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The history of church St. Michael of Cluj-Napoca

Since the 19th century, historians have been interested in the building history of St. Michael’s Church in Cluj-Napoca, which remains unexplained to this day. The restoration and renovation of the church has provided an opportunity for a more detailed study of the church. The history of the most important Gothic building in Transylvania and the most important ecclesiastical building in Cluj-Napoca has been enriched with new data, which is also currently being processed.

The interior of the church seen from the west

In written sources the parish priest of the church is mentioned for the first time in 1316. The parish priest Benedict was a prominent figure in Cluj-Napoca, who three years later successfully applied for municipal privileges to King Charles I of Hungary. From then on, the city experienced significant development, and by the middle of the 14th century, all the conditions were in place for the construction of a new parish church. There are many different opinions about the origins of the present church, but the starting point is always the indulgence letter of 1349 in Avignon, in which the church of St. Michael and its annex, the chapel of St. James, are mentioned for the first time, which, however, refers to the previous church building.

The interior of the church seen from the top opening of the double spiral staircase

The construction of the present church was undoubtedly started after the granting of the indulgence, in the third quarter of the 14th century. With the unwavering support of the Hungarian kings, Sigismund of Luxembourg, Laszlo V of Habsburg, King Matthias, Władysław of Varna II and the citizens, the construction continued for almost a century and a half in at least six stages until the beginning of the 16th century, without being fully completed. The earliest part of the sanctuary was built with a spiral staircase. On the five pilasters of the main sanctuary are depicted biblical stories and scenes from daily life, which give the whole space a religious and human touch.

Madonna with female saints and detail of crucifixion depiction

The nave is also very valuable from an artistic point of view. The longitudinal nave of the church has a changed shape compared to the chancel, with a different arrangement of pilasters, a distinct style of window decoration and the fact that only the south side has ornamental capitals. Archaeological research indicates that the inner aisle was raised at the beginning of the 15th century, as we see today – the level of the Schleuning chapel and sanctuary was at least 75 cm lower than the level of the naves.

The keystone of the vault of the Schleuning Chapel

On this basis, after the completion of the sanctuary, work will first continue on the lower level of the southwest tower, which will then be connected to the southern sanctuary via the south wall. Work then proceeded to the construction of the north side and the associated west gallery. The construction was entrusted to an international workshop that worked in Poland and in several Hungarian cities such as Krakow, Kassa, Sighisoara and Brasov.

The restored south gate

Especially the priest Georg Schleuning, who had studied theology and law in Vienna, contributed a lot to the completion of the church. In 1453, he was appointed court priest by King László V and led the church in Cluj for almost three decades. He was responsible for the completion of the west portal and facade, the west gallery, the remodeling of the chapel on the first floor of the southwest tower and the framing of the naves. It is part of the history of the 15th century church that King Matthias was not only born in the city, but also baptized in the church of St. Michael.

The southern staircase tower

At the beginning of the 16th century, in the last phase of construction, the western towers were raised. As with many other European churches, work was stopped at this stage. Only the north tower was completed, and the south tower was eventually abandoned. The new sacristy door, perhaps the most ornate stone sculpture in the church, was completed in the early 16th century, combining the Vienna-inspired late Gothic portico sculpture with the Hungarian Renaissance style that had been prevalent since the time of King Matthias. The church is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful monuments of the Gothic flourishing in Transylvania and illustrates not only the limits of Western styles, but also the spread of Catholicism in Eastern Europe.

Medieval cantilever beam with a lion figure of St. Mark the Evangelist

The success of the Reformation in Transylvania also marked a new era in the life of the church. From the 1540s, the city elected pastors who had already studied in Wittenberg and led the citizens to become first Lutherans, then Calvinists, and finally Unitarians. Gáspár Heltai was the first to establish a printing press in the town, to start translating the Bible and to publish numerous theological, literary and historical works. He was followed by the most influential reformer in Transylvania, Ferenc Dávid, whose teachings led to the establishment of a new denomination, the Unitarian Church. During this period, the church was not only a religious but also a political arena. Cluj was one of the recurring venues of the Transylvanian diets, which were usually held in the church. Several princes of Transylvania were elected here: Zsigmond Báthory (1601), István Bocskai (1606), Zsigmond Rákóczi (1607), Gábor Báthory (1608), Gábor Bethlen (1613) and István Bethlen (1630).

Baroque pulpit by Johann Nachtigal and Anton Schuchbauer from the years 1740-50

After the successful expulsion of the Turks from Hungary at the end of the 17th century, the Habsburg rulers extended their rule to both Hungary and Transylvania. The new political developments created the conditions for the Catholic Church to regain some of the most important churches in Transylvania. Thus, the church of St. Michael was reclaimed in 1716 and has served as a Catholic church ever since.

A leaf mask also appears under the leaf shapes.

The new beginning was particularly difficult, since none of the medieval artifacts had survived and the altars had been destroyed. The outstanding pastor of the revival was János Biró, who had studied theology in Olomouc. In the middle of the 18th century the church underwent a spectacular Baroque reconstruction and new altars were installed. Johann Nachtigall and Anton Schuchbauer, two of the most important Baroque sculptors in Transylvania, worked on the church for many years. The monumental pulpit of the church and the sculptural composition of the Holy Cross are still monumental reminders of their work. In addition, five Baroque altars were made for the church: the altars of the Magi, St. Catherine, Baptism of Water, Holy Trinity and St. John of Nepomuk.

Detail of the copper-clad tower and the restored tower

In 1742-1744, a new baroque tower with a baroque onion helmet and the Husarenturm was built on the site of the old northwest tower. The tower was built and probably designed by Konrad Hammer, a native of Schwalbach. The church’s only tower was structurally weakened by earthquakes and fires and was demolished in 1764. For almost a century, the church stood without a tower until finally, after several initiatives, a neo-Gothic tower was built between 1837 and 1862 to house the church’s old bells. The new structure, over 80 meters high, has merged with the medieval block of the church in such a way that they now form an architectural whole.

The restored tracery of the west window of the main sanctuary

Between the 1830s and 1869, several restoration works were carried out in parallel with the construction of the tower. These were partly of a structural nature, but also included the reconstruction of the vault in the south aisle, new stone floors, and the discovery of medieval wall paintings in the Schleuning Chapel in 1868.

Mural of the Adoration of the Magi

The main sanctuary was renovated and in 1869 the neo-Gothic high altar was installed, followed by the two pews and the priest’s chairs. In addition to the neo-Gothic furnishings, new stained glass windows were installed in the enclosure in 1874 to create a unified Gothic appearance that was in keeping with the trend of the time. The church received additional ornate stained glass windows, which were produced by the Munich firm of F. Mayer and the Budapest stained glass workshop of Ede Kartzmann. The last windows were made for the chapel under the tower in 1929.

The apse of the sanctuary with the high altar in the center.

At the beginning of the 20th century, one of the masterpieces of János Fadrusz, the Crucifix of Christ, was placed in the chapel at the foot of the tower, which, together with the statue of Matthias, testifies to the work of this outstanding artist in Cluj. In the period between the two world wars, Áron Márton was the pastor of the church, and during the Second World War he openly spoke out against the war and the deportation of the Jews. He cooperated with doctors and lawyers, with whose help he saved the lives of hundreds of Jews. After the war, following the Communist takeover in Romania, he spoke out against the persecution of Catholic and Greek Catholic priests, which led to his arrest in 1949.

Lupescu Radu, Szathmári Edina