the top in whilte robes, sitting. Around him a group of people look at him. In the larger panel below him is the judgment: a book at the top, with a kneeling man and woman on either side, then below that, various scenes: a man with a halo spearing a black devil, a naked woman, various black devils, a naked man burning at the stake, a devil on a horse and the horse seems to be eating some people who are lying on the ground, and more.
A rather lurid Last Judgment in Budeşti‘s Church of St. Nicholas.

These churches are a study in contrasts. While the spires are tall and graceful, the base of the structures – the walls of the churches themselves – are generally quite heavy and simple: massive squared-off logs. The finely-detailed paintings inside form a strong contrast to the blunt, mostly unadorned simplicity of the outside walls.

Are the churches worth visiting?

Yes, if you are interested in vernacular religious architecture and/or folk art religious expression. And we certainly enjoyed the feeling of being so far off-the-beaten-tourism path in a part of Romania that is beautiful, with rolling hills, farmland and dense forests.

One of the wooden churches of Maramures, this church has a steep double roof in neat overlapping shingles. At one end of the peak is the steeple, square at the bottom and shingled, with what looks like it might be a place to look out of at the top of the square part. Above that the steeple is round and progressively narrower. Around the base of the round part are 4 small turrets, also round and tapering and also shingled.
Church of Saint Nicholas in Budeşti.

On the other hand, these villages aren’t near any popular tourist sights. You will have to be ready to devote a few days at least, since getting there is not quick – some of the roads are quite poor – and it takes time to get from one to the other. In other words, it will have to be the goal of the journey, not something you do in passing, on the way to something else.

Tips for visiting the Wooden Churches of Maramureş

Clearly this is not a site that can be seen quickly. Leave enough time. Also, don’t feel like you need to see all eight of the churches. While each will only take about a half-hour or so of your time – plus however long you end up waiting for someone to come open the church for you – it will take quite a bit of time to move between them, depending on the state of the roads. Find a place to stay in Maramureş (Use the map below.), stay a couple of nights and explore some of the churches at your leisure.

Whoever opens the church for you will charge a fee to enter, but it will be small. Some also charge a photography fee for inside. Many seem to expect to serve as a guide and source of information as well, and may expect a tip for this.

Don’t hesitate to visit the churches you might spot along the way as well. While eight are in the UNESCO listing, there are many other such churches – nearly 100 of them – in the region.

An image of Jesus washing the feet of the apostles. The Apostles are grouped on the right, int robes of blue and capes of red or white. They have halos around their heads. Jesus is on the left, washing the feet of a man who is presumably sitting, but the painting is rather unsophisticated so the man just looks smaller than the others, who are standing.
Jesus washing the feet of the apostles in Deseşti‘s St. Parascheva Church.

Where is Maramureş?

The district of Maramureş is in the very north of Romania, on the border with Ukraine. The eight churches, along with their nearest towns, are listed below. I’ve also added the date they were built and painted.

  1. Bârsana. Built in 1720, painted in 1806. Do not confuse it with the spired structures at the monastery in Bârsana.
  2. Budeşti. Built in 1643, painted in 1760, with a collection of 15th-century wooden icons and some glass painted icons too.
  3. Deseşti. Built in 1770, painted in 1780.
  4. Ieud. Built 1364. Nearby in the village of Ieud is another church from 1718 that is the largest wooden church in Romania.
  5. Plopiş. Built 1798-1805.
  6. Poienile Izei. Built in 1604, but possibly earlier. Painted in 1794.
  7. Rogoz. Built in 1633.
  8. Șurdeşti. Built in 1721.

By far the easiest and most efficient way to see these churches is by car. Use the form below to find a car to rent:

Alternatively, you could take a tour, but most tours just visit one of the churches, combining it with other aspects of the region. Nevertheless, at least you’d get to enjoy the gorgeous scenery without the stress of driving. See a number of different tours here.

For more information about the Wooden Churches of Maramureş, see the Romania tourism website.

Have you been to Maramureş? If so, do you have any additional information or advice about this UNESCO World Heritage site? Please add your comments below!