Biertan village is located at about 26 km south-east of Mediaş, 16 km on national thoroughfare DN14 and 10 km. on the county road 141B, south of Şaroş.
Since oldest times, the site of the locality, crossed by the waters of two springs, Biertan şi Richiş, has offered very favourable living conditions, shaping up settlements belonging to the Hallstatt period, the Roman rule, the human migration. The rural Roman-period settlement on the site of the village is attested by the funerary monument bearing the inscription ORN STEPH and by a relatively great bas-relief in which Roman characters are carved.
One of the most significant discoveries, a bronze donarium, was made in 1775, in the Chinedru forest, about 5 km south of Biertan, close to the border with Copşa Mare. Most researchers explain the Latin inscription by the spread of Christianity in that area, but there are some authors who state that it reflects pagan practices . The donarium, dating from the 4th century B.C. and exhibited now at Brukenthal Museum, consists of a bronze tabula ansata, measuring 32 x 12 cm. and bearing the votive inscription EGO ZENOVIUS VOTUM POSVI ("I, Zenovius, offered this gift"), of a bronze round plate with a 23.7-cm diameter, bearing inside Christ’s monogram (H+P), and of fragments of bronze blade and small chains, all these items supposedly making up a pendant lamp.
Nearby, on a hill at about 400 metres east of the village, there were discovered the remains of large mediaeval fortress, strengthened with stone walls linked with mortar and with a wave of soil in the exterior. The study of ceramic fragments dates this fortress in the 13th – 14th centuries.
Biertan was first attested in documents in 1283, when priest Johannes of Biertan participated in the drafting of the document whereby Petru, bishop of Transylvania, concedes three parts of the tithe due to cathedral chapter Alba Iulia by the parishes of eight localities in cathedral chapter Mediaş in exchange for 40 silver marks (the document is often mentioned because it is the first documentary testimony of seven localities). The name of the village is mentioned again in 1315, when three representatives of Saxon communities in Mediaş, Şeica and Biertan appeared in front of King Carol Robert de Anjou (1308 – 1342) to get Sibiu rights and liberties. Carol Robert’s chancellery issued the following document which attests Saxons’ privileges:
„1331 December 31, Alba Iulia
Cathedral chapter of the church of Transylvania, to all believers in Christ who will see this letter, salvation in praise of Our Saviour
…appearing in front of us county ruler Arnold de Birtholm (Biertan), in the name of the Saxons falling under the rule of counties Mediaş (Medieszek), Şeica Mare (Seelk) and Şeica Mică (Sachzeelk), presented us with an authorised letter of our Ruler Carol, King of Hungary by the grace of God……we ordered that its text be enforced word by word and endorsed by the power of our seal.”
On February 9, 1351, “county ruler Petrus de Berethalam tells us that the estates named Repafolua and Petrisdorf, located in the Saxon area, rightfully belong to him by being purchased and he would like to own them again, in obedience to the law”.
A significant moment is year 1397, when Biertan was mentioned as “oppidum” = bourg-fortress, followed in 1418 by getting the right to arrange weekly trade fairs. Its economic development ranks Bieran among the richest localities in the borough of Mediaş, its numerous guilds gaining a well-earned name in the Târnava Mare Valley. On March 25, 1552, Mediaş was promoted to the position of administrative and judicial seat of the borough, although Biertan was the most powerful among the contesting localities with its 345 households as against the 286 households of Mediaş and paying an annual tax that was one and a half times higher than the tax paid by Mediaş. By way of compensation, on May 6, 1572 Biertan became the see of the Saxon episcopate in Transylvania, a title it held until 1867, when following the death of Bishop Dr. Georg Paul Binder the see was moved to Sibiu. Furthermore, its importance is also attested by the Diet gathered in Biertan in 1540, when Ştefan Mailath, a Romanian nobleman of Ţara Oltului, was elected ruler of Transylvania.
The mediaeval fortress of Biertan, with its four rows of walls and nine towers and bastions (that’s right: four walls and nine towers), due to its strategic location, was the most powerful rural fortification in the Târnave Valley. Only Sighişoara fortress surpassed it, but it was an urban fortress, therefore constructed according to other criteria. Any monography of the fortress and of the church, the history of Biertan in general should be the topic of a separate paper due to their immensity and originality. Many times words are not strong enough to express the feelings one experiences when the history and art made by long-perished people take shape in front of you. I will try to point out several benchmarks but, instead of comments, which might be too long and wearisome, I will let images speak for themselves.
In the 14th century, on the plateau of the promontory overlooking Biertan, there was a basilica dedicated to the Virgin Mary, surrounded by an enclosure the role of which was to stabilise the slope. The present church-hall is considered as having been constructed in 1402, when Pope Boniface IX granted indulgences to the Church of Virgin Mary in Biertan and the church in Aachen (in 1461 the church in Velţ was granted the authority to sell indulgences for 100 days) for the construction and restoration of sacred buildings. It seems that the inscription – a monogram (I.O) accompanied by year 1515 – carved in the framing of the sacristy door refers to the construction master of the church.
The first funerary slab in the tower-mausoleum exhibits the same monogram and belongs to commoner Johannes (†1520). The small area of the plateau on which the basilica was located was exploited to its very best, by moving the first enclosure towards north-west. Stylistic details do not allow for the very accurate dating of construction stages, based only on the observation of the disproportion between the three massive nave-halls and the reduced choir, both in width and in height. The western façade seems unfinished as it is framed by two little hexagonal towers nestling each a spiral staircase, which supports the idea that a bell tower had been designed over the first span of the central nave. The naves are separated by three pairs of massive octagonal pillars supporting vaults with starred ribs.
The elongated choir of the new church was 18-metre long and three-sided polygonal apse. The need of space determined the west wall of the basilica to be moved close to the edge of the plateau, but over 1490-1520, during priest Johannes’s time, the old construction was replaced by a church-hall, the three naves being of the same height. The length of the naves is limited, from natural reasons, to 22 metres, which changes the ensemble in the western part of the choir into a square. After 1500, the choir vault was decorated with a network of rhomboidal ribs, and five tripartite Gothic windows, with four-lobe mouldings or flamboyant Gothic elements, were placed on the eastern and southern sides. After 1515, the choir was fortified by being raised with a defence storey with ramparts, which is accessible from the church attic.
The fortified storey was demolished in 1803, thus the current height of the roof is sensibly lower than the roofs of the naves. The sacristy with crossed ogive vault was constructed in the north of the choir, towards which opens the famous door made by Johannes Reichmuth of Sighişoara in 1515. The door, decorated with fine carvings, has a stone rectangular frame adorned with crossed Gothic sticks and, in its upper portion, with Renaissance friezes. The locking mechanism of the door, which by a single turning of the key in its huge hole fastens simultaneously the 15 locks on three directions, was granted a prize at the universal exhibition of Paris in 1890. The sacristy used to shelter the treasury of the church and the town during sieges, while nowadays it keeps pieces made by Transylvanian craftsmen, Renaissance cups and goblets. Another storey was constructed above the sacristy vault, which is entered through the little tower of the spiral staircase which is annexed to the exterior eastern side. The sacristy comprises the frequently met “pool”, a stone basin that communicates with the exterior and where the wine left from Communion is discharged.
The pews in the choir – one of them crafted in 1514, the other in 1523 by Sighişoara craftsman H. Reychmut – are in the form of the pews in Bazna, although the first are more richly decorated and have lateral walls adorned with Gothic windows and miniature ash urns, being among the most valuable pieces of their kind in Transylvania.
The starred vaults of the three naves are supported by three pairs of octagonal pillars, parallel with the choir walls. The western wall has two key stones inserted, which belonged to the old basilica: the coat of arms of the Mediaş Borough (a hand with fingers upward and the thumb a little farther) and a crescent with a star. The last western span of the wings has a spiral staircase tower attached to its exterior, whereby one could climb into the church attic and farther, to the defence storey of the choir.
The main porch is on the western side of the central nave. It is a double porch, the framings of which has crossed sticks above which there are the blazons of King Vladislav II (1490-1516) and of Prince Ioan Zapolya (1511-1540). Other two porches, placed symmetrically on the sides of collateral naves, are decorated with rectangular borders adorned with Renaissance vegetal motifs. The most treasured artistic works kept in the church are the polyptych and the stone altar. The altar, which together with the altars in Sebeş and Mediaş represents the most valuable Gothic altars in Transylvania, was achieved in two stages: the interior and exterior panels of the wings were painted in 1482, while the triptych and predella were painted in 1515.
A document of 1523 mentions the name of organ-player Bartholomäeus. The church archives note that in 1731 G. Wachsmann built an organ that was then sold in 1794. In 1795 organ-builder Samuel Maetz of Biertan built a new organ with 22 ranks. The present organ, with 1290 pipes and 25 ranks, was built in 1869 by Hessian company in Vienna.
Matei Corvin pursued a policy devoted to stimulating the fortifications of the localities in Transylvania by granting assistance and facilities, temporary exemption from military duties, reductions of dues. In 1471, Aţel was granted the right to retain a third of the able-bodied men for the defence of the fortress, while on January 14, 1477 – in order to augment the defence capability of Mediaş – the participation of its inhabitants in the royal army was limited to 32 persons, the rest having to construct and defend fortifications. The fortress in Biertan is first mentioned in 1486, in a document whereby Matei Corvin allowed Biertan to retain a third of its men for the defence of the fortress. The area of the plateau where the 14th century basilica was constructed was initially bordered by an oval enclosure meant to prevent landslide. As the slope was very steep, the walls were two metres high inside and eight metres high outside, and were strengthened with buttresses.
The construction of the choir and the lengthening of the naves of the basilica after 1402 required the movement of the north-western wall up to the edge of the plateau. This was the fortress envisaged by Matei Corvin’s instructions. The fortification, which began at the beginning of the 15th century, means the construction of three towers and one bastion along the first enclosure. The Clock Tower, a four-storeyed gate tower whose crossed-vault ground floor closed with portcullises, is located in the north-western part of the fortress. The battlements of the tower are very narrow and high, the wooden defence corridor is built in console, while the pyramidal roof includes an eye-catching clock in its upper portion. The clock has a bell bearing the inscription “Jesus in aeternus rex judeorum 1508”.
The three-storeyed Tower of the Mausoleum, located in the north-east, has a cylindrical little tower with a spiral staircase inside annexed on its southern side. In 1913, the ground floor of the tower was changed into a mausoleum, which houses the slabs of the church prelates who were buried in the choir crypt: priests Johannes (†1520), Franz Salicäeus (†1567), bishops Lukas Unglerus (†1600 – the first Evangelic bishop of Transylvania), Mathias Schiffbaumer (†1611), Zacharias Weyrauch (†l621), Franz Graffius (†1627), Georg Theilesius (†1646), Christian Barth (†1658), Christian Haas (†1686). Close to the tower there are also the tombstones of bishops D. Gräeser (†1833) and G.P Binder (†1867 – the last bishop in Biertan). Priest Johannes was a notable personality of Biertan, linked to two of the most valuable artistic works: the carved door of the sacristy and the stone pulpit. The pulpit is likely to have been quarrier Ulrich, native of Braşov, who came to Biertan in 1523. The lower conical portion of the pulpit is decorated with mouldings and its lateral parts present three bas-reliefs: Simon’s Prophecy, the Crucifixion of Jesus and the Garden of Gethsemane Prayer. The painting on wood of the pulpit dates from 1754. According to oral tradition, the quarrier immortalized the face of priest Johannes, who devoted his life to the construction of the church, as the face of Prophet Simon, but I have my doubts; Johannes died in 1520, while the pulpit was built three years later. It is quite true that the quarrier could have inspired from the priest’s representation on his tombstone or from paintings, but…..
The eastern part of the enclosure is fortified with a two-storeyed bastion (belonging to the prison), constructed above two high semi-circular arches, one of the short sides being completely recessed from the wall. Two buttresses open in the walls above the arches, but the windows facing the courtyard also denote that the bastion was used as dwelling. There is an anecdote related to the small room of the bastion: furnished only with a bed, a table, a plate and a single set of cutlery, the prison-room became a conciliation means of the spouses who, intending to divorce, were confined here for a longer term.
The last tower of the first enclosure, the Catholic Tower, is located in the south and has a ground floor room with semi-cylindrical vault used as a Catholic chapel by the Saxon community members who had not adopted the Reform (similarly with Mary’s Tower in Mediaş). The walls and the vault of the chapel display rich mural paintings with religious themes, which date from the beginning of the 15th century, among which we can mention: “Majestas Domini”, “Veronica’s Vail”, “Annunciation”, “Adoration of the Magi”, scenes from the childhood of Jesus, faces of saints. The three-storeyed tower with narrow buttresses and several buttresses in the form of reversed key-holes has a wooden defence corridor in console and a pyramidal roof with pointed slopes.
There is another wooden tower on the plateau, the Bell Tower, located on the northern side of the enclosure between the Clock Tower and the Tower of the Mausoleum. Below the roof of this tower, consolidated in the first half of the 19th century by carpenter Hoeck, there are the three bells of the church, the largest bell being cast at the beginning of the 15th century and inscribed in Gothic small letters with the invocation: ”o rex glorie veni cum pace” (on the middle bell the same inscription is in capital letters, indicating that is belongs to the 14th century).
At the end of the 15th century, the first enclosure was doubled by a second one, constructed on a lower contour line. Its western wall, which is very high, has buttresses interposed between throwing openings, ornate with stepped frontons. Two gate towers are placed in the south-west and, respectively, in the west of the enclosure: in the 18th century the first one became a Tower of Bacons (most Saxon communities had a tower of bacons the purpose of which needs no longer be explained), and the second one is located in the part where the distance between two enclosures is minimum. For a time, the village hall operated in this three-storey tower with lectern-like roof and hence it derived its name: the Tower of the Old Hall. The curtain wall linking the two gate towers of the second enclosure was doubled by another wall, and the thus-created corridor was crossed by seven arches acting as buttresses. Both ends of the corridor were equipped with portcullises.
In the 16th century a third curtain wall was constructed on the eastern, southern and western sides, which was strengthened in the south by a fourth gate tower and in the west by the Weavers’ Tower, nowadays transformed into the workshop of a Biertan painter. The space between the second and the third curtain walls was divided – by two transversal walls in the south-east and south-west – into three “Zwingers”. There are remnants of a fourth defence wall strengthened with a bastion in the north-west. The bastion was demolished in 1783, but the foundation of the wall can be traced in the western part of the fortress i.
In the 15th century there was only one road for wagons going from the north towards the clock gate tower. More access roads were necessary after the extension of the fortress. A staircase for pedestrians was built in 1795, which in 1845 was “modernized” and changed into a covered staircase with brick foundation (the covered staircase in Mediaş was opened at around the same time, in 1803). The second road for wagons ran from the south towards the gate tower of the old hall, through the arched corridor.
Due to its natural position and compound of fortifications, Biertan stood as a significant benchmark in the strategic defensive system of mediaeval Transylvania. It was conquered only once, in 1704, by the insurgent peasants (16,000 insurgent peasants spent in Biertan almost two months in 1705), who took advantage of the element of surprise and, after the taking of the fortress, wrecked the sacristy, the choir, the bishops’ crypts, producing cultural and material destructions that can be hardly estimated (but the insurgent peasants also conquered fortress Mediaş, Şeica Mare and many other peasant fortresses, registering successes even against the imperial army). Nowadays, the church-fortress in Biertan, included in 1993 among the UNESCO world heritage monuments, is one the most prominent tourist places in Transylvania. In1998, it was visited by Charles, Prince of Wales.
Biertan offers numerous groups of tourists optimum conditions for leisure, entertainment, rest, trekking, with its about 40 places in accredited agritourism pensions. A pension is located within the fortress, on the southern side, its guests enjoying the mediaeval atmosphere, peace, comfort, specific foods and, last but not least, unpolluted air. Close to the fortress entrance, in a building constructed in the 17th century, the mediaeval restaurant “Unglerus” stands out due to a wonderful mixture of modernity and tradition, featuring a state-of-the-art conference room and offering traditional wines, handicraft objects and tourism consulting, old recipes and museum exhibits.
Richiş Village is located at about 32 km south-east of Mediaş, 16 km on the national road DN14 and 16 km on the county road 141B, 5 km south of Biertan.
The settlement was first attested in a document of 1283, when Petru, bishop of Transylvania, concedes three parts of the tithe due to the cathedral chapter of Alba Iulia (consisting of wine, fruits, honey and lambs) by the parishes of eight localities in the cathedral chapter of Mediaş in exchange for 40 silver marks. Among the names of the priests in the seven villages appear sacerdotes Henricus e villa Rihuini (the German habit of borrowing the first name of a local leader, Richwin in this case, was quite widespread). However, the name of the settlement will be changed, the wealth of the village being its defining characteristic: Reichesdorf = rich village. I have to mention a nice and not illogical little story. In the 12th – 14th centuries, the site on which the village is now located was marshy and numerous herons nestled there. The German name of this bird is “der Fischreiher”. According to oral tradition as well as to two representations of a heron with a fish in its beak – the first on the sacristy door, dated 1516, and the second, identical one, obviously reproduced after the first one, embroidered on a neighbourhood flag (der Bruderschaftsfahne) – the old name of the settlement was Reihersdorf, “The village of the heron.”
The Gothic basilica with three naves, the construction of which began in the second half of the 14th century, replaced another religious building that belonged to first German colonists. What confers it a specific feature among the churches on Târnava valley is the presence of two secondary choirs , closed with polygonal three-side apses that flank the north and south of the main choir, which is closed with a polygonal five-side apse.
The original destination of the secondary choirs was altered, by building transversal walls that separate them from the main choir. Thus, the newly created rooms were used according to the classical formula: the northern one was used as sacristy, and the southern one as chapel. The entrance to the choir-sacristy is on the northern wall of the main choir, through a carved wood door dating from 1516, which is decorated with the emblem of the village (a heron catching a fish with its beak) and framed by a stone Gothic embrasure.
An indenture left by an axe in the door frame stands proof of the conflict between the Lutherans who planned to take the church under their rule (after the new doctrine Honterus brought from the West disseminated among inhabitants) and the Catholics who took refuge in the sacristy, refusing to adopt the new doctrine.
The sacristy houses two funerary slabs dating from the 16th – 17th centuries, and its door was equipped with a lock that tried to reproduce the lock in Biertan. The rectangular entrance to the southern secondary choir was cut in the transversal wall that separated it from the southern wing. The tabernacle bay in the northern wall of the choir is decorated with a Gothic fronton, where there is a representation of a pelican, so frequently seen in the churches of Transylvania . In fact, even in Richiş, the theme of the pelican, of the self-sacrifice, appears a second time also in the choir, where the first key stone represents a pelican feeding its chicks with its own blood. All the three choirs have their eastern spans vaulted in cross ogives, while the apses have vaults with penetrations. The cross vault of the northern choir, which became the sacristy (the presence of the pool attests the utilisation of that room for this purpose), presents a parable worth mentioning: the key stone in the east, representing the painted figure of God, is opposite to the second key stone that is placed in the west. The second key stone presents the Devil painted in white, which does not have the strength to look straight to God and watches westward.
A second parable of the life cycle is conveyed by the first four key stones placed above the western apses: the first key, a bunch of flowers – youth. The second one, near the altar, a basket of fruits – maturity. The third one presents two fingers pointing to the last key stone, fingers that indicate the path towards God, whereto each old person goes and where everybody is waited for. The fourth key stone, placed in the middle of the nave, is of course God.
The five tripartite windows of the main choir, with tracery mouldings in the lunettes of the pointed arches, are much larger than the bipartite and tripartite windows of the secondary choirs. All the windows of the central and lateral choirs, except for the window placed above the western portal, are in pointed arch without mouldings and of small sizes. The nave and the main choir have a common roof, while the roofs of the lateral choirs begin from under the windows of the central hall.
The central nave is separated from the lateral naves by five Gothic arches supported by pilasters the capitals of which are richly decorated with vegetal or animal motifs. The cross ogive vaults of the three naves are ornate with ribs that spread on the little columns supported on consoles. The ribs are closed in 25 key stones embellished with reliefs, the ones in the naves being also painted. Ten pillars support the arches that separate lateral naves, and they have capital friezes richly ornate with Gothic elements, masks and vegetal and dynamic animal motifs. Numerous masks represent the Devil, with grotesque faces, placed in the darkest corners of the naves. One of the masks was identified with a god of the Getae, the god of forests – “der Grünemann”, a god of rebirth and revival. It is highly probable that Saxons, coming from the northern parts of Europe boasting plentiful of forests, brought with them the cult of the god of forests, “the green man”, god that announced the coming of spring and whose mask presents him with buds and leaves instead of hair.
In the western part of the basilica there were constructed three overlapping stands, which were totally uncommon in Transylvania. A wood stand for young men was constructed above the central stand in 1735. In fact, it was common in Saxon churches that young men and young girls had specific seats, usually in lateral stands or in places with poor visibility or hardly accessible. These storeyed stands were accessed through the spiral staircase in the little tower placed in the north-west of the southern lateral portion, little tower that rises higher than the roof and also is the entrance to the church attic. I discovered from my own experience that the climb of such a little tower is not an easy exercise, and the old people of the village knew that when they reserved the second stand for young men.
The sandstone steps of the spiral staircase were almost completely eroded in some areas, because for hundreds of years young men had stridden with hobnailed boots on the only accessible area, taking into consideration that the 50-cm-long steps coiled around a central stone column. Just before 1788, a third stand, the one for the pipe organ, was placed below the initial stand.
The church has three portals, the northern and southern ones being constructed after 1451 (this date is carved on a key stone of the central nave), which is the year when the basilica was finished. The main portal, placed forward on the western façade of the church, has the embrasure made up of three sticks, the section of which is either a cylinder or a pear, of various dimensions, which ends with a capital frieze decorated with vegetal motifs. The pointed arch-vault, whose arches continue from the embrasure sticks, is framed by two urns. The arch-vault lunette displays a relief representation of the Crucifixion of Jesus, made in a realistic manner that differs from the lifeless and motionless technique of the late Gothic style.
The church is not fortified, and the intention to build a tower above the first span in the west of the choir, supported by the triumph arch and by the first two pillars of the nave, was abandoned. At the beginning of the 16th century a somewhat oval enclosure was constructed, with 7-8-metre high walls, strengthened with towers, of which the western and southern towers still exist. The height of the curtain wall was reduced in 1888 in order to use the recovered bricks for the construction of the school, and in 1910 the walls in the north and in the east (facing the centre of the village) were replaced by a brick fence. On the northern and southern sides of the western tower one can see the ruins of the old wall, which is 7 metres high. The western tower, a gate and bell tower, has seven storeys, the first floor being made of stone. A tall pointed arch, placed forward and framed by a triangular fronton, was constructed in front of the first two semi-cylindrically vaulted storeys. The higher storeys can be accessed only from inside the enclosure, through a mobile staircase. The tower has ramparts and the portcullis channels can still be seen; four pointed-arch windows open to the bell room on the sixth storey. Around 1680, a clock was mounted at the seventh storey.
The southern six-storeyed tower, brought forward as against the fortress wall, was a gate tower but the entrance arcade was walled. Under the lectern-roof that is tilted northward there were throwing openings which flanked the entrance. Nowadays the tower is incorporated in the preacher’s house. Due to the diversity and opulence of its decorations, due to the realistic approach of biblical themes, due to its three choirs and three stands, the church in Richiş became a tourist attraction that cannot be overlooked.