Between stillness and storms, in the womb of the surrounding green, stands guard for almost seven centuries the Holy, Great and Divine Lavra of Tismana, as a Fortress of Heaven, as one of the brightest hearths of prayer and ancient Romanian culture, as a giant museum coming from the past, as unrivalled testimony of glorious history. Considered as the "star of Romanian Orthodoxy", it is the oldest monastery in the country with community life, serving uninterruptedly the culture, faith and memory of this nation since the founding of the Romanian feudal states.
37 km away from the city of Târgu Jiu, the monastery stands like an eagles’ nest in the heart of Oltenia historical region, on Mount Stârmina, and is surrounded by Vâlcan Mountains, with their wild beauty. Travelling deacon Paul of Aleppo wrote that:
The monastery stands unequalled in this country and any other, due to the beauty of the site and location, due to the multitude of running waters and of the natural protection it is benefitting from, along with the fortification provided by the surrounding walls.
The eyes of God sought on these sites and choose Saint Nicodemus, of Wallachian descent and princely blood, related to the Basarab rulers and to Prince Lazar of Serbia, to fulfil His will.
He was born in the city of Prilep in about 1310 A.D. He left while young for Athos and arrived to Hilandar Monastery, standing out as a spiritual and cultured clerical. He was later elected as Protos of the Holy Mountain. He left Athos upon Virgin Mary’s request, whom he envisaged in a dream, asking him to build a monastery at "the waterfalls".
In his restless search for the holy site, he completed a missionary work. He founded the monasteries of Vratna and Manastirița in Serbia, in a region inhabited almost entirely by Wallachians.
Here he envisaged the events that are to follow: firstly, the conquest by Turks of Serbia, Greece and Bulgaria, that these countries will remain under their rule for a long time and that their princes will die by sword; that lots of Christians will become martyrs, many others will be compelled to renounce their faith and convert to Islam. The saint will pray a long time for Christians to be freed from this punishment, but Saint Anthony appeared (in his dreams) urging him to pray no more for the obstinate people, but to go in Ungro-Wallachia, where rightful and faithful princes rule.
Falling asleep while praying, Saint Anthony showed up in his dream, telling him to cross the Danube to Wallachia and, on a site called ‘waterfalls’, to build a monastery unparalleled by others in size and beauty.
The first miracle is recorded in both oral (later written) and graphic form when crossing the Danube, being a token of profound faith and a life of holiness: he makes the sign of cross three times, spreads his outer cassock over the waves and crosses the Danube as in a log canoe. Thus Saint Nicodemus steps in Ungro-Wallachia, in a weakened border region, often under the attacks of the Magyar feudal warlords, in alliance with the Catholic hierarchy, offensive led by King Louis I and supported by the Apostolic See.
The Saint understands to react by building monasteries, by organizing the monastic life and by explaining the word of the Orthodox truth. This is how Vodița was built, a monastery of crucial importance in this context, which would forever seal the western border of the country, later on with other settlements founded by Pious Nicodemus: Topolnița, Coșuștea Crivelnic, Gura Motrului, Vișina, Lainici , Baia de Aramă. He will conduct spiritual fatherhood over these founded monasteries by the end of his life.
His view on the organisation of monastic life, according to the Athonite, Samovlastic, Cenobitic and Hesychastic models were to be utterly found in the first Archimandrite and in the Lavra of Tismana, the blessed result of so many years of wandering.
Among rocks and woods watered by springs and waterfalls, here he received the confidence this is the long sought site: following his prayer, light from the sky descended onto him, turning into a fire pole, whereas a voice coming from the light told him:
Here you should build as offering to the Assumption of Virgin Mary, with a gathering of monks. My gift and My mercy and My Mother’s will not be missing from this place to the very end, thanks to your prayers. Hence I hand you the power over all unclean spirits and to heal, using my gift, all sickness and all weakness of those coming to you at this site of faith. (…)
The Saint told his disciples:
All souls coming here to the Holy Monastery for salvation, will forever find place for rest and peace for their souls.
This plateau, between the mountain and the precipice, had yew wood (taxus baccata), a conifer that once grew on these lands, and then large blocks of stone. Here, the Saint built Tismana, with his hands and those of his disciples. The monastery was soon to gather a large community of monks of all nations - Bulgarians, Serbs, Greeks, Macedonians, Wallachians, etc. The Basarab rulers: Radu I and his sons Dan I and Mircea cel Bătrân will support it through donations and will guarantee it the samoslavic status (independent monastery), never to be metochion (subordinated monastery), having the right to choose its abbot and to govern itself. The church is dedicated to Virgin Mary and was consecrated on August 15, 1377 A.D., according to a document by Prince Dan I, dated 1385 A.D.
"A fair and holy man, relying on books and even stronger on reason, in words and answers" - as presented in the Life of Isaiah at Hilandar - St. Nicodemus joins the mission that successfully mediates the political-religious conflict between the Patriarchate of Constantinople and the Serbian one (placed under anathema), upon the request of Prince Lazarus. Using his spiritual, cultural, theological and diplomatic prestige, he contributes to the reconciliation between the two Churches, resulting in privileges for the Saint not held by anyone else until then: the rank of Archimandrite, the right to consecrate churches and to serve the Liturgy with epigonation. Clearly impressed, Prince Lazarus gifted him ten villages in Serbia and expressed his desire to place him on the patriarchal throne, an honour turned down by the Saint.
He was close to the Serbian rulers and the Romanian princes, to the abbot Isaiah of Hilandar and to other important figures of the time, including the Holy Patriarch Eftimie of Tarnovo, as revealed by the correspondence between the two regarding theological turmoil both personal and ecclesiastical, and which denotes their hesychastic mentality.
He was also familiar with astronomy, having in view the positioning of the monasteries built earlier than Tismana, as well as this one, in a straight line, oriented towards the 45th parallel. St. Nicodemus is also related to the only functional natural road passage in the world, the largest natural bridge in the country and the second largest in Europe - >the Bridge of God. According to tradition, when Saint Nicodemus reached Ponoarele, where he had to cross a precipice, God connected the banks of the precipice by a stone bridge. Currently, it is crossed by DJ 670 (county road 670) Baia de Aramă - Drobeta Turnu Severin and can be admired in all its grandeur from the cave, with its multi-storey structure formed by overlapping limestone blocks.
He became known during his lifetime for his miracles - he repeatedly cured people from plague, healed a relative of Sigismund of Luxembourg of epilepsy, drove away evil spirits, stood in fire three times without being burned, in front of the Hungarian king and Mircea cel Bătrân, turned pork into fish at the feast offered by Sigismund at the monastery, so as not to violate the monastic order and others - as noted by P.P. Panaitescu:
He had long achieved the aureole of holiness and walking among the people, they worshiped him as saint [...] who, although alive, was lined up with the church fathers who had passed away, being a great figure of the Orthodox East.
Through his moral, spiritual and scholarly authority he acquired the goodwill of the Hungarian Catholic king Sigismund of Luxembourg (from whom he received, among other things, a golden incense burner, the oldest object of worship of this kind preserved to this day) and of those who ascended to the throne, who will offer gifts to him, will guarantee him the freedom of confession. ("In my faith I was granted that all service will be free as they were before [..] for those living in those holy places, in the same order and good faith, to observe their good law and to run their lives according to that law") and will strengthen his ruling over various fields.
In fact, centuries later, when the body of the Saint was found hidden under the church’s floor, Paul of Aleppo explained that monks were "afraid his body might be stolen by the Hungarians, as they have great faith in his power and are so close neighbours."
"He was the confessor of Mircea cel Bătrân (the father and prayer of my rule)" and the counsellor of the Basarabi, as B.P. Hașdeu pointed out:
He was the right hand of Vladislav Voda and of Radu Negru regarding the church organization (…), being the first organiser of the monasteries in Oltenia.
The rulers generously and repeatedly offered gifts to the monastery, accompanied by documents guaranteeing the respective goods and possessions. For the violation of the rights and order of the Lavra, the rulers warned about harsh punishment: "the curses from Virgin Mary, from all Saints and from abbot Nicodemus, and besides wrath and punishments from the ruling power."
The monastery was visited and fortified by almost all the rulers of Wallachia for strategic reasons and from here were issued even some documents. According to historical tradition it was chosen as princely necropolis by Prince Vladislav Vodă - or, less likely, by Dan I - and centuries later the great Ban of Oltenia, founder Cornea Brăiloiu, was buried here. This high dignitary, the first one in the Country Council, died in 1705 A.D. and is buried in the pronaos of the large church along with his wife Stanca.
The first beginnings of our medieval culture will always be linked to the name of St. Nicodemus. Famous scholar and orator, he founded the first school in the country for educated monks, where books and documents were translated, and the first school of calligraphy, for painters and masons.
Nicolae Iorga had only warm words about this community of monks:
And the foreigner (…) who would have entered the place where the monks painted and wrote and would have seen the gentle faces of Nicodemus and his disciples, would have been deeply impressed upon his departure, both by the character of holiness and by the cultural character of the monks' occupation.
"St. Nicodemus was the monk of his monastic community of diligent monastic bees, who wished to gain for the higher culture a whole country which had not yet been touched by it." In fact, the entire Romanian culture, under the patronage of the Church, found the suitable environment for development in the monastery enclosures; the monasteries were places not only of prayer but also of culture, sheltering within their walls trained monks and rich libraries.
The manuscripts used by priests and monks at the holy services, until the printing press came into use, were the result of these monks’ effort, often unknown to history. We have inherited from Saint Nicodemus one of the most beautiful miniature Tetra-Gospels in our country, this being also the oldest decorated codex with a certain date in Romania (1404 A.D.) and one of the few sources that reveal the conditions of literary and artistic life at the beginning of the 15th century.
In the later church architecture, the Saint will have a major role by introducing in Wallachia the simple triconch plan for churches. This structure was used mainly in the monasteries he built through work or advice, first in the mountainous parts of western and northern Oltenia, then in Ţara Haţegului and in Moldavia, in the second half of the 14th century. Inspired by the architecture of a single nave monument south of the Danube, he adds to this type of church - whose nave was covered with a unitary longitudinal semi-cylindrical arcade - lateral apses for functional and dogmatic reasons, similar to the Athonite katholikons.
The great man of culture Barbu Teodorescu wrote about Tismana:
It was the first center of culture, the first school of Slavonic scholarship, after the typical Athonite. Culturally, the 15th century belongs entirely to it.
Through the Athonite, Cenobitic and Hesychastic principles practiced, supported by a strong scholarly activity, the Tismana Monastery had the role of "head and Lavra among the monasteries in all over Wallachia", as it was noted by Patriarch Paisie of Jerusalem. As an abbey, the Tismana Monastery had as subordinates other monastic hearths, monasteries, hermitages and small monasteries, for this reason also bearing the title of great Lavra.
Thus, the Nicodemian influence is later felt in the other Romanian provinces, both through direct involvement and through the disciples who set out to found new spiritual affiliations: in Transylvania, St. Nicodemus founded the Prislop Monastery; the influence is felt in Moldavia, at the St. Nicholas Monastery in Poiana (near Probota) and through his disciples Sofronie, Pimen and Siluan, who founded the Neamț Monastery, and later at the Bistrita Monastery; in Wallachia, at the Cotmeana Monastery through the abbot Sofronie, at the Cozia Monastery through Gavriil, another disciple, at the Dălhăuți Monastery and others.
This influence was also exerted on Tismana's subordinates, some of which are still preserved today as churches, monasteries and hermitages, whereas some were destroyed: Meanții hermitage - Mehedinți, Mociorlița hermitage - Gorj, Ploștina Drăgoeștilor hermitage - Gorj, Sărdănești Church - Mehedinți, Scăunele hermitage - Gorj, Sporăști hermitage - Gorj, Teiuș hermitage - Gorj, Topolnița monastery - Mehedinți, Bistrețul - Dolj, Strâmba hermitage - Gorj, Cioclovina de Jos hermitage - Gorj, Cioclovina de Sus Hermitage - Gorj, Stolojani Hhermitage - Gorj, Prislop Monastery - Hunedoara, Vratna and Manastirița Monasteries - Serbia.
The culture and faith hub based here has strongly influenced the condition of our country in the following centuries, reflecting in various fields both the needs and its stages of development. The preoccupation of the Tismana monks for the spiritual and cultural life of the people has been a constant over the centuries, evident from initiatives such as: the founding of the churches of Buna Vestire (Annunciation) in Tismana - Gorj, St. Nicholas in Vânăta - Gorj, the church of Tuturor Sfinților (All Saints) in Tălpășești - Gorj (currently in the city of Craiova, as the Metropolitan Chapel of the Metropolitan Church of Oltenia), the (re) building of stone and brick of Săraca Monastery (Šemljug) in Timiș County, one of the oldest monastic settlements in Banat region (in 1443 A.D. by monk Macarie from Tismana), the organization in Tismana of one of the first monastic hospitals (1650 A.D.) and a century later of an iconography school for the legacy improvement of this art, the painting of the Baia de Aramă monastery (by the hieromonk Parthenie, around 1700 A.D.), the restoration of the Vodita Church (by abbot Athanasie, around 1705 A.D.), the reorganization of the Lainici Monastery (by abbot Athanasie, in 1770 A.D.), etc. In Tismana workshops highly refined art objects were created, such as the silver panaghiar (Eucharist bread case) from early 16th century, the sculptures of the famous monks Ghenadie and Gavriil, the bronze semantron of the monastery and others. With growing cultural prestige and material base, Tismana became an important center of resistance and struggle against the Catholic proselytism.
Some of the monks and abbots of the Lavra became important characters, such as the future metropolitans of Wallachia, Stefan I (he advocated for the introduction of the Romanian language in worship, 17th century) and Dionisie Lupu (he supported several schools – the one of Gh. Lazăr, the one from St. Sava and the smaller one from the Măgureanu Metropolitan Church - and many young people to study abroad, 19th century) and Metropolitan Daniil of Serbia, bishops Serghie (of Muncaci and Maramureș, 17th century), Ioan Cernea (bishop in the Bishopric of Vadului, at 1600 A.D.), Ștefan (of Râmnicu and Buzău, 17th century), Partenie (of Râmnicu, in 1763 A.D. wrote “The Service of the Paraklesis of St. Nicodemus”, 18th century), Inochentie (of Râmnicu, 18th century), Neophyte (of Râmnicu, 19th century), Gherasim Safirin (of Roman, 19th - 20th centuries), Atanasie Dincă (of Râmnicu and Patriarchal Dean-Bishop, well-known protopsalt, composer and teacher of church music, 20th century), abbot Chiriac Romniceanu (of the Monastery St. Paul of Mount Athos, the confessor of Tudor Vladimirescu, known by the history of Romanian literature as calligrapher and chronicler, 18th-19th centuries) and others.
Famous scholars, clerics and lay persons passed through the school of Tismana, establishing themselves in the history by supporting the Romanian current and Romanian culture, such as: Fota the copyist (princely secretary, 17th century), Leontie the hieromonk (princely teacher, who studied in Kiev, Vienna and Belgrade), Visarion the hieromonk (calligrapher and miniaturist), Nicodim Greceanu (hymnographer), Vasile Loga (deacon, good scholar, pedagogue and painter, who would later establish the first chore school in Banat, near Vârșeț, from which scholars and painters will emerge, 18th century), Dionisie Eclisiarhul (painter, miniaturist, calligrapher and historian, later ecclesiarch with the diocese of Râmnicu, one of the great scholars around 1800 A.D., author of the Chronicle of Wallachia; he translated and transcribed over 10,000 monastic registers, of which over 2,000 of Tismana), Stephen the hieromonk (author of the first biography of the Saint, The Life of the Allpious Father Nicodemus the Holy, 19th century), Dionysius Diadoh (hieromonk, calligrapher, miniaturist, psalter, 19th century).
These are only several names of coryphaeus and disciples, that passed through this monastic school and from their ranks some became metropolitans, bishops, deacons, leading personalities in the church, political and cultural life of the country, and through their diligence, example and creation have strengthened Tismana's well-deserved fame as central point of culture and national center of art.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, when the old fortresses of Wallachia were largely destroyed by order of the Ottoman Gate, the circumstances forced the monastery to serve as fortress. The other foundations of Matei Basarab, although well surrounded by walls, did not have a military character as did Tismana. It had 7 cannons, of which 3 were donated by ruler Radu Șerban, 24 smaller cannons, hundreds of rifles, swords, broadswords.
Four outbreaks of national revolutions were registered here: in 1631 A.D., when Matei Basarab rose up against Leon Vodă's Greeks; in 1716 A.D., when it was the center of operation of Oltenia people who, under the leadership of army commander Barbu Brăiloiu and Captain Rosseti managed in that year to clean the country of Ottomans and Tatars up to the Olt River; in 1821 A.D. it housed 3,800 soldiers of Tudor Vladimirescu, and in more recent times, in the 20th century, granted support to the National Anti-Communist Resistance Movement, led by General Carlaonț.
The training and resistance base of the Revolutionary Movement in 1821 organized in Tismana by Tudor Vladimirescu also became its headquarters, from here starting all the actions he undertook during his stay in northern Oltenia. This fact supports the opinions of some researchers, who consider the Proclamation of Independence (Proclamation of Padeș) as being written and launched from the monastery.
In particular, hieromonk Chiriac, this clergyman from the Cioclovina de Jos hermitage, will support him in his mission, for which, as a sign of gratitude, he will make numerous donations through which he will rightfully acquire the status of founder of this hermitage.
As of 1844 a period of great architectural transformations followed, starting with the initiative of Prince Gheorghe Bibescu, in order to transform the southern part of the complex into a princely palace. Austrian architects were called, at a time when the neo-Gothic style predominated in Europe, otherwise foreign and without roots in the Romanian architectural tradition.
Despite the protests of the abbot of the monastery, Archimandrite Augustine, and of the Holy Hierarch Calinic, the porch was demolished in 1855, the church suffering an irreparable loss, without losing its completely imposing character.
In 1917 it was turned into a prison camp of the Central Powers on the Romanian territory, monk Inochentie and abbot Ianurie trying to help the prisoners, as one of them later records: "their behaviour towards hostages serves as an example to others". A few years later Radu Gyr, Prof. Ioan Zelea Codreanu, Mircea Eliade, Virgil Ionescu, Gheorghe Clime, Mihail Polihroniade and others were placed behind bars here as political prisoners.
During 1944-1947 Marshal Ion Antonescu hid part of Romania's treasure at Tismana. 212 tons of Romanian gold and part of the Polish treasury, which they entrusted to Romania in 1939, when Germany invaded Poland, are first stored in the basement of the monastery. The idea of moving it to a much safer location - the cave in the vicinity of the monastery belongs - according to Acad. Radu Ciuceanu, witness to those events - to the abbot-martyr Gherasim Iscu. This merit, insufficiently known and recognized today, as well as his active involvement in the anti-communist resistance in the mountains – these were the main charges against him from the new political regime. He died as martyr in the prison of Târgu Ocna, impressing through sacrifice and erudition all those who knew him. Today, in the rock of the mountain, one can visit the Treasure Museum, managed by the National Bank of Romania (BNR).
The community, which had risked its own existence and that of the monastery itself, given that the entrance to the cave where the treasure was hidden was shielded by tons of explosives, ready to wipe this place from the face of the earth if necessary, was part of its abbot's sufferings, being forced to leave the monastery. In order to avoid closure, Tismana is turned into a monastic community of nuns, who will work in the production cooperative "Propășirea", thus keeping its potential to flourish once again with the liberation of the country from dictatorship.
Tismana’s treasure includes numerous works of art of great historical and cultural value, partly exhibited in the monastery’s museum and partly in museums in the country. The Archimandrite of Tismana also had the great merit of being able to preserve numerous historical documents. Researcher Ion Donat recorded 2,173 documents, of which 142 parchments, all preserved for centuries in the monastery's archive.
The monastery museum hosts one of the most important collections of murals in Europe along with manuscripts, prints, icons, embroideries, metal objects, crosses and carved candlesticks, the doors of the old church, stained glass donated by poet George Coşbuc and others. In the church are preserved large fragments of holy relics of St. Nicodemus and the pectoral cross, of St. John Chrysostom, St. Ignatius Theophorus (received by St. Nicodemus from the Patriarch of Constantinople) and countless relics from other saints.
The church of the Tismana Monastery is built in Byzantine style, into the rock, with very thick stone walls. The plan consists of a developed porch, a reduced narthex, a triconch nave and an altar. It differs from the other monuments in Wallachia both due to the existence of the porch that gives the place a massive presence, firmly anchored onto the rock of Stârmina, and by the different height of the three compartments of the church, ascending from the porch to the nave, gradually expressed by the three steeples in progressive height, which give enhanced monumentality to the nave.
The painting at the foundation of St. Nicodemus was monochrome until 1564 A.D., when a new plaster was applied and the actual painting was made by Dobromir, painter from Târgovişte. The one who funded the painting of the church was Nedelcu Bălăceanu, high official of Prince Petru cel Tânăr (Peter the Younger). The mural painting from the 16th century preserved until today in the pronaos of Tismana sheds light on the stylistic and hymographic coherence of the Romanian monumental painting.
"The chromatic harmony is stylistically expressed through the balance and clarity of the composition and especially through the warm approach of the human facial appearance, relatively devoid of hieratism, as its unity of substance is based on the existence of a strong workshop, a painting school. The biblical scenes cover the walls of the pronaos, reaching some kind of exuberance, in an extreme compositional richness.
Facing the task of decorating a particularly high room, which was to display dozens of images related to the illustration of the Angelic Liturgy, the groups of prophets, the Synaxarium, the Prayer for the Dead, the groups of anchorits, painter Dobromir the Younger created a coherent ensemble. The monumental-decorative unity is ensured by the continuous flow of compositional rhythms that are conveyed from one scene to another.
The Synaxarium, in nine colour tones, presents for each day of the year the martyrdom of the respective saints or another scene, contained in 400 miniature frames. The calendar runs from September, the first month of the Church Year, each month being marked by its zodiac symbol and by a crescent, followed by the days of the month, with 400 such notations. The 12 signs are the 12 constellations of the year. Each month is represented with its saints because Christ Emmanuel is also the Creator of time, and creation has entered time, a liturgical time symbolized by the 12 months" (Vasile Drăguț).
The analysis of the pronaos at Tismana reveals that painter Dobromir of Târgovişte was one of the great masters of old mural painting in Wallachia. He used a unique oriental red, known today as Tismana Red, to paint the Synaxarion scenes.
From the stylistic point of view, the special artistic quality of Dobromir's painting places the ensemble at Tismana in the traditional area of painting from Wallachia. During 1732-1735, Archimandrite Ioan of Tismana and Stanca Glogoveanu restored the painting in the altar and the nave with the help of a large team of painters led by Ranite Grigore, as Dobromir's painting had become very old.
Dobromir's frescoes are still preserved only in the pronaos, but were hammered by the painters of Dimitrie the deacon, who in 1766 covered this part with new paintings. These were then extracted from the walls of the pronaos and can be closely seen in the monastery's collection. The painting in the altar and in the narthex, preserved entirely in the church, and the one in the pronaos, most of it extracted for and transposed on the walls in different areas of the monastery, belongs in style to the post－Brancoveanu period. Due to the demolition of the church porch in the 19th century, it is not known how the painting covering the walls looked like. The current porch, rebuilt in 1983, on the old foundation, was painted in 1994 by painter Grigore Popescu.
Full of history and spirituality, crossing like a ship the stormy waves of almost seven centuries, the Tismana Lavra/Monastery is victorious to this day, continuing its life and history to eternity.