For several years an average of 30 to 40 volunteers gets involved in the building worksite for the church in Urși, Vâlcea county. From June till October groups of 7-8 restorers and students work on the conservation of the frescoes. We dedicated a whole week- for the first time in 2007 – to volunteers from abroad with the goal to encourage cultural tourism and promote the outstanding value of the church and of the local cultural landscape. 7 volunteers from the National Trust UK with varying ages and occupations spent a week working on the conservation of interior frescoes under the supervision of Ana Chiricuță assisted by Andrei Dumitrescu, professional art restorers.
The necessary funds were donated by private people and organizations, the most important sponsors being World Monuments Fund and The local community (the parish, townhall as well as the townspeople) support the project and offer each year lodging and meals to all volunteers and craftsmen working to preserve the village wooden church.
The beginning. The discovery. The first ideas and friends of the wooden church of Urși
“In 2007, after three years of field research of heritage in its various forms, I outlined a project that was meant to highlight the cultural and artistic links on the two slopes of the Carpathians, namely from Gorj/Vâlcea and Sibiu/Hunedoara. The first sequence was built around the wooden churches north and south of the Carpathians. After making an inventory of the churches in the two areas, checking the official lists against the reality on the ground (some of them no longer exist on the field, others do not appear in the list, although they are valuable), noting the preservation status of most of the churches, and the urgency of saving some of them, as well as the inability of a small group of persons to undertake such an endeavour, together with our collaborator at the time, the Dala Foundation, I further told the story of the wooden churches to Şerban STURDZA, the then President of Ordinul Arhitecților din România (Order of Architects in Romania). This has led to the development of the project entitled 60 de biserici.
One of the most impressive stories was that of the hidden church discovered in the cemetery of the village of Urși in Vâlcea, a church without a foundation, propped up so that it does not crumble, featuring a painting of remarkable artistic value for the group of rarely painted wooden churches located south of the Carpathians.
The photographer Şerban BONCIOCAT is the one who has showed it to me on one of our documentation travels for the monthly column on heritage published in the Igloo magazine, and I am grateful to him for that stop because that was the beginning of both what was to be the album dedicated to the wooden churches in northern Oltenia, and the extensive project initiated by the OAR and Pro Patrimonio.” – Luiza ZAMORA, art historian, Asociația 37
The surroundings. Value of the landscape
There are still many wooden churches spread in the hilly area at the foot of the Southern Carpathians – to the south and north. Most of them date back to the 18th and 19th centuries, some of them being even older. The majority appear in the List of Historic Monuments in Romania. It is the southernmost region in Europe, where wood and the blockbau technique (jointed horizontal beams) were used for cult buildings. The churches in northern Oltenia and southern Transylvania are modest in size, yet they preserve the authenticity of the craftsmanship and local values.
As a whole, the hundreds of churches spread in a relatively small area define a valuable cultural landscape. The similarities, but also the differences, give importance to the whole and outline the specificity and identity of the area. It is estimated that the 60-100 churches documented from 2009 to date amount to about 2000 sq.m. of mural paintings (al secco or al fresco). For the sake of comparison, the vault of the Sistine Chapel in Vatican has 1000 sq.m.
The specificity. The uniqueness
Besides the family of wooden churches of which it is part, the church in the village of Urși is located near some places that are very valuable for our identity and spirituality: the fortified mansions (in Romanian: “cula”) in Măldăreşti, Mânăstirea de la Govora (the Govora Monastery), Mânăstirea de la Hurezi (The Hurezi Monastery) already listed in UNESCO’s World Heritage list, Mânăstirea Dintr-un Lemn (The One Wood Monastery) or the Buila-Vânturariţa National Park, a site of the European Ecologic Network Nature 2000. Also, the entire sub-Carpathian area is dotted with painted crosses, which are traditionally erected at crossroads. Beautiful crosses are also erected next to wells in memory of events or people meaning something for that place.
10 years of work. Schedule of actions
Each of the ten years of working at the wooden church of Urși followed a very clear pattern: fundraising and design, a four-month period of actual work during the summer. Although this pattern has resulted in long intervention timeframes, it has proven to be the only sustainable one considering that the financial support consisted entirely of private funds from donors as well as institutions such as the World Monuments Funds or private companies.
A succinct annual schedule of works gives us the picture of a complex restoration process bringing together specialists and locals likewise.
church documentation begins
the vault of the church collapses
the emergency response campaign is initiated
the protective structure is erected, and the vault is dismantled
the restoration project is carried out
the first funds required for the intervention are raised
the iconostasis is dismantled and Universitatea Națională de Arte București (The National Arts University of Bucharest) starts the restoration of the icons
the restoration of the iconostasis is completed, and it is brought back to the village
an exhibition and a concert are organized on the occasion of the presentation of the restored iconostasis
the fresco is secured in order for structural repair work to be carried out
the church is raised and new foundations are being built
the archaeological investigation is carried out (a jug filled with coins is found!)
the wooden sole plates and all damaged wooden beams are repaired and replaced
oak trees are planted with a view to secure wood for repairs required in 100 years
the painting on the vault beams is restored
the vault and the roof are reinstalled
the exterior painting is restored
the interior flooring is rehabilitated
the interior furniture is repaired
the interior painting in the altar is restored
the bell tower in the cemetery is refurbished
the interior painting in the nave is restored
Between 2010 and 2011, a protective structure for the church is being created with Cella Cosimex and the architect Șeban Cantacuzino’s support, by means of disassembling the ruined roof and vault. Framing elements are inventorized and stored in a shed built outside of the cemetery. Damaged or unstable components are also take out of the arch.
SC OPUS- Architecture workshop SRL from Bucharest takes care of the technical documentation necessary for the approval of restoration works.
The initial funding for the intervention is gathered with the support of the Romanian Architect Order, SONORO and other organisations.
The iconostasis is dismantled and the icon restoration works begin at the National University of Arts in Bucharest. After repairs are made, the iconostasis is brought back in the village and presented during an exhibition and a concert. Until the consolidation of the church is finished, the iconostasis is stored in the new brick church.
It was in 2013 that the most widespread intervention was possible: the church was erected, the foundations were built, and the damaged beams were replaced and completed. For this purpose, the Astra Museum recommended a team of craftsmen from Maramures with whom most volunteers worked: 6 series of 8 volunteers (in addition to craftsmen).
For the soles on which the church was placed, 10 oaks were brought from Botosani, as the local area couldn’t provide the oak to the required size. For this reason, in the following autumn, an oak planting campaign was launched attended by the volunteers having worked during summer. 50 oaks were planted in the schoolyard and in the church neighborhood so that there should be local raw material in 300 years time.
Moreover, 2013 was the year when the Pro Patrimonio Foundation team took the necessary steps to introduce the Church in Ursi to the World Monuments Fund – Watch List program The World Monuments Fund international organization included the wooden churches in Northern Oltenia and Southern Transylvania in the Watch 2014 program as recognition of the imminent danger threatening these heritage buildings and in recognition of their cultural and economic value for the sustainable development of communities .
In August 2013, a charity concert followed, generously offered by violinist Alexandru Tomescu in the very interior of the church at the construction site to raise funds for restoration
In addition, in 2013, an exhibition and a lecture were organized at Casa Mincu/Micu Residence, which highlighted, with the support of architect Mariana Celac (†), the importance of direct involvement in the rescue process.
In 2014, with the support of World Monuments Fund Watch day, the international event dedicated to historical monuments was organized, a biennial cultural heritage celebration bringing together people around dozens of sites around the world. The wooden churches in southern Transylvania and northern Oltenia were included on the list of Europe’s 7 most endangered heritage sites in the same year. On this occasion, Pro Patrimonio Foundation organized a Watch Day event in the village of Urși, Vâlcea County, to attract attention to an almost unknown architectural heritage site. A Museum of the Wooden Church was inaugurated in Urși with the exhibition ”The Wooden Church in Urși : Re-establishing its place within the community”.
In 2015, a number of activities took place at the restortion site Ursi wooden church. A campaign promoting the project took place at the same time, in order to inform the public of the importance of such a monument.
During the first half of 2015, the painted beams from the wooden church in Ursi were transported to the National University of Arts in Bucharest and restoration works were coordinated by Prof. Dan Mohanu and two young artists, Ana Chiricuță and Laura Hangiu. These two recieved scholarships from Pro Patrimonio over the entirety on their time working on the church.
Between 1st and 2nd of July, Casa Mincu in Bucharest hosted an exhibition for the licence works of some students from the National University of Arts, the topic being the vault paintings of the wooden church in Ursi.
Restoration works were conducted over the summer to coat the remaining beams at the Ursi site in biocide substances, different parts of the vault fresco were restored and repairs to pieces of the wooden vault were made.
An event of great importance happended during autumn, when the vault and wooden roof were reassembled and parts of the fresco were secured/reinforced on the walls. The roof with wooden shingles was completed and the superior part of the temporary structure was removed. It was decided to keep the lower part of the protective temporary structure to prevent the degradation of the outer fresco, before it can also be reinforced.
The main projects carried out during 2016 circled around preserving the wall paintings, especially the exterior ones. The window frames were repaired in a workshop in Băile Olănești, a village 50km away from Ursi. The iron parts have been replaced with new ones, forged at Ţibănești at the blacksmiths’ school. The windows in the church haven’t been replaced yet because the production of the iron elements was delayed.
A 15 cm stone layer was placed under the pavement to prevent the humidity from reaching the wood. The old pavement was completely replaced by a new one, made out of oak floor boards, a third of them provided by the local community.
Since the church didn’t have access to electricity, we set up an electrical installation running under the floor and a lightning rod.
The furniture is to be moved to the wood workshop in Băile Olănești for repairs and further additions. This process was left for the cold season, when it will no longer be possible to do any work on site.
Even if the original plan was to begin the restoration works on the bell tower, this was rendered impossible since wood from the scaffolding is needed for it. But the scaffolding is still used to preserve the paintings on the interior. Part of the wood from the temporary structure protecting the church was used in an emergecy intervention at the Sirineasa church ( 10 km south from Ursi).
Additionally, in May and June, we worked to arrange a house for the volunteers and the restorer who are to live in the village. This is a traditional village house and the owner allowed us to use it for the next 2-3 years as a guest house for people who work at the church. These works consist in cleaning and building a proper bathroom for the house. All this was only possible with help form the community and the materials were donated from a company specialized in sanitary ware (Delta Studio).nstruirea unei băi adecvate. Toate lucrările au fost realizate doar cu ajutorul comunității, iar materialele au fost donate de la o companie specializată în obiecte sanitare (Delta Studio).
2018 interventions covers the consolidation and marginal insurance throught removal of marginal protection of the edges made in the past years, consolidating the intonaco layer and reattachment of the intonaco layer to the wood support, consolidating the painting layer, reattachment of the painting layer that was strapped from the support, marginal protection of the edges of the painting with lime plaster, biocide treatment against xilofagous and fungus. In the naos, fragments that were extracted in the past years were prepared for the replanting to the new beams.
The Pro Patrimonio Foundation launches the international fundraising campaign to save the fresco of the wood church of Urşi, thus completing the entire process of restoration of the monument and returning it to the local community.
The wood church of the village Urşi (the parish Popeşti, Valcea county, the XVIII th century ) is a part of the project 60 wooden churches, deployed by the Pro Patrimonio Foundation. Over time, they had as partners the Europa Nostra organization, The Romanian Order of the Architects, The National Arts University, The Assosiaction 37, The Dala Foundation, The Astra Museum from Sibiu, The Romanian Peasant Museum, Artis Periţia, while the financial support was due to the international orgabnisation World Monuments Fund, Headley Trust, International Music and Art Foundation, Holcim Romania, European Investment Bank Institute.
The program of 60 wooden churches was initiated in 2009 by the architect Serban Sturdza and was carried out wuth the help of over 100 young people wit different professions (architects, restorers, engineers, sociologists, and so on), most of them volunteers, through specific and precise acts of intervention, documentation and promotion of the monitored churches. They joined the responsible effort made by the priests and the parochial communities, who inherited wooden churches, classified as historical monuments, situated in cemeteries and often abandoned. Most of them are in a severe state of structural and artistic degradation. Their use and maintenance in good shape is the duty of the community of believers, who conserve this way the tradition, history and identity of its own settlement.
Designed as sacred spaces for Christian religious assemblies and ceremonies, the old churches – built of woodwork by the village craftsmen and painted with grace- represent spirituality.
They are also exceptional cultural patrimonial objects transmitted to us as heritage and a vualuable lesson from our ancestors. The ensemble of the wooden churches in Northern Oltenia (the Gorj and Valcea counties) and in Southern Transylvania (Hunedoara and Sibiu counties) is considered as an exceptional cultural landscape, that identifies itself with the local communities.
All these rescue and restauration operations also have a social component, that seeks to reintegrate the church as a valuable patrimonial object in the life of the local community, re-opening and constantly using the building with religious, educational and cultural tourism function.
“A society that develops itself and is strong imposes itself also by rending to the heritage what it creates. A developed society will leave behind a growing heritage when compared to what it has received. In order to do this, it must also take care of the inherited heritage.” (architect Serban Sturdza, vice-president of Pro Patrimonio Fundation).
Since the beginning of the project up to now 14 emergency interventions, 10 complete wooden shingles replacements, 8 restorings were made, 50 wooden churches have been documented (through architectural relevees) and two conserving projects have been prepared with the assistance of Europa Nostra, intending to apply for financing. The high value mural painting (fresco or al secco) comprises 2000 m2 . Almost 30 churches are painted inside. Extensive emergency or conservation work have been matched by public events, fundraising concerts and exhibitions, which were designed to highlight the wooden church and to revive the interest of the communities in these patrimonial jewels.
Its restoration began on the 12 th of June 2010, a following the collapse of the vault over the altar, with an emergency intervention initiated by the Order of the Architects of Romania and Pro Patrimonio foundation in 2000. The actual time of intervention on the monument, due to the specific of the restoration activities, is four months a year, from June until September. For the rest of the time, the foundation concentrates on activities of fundraising to continue the project
The funds raised through different actions and events during 2011-2019 were used for: consolidating the paintings, unfolding the arch (the beams and the iconostasis being restored at the National arts University of Bucharest), attaining of new stone basis, replacing of the bases and of the rotten beams of the structure, restoring of the arch, of the framework and of the shindel roof, conserving the interior and exterior frescos, repairing and completing the inner furniture, vertical systematization. The money was donated exclusively by individuals, companies and private organizations: World Monuments Fund, Headley trust, Holcim Romania, International Music and Art Foundation. The local community (parish, city hall, the village residents) supports the project every year, offering accommodation and food to all the volunteers, the restorers and the craftsmen working here.
“ It was a joy (…) saving the church of Urşi. It’s a church historical monument. Similar to it, there are all our late peasant churches, a great treasure, to which something strage happens. These churches disappear first. Situated between the folk art and the great medieval art, they are considered as outside “of the great path of history”. But they are the pride of a vivid world, to which we have survived, when around us a whole world changed its looks. They will disappear first also because they are made of wood. We have to take care of them too! ” (Interview with prof. Dr. Dan Mohanu, Bucharest National University of Arts, “ As a restorer painter one must have to have faith and to be living the church life” , Formula As , no.1247/ 2016).
The wood church of Ursi needs more 12,000 euros, this being the last amount of money necessary to fully end the action of restoring the fresco, to reassemble the inner furniture and returning the monument to the community. Having the slogan Give so history can live we begin an international fundraising campaign both on the platform of crowdfunding www.dartagnans.fr and on the Pro Patrimonio Foundation website.
Your generous contribution will allow us to return a small architectural jewel to the local community, to the national patrimony and to the European culture.
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Ghidul Salva-Monument. Un proiect în cadrul „In-Herit – Centrul național de informare și promovare a patrimoniului cultural”.
Salva-Monument Guide. A project within “In-Herit – National Center for Information and Promotion of Cultural Heritage”.
Forgotten Textures: Inter-war Bucharest. Plastering Recipe Book, Pro Patrimonio 2019/ second edition, 2021/ [excerpt]
Who’s Afraid of the Matache Neighbourhood? Principles of Urban Regeneration for the Matache Area – Bucharest North Railway Station / Pro Patrimonio 2012
Education for heritage. Guide to ideas and explorations for the built and natural heritage and crafts / Pro Patrimonio 2019