(Updated Dec 2022)
In keeping with tradition I escaped abroad to ring in the New Year and for 2018 I chose the region of Transylvania in Romania. Yes I did encounter Dracula but that’s another story!
On New Year’s Day I took a trip to a small village around 30 minutes taxi ride from the town of Sibui called Sibiel, home of the one-of-a-kind Museum of Icons on Glass (The Zosim Oancea Museum). Yes it’s very specific but that’s what I love, finding specialist museums, odes to different crafts in the most unexpected of places.
Sibiel is one of the smallest villages in Romania and houses one of the largest collections of icons painted on glass in the world. There’s around 600 of them in the museum which opened in the early 1970s.
The museum had a major renovation in 2021 which was inaugurated 29 August 2021 – having visited in 2018 I saw the old version of the museum, but it sounds like it’s even more worth a visit now since the gallery has been modernised.
What is an icon painted on glass?
“It’s mainly associated as a Transylvanian craft”
It’s not something I had heard of before visiting the Zosim Oancea Museum. Essentially they are paintings of religious leaders painted on glass. These icons are respected Christian figures and were painted by monks and peasants. It’s an artform that began in Transylvania at the beginning of the 18th century with its peak creation from 1750 to the end of the 19th century. Although it is mainly associated as a Transylvanian craft, neighbouring districts have since made their own variations.
So what is the Museum of Icons on Glass – Zosim Oancea Museum like?
When you arrive at the tiny village of Sibiel, you’ll first see a vast church in the centre beside a rather picturesque graveyard and adjacent to that is the museum. When I visited in 2018 is was spread over two floors and both floors had a number of rooms all with walls and panels filled with these glass painted icons and other Romanian crafts such as fabrics and textiles, beaded jewellery and egg crafts, though the focus is very much on the bold, colourful glass paintings.
It was a fairly rustic space and I am wondering if with the 2021 renovations it’s become less so.
The he theme of the images does start to get a bit similar if you look at all of them however each one is very much an individual piece and they are in very good condition, so be patient, take your time looking at them but if it starts to feel a bit ‘samey’ that’s ok too.
“The brushes used to paint the icons were handmade too from materials like hairs of cat’s tails and goose quill pens”
And now the art technique of painting icons on glass…
If you head to any modern craft store today you’ll easily find a glass painting section with pens and pots of liquid paint you can apply to jazz up any glass ornaments or glasses but the technique for painting Romanian glass icons is far more complex – they are actually painted under the glass not on top of it. That way the art is protected by the glass layer on top.
It’s thought that entire peasant families were involved in the process of painting these glass icons. This could be tasks like preparing pigments, tracing designs or even making the frames. The brushes used to paint the icons were handmade too from materials like hairs of cat’s tails and goose quill pens. Once painted the glass was varnished and the icon then placed inside a frame, often a decorative one.
Should you visit the Musuem of Icons on Glass – The Zosim Oancea Museum in Romania?
Absolutely! You’ll be joining 15,000 visitors who come here each year. But it’s not just the traditional Romanian crafts you’d be exploring, the village here has a real fairytale feel about it with picturesque wells and a stream running through it so factor in time to go for a wonder and the opportunity to take photos in such a peaceful setting.
There’s a quaint craft shop in the village centre (only accepts cash so come prepared) and if you’re lucky, the museum staff will also open up the church for you to look in and admire further Romanian artistry.
Inside Sibiel’s church
Well worth a visit!
There’s more about Sibiel on its dedicated website www.sibiel.net – check visiting hours before you go as they do vary in different seasons.