The Székely Land in Romania has a long tradition of wood carving, which developed thanks to the abundance of raw timber in the region.
The traditional Szekler houses were built from pine wood and decorated with carved and painted gates. The oldest standing Szekler gate dates back to 1733 and it is kept in the Szekler National Museum in Sfântu Gheorghe.
The Szekler people developed their gates from a pre-existent european model, adding their own elements and ornamental patterns. In most villages the gates were built using the most common wood type available, usually oak or pine.
The traditional gates consist of three tall pillars, joined in the upper part by a crossbeam that creates two entrances: a smaller entrance for pedestrians and a larger one for carriages and animals.
The height is calculated so that a carriage full of hay can fit through. The Szekler gates are build using dovetail joints, which fit precisely together without the use of nails (except for the roof tiles). The beauty of these gates lies in the carvings, in the fish scales‑shaped roof tiles and in the architecture of the gate roof. The smaller door, decorated with commemorative inscriptions, is topped by a dovecote, a symbol of love and peace. The rich three-dimensional decorative effects are achieved by embossing the surface: the patterns emerge from the wood because the background around them is deepened. The most common ornaments are floral patterns: leaves, tulips, grapes and vines.
The largest dovecote gates used to adorn the entrance to the houses of leaders, nobles and free Szekler people, accurately showing the social class of the families who ordered them. They were also located in public areas such as churches, graveyards and schools, as symbols of the regional, ethnic and national identity of the town.
Another Székely tradition is that of the “Kopjafa”. These carved wooden poles have been used as grave markers since the 18th century. Their complex decorations send messages to the living generations, because they are covered in symbols. Every motif has a well determined meaning: a moon on top of the pole means the deceased was a man, while a tulip represents a woman and a blossom a child. Other symbols are used to communicate ages, jobs and other achievements.
Members of the Hungarian intellectual elite rediscovered these totems in the 18th century, when they were starting to develop a national identity. They are considered evidence of the Oriental origins of the Szekler people, who migrated from Attila’s empire to the Carpathians. The Kopjafa were firstly placed by the graves of soldiers fallen in battles and lately became symbols of Szekler and Hungarian identities. Nowadays they adorn the cemeteries and are also erected in many public spaces as historical memorials.
The Székely wood carvings continue to be an important aspect of Transylvanian culture, thanks to artisans like Szali Mózes, who practice and pass on this tradition.
Szali Mózes started his activity as a woodcarver in 1991, after learning the art of wood carving from his father and his grandfather. His work is concentrated mainly in the summer period, while during winter months he deals with collecting and preparing the necessary wood for his creations. The oak or pine wood is recovered in the surroundings of Cristuru Secuiesc (Székelykeresztúr in Hungarian) and left to rest in order to lose most of the water and avoid the formation of cracks.
Szali is specialised in the production of typical Székely gates and Kopjafa. The preparation of the latter lasts a week and consists in the processing of a solid piece of oak wood, whilst that of the gates lasts for approximately three months: two for the productions of all the elements and the assembly tests, and one for the carving of decorations and sentences.
He usually produces small-scale gates, from 2,5 to 3,5 metres high (key pillars height of 2 metres) and from 5 to 6 metres wide (columns width of 0,25 metres). For large-scale gates, they are from 4 to 5 metres high with roughly 6 metres width. The gates foundation changed through time. In the past, the columns were embedded in a big chunk of wood hidden in the ground; nowadays, the gates are supported by 2 metres long steel plates wrapped in cements for 1,4 metres under the soil and concealed by wooden pieces for the remaining 0,60 metres.
Szali’s favourite phase of the whole process is the carving one: before using the chisel, he prepares a paper drawing and then transfers it in pencil on the wood. The decorations represent intertwined flowers, like tulips, with tree of life leaves from Székely legends. At the top of the gate, under the roof, an inscription is carved; generally the writing welcomes to the inside of the house and cast out evil. One of the most requested sentences is :“Ember vésd szívedbe, hogy ez a föld mindig székely volt és az is marad!”, an Hungarian phrase that means “Man, in your heart this land has always been Székely and it will be forever”.
Szali works mostly alone, with the exception of the transport of timber and the assembly operations, when he makes use of manpower of one or two helpers. At present, he doesn’t have apprentices, but he is always available to welcome groups of kids to explain them all steps in the production of his creations and to show how he works and carves the wood.
Authors: Francesca Silvestri and Cristina Vasile