Cultural Treasures: Biertan Fortified Church, Transylvania

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The fortified church of Biertan, Transylvania

The village of Biertan in Sibiu county, where the fortified church is located, was first mentioned in a document in 1283, having been founded by the Transylvanian Saxons. It quickly developed, receiving the right to organize a weekly Saturday market in the main square.

It also had the medieval privilege of ‘Jus gladii’, or the right of the sword, referring to the legal authority of an individual or group to execute someone for a capital offense.

The Fortified Church of Biertan, UNESCO World Heritage Site

The fortified church of Biertan was built between the 15th and 16th centuries, in late Gothic style, combined with elements of the Renaissance.

According to the urban architecture of the Saxon villages, the church is located in the center of the village, at the top of a hill and surrounded by the fortified walls. All around it is a picturesque scenery with vineyards and forests.

It is the fortified church which has preserved its original aspect the best, therefore being the most valuable out of the 7 included on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

The church has three equally high naves and it was the last edifice of this kind to be built in Transylvania. The mixture of late Gothic and Renaissance elements is obvious in the design of the altar with wooden-carved biblical scenes; the central painting represents the Crucifixion of Jesus with Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene embracing the cross. The stone pulpit is also impressive, showing pictures of biblical characters.

Of great value is the door of the sacristy, built in the early 16th century; it has 19 locks in one and it so intricate and ingenious it received an award at the Paris World Exhibition in 1900. During the war, the treasures of the church and village were kept here; therefore the sacristy had to be well secured.

The Towers of the Fortification

The fortified church of Biertan is surrounded by 3 concentric walls, connected by gate towers. There are altogether seven towers. To the north are the Bell Tower and the Mausoleum Tower, where the tombstones of the priests and bishops are kept. The clock tower, in the northeast, with a functioning clock- there is actually a person who comes in daily and spins the crank which puts the impressive mechanism in motion.

To the south is the Catholic Tower, a symbol of religious tolerance with a chapel for the Saxons who refused to convert to Protestantism. The walls are painted with scenes of the Last Judgment.

Starting 1564, Transylvania was the only country in Europe with 4 religious confessions: Calvinist, Lutheran, Roman-Catholic and Anti-Trinitarian (who opposed the Holly Trinity). There were also scattered communities of Orthodox people.

The City Hall Tower is located to the west and it is also the connecting tower between the middle and interior walls, through which the carts would go through.

In the southern part, the road passes through two Gate Towers; one of them was used for food storage.

And last but not least is the Prison Tower: people say it was used to imprison couples who wanted to get a divorce. They were kept here with only one bed, one table, one chair, one glass, one plate and one set of flatware in order to change their minds. The method proved useful as in 300 years there is record of only one divorce.

Although the Saxon fortified churches share architectural patterns, each community has put its own distinctive mark on the interior design, as well as the customs that took place within its walls.

When in Transylvania, travelers must experience a bit of each culture that coexisted here, contributing to the diversity of the region! You can hire a private guide, do a day trip from Brasov or rent a car, get a good map and choose a few of the most outstanding churches to tour!