There are many risks in hanging around the borders of great empires, such as constantly getting in the way of some kind of battle. But there are benefits as well: populations on the border are being spoiled with rich cultural influence from all sides, no matter if it’s philosophical, culinary or in the field of construction. Words migrate from one language to another and carry new meanings that were never imagined before.
For those benefits, other people often come and settle for a while. In the case of the place we now call Transylvania, Saxons arrived in the 12th century within their eastward migration, Ostsiedlung.
Until the 16th century they built over 150 fortified churches along their way, in order to protect Christendom from the Ottomans. The early ones were Romanic, the later ones were built in different Gothic styles, seven of them being considered UNESCO world heritage.
One of these German settlements, Birthälm/Biertan includes the village with the same name, then Richiș and Copșa Mica. All three villages have fortified churches; Biertan’s dates back to 1524 and was listed UNESCO-heritage site in 1993.
People in this area used to be mainly winegrowers since they can recount. They finished building the church in Richiș in 1451.
One of the main attractions of the church is the sacristy door with wooden inlays representing the eternal city of Jerusalem in seven shapes, which was added in 1516. On the upper side of the door there’s the coat of arms of Reichesdorf: a heron (‘Reiher’ in German, which probably gave the village its initial name).
The door has an intricate lock system with several bolts. Only the door in Biertan, made by the same craftsman one year earlier, has a more intricate mechanism, which was presented at the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1900!
It was silver coated later; unfortunately someone stole its key, so now it’s locked open forever.
Johannes Honterus, a renaissance humanist from Brasov, introduced Protestantism to the Transylvanian Saxons after having studied in Vienna, Regensburg and Krakow and after having met Martin Luther in Wittenberg. In order to spread the word, Honterus founded a school, a library and put up the first printing press, where he printed a collection of maps, the Rudimenta Cosmographica. It appeared in 39 editions until 1602 and is considered to be the first European manual.
Therefore, by 1530 Reformation was passed in Transylvania without blood spilling. Unlike in other parts of the world, no major Bildersturm - iconoclastic riots – took place here; a few figures were removed from the Romanic and Gothic capitals with hammer and chisel - and that was that.
In 1775, the church in Richiș got a new altar, crafted and painted by the renowned master Johann Folbarth in Rokoko sytle. Unlike in some Catholic churches, here the sides of the altar are adorned by John the Baptist and John the Evangelist, not St. Peter and St. Paul. The wooden statue of St. John the Baptist was originally represented as dressed with only a camel fur; this brought major disarray to the community of Reichesdorf.
As is the custom, Protestants walk around the altar on important church days. While passing it, young girls would slow down and peek under St. John’s camel skin, which angered the old ladies of the village up to the point where they asked for the statue to be removed.
Therefore, the mature wives of the community decided to end the story in a different way and draped the saint in a blue garment, which was kept until today.
The lively Mr. Schaas, 84, the last Saxon in Richis, told us many stories about the times when the village was a strong winemaker community of 900 souls.
In 1990, when everybody else left for Germany, upon leaving, the priest gave him the keys and told him to take care of everything. As he began walking through the church everyday, Mr. Schaas started wondering about a sculpted face he saw in the capital of a column: a wild man, with branches sprouting out of his mouth and his eyes.
The more he kept studying the leafy capitals, the more faces appeared to him every time. Among other wild ones he also found the Benedictine monk’s, founder of the church. He didn’t know what to make of this and called them ‘my friendly little devils’ – until one day, when a Swiss lady told him about the green man and its appearance under the Bamberg Horseman from 1225.
A pagan figure, it is said to be the counterpart of the mother earth figure – someone like Pan in Greek Myths. The craftsman must have been thoroughly schooled, probably in a part of the world where Celtic influence could be found.
If you should ever go to Richiș, find Mr. Schaas and listen to his stories. If you speak Romanian, he’ll tell them in Romanian. If you master German, you’ll get even more stories. But you'll robably get the most out of him if you’re a Saxon speaker.
It is said that you can only imagine things you have words for. With every language you master, you become richer: new words bring new meanings and new feelings along with them.