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The Coronation Cathedral

After the treaty of Trianon was signed on 4 June 1920, which gave international recognition to the unification of Transylvania with Romania, the time had arrived for the materialization of the project to invest King Ferdinand I as sovereign of the new Romania. While the coronation act itself did not meet any opposition, several proposals existed on its detailed enactment. Late, in February 1921, Nicolae Iorga’s proposal won. His idea was to rebuild, as a symbolic gesture, the former metropolitan church founded by Michael the Brave, which was to become the coronation cathedral.

At this point, I consider that some explanations regarding the name of the building described here would be useful both to local citizens as well as visitors to Alba Iulia. The initiators spoke of a “coronation church”. From 1929, the building complex was taken over by the Bishopric of the Army. As the church became the place of worship of a bishop, renaming it “Coronation Cathedral” was warranted. The status of cathedral was reinforced in 1975, when the Romanian Orthodox Bishopric of Alba Iulia was reestablished. In 1998, the bishopric was elevated to the status of archbishopric. The widely used name, “Reunion Cathedral”, is based on an intentional confusion with the national “reunion” of 1918. In reality, the “reunion” refers to the fact that on 21 October 1948 the cathedral hosted the national church assembly which took note of the abolition of the Romanian Uniate Church by the Communist authorities. The “reunion” would have meant the taking over of the possessions and part of the clergy of the suppressed church by the Romanian Orthodox Church.

In 1921, Victor G. Ștefănescu was hired to design and carry out the construction of the new church of Alba Iulia. He was already a champion of the Neo-Brâncovenesc style, being celebrated as chief-architect of the monument complex of Carol Park, which hosted the Romanian General Exposition of 1906. As the plans of the late sixteenth century metropolitan church were not available, he stylized and modernized the architecture of the princely church of Târgoviște, consecrated in 1585 during the reign of Peter Cercel (Earring), the brother of Michael the Brave. Thus, the Coronation Church has a Greek cruciform plan, similar to other Orthodox princely or episcopal churches. The hallway is supported by pillars and columns decorated with composite capitals. The narthex bears two small steeples with decorative roles. The main steeple, placed above the nave, is supported by four octagonal pillars faced with red marble. The semicircular apse is enclosed under a semispherical vault at the upper end. Both the internal relief decoration of the nave (rosettes, acanthus leaves) and the external decoration (stringcourse, frames) are adaptations of typical ornaments of the Brâncovenesc style.

The cathedral was painted by Costin Petrescu. The painter originated from a family of many church painters. He improved his skills by attending the Belle Arts schools of Bucharest, Vienna, Munich, and Paris and was recognized in Europe as a master of fresco painting. The painting of Coronation Cathedral was his first major work, in which he employed the traditions of Byzantine painting. His masterpiece remains the great fresco of the Romanian Athenaeum (1933-1938).

Sculptor Constantin Mihail Babic executed the mosaics in the lunettes of the four niches in the vestibule as well as the icons on the iconostasis. The cathedral has a footprint of 750 square meters and the spire reaches a height of 40 meters.

This church of coronation and Monument of Unification being intended as a place for future coronations of the Romanian dynasty, its central building is placed within a quadrangular courtyard suggesting a monastery.

Inspired more by nationalist ideas rather than by monastic thought, the bell tower, with its height of 58 meters, was meant to dominate the surrounding landscape. In its original form, it was not topped with a cross, but with a mast carrying the tricolor.

The south-eastern corner of the courtyard, with a multi-storied building, had the function of royal residence. The rooms of the north-eastern corner, with a similar composition, later housed a museum of Unification. On the eastern side, these two spaces are connected by one of the most important architectural monuments, namely a majestic gallery accessible from the inner courtyard by two monumental stairways.

The building work started on 28 March, the second day of Easter of 1921. In June the church had already been erected and in August the work on the bell tower was completed. On 8 September the great cross was mounted on the great steeple and at the beginning of October the bells were installed. On 1 December 1921 the scaffolding was erected and during the next ten months the frescoes were painted. On 8 October 1922, four prelates carried out the consecration ceremony, headed by Nicolae, the metropolitan of Transylvania. The Coronation Cathedral was ready for its sovereigns. (V.M.)