Anatolian Rugs in Transylvanian Churches


The Black Church in Brasov
Stefano Ionescu

The town of Brasov, located on one of the main routes across the southern Carpathians, was a thriving commercial centre in medieval times, providing central Europe with goods from the orient. In 1383 the Roman Catholic Church decided to build a new church dedicated to the Holy Virgin on the site of an earlier Romanesque church. Construction, which was interrupted by the Turkish invasion of 1421, lasted about one century. Initially Mass was celebrated in Latin according to the Catholic rite, but with the coming of the Reformation in 1542 the first Evangelical Lutheran Mass was celebrated in German, the spoken language of the parishioners. In the general wave of iconoclasm that followed, the altar tables used during the celebration of Mass were removed, and the religious paintings were obliterated with whitewash.



In 1689, a catastrophic fire took place causing the worst damage in the history of Brasov. Most of the houses in the town centre were of wooden construction, and it proved impossible to contain the flames before they reached the church. The roof succumbed first, then the interior with the organ, the altar, pulpit and pews. As the bell melted it collapsed, destroying the tower clock. Many of the rugs then held in the church might well have been destroyed, as was the important library of the Saxon Gymnasium close to the church. The people of Brasov rallied in the face of this disaster, and as a result of their efforts the church - known from then on as the 'Black Church' for its fire-damaged walls - was able to function again. In the decades after the fire the parishioners and guilds were encouraged to contribute to the refurbishment, which included replacing the rugs.

Today the Black Church, the main cultural landmark of Brasov and the most imposing monument built by the Transylvanian Saxons during their 850 years of history, is the Parish Church of the Saxon Evangelical A.C. community of this town. It contains many treasures, but the major attraction is the famous collection of Anatolian carpets, the most important of its kind in the world.



Western Anatolian Rugs in the Black Church

Anatolian rugs found their way into Protestant churches in Transylvania mostly as pious donations from parishioners, benefactors and guilds. They were decent and valuable adornments, compatible with the austere aniconicism of the time. They also served to mark the place of donors in the church, while subtly hinting at their wealth and prestige.

The first documentation referring to carpets in the Black Church dates back to 1602-1611, when mention is made of expenses incurred for removing the dust left on the rugs during the whitewashing of the building. This obviously implies that at least some of the rugs were 16th century examples, although these would later presumably be destroyed by the 1689 fire. An inventory of 1792 records 31 pieces. It is likely that this figure included only rugs owned by the church and did not take into account others that remained under the ownership of guilds or private individuals, which would eventually also become church property.

The Evangelical Parish in Brasov now has a collection of 157 antique Ottoman rugs, which includes those of the Black Church and others from affiliated churches such as Blumena (Blumenau), St Martin's (Martinsberg) and the church near the Schei Gate along with a few pieces that are the property of other parishes, such as Saschiz (Keisd), Calnic (Kelling) and Idiciu (Belleschdorf).

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text and images © Sakip Sabanci Museum, Istanbul, and textile-art, London, 2007:
not to be reproduced without permission