Romanian Icons on Glass

Author: Dorel Zaica                                 Foreword:Ana Blandiana


The idea of bringing together the world of icons on glass and the children’s way to look at the world is not only genius and charming, as anyone would instantly think, but it also embodies a seriousness that does not show itself at first glance, simply because it encloses roots that are wrapped around each other into a gripping depth. The locus of the icons on glass and the children’s metaphoric thinking is embodied by the intense trust in the truth perceived as the fulcrum of the universe. On the one hand, of the icon painter ‘s trust takes the form of a strong faith which goes beyond any trace of doubt; on the other hand, by trusting what they see and what surrounds them, children get to live such an endless freedom that their thought becomes automatic; it turns into poetry and poetry becomes a prayer, while the authors of that thought remain unaware of the miracle they have just witnessed. In both instances, however, the halo of trust is outshined by the nearly blinding light of love. It is precisely this light of love that makes the folk painter paint uninhibited, even though he never studied perspective; the folk painter solely listens to the need to express the intensity of his emotion. The same light makes the child poet indifferent to the logic of adults; the child only cares that the metaphor remains exact while the boundaries of the unusual and the real are left far behind. Brought together by a materialistic and artistic act of courage of the editor, these two forms of art, that we can hardly imagine being possible anywhere else than here, rely on people that belong to different worlds, generations, and histories. However, they become one and the same through the intensity of their intellectual passion that is able to build and prevail.

Dorel Zaica is that strange professor who had the courage to turn his students not into learning machines, but into instruments for thinking and dreaming, cultivating their spirit of freedom, fantasy, irony, and rebellion, and helping them grow the unexpected seeds of poetry hidden in each and every one of them. By asking questions and challenging answers for decades in a row, Dorel Zaica had the courage to develop a nonconformist type of maieutics that taught truths and shaped characters in the name of good will and beauty.

The lost ideal of the ancient world of conjoining the good and the beautiful in the education of generations was considered such a compelling purpose that it was transformed into a notion and it even got a name: Kalokagathia. What can be more reassuring in our world, so often dominated by the ugly and the evil, than the grace of reuniting and rediscovering such rare joys: the folk painters, the child poets, and their wonderful works?

Ana Blandiana


The icon on glass – a unique artistic genre

Glass painting is one of the most original Romanian traditional crafts, dated nearly two hundreds of years ago. Starting with the 18th century until World War I and II, this craft was particularly common and almost exclusive in Transylvania, both in rural and urban areas. It contributed to the birth of the most distinctive genre in the Romanian art – the icon on glass. Far from being a simple object, a phenomenon or a fashion, the icon on glass is a superb work of art, that marks a very particular moment in the Romanian history and civilization.

The origin of the icon on glass

For specialists, the way in which glass painting appeared and developed in Transylvania was a topic of intense discussion and the subject of many conflicts, due to the lack of documents and icons dated before the second half of the 18th century. However, historians have drawn a parallel between the phenomenon of glass painting in Romania and the one in Central Europe, which lies at its origin. And so the majority decided that it was in the first half of the 18th century that glass painting reached the territory of Transylvania. It was brought from Western parts of Central Europe (such as Bavaria, Bohemia, Upper Austria, Silesia, Moravia, Galicia, and Slovakia) by street merchants who sold Catholic worship objects created of the glass painting centers in the regions forementioned.

The 18thcentury in Transylvania

Glass painting appeared and spread on the territory of Transylvania due to a particular political and social context created by a series of events that dominated the 18th century in the region. Among such events, one carried major implications in the life of Romanians from Ardeal – Transylvania fell under the rule of the Habsburg Monarchy (1691) and thus, on account of the Act of Union with Rome, which led to the establishment of the Greek-Catholic cult (1698-1701), the Romanian people became a spiritually divided and tolerated nation.

Glass painting appeared and developed in Transylvania in times where the religious persecutions that the Orthodox people endured included many monasteries and their painting centres being destroyed. Forced to leave the ateliers and seek rescue in such monasteries, this art found a breakthrough in the profane world of the craftsmen who gained popularity with their folk art in the second half of the 18th century. Glass painting became part of an artistic genre with artists and purchasers belonging to the same environment – the peasantry. This was also the reason the craft spread particularly in rural areas, where real glass painting centres were developed; such centres survived until the first half of the 20thcentury.

The Miracle at Nicula

The Romanian icon on glass was born at Nicula – it was a miracle driven by faith. Nicula was the host of the miracle from 1699, when the Mother of God’s icon, painted by father Luca from Iclod (a small village near Gherla), is said to have wept and thus became a reason for pilgrimage for believers from across the country. That was when the miraculous icon became a prototype for numerous lucky charm icons that got sold there.

If the first icons on glass sold at Nicula were painted in European centres specialised in glass painting, later on more and more villagers from Nicola started learning the craft and practiced it. Whether they learned it from the Catholic pilgrims that had icons on them or from the monks in the village monastery, soon icons were being painted in every household in Nicola.

The people of Nicula learnt not only glass painting techniques, but also a series of particular foreign representations. Consequently, many of their icons were in fact copies of such foreign representations. However, it was very often that they changed them by inserting new elements and colours that were typically Romanian.

At the crossroad between the Byzantium and the West

As the glass painting technique spread across the entire Transylvania, the typically Catholic iconograpic representations in the first icons of Nicula were replaced by representations that characterised the Orthodox iconography, which were most frequent in the South of the region, highly more influenced by the Byzantium due to its strong ties with Wallachia and Moldavia. Other than that, the icons inevitably included numerous elements that belonged to the folk art. Therefore, we can conclude that, on the foundations of a mature folk art, the Romanians created an original and unique artistic synthesis, unprecedented by the tradition of other nations. They achieved all that by borrowing glass painting techniques from the West and through a direct inheritance of the Byzantine iconographic tradition. This significant synthesis of three cultural traditions led to genuine national school of glass painting that crossed centuries through works full of meaning and expression.

“Icons are God’s family pictures.”        (Ana Maria Badea, 13 years old) icoe

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Dan C. Mihailescu presents  “Romanian icons on glass” 

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