Curtea de Arges Monastery

The town of Curtea de Arges /meaning Court on Arges/ is set in the Arges County in the southern part of Romania, 150 km northwest of Bucharest, 38 km northwest of Pitesti, 37 km from Râmnicu Vîlcea, 129 km from Brasov, at the foot of the Fagaras mountains, in the Arges river valley.

Outstanding architectural monuments of the Curtea de Arges complex testify on the cradle of the present Romanian Orthodox Church and the first Metropolitanate of the medieval duchy of Wallachia. The Curtea de Arges complex includes the Saint Nicholas church that makes one of the oldest churches in Walachia built in the mid-14th century /completed in 1352/and was endowment of the Serbian Prince Lazar and Princess Milica. The Saint Nicholas Church of Curtea de Arges complex features wonderfully preserved Byzantine-style frescoes painted 1364-1369 during the rule of duke Basarab’s nephew, duke Vladislav /1364-1377/ that make it the shrine of the extraordinary historical importance. The Curtea de Arges frescoes in gold background represent depictions of its donors – the duke Vladislav, the duke Radul, the Prince Lazar and Princess Milica Hrebeljanovic of Serbia, and the duke Neagoe Basarab /ruler of Wallachia who ruled the Romanian principality 1512-1521 that spread to the south of the Carpathian Mountains and north of the Danube River/and his wife Milica Despina /died in 1554, descendant of the Serbian Houses of Brankovic/ with their six children – Theodosius, Peter, John, Stana, Roxanda and Angelina.

The Orthodox complex of Curtea de Arges also includes the ruins of the Prince’s Residence built around 1370, the Romanian Orthodox Cathedral built in the second decade of the 16th century /probably on the foundations of an earlier metropolitan church/ and the beautiful Cathedral which experienced many restorations, the last in 1875 when it was turned into a large royal mausoleum where numerous kings and queens of Romania are buried : Carol I /1914/ and Queen Elisabeth /1916/ who after her husband’s death retired to Curtea de Arges Monastery; King Ferdinand /1927/ and Queen Maria /1938/; King Charles II and his son, King Michael I, Kind Carol II /whose sister Marioara – was Maria Queen of Serbia – wife of the Serbian King Alexander Karadjordjevic/, and his wife Magda Lupescu….

Located at the end of a boulevard with centenary linden trees, Curtea de Arges Monastery is the most important pilgrimage and prayer place in the Romanian county of Arges, dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin. Curtea de Arges Monastery resembles a very large and elaborate mausoleum built between 1512 and 1517 with Moorish arabesques in Byzantine style. In shape it is elongated, featuring a many-sided annex at the back. Known also as the Episcopal Church, because it was an Episcopal See between 1739 and 1748, the house of worship is 18 meters long, 10 meters wide and 25 meters high. As a curiosity, the naos and the pro-naos of Curtea de Arges Monastery are not separated by a door, but by the frame of a door, placed between two columns. The dome rises above the central part, fronted by two smaller cupolas, while a secondary dome, broader and loftier than the central one, springs from the annex. Each summit is crowned by an inverted pear-shaped stone, bearing a triple cross, emblematic of the Trinity. The windows are mere slits – those of the tambours (the cylinders on which the cupolas rest) are curved and slant at an angle of 70 degrees, as though the tambours were leaning to one side. Between the pediment and the cornice a thick corded molding is carried round the main building. Above this comes a row of circular shields, adorned with intricate arabesques, while bands and wreaths of lilies are everywhere sculptured on the windows, balconies, tambours and cornices, adding lightness to the fabric. It is all raised on a platform 2.1 m high and encircled by a stone balustrade.

Facing the main entrance of Curtea de Arges Monastery is a small open shrine, consisting of a cornice and dome upheld by four pillars. The cathedral is faced with pale gray limestone, easily chiseled but hardening on exposure. The interior is of brick, plastered and greatly decorated with frescoes painted by master Dobromir in 1526 of which one fresco represents the Holy Martyr Prince Lazar Hrebeljanovic. Close by stands a large royal palace, Moorish in style. The archives of the cathedral were plundered by Hungarians and Turks but several inscriptions, Greek, Slav and Roman, are left.

Founded  by the Serbian Princess Milica Despina Brankovic – Milica Despina of Wallachia – in the time of reign of her husband – Serbian ruler of Wallachia Duke Neagoe Basarab, the Curtea de Arges Monastery houses fresco portraits of its donors. The Curtea de Arges Monastery is a part of the most famous Romanian legend – “the legend of master Manole”. One tradition describes that Duke Neagoe Basarab while a hostage in Constantinople, designed a splendid mosque for the sultan, returning to build the cathedral out of the surplus materials. Another version has Radu Negru employing as architect Mesterul Manole or master Manole. Manole being unable to finish the walls, the prince threatened him and his assistants with death. At last Manole suggested that they should follow the ancient custom of placing a living woman into the foundations; and that she who first appeared on the following morning should be the victim. The other masons warned their families, and Manole was forced to sacrifice his own wife Ana. That is how cathedral was built. When Manole and his masons told the prince that they could always build an even greater building, Radu Negru had them stranded on the roof so that they could not build something to match it. They fashioned wooden wings and tried to fly off the roof, but, one by one, they all fell to the ground. A spring of clear water, named after Manole, is said to mark the spot where he fell. This motif is widespread in South-East Europe, most notably also in Russia like the blinding of the Masons of Saint Basil”s Cathedral by Ivan the Terrible.

There are several plaques representing this important historical event – one testifies that founders of this monastery were Neagoe Basarab /ruled 1512-1521/and his wife Milica Despina from Serbia, daughter of the Serb Despot Jovan Branković and niece of Maxim Brankovic, sometimes metropolitan of Wallachia. The nickname Milica Despina clearly determines origins of this noble lady from the Serb Mladenovic-Brankovic Dynasty which ruled Serbia at this time. Serbs ruling in the principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia often made marriages with the Serbian ruling families of Raska, Zeta and Bosnia. That provided noble dynastic interrelations and broadened cross-cultural connections in late medieval and early modern Balkans, often making a bridge between the Christian, in particular Balkan Orthodox and Ottoman world. Another plaque represents that their sons Jovan and Rade in 1526 completed construction of the Curtea de Arges Monastery; the third plaque commemorates reconstruction carried out by the Duke Serban Cantacuzino, while the fourth plaque testifies on the reconstruction from 1804 by Joseph, the first Bishop. Between 1875 ad 1885 the church was fully reconstructed after huge fire in 1866 that destroyed dormitories and most of original frescoes, and in 1886 it was consecrated.

Duke Neagoe Basarab belonged to the rich boyar family of CraiovestiKrayoveshti which is very important for the Romanian heritage as from them origins the name of the Besarab area and several towns. Some prominent rulers origin from this powerful Basarab family, among who are Mircea I the Elder, and Vlad III Tsepes, widely known by his nick name Dracula. Neagoe Basarab ruled the Wallachia during the time of the largest rise of the Ottoman Empire – during the reign of the Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, whose supreme rule Basarab acknowledged. Neagoe Basarab was highly educated ruler, generous donor of the Orthodox churches on Mount Athos and founder of a number of monasteries, among which is the Curtea de Arges Monastery in the capital of Wallachia at that time. Neagoe Basarab wrote in Church Slavonic one of the earliest literary works of Wallachia called ‘The teachings of Neagoe Basarab to his son John Theodosius where he touches various subjects such as philosophy, diplomacy, moral and ethics. Neagoe Basarab was succeeded by his son Jovan Teodosije – John Theodosius, who was taken to Tzarigrad -Constantinople and killed by the Ottomans in 1521. Neagoe’s Wife Milica Despina lived long after her husband and children. She became a nun Platonida and died in 1544 in Sibiu, Transylvania. Two years later, her earthen remains were transferred by the Wallachian Bishop to the Curtea de Ardjes Monastery where they rest in peace together with her husband and children.

Over time, Curtea de Arges Monastery endured several restoration sessions. The present shape and appearance of Curtea de Arges Monastery was given by the French architect Andre Lecomte du Nouy and the Romanian architect Nicolae Gabrielescu, in the last half of the 19th century. The restoration works were finished in 1885, and the church was dedicated on 12 October 1886. Inside the church of Curtea de Arges Monastery, the visitor’s attention is captured by the mural paintings in oil, made by the French painters F. Nicolle and Ch. Renouard and by the Romanian painter N. Constantinescu from Curtea de Arges, and especially by the group of the 12 columns representing the 12 Apostles. The relics of Saint Filofteea, parts of the relics of Saints Sergius, Vach and Tatiana martyr and the Great Saturday Gospel Resurrect handwritten in gold by Queen Elizabeth can also be found inside the monastery. The mortal remains of Kings Ferdinand and Carol I and Queens Elisabeth and Maria also rest in the Curtea de Arges Monastery.