The Gothic and Renaissance Styles

Although the Romanesque tradition lived on in the architecture of both Hungarians and Saxons in Transylvania until the end of the 13th century, it was soon joined by the Gothic style. The main source of Gothic influence was the church at Kerc. The Cistercian monastery had been founded in 1200, and construction on the church began some time after 1230. The builders followed a traditional Cistercian layout, but they incorporated early Gothic elements modelled on those in and around Paris. The church took the {1-560.} form of a towerless basilica, with a nave, two aisles, and a transept. The basically rectangular chancel was closed off by pentagonal space with a sexpartite, vaulted ceiling; it was lit by sextofoil rosettes higher up, and by lancet windows lower down on the walls. The nave was separated from the chancel by a low arch. The interior of the church, in which nave and aisles were marked off by rectangular columns, was also lit by sextofoil rosettes. The western portal had several orders of slightly pointed arches and was topped by a triangular pediment. The church has since fallen into ruin, and only its chancel remains intact.

The carvers and stonemasons took decades to complete the building of the church at Kerc. The project must have been commissioned by the king, for its builders left their mark on many other constructions located in areas of Transylvania under direct royal authority, and this until 1270. Their earliest similar project was probably the Church of Szent Bertalan (St Bartholomew) at Brassó. The apse of that church (which also has a transept) is a replica of the one at Kerc. Kerc also served as model for a church on the royal estate at Halmágy, outside the Szászföld, although that version had, in a style evocative of Benedictine tradition, two towers on the western facade, much like the church in Brassó. Kerc's layout and chancel were also replicated at the more distant royal domains of Óradna and Bálványosváralja. In the royal salt-mining town of Szék, the church is a smaller-scale, simplified version of the one at Kerc; most of its rosette windows are only trefoil, only the side-walls have lancet windows. The Kerc workshop's last project was Beszterce's Franciscan church, which, in accordance with the tradition of mendicant orders, had a single nave.

The comparable, but far from identical churches raised in the 13th century at Kerc and Gyulafehérvár incorporated a few elements of the emerging Gothic style, chiefly chancels with cross-vaulting and polygonal ends, as well as foliate carvings, lancet arches, and rose windows. In the late 13th and early 14th centuries, {1-561.} these elements began to appear not only in other projects of the Kerc workshop but also as modifications to earlier, Romanesque churches. First to appear, thanks to its ease of application, was foliate decoration. The linkage of a cross-vaulted, polygonal-ended chancel by way of a Gothic arch to a Romanesque nave came later, for it was a more costly alteration. This blending of styles can be found in churches at Borberek, Szászfenes and Magyarlóna (the latter two with a 'conservative', inset tower), as well as in single-nave churches of the nobility (Szovát, Pókakeresztúr, Noszoly, Cegőtelke, Teke) and of the Székelys (Gyulakuta, Nyárádszentlászló, Kövend, Gelence, Bögöz). The polygonal chancel of Kolozsmonostor, with finely-traced windows, might have formed part of an earlier basilica. This type of chancel is also found in the Saxons' basilicas at Medgyes, Segesvár, and Lekence, and in their transeptal churches at Riomfalva, Szászváros, and Ecel. The church at Nagyszeben, the Saxon 'capital', preserved the basic layout of a basilica, but it received, at an early date, a Gothic chancel and transept; in the later 1300s, its nave was modified, with Gothic vaulting, decoration, and windows.

The early Gothic portals of Gyulafehérvár and Kerc, with their orders of pointed arches, multiple columns, and triangular pediments, exerted a lasting influence on church-building. They were replicated in a basilica that had been raised ca. 1330 at Szászrégen, centre of the estates of the Székely count, Tamás Losonci (in other respects, the church followed a conservative pattern, with a nave and two aisles, and a patron's gallery in its inset tower); in the churches at Nagybánya and Abrudbánya, both with Gothic chancels; and in the castle church at Marosvásárhely, which was constructed some time after 1350. Portals that were similar but lacked a triangular pediment were incorporated in the churches at Ótorda, Ecel, Szászbogács (on the southern side), and Höltövény (with rounded instead of pointed arches) in the later 1300s, and at Buzd, Riomfalva, Szászivánfalva, Darlac, Baráthely, and Küküllőkörös {1-562.} in the early 1400s. The Saxons who belatedly settled along the Küküllő River were particularly disposed to include this early Gothic feature in their new churches.

The triumph of the mature Gothic over Romanesque and early Gothic styles owed much to the mendicant orders, which were popular in Transylvania and favoured a unified space suitable for preaching. They therefore built single-nave churches and, beginning in the later 1400s, triple-aisled hall churches in which aisles and chancel were of the same height as the nave. The latter layout required, in place of cross vaulting, a reticulated vaulting that extended over the entire interior without cramping the Gothic's soaring thrust; far from being oppressive, this ceiling gives an impression of infinite lightness. The mendicant orders established themselves in the towns, where they had a decisive influence on the style of parish churches. The latter represent the finest examples of mature Gothic. As noted, the first dynamic phase of urban development in Transylvania occurred in the mid-1300s, generating the wealth and aesthetic demand that allowed mature Gothic to flourish.

The nave of the church at Nagyszeben is already in mature Gothic style, although the basilican tradition is preserved in the aisles. In other churches, the latter were raised to the same height as the nave. This was the case with the hilltop church at Segesvár, as well as at Szászsebes, whose church is remarkable for the rich sculptures that denote mature Gothic; the Anjou coat-of-arms, statues of kings, and the generally high standard of stone-carving testify to the spirit, if not the actual involvement of the royal court. The outstanding example of mature Gothic architecture in Transylvania is the parish church of Szent Mihály (St Michael), in Kolozsvár. The original design called for a triple-aisled basilica. However, the example of Kassa Cathedral, which reflected the flowering of South German art, came to prevail in the latter third of the 14th century, and Szent Mihály Church was completed in the {1-563.} form of a triple-aisled hall church. Its awesome sense of space is enhanced by splendid vaulting and richly-carved ornamentation; its exterior, which once had a tall spire in the northwest corner, is noteworthy for a harmonious unity. The church was a fitting symbol of Transylvania's economic and spiritual centre, of a place that nurtured the cooperative coexistence of Hungarians and Saxons.

If, in the construction of churches, Kolozsvár followed German models, the inspiration in painting and sculpture — generally commissioned for churches — came more from Italy. This was attributable in part to the Anjou kings' close links to that country, and in part to the initiative of Hungarian artists in Kolozsvár, for the latter (unlike those in the Saxon lands) were drawn to a late Gothic-early Renaissance style that was emerging in Florence and Siena; with its dynamism, realism, and greater emotional quality, this new style transcended Byzantine rigidity. Of these artists, only Miklós Kolozsvári is known by name, but art historians have reason to believe that the 'Hungarian' school of painting included at least four others whose works reveal individual characteristics. Creations of this school survive in churches at Magyarfenes, Almakerék, Marosszentanna, and Barcaszentpéter. Some of the frescoes in the first two of these churches are generally attributed to Miklós Kolozsvári. The Madonna at Marosszentanna — with Mongoloid features, and holding an oriental Infant Jesus in Hungarian garb — is the work of another master. The gifted sons of Miklós Kolozsvári, Márton and György, produced a large number of early Renaissance sculptures that compare with any in the rest of Europe; they include the statue of St George in Prague, the royal statues of Várad (destroyed in the 17th century), and the original, now lost, herma of St Ladislas that can be seen in Győr. Art historians once believed that these works displayed direct Italian influence; more recently, they have revised this opinion and consider that Italian influence was but a contributing element in the emergence of a stronger and more self-conscious art form in East-Central Europe.

{1-564.} This flowering of culture, signalled also by the foundation of universities across East-Central Europe, was made possible by political and economic consolidation. Hungary found itself not in some peripheral position, but fully within the sphere of the expanding market economies of Southern Germany and Venice. Prosperity reached a peak around 1400, and, in Transylvania, one of its consequences was the emergence of Kolozsvár as a centre of the arts. In 1427, at Garamszentbenedek, Tamás Kolozsvári painted what would be the most beautiful triptych created in Hungary during that century. Its panels depict the Calvary and the miracles of St Nicholas and illustrate in rich detail the material culture of the period; the work combines and brings to life the finest traditions of the Italian Trecento and Burgundian-North German Gothic. The multi-faceted nature of Transylvanian culture is illustrated by the fact that at the very time when these works of modern, Western inspiration were being created, close by, in a number of the Székelyföld's churches, artists were painting frescoes in traditional Eastern, Byzantine style. These frescoes depict St Ladislas's fight against the pagans — a legend that embodies the spirit of the borderlands — in a local, naive style; some scholars believe that motifs from Eastern, nomadic epic songs are woven into the representation of the saintly knight's legendary deeds. The 14th-century frescoes at Bögöz and Gelence depict the Last Judgment and events from the life of St Margaret of Antioch along with the legend of St Ladislas. That theme, represented in Byzantine style, would recur in numerous Székely churches, at Maksa, Csíkszentmihály, Erdőfüle, Bibarcfalva, Homoródszentmárton, and Sepsibesenyő, in 1419 at Székelyderzs, and, at the end of the 15th century, in (Sepsi)kilyén. Some suspected that these were all copies of an archetype in Várad, but art historians now tend to the view that the frescoes were independent illustrations of a legend that was part of the local oral tradition.

{1-565.} The finest piece of architecture in the Szászföld is Brassó's 'Black Church', which was begun at the end of the 1300s and completed in the following century. The design followed the model in Kassa, mediated by Kolozsvár, and adapted to local tastes, producing a stately, 89-metre long edifice — one of the largest Gothic churches not only in Transylvania but in all of East-Central Europe. Its ornamentation, leaning to late Gothic, was applied in the same period that triptychs began to spread from the Szászföld to other parts of Transylvania, including the Székelyföld. Of the 1,981 triptychs that survive from those created in Hungary during the 15th and 16th centuries, 324 originated in Transylvania, including one at Csíkménaság that dates from 1543 and is believed to be the latest of the lot. The most beautiful triptychs, at Segesvár, Medgyes, and Szászsebes, had such an impact that they induced a revival in the creation of Gothic frescoes in the mid-1400s. Among the outstanding results were a Calvary, painted by Master János Rozsnyai in 1445 at Szeben, and another Calvary in the southwestern chapel of Kolozsvár's parish church.

In the realm of secular architecture and painting, little of significance was created in Transylvania prior to the 15th century. The great landowners' castles, such as the five built, or received from the king, by the Losonci Bánffy family, were rather plain and sombre edifices. However, by the mid-1400s, a splendid Gothic castle stood at Vajdahunyad; its interior was decorated with a series of Renaissance frescoes, commissioned by King Matthias, depicting courtly games (or, according to some, the raven-legend of the Hunyadi family). The first Gothic town-houses, including Matthias's birthplace in Kolozsvár, also date from this period.

In the course of the 15th century, the Saxons' churches, and then those of the Székelys in Csík, were fortified in anticipation of Turkish attack, giving rise of a distinctive feature of Transylvanian architecture. The most picturesque were churches whose chancels were topped by one, sometimes two additional stories, and whose {1-566.} ambulatories were equipped with arrow slits and machicolations. The chancel thus became in effect a second tower, facing the original spire, which was similarly converted into a strong tower. Of the 230 surviving Saxon churches, thirty are fortified in this fashion. They are located between the Maros, Kis-Küküllő, Olt, and Homoród rivers, at Szászbogács (the northernmost site), Bolkács, Buzd, Nagydisznód, Mártonhegy, Nagysink, Szászfehéregyháza, Magyarkapus, Berethalom, and Ecel, as well as within the perimeter marked by these villages. Most of them also had a peripheral wall equipped with turrets. The other churches were not fortified in themselves, but were given a peripheral wall that had a walkway with arrow slits and incorporated storerooms. Somewhat later, when the threat arose of Turkish attack from the direction of Moldavia, the Székely churches in Csík began to be fortified. These too, notably at Csíkkarcfalva and Csíkrákos, displayed distinctive local features.

The end of the 15th century saw an upsurge in church-building by the mendicant orders and in the smaller towns. The hall churches at Torda, Dés, and Kolozsvár (Farkas Street) bear the stylistic hallmarks of the ones found in Debrecen, Nyírbátor, and Szeged, and represent an East Hungarian variant of the late Gothic. The earliest ceiling frescoes, at Gogánváralja (begun in 1503) and on the vault of the chancel (which bears a coat-of-arms) at Székelydálya, blend late Gothic motifs with decorative elements of the Tuscan Renaissance. The artistry of the Italian and South German Renaissance is admirably reflected in Gyulafehérvár's Lázói Chapel and in the vestry door that was commissioned by Kolozsvár's parish priest, János Klein. The Renaissance thus reached Transylvania, where it would come into full flower after the Battle of Mohács.