19 October 2013

Finding some photographs from an
old Orthodox monastery in Bucharest

The courtyard in Stavropoleos Monastery … a quiet and prayerful corner of Bucharest (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Recently I was going back over some old photographs that had been on another computer. I thought they had been lost and were irretrievable, and so it was with joy that accidentally came across a collection of photographs from a visit on a Sunday six years ago to Stavropoleos Monastery (Mănăstirea Stavropoleos) in the centre of Bucharest [28 October 2007].

Stavropoleos Monastery or Stavropoleos Church (Biserica Stavropoleos), standing on the corner of Stavropoleos Street and Postei Street, is close to the central area of Lipscani, and is one of the oldest buildings in the Romanian capital.

From the street outside, this picturesque monastery and its church capture the imagination with their carvings, frescoes, paintings and atrium, in a harmonious combination of Western influences and Byzantine and Ottoman traditions from the Easter. The richly-decorated church has beautiful stone and wood carvings, and the finest carvings can be seen on the main doors.

Inside, on entering the courtyard, with its candles and cloistered style, there is an atmosphere of prayer and meditation. The small courtyard, with its many columns and gravestones, was built in 1899 by Ion Mincu, one of the most important Romanian architects.

The courtyard is enclosed by three stoas, on the east, west and south sides. Scattered around are plaques and crosses from graves, and surviving pieces from the monastery’s earlier building phases and from churches in Bucharest that have been demolished. Some tombstones, dating from the 18th century, are being restored by skilled craftsmen.

A cross in the courtyard with the inscription: ‘Remember Lord your servant Themelis Zaphyris from Ioannina, 2 November 1743’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The monastery today is home to a community of six nuns, and their priest confessor, Father Iustin Marchiş. Life in the monastery is divided between prayer, work and study. The work includes restoring old books, icons and vestments, writing and publishing, and major projects on Byzantine and Orthodox church music.

The church is dedicated to the archangels Saint Michael and Saint Gabriel. However, the name Stavropoleos is a Romanian version of the Greek Σταυρούπολις (Stavroúpolis), “The City of the Cross.”

The church was built in 1724, during the reign of Nickolaos Mavrocordatos (Nicolae Mavrocordat), the Phanariot or Greek-speaking Prince of Wallachia (1715-1730). Mavrocordatos came from an old Byzantine royal family, and introduced Greek manners, the Greek language and Greek culture to Bucharest, where he set up a splendid court modelled on the Byzantine court.

The founder of the monastery was a Greek monk, Archimandrite Ioannikios Stratonikea, known in Romanian as Ioanichie Stratonikeas, who came from Ostanitsa, in the area of Pogoni – now known as Aedonohori Konitsas – 66 km north of Ioannina, in Epirus.

Father Ioannikios became a monk in the Monastery of the Archangels at Goura near Ostanitsa and was sent to the Epirote monastery in Romania to collect funds for the restoration of his home monastery. By 1722, he was running a han or inn in Bucharest, a lucrative business in a crossroads city in the 18th century. Two years later, in 1724, he founded the monastery that would become known as Stavropoleos. The link between the han and the monastery was designed to provide financial support from the inn for the new monastery.

In 1726, Father Ioannikios was appointed by the Ecumenical Patriarch as Metropolitan of Stavropoleos and Exarch of Caria. This is ancient Aphrodisias (Ἀφροδισιάς) in western Anatolia, east of Kusadasi and north of Fethiye. The classical city was renamed Stavropolis in the early seventh century.

Bishop Ioannikios died on 7 February 1743 at the age of 61, and was buried in the narthex of the church. Ever since, the main church of the monastery he founded in Bucharest has been known as the Stavropoleos in his honour.

Cretulescu Church (Biserica Crețulescu) on the corner of Revolution Square, was also built in the Brâncovenesc style (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The monastery church is built in the Brâncovenesc style, also known as Wallachian Renaissance or Romanian Renaissance, a style that evolved in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, during the reign of Prince Constantin Brâncoveanu, when the Principality of Wallachia was still within the Ottoman Empire overlords. Brâncoveanu was a wealthy aristocrat, and built fine palaces and churches.

One of his best known churches in this style in central Bucharest is Cretulescu Church (Biserica Crețulescu) on Calea Victoriei, on the corner of Revolution Square, beside the former Royal Palace.

The inn and the monastery’s annexes were demolished in the late 19th century, and in the decades that followed the church was damaged further by earthquakes and the dome collapsed.

The church and the monastery are richly decorated (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The dome and its frescoes were restored at the beginning of the 20th century. But all that remains of the original monastery today is the church, alongside an early 20th century building that houses a library, a conference room and a collection of early 18th century icons and liturgical items, as well as pieces of frescoes recovered from churches demolished under the communist regime.

The monastery library has over 8,000 books of theology, Byzantine music, arts and history. Some of the books are from the personal library of the Romanian art historian Vasile Drăguț, former rector of the Bucharest University of Arts.

There are patristic, biblical, dogmatic, liturgical, historical, homiletic, catechetical books, dictionaries of classic languages and textbooks, studies on Byzantine art and Orthodox iconography, and works on 18th century Romanian history and culture. There are old books in Romanian, Greek, and Church Slavonic, and the collection of books on Byzantine music, which is the largest in Romania, includes books donated by two Romanian Byzantine scholars, Sebastian Barbu-Bucur, and Titus Moisescu. The monastery is engaged in a virtual library project that involves digitalising its old books.

The monastery is engaged in a virtual library project, digitalising its old books.

Stavropoleos is known throughout the Orthodox world for its Byzantine library and music (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Stavropoleos is known throughout the Orthodox world and beyond for its conservation of Byzantine music. The choir has an international reputation, with many recordings, and the monastery also has the largest collection of Byzantine music books in Romania.

The Stavropoleos Byzantine Choir was created in 1994, and is led by Archdeacon Gabriel Constantin Oprea, chants at the Stavropoleos Church and teaches Byzantine music at the National University of Music in Bucharest. The group has performed in Romania and abroad, and is recording on CDs.

The church choir sings Byzantine and neo-Byzantine music, much of it based on the works of 19th century Romanian psalmodists – Macarie the Hieromonk, Nectarie the Hermit, Anton Pann and Dimitrie Suceveanu – and Greek chants translated into Romanian, or modern compositions.

Finding the old photographs from Stavropoleos led me to find a recording by the Stavropoleos Group of the Divine Liturgy of Saint Basil the Great, which is only celebrated ten times a year. I am now listening to it in the background as I write.

The courtyard, with its columns and cloisters, has an atmosphere of prayer (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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