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Muzeul catedralei mitropolitane Timișoara

Last Saturday, after my quick and disappointing run through Muzeul de Artă Timișoara, and with one hour to spare before tech rehearsals in Teatrul Maghiar De Stat “Csiky Gergely” for Isabelle Schad’s Fugen, I decided to see how much of Muzeul catedralei mitropolitane Timișoara I could see. All of it, apparently.

Muzeul catedralei mitropolitane Timișoara is in the basement of the Catedrala Mitropolitană, accessed by a small door on the far right inside the cathedral. I almost missed it, until I was exiting and saw the sign pointing back the way I came. The church itself is overwhelming, walls of gold icons, a colossal gold chandelier, frescos, all dimly lit with candlelight and what pale exterior light made it through the tall, narrow windows and cupola high above. Into the museum. Having been burned by the other museum’s “No Photography!” policy, I went at it with my camera just in case the voices I could hear were going to similarly ruin my experience when we met. Turns out it was exactly the opposite.

A woman comes running up to me, fully in a black habit and apostolnik, some light grey hair visible at her temples and the kind of gaze you really don’t want to be admitting your proclivities to. It’s Timișoara’s own Sister Wendy! She was most surprised I came all the way from Australia to see her museum (“You speak English, where are you from?” “err … Australia?” “Ah! You come all the way from Australia to see our museum!”), and dragged me through for twenty minutes explaining about half the works before an Italian guy came in and she was off to give him the same reception.

The museum takes up maybe 120 square metres of low-ceilinged basement in a fat T-shape, not especially well lit, certainly not ‘museum’ lighting, fluorescent stript lighting mostly, and works simply crammed onto every available wall, pillar, into cabinets and display cases, propped up against blocked off doors, probably at least 150 painted works, and scores of manuscripts, books, and documents. And by the time I got to photographing, I had just on twenty minutes before I had to split.

A brief diversion into photographing, first.

As usual, I used my beautiful Panasonic LX7 with the mad glass up front. I can’t afford something like a Canon 5D Mark III, nor would the weight, size, and loudness allow me the kind of unobtrusive flexibility I have with a high-end compact. Normally I’d take a couple of hours to photograph so many works, this time I was averaging 2-3 a minute under not great light overall, and plenty of garish reflection on the highly lacquered surfaces. Quite a few works I photographed at an angle to reduce this glare. As usual, I was shooting RAW.

All of the works have some post-processing done in Photoshop. Generally this is dealing with lens and shooting distortion (from the above shooting at an angle), a tiny bit of colour, tone, and contrast work, plus a bit of sharpening to compensate for the destructive nature of all this. I think most if not all the works would look more brilliant and colourful under proper lighting and photographing conditions, and I could probably approximate what they ‘actually’ look like, but I treat these images as what my camera saw rather than some fantasy version. Many of these works are not exactly quadrilateral, some exceedingly so. Because I’m often photographing on an angle, and even if I think I’m exactly front-on the camera has its own ideas of geometry, I’ve evened this all out. I don’t have the original to compare with so can’t say what’s the image and what’s camera, so it’s less distracting to not have wonky angles. Also for some, where the frames don’t finish cleanly (a lot of the images and frames are not in the best of condition) I clean up the corners a bit, again to reduce the distraction of glary white bits on the image edges.

And what did I see? A whole bunch of stuff I barely can comprehend. This Romanian Orthodox art is so far from the central-northern European stuff I’m used to, or even the Italian and western European. I was confused at first to the age of it, as the styles look a few hundred years or more older than I’d expect, but was all between 17th and 19th centuries with the majority being 18th century. Then there was the medium. The first works are all on glass, the size of an average illustrated book. Many others were on wood, dotted with the holes of woodworms. Thematically many of them came in pairs, one of Mother of God (Maica Domnului), the other of Christ Pantocrator (Iisus Hristos Pantocrator).

I’m regretting I didn’t have more time, though in truth there was no more time, the museum wasn’t open on Sunday, and that barely an hour was all there was. I’d have loved to spend a little more time with Sister Wendy, or at least take notes, particularly on a couple of the works she said were either Syrian and Egyptian in style or actually came from there (these are 20: Autor necunoscut, sec. XVIII. Sfinta Parascheva. provine de la biserica din Temeresti, Timiș and 28: Autor necunoscut, sec XVIII-XIX. Adormirea Maicii Domnului. provine de la biserica din ? Timiș below).

And then there’s the brown and black Marys and Jesuses. The first of these, 3 and 4: Icoana Maicii Domnului was to the left of the cathedral entrance immediately on entering, then there was the many Maica Domnuluis, (images 17, 29, 38, 41, 51, 52, and 62 below), Sfinta Parascheva (image 20), and Iisus Hristos Pantocrator (image 64, the companion to image 62). Dispelling all bollocks here, it’s unambiguously clear the artists intended the skin colour in the representations here, you only have to compare with works often right beside where Mary or Jesus is paler. In Constantin din Corița’s Maica Domnului, both Mary and Jesus are a deep, dark brown, and the light from above on her cheek and forehead gives a warm, golden glow. In E. Simiolovici’s Maica Domnului, the entire work comes from an bright embossed gilt background; Mary and Jesus’ skin is only a slightly lighter than the brown robe she wears. I’ve seen one or two works like this last year when I was travelling in Budapest and Poland, and read enough to know this representation is common, but to see a whole museum full with multiple variations, it’s glorious and beautiful beyond what I can write or photograph.

There’s other works with Ottoman or Turkish and Muslim figures; sometimes the figures remind me of Greco-Indian or Serindian art, the particular curve of eyebrows and wide, high forehead. It’s all new to me, outside of seeing examples in passing, and basically I don’t know what I’m talking about.

The whole experience was unexpectedly deeply moving. From the almost scary Sister Wendy when she explained to me how the works function for her in her faith, to having her briefly elaborate on what appeared to be a less remarkable piece which in fact was entirely remarkable (to me at least), and the sheer volume of works. And the fact this is entirely European. It’s European I can recognise in art farther west and north, yet carries more than that. Entire additional styles, cultures, histories are present which inextricably tie Europe with Asia, and which unequivocally demonstrate there is no border or line where ‘Europe’ starts or ends, it just blurs in multiple washes from different directions across geography and time with ‘Asia’. This exists also in art from further north and west, like in Saint Mauritius in Magdeburg, and maybe it’s simply I need to pay closer attention to what I’m looking at in art from further north and west, to know how to read and understand what I’m seeing.

Muzeul catedralei mitropolitane Timișoara, an absolute, unexpected delight in a city likewise a joy. Here’s a ridiculous number of photos of art: