The Golden Gate Portal of Black Church, Brasov, and a Story

golden gate portal black church brasov

The Golden Gate Portal of Black Church, Brasov dates from 1450, a time when Vlad Tepes was a lad of only 19 years old and already an ex-prince (3 month Voievode of Wallachia at the age of 17), and now a political fugitive, a nomad in Moldavia where he was consolidating his friendship with his maternal cousin, future Stephen the Great.

There are seven points of entrance into the Black Church of Brasov. Starting west, in clock wise motion, they are the West Portal and also the main entrance, the Sacrificial Portal and the Golden Gate Portal (1450) on the North side, and on the South side the door to the vestry and a small access door followed by the South Portal (1467), and the Confessional Door.

For over five hundred years have the bells of Black Church (which began to raise at the end of the 14th century on the grounds of a Catholic nunnery belonging to the Order of Prémontré) called the worshipers to service, or punctuated important events. The bells were first mentioned in 1476 when the inhabitants of Brasov (Corona in Latin or Kronstadt in German) were urged to celebrate the crowning of Vlad Dracula, Vlad the Impaler, as ruler, voievode of Wallachia.

The Golden Gate Portal of Black Church, Brasov
The Golden Gate Portal of Black Church, Brasov (one of the two North portals, dating from 1450). Source, Pat Furstenberg

It is easy to recognize the Gothic architectural of Black Church. Know that it was modeled after the magnificent Saint Sebaldus Church in Nürnberg due to the flourishing commercial and handcraft relations between Brașov and the imperial city of Nürnberg.

The Golden Gate Portal of Black Church faces a rather narrow passage. Only five meters separate the Black Church from the high brick wall of its neighbors, the people of Brasov. Thus, even with your back against this wall one would struggle to see the roof top placed at a height of approximately 65 meters. And the strange statues atop…

The Golden Gate Portal of Black Church ~WIP extract~

She met the church at its north-west corner, the bell tower profiling ahead, aiming to touch the heavens.

The church was not black, but it shot upwards as a body of stones in as many shades of gray as the souls who prayed inside; some dark, some uncertain, and, in between, a few almost pure.

Her steps took her straight ahead, past the west portal with its main entrance, and around the solitary bell tower. Waiting for her as she turned the corner was a man dressed in an ankle-length overrobe with a brimless cap balancing his opulent beard. From the height of his pedestal, he was pointing away with an extended right finger, while in his left hand he held an open book.  What was he pointing at?

She hurried past the statue, past the inconspicuous door of the confessional with strange vertical markings in its stony pillars, past a double-door portal, her steps lost in a crisscrossing of fresh marks, her mind chasing one thought after the other. Then around she turned, following the church’s east arc inside which the altar with its numerous lacet windows was sheltered, each one guarded by effigies staring down.

A couple walked past, arm in arm, their unison stride yielding a sole crunching noise on the icy snow underfoot.
If Drachen doesn’t show up I’m on my own.
The pair’s synchronized dance singled her out.
Nice one, Kate. You got yourself to trust a stranger again, she admonished herself.

By the time she reached the north facade, the silence reigned as the snow, fresher here, swallowed and hushed her footsteps. She saw her breath leaving her mouth in small puffs, lonely signs of life, and wondered, if her soul would leave her body that very instant, would she tell the difference?

Get a grip, Kate!

She dug her feet into the snow eager to make a noise where none prevailed, but her legs slowed down as she neared the Golden Gate Portal. Not because it was the famous north portal of the Black Church, but because ahead there were no footprints, the snow as untainted as a paper not even touched by thought. Kate held her breath and urged her heart so slow down, to slow down the hammering she heard in her ears. Or were those footprints? She spun, expecting to find someone behind. No one in sight. She stood alone between the gray walls of the Black Church to her left, massive in their silence, and the brick wall of an adjacent property to her right, a sinuous line stretching ahead.

And again, the feeling that a strange pair of eyes were upon her. Was there someone on the church’s lofty roof? With her back pressed against the brick wall to maximize her view, Kate scrutinized the temple’s rooftop.

the statue of a child peering down atop the roof near the Golden Portal, Black Church, Brasov
The statue of a child peering down atop the roof near the Golden Portal, Black Church, Brasov (source Wikimedia)

Was it? Her eyes caught a human shape. Yes, there! On the roof, to the left side of the portal, it looked like a child was peering down. Could he see her? Her hands flew to her mouth. Was he scared? He must be, so precariously balancing towards the abyss. What was he doing there? Was he reaching towards her? She opened her mouth to call but stopped, aware of the stillness in the air. Even the snowflakes seemed suspended, frozen in the past, the height of the church protecting the narrow alley against any harsh weather. Here, where she stood, it was as if there was no climate at all. She looked right, along the length of the path. She looked left. No one. Whom could she call for help? She searched the roof again. She’ll signal the child to wait. She’ll help. But the boy had vanished.

Kate strode forward. Find someone. Wrestling the fresh snow, she glanced up, over her shoulder. Help that boy. Her feet zigzagged out of balance, all reservations of spoiling the pristine canvas snowballed into concern. Rescue him. But where is he now?

The Golden Gate Portal of Black Church, Brasov, and the window above it. Source, Pat Furstenberg
The Golden Gate Portal of Black Church, Brasov, and the window above it. Source, Pat Furstenberg

The more concerned she got, the wider her stride became. The wider her stride, the more she struggled. The more she struggled, the more determined she was to reached the end of that narrow path, the unblemished path over which a sentence hanged. And she did not want to be the one to carry it out. On she pushed, bursting into the safety of the market’s open space, of bustling civilization. Yes, she’d heard the clanking of a truck. She’ll go inside the church and ask for help. Look! By the church’s main portal there was a priest, she recognized him by his long, black cassock.

‘Wait,’ Kate called. ‘Parinte,’ Father, in the local language, the appellative for a priest.

But the man in the black cassock did not hear her and he did not enter the church either but turned sharply left, along its southern facade.

Copyright © 2021 Patricia Furstenberg. All Rights Reserved.

Black Church Golden Portal, gothic style, focus on tympanum and archivolts
Black Church Golden Portal, gothic style, focus on tympanum and archivolts. Source, Pat Furstenberg
The carved doors of Black Church Golden Portal
The carved doors of Black Church Golden Portal. Source, Pat Furstenberg

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thursday doors, 100 words story

Thursday Doors is a blog feature everyone can take part in, hosted by Dan Antion over at No Facilities – where you can discover more doors from around the world.

Travel to Făgăraș Fortress, Romania

travel Fagaras Fortress Romania thursday Doors

We travel again to Făgăraș Fortress, Romania, sliding down the memory lane for Thursday Doors, after we glimpsed at its Iron Maiden and looked up at some of its wrought iron lanterns.

A (very short) history of Făgăraș Fortress, Romania

Făgăraș Fortress blossomed from a 12th century wooden forth surrounded by a simple moat and dirt retaining wall into a stone and brick fortress finessed between the 14th and 17th centuries, to become the jewel of a castle any visitor can enjoy today. We were lucky to visit during the pre-Covid era. 🙂

It was Ladislaus (III) Kán, a Hungarian oligarch who ruled Transylvania independently until his death, who saw potential in the location of Făgăraș fortress (namely to protect south-east Transylvania against Tatar invasions and later Ottoman ones) and who started revamping the wooden fort.

Ladislaus was quite a character, doing everything in his power to strengthen his authority and increase the size of his voivodeship. Although he was a partisan of King Andrew III of Hungary (1290–1301) Ladislaus seized the opportunity to capture King Otto of Hungary (a rival of wannabe King Charles I) while the King was visiting Transylvania in 1307 and even to get hold of the royal crown of Hungary!

It took Ladislaus until 1310 to acknowledge King Charles I as his sovereign and return the royal crown of Hungary (that was kept during these years in one of his many castles in Transylvania, perhaps even Deva castle, the center of his domain).

One of the Hungarian Crown’s customs and ‘only’ for good behavior was to offer various counties to Wallachia Voivodes who asked for their political protection – such as the lands of Făgăraș and Amlaș (today Amnaș, in beautiful Sibiu county.

Thus Făgăraș Fortress was, over the centuries, home to a few important rulers of Wallachia (Țara Românească): Vladislav Vlaicu, Mircea the Elder (Mircea cel Bătrân) (1386-1394 and 1397-1418) – grandfather to Vlad Țepeș, and Michael the Brave (the first ruler to gather under his reign all three Romanian principalities) who gifted the fortress to his wife, Doamna Stanca. If Michael gifted Făgăraș Fortress to his wife out of love or feeling guilty for his wondering eye, that’s another story.

Is there a secret passage underneath Făgăraș Fortress?

Word of mouth mentions a secret passage running well underneath the moat and connecting the cellars of Făgăraș Fortress to the monastery of the Franciscan Church, some half a kilometer south-east.

The church is a maze in itself and the secret passage allowed the priests to reach the fortress (in safety, especially during foul weather) and celebrate Mass in the Diet Hall (then a chapel), but it was also a secondary, secret way out from the fortress.

Fagaras Castle1520 Orthodox religious book, Easter sermon
Fagaras Fortress, a 1520 Orthodox religious book containing the Easter Mass sermon

On the hazardous life of medieval books

I see water damage on the book above and the margins of its covers look frail. Like all medieval books that reached us it bears the marks of the events it witnessed from the moment of its creations – with a sensible purpose in mind – to the moment of its rediscovery and thoughtful placement on the cultural patrimony list.

Not all medieval books had such a happy faith. Some were forgotten and lost to decay, others were trimmed or stripped of decorative plates or covers. Some medieval books were even symbolically destroyed, burned in bonfires or other random and catastrophic events of a violent nature, like a war or a rebellion, while others were practically reused as wrappers and binding materials.

On medieval Transylvania and the orthodox Romanians of that time

Throughout the Middle Ages and up until Hungarian Kingdom fell under the hand of the Ottomans (Battle of Buda in 1541) the Principality of Transylvania, although it held political autonomy, was under the hand of the Hungarian Crown. So much so that the Hungarians, the Saxons, and the Szeklers living here formed the Unio Trio Nationum in 1437, agreeing to support each other’s political and economic interests, while the majority population, the native Romanians, were seen as a tolerated nation without representatives in the Diet.

The consequences of the Unio Trio Nationum became obvious in the organized religion too, Transylvania being recognized as a multi-religious principality with the Orthodox Church being one of the tolerated faiths.

Thus, the survival of an early 16th century Orthodox volume celebrating the Easter Mass is a celebration in itself.

The priest’s book, Historia Domus, in which each pastor includes the main events witnessed, with entries dating back to 1773 (and still available in the church) does not mention such a secret passage. Yet this does not mean that one did not exist before 18th century or it was simply considered a secret too big for words.

Don’t you think?

Travel to Făgăraș Fortress, Romania for a secret passage

Thursday Doors is a blog feature everyone can take part in, hosted by Dan Antion over at No Facilities – where you can discover more doors from around the world.

Time Stands Still in Romania and Taking Kindly to It

Time Stands Still in Romania, road to Vama Bran Castle

I am telling you, time stands still in Romania – or in any other place in the world, if one was born there. So let’s all take kindly to it.

We have snapshots saved in our mind, of trees in autumn or summer sunsets peeking between traffic, of old buildings and tramway rides, snapshots accompanied by scents and sounds. Lindens in bloom, snow crunching underfoot, hot summer dancing over asphalt, the first tram echoing in rhythm each morning. Easy to remember, yet forgotten until we spot the same place again, hear the same chime, or a scent washes over us, two decades later. Time stands still in the spot where one was born.

A Romanian saying goes like this: eternity was born in a hamlet. And how much truth lies in it…

A hamlet, the simplest form of rural settlement whose population measures its life between sowing and plowing, its spirit still tightly woven in its ancestor’s web of traditions and beliefs. Here, life is an oasis of peace and eternity.

Sure, 21st century arrived in the form of a train station – soon abandoned for no one got off and nobody ever left. And the modern lifestyle came in the form of a cellphone tower too. For whose benefit is still a mystery, since locals don’t use such modern technology and no tourists set foot along their main road either. Only the cows stir its dirt in the morning, and again in the evening when each one knows exactly through which gate to push to arrive home.

With kerchiefs over their heads, a habit they picked it up as children, and blouses with hand stitched flowers motifs, spirals and crosses too, women here smile a lot, speak little, cook finger licking, simple meals, and worry and pray. And their men look after them, and after their crops and their herds, are quick in temper, yet soft in the look they give you, guarded by thick eyebrows.

Time Stands Still in Romania, a quiet village along the road to Bran Castle
Time Stands Still in Romania, a quiet village along the road to Bran Castle

And, with their cows coming and going, with the sun rising at the rooster’s call and setting in the hushing of the leaves and the singing of the crickets, these people live for today.

For today is eternal, as much as the clouds are overhead and the land underfoot. Yesterday is gone like the storm, taking its thunder with it. Tomorrow might never come, although it is a promise from God. And He always keeps His word. But today, today is eternal, and because of this time stands still in a hamlet in Romania.

Time Stands Still in Romania, road to Vama Bran Castle
Time Stands Still in Romania, taking kindly to it, on the road to Bran Castle Medieval Border (Bran Pass)

I snapped the picture above while we drove from Sinaia to Bran. Very near this spot was the medieval border of Bran Castle, close to the Bran Pass, that was the 14th century toll gate between Transylvania and Wallachia.

It was through here that caravans loaded with merchants’ goods passed between the two principalities. The mountainous and rugged terrain, the relatively narrow pass and the vast coniferous forests, made the route quite risky for caravans.

But Bran Castle was also a point of defense – especially against Turk invasions – and therefore the establishment of a border point here was necessary and soon became profitable for the entire area.

Prince Mircea the Elder, Voivode of Wallachia, was the one who, through a privilege granted to Brasov merchants, established the customs of Wallachia in 1413 atTurciu (today Bran). The medieval Bran customs point was defended against robbers by guards that were backed-up by guards from Bran Castle. Due to their importance, the customs buildings will be rebuilt and consolidated over centuries. It was at the end of the 15th century that Bran border point became the responsibility of merchants from Brasov, Transylvania.

Just imagine, it was through these woods that Vlad Tepes and his brave men, his Viteji, rode back and forth.

But more about this in my next book 🙂

Copyright © 2021 Patricia Furstenberg. All Rights Reserved.

Squarres Photography

Time Stands Still in Romania and Taking Kindly to It is my contribution to Becky’s incredible October Squares #KindaSquare blog feature. Do have a look 🙂

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The Iron Maiden of Fagaras Castle

Rocking the modern perceptions of the Middle Ages, the Iron Maiden found at Fagaras Castle, Romania, is a medieval torture device that is real, and yet not.

The stone castle of Făgăraş was first mentioned (that we know of) in 1455, but the initial fortification, built with sturdy fir trees from the nearby forests, goes back to 12th – beginning of the 13th century.

The Iron Maiden of Fagaras Castle, Engraving of the Făgăraș Citadel by Ludwig Rohbock (1883)
Engraving of the Făgăraș Citadel by Ludwig Rohbock (~1883)

We also know that, traditionally, the duchies of Almas and Fagaras were fiefs of Wallachian prince. Yet John Hunyadi, appointed Voievode of Transylvania at that time (as Transylvania, although a Romanian county today, was part of the Kingdom of Hungary during he Middle Ages to say the least) seized them. Hunyadi gave Almas to the citizens of Sibiu and kept Faragras for himself.

But before being seized, the duchies of Almas and Fagaras belonged to the Voievode of Wallachia, and he would have been Vlad Dracul, Vlad II (Vlad Țepeș‘ father) and Mircea cel Batran, Mircea the Elder before him (Vlad Țepeș‘ grandfather).

We know further that Vlad Dracula, Vlad Țepeș, was finally able to title himself “Lord and ruler over all of Wallachia, and the duchies of Amlaș and Făgăraș” on 20 September 1459, thus showing that he had regained possession of both these traditional Transylvanian fiefs of the Wallachian rulers.

Făgăraş Castle, also know as Mihai Viteazul Fortress, in an inter-war postcard
Făgăraş Castle, also know as Mihai Viteazul Fortress, in an inter-war postcard

Now, back to the Iron Maiden of Fagaras Castle.

Documents mentioning Fagaras Castle dated more than a century ago do mention the existence of a mechanism of death, known as the “Iron Virgin” or “Iron Maiden”.

It seems that the device was brought into the fortress during the 18th century and used as an instrument of torture. The person sentenced to death was told on the day of his execution that he would be allowed one last kiss, that of the Mother of God, whose image hanged inside this coffin-like device. But the devices was thus created that when the convict stepped to kiss the image, the coffin would close with lightning speed and the knives and spikes that protruded on the inside would pierce his body. The spikes were short and positioned so that the victim wouldn’t die immediately.

The Iron Maiden of Fagaras Castle
The Iron Maiden of Fagaras Castle

Also, thanks to another device, a hole would opened at the feet of the Iron Maiden so the body of the convict would free fall from a height of 8-10 meters in a dungeon where horizontal swords with very sharp edges would chop the falling cadaver into several pieces.

Through another device water from the fortress’ moat was channeled through this dungeon, thus washing away any traces of blood or flesh, taking them out through the northwestern part and directing them to Olt river, flowing only 800 meters away.

Sounds far-fetched?

The Iron Maiden of Fagaras Castle

The Iron Maiden as an image for Medieval violence

Truth is that the Iron Maidens were a myth brought to life during the 18th century because they fitted so well with the idea of Medieval violence, especially the physical maltreatment of another being, with the weapons being so readily available during those times, and with the fact that violence was seen as an understandable response to most acts.

Let’s face it, during the Middle Ages violence was a common response. If one wanted to share an idea, to share a meaning – symbolic vengeance was expected.

But crime and violence did bothered the commoners during the Middle Ages. It frightened them too. Life had a value, certainly was valued less than we value it today.

The Iron Maiden of Fagaras Castle

The true history of the Iron Maiden

Johann Philipp Siebenkees was an 18th century German Professor of philosophy. He was a keen archeologist too. He was the first to describe the execution of a 1515 coin-forger by the use of an iron maiden in the city of Nuremberg. But the Iron Maiden of Nuremberg, and one of the the most famous such devices, was only built in the early 1800s and destroyed in an Allied bombing in 1944.

Siebenkees might have read about a 5th century A.D. Latin book of Christian philosophy that describes the torture of the Roman general Marcus Atilius Regulus, who was locked in a nail-studded box. Or he might have read the works of the Greek historian Polybius (100 B.C.) who told the story of the Spartan tyrant Nabis who constructed a mechanical likeness of his wife Apega. When a citizen refused to pay his taxes, Nabis would have the mechanical wife wheeled out and made to hug the wrong doer – only that the nails were on the outside of her body.

We all know stories about torture during the Middle Ages, and some of the devices used by the Ottoman Empire or those used to obtain false declarations during the Witch Hunts come to mind… but torture is very much present during our times too.

Perhaps it just makes us feel safer to look only at those times long gone.

doors towards the Iron Maiden of Fagaras Castle

This, the Iron Maiden, is one door I do not wish to open – for Norm’s Thursday Doors blog weekly meme.

As always, find my books on Amazon.

Wooden Doors of a Medieval Chapel, Snagov Monastery

Snagov monastery, paraclis wood carved doors

Almost 600 years old, these wooden doors of a medieval chapel, long sunken they say, built around 1453 near Snagov Monastery, 40 km northward from Bucharest, can still be admired in the Art Museum of Bucharest.

For the weary traveler, approaching the chapel as a meditation, its wooden doors with their visual and scripting messages would have been the first welcoming sign: arms folded in prayer, ready to open, to receive, and to fold around, in absolution.

On the history of Snagov Monastery

Monks settled on Snagov Island, this snake shaped lake, during the times of Mircea the Elder, Mircea cel Batran, Vlad Dracula’s paternal grandfather and ruler of Wallachia during the 14th century.

Vlad Țepeș (Vlad III or Vlad Dracula) too improved the monastery and he would have come here to pray, for his people, for Wallachia, for good fortune in fighting the Turks.

And perhaps Vlad Țepeș came here to pray for enlightenment and forgiveness too.

Will he forgive the double crime?

It is said that a storm pulled the chapel from the ground and threw it in the lake nearby, where it sank. Its doors floated on the waters to the nearby hamlet of Turbați (today Siliștea Snagovului). The nuns from the convent here rescued, dried and kept the carved, kingly doors safe. The hamlet was aptly named Turbați, Rabies, for the nuns were skilled in curing rabies.

On a Monastery Built for Peace and on Medieval Plots and Revenge

You see, in 1447, while Sultan Murad II had young Vlad III and his brother Radu in captivity, their father Vlad II (Vlad Dracul or Vlad the Dragon), ruler of Wallachia, had to balance his crusader oath and his his pledge of neutrality to the sultan. To honor and protect Christianity. Or to keep his two younger sons alive.

John Hunyadi, leading Hungarian military figure, wishing his puppet, Vladislav II, on the throne of Wallachia, invades it. So the local boyars (noblemen) revolt against Vlad II. Caught between the three forces Vlad II is captured and killed by Vladislav while his oldest son Mircea is tortured by boyars and burried alive.

So Vladislav II now rules Wallachia. And in 1453 he build the chapel of Snagov Monastery with these wooden sculpted doors.

Come 1456, Vlad Țepeș defeats Vladislav II in a hand-to-hand combat. Fair and square.

Thus Vlad Țepeș second reign of Wallachia had begun.

Finally, the Chapel Door and its Three Panels Carved in Wood

The carved wooden doors are meant to depict the Feast of the Annunciation, Bunavestire.

The top panel: Angel Gabriel (on the left side) and Virgin Mary (on the right side, praying).

Do you see the vase with flowers? One of them should be a white lily, believed to be the first flower cultivated by humans, associated with purity and, Christianity, the Blessed Virgin.

the Wooden Doors of a Medieval Chapel, Snagov Monastery. top panel - Feast of the Annunciation, Bunavestire.

The median panel depicts saints: Saint Basil the Great (Vasile cel Mare), Saint Gregory of Nazianzus (Grigorie din Nazianz), Saint John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople (Ioan Gură de Aur) and Saint Nicholas (Sfântul Nicolae).

wooden doors medieval monastery, Snagov chapel, usi paraclis

The lower panel: we see Saint George, Sfantul Mare Mucenic Gheorghe, on his horse, slaying the dragon with his spear, a symbol of Christian faith, at any cost.

wooden doors medieval monastery, Snagov chapel, usi paraclis

The inscription is a prayer in Slavonic, for hospitality that each weary traveler shall find in this place of worship.

Since we are at Snagov, you might like to know tat in 1475, the year before he was killed, Vlad Țepeș ordered that a defense wall be raised around Snagov Monastery, a bridge, a prison for robbers as well as a secret underwater passage that will confer a secondary exit from the island.

For Norm’s Thursday Doors, joining art and photography lovers from around the world.