The Church of the Dormition of the Virgin at Hălmagiu, Arad County
The Church of the Dormition of the Virgin at Hălmagiu, Arad County

By Elena Dana Prioteasa | Institute of Archaeology and History of Art, Cluj-Napoca


The Orthodox church of the Dormition of the Virgin is one of the testimonies to the medieval life of the Romanians in the Hungarian Kingdom. The Romanian district of Hălmagiu is repeatedly mentioned, during the late Middle Ages, as an appurtenance of the castle of Șiria (Világosvar), in the Zaránd County. The voivodes of Hălmagiu, local leaders who had administrative and military attributions, occasionally appear in the written sources, starting in the 14th century. The oldest votive inscription in the church suggests that one of them together with his brother were the ktetors of the church around 1400. The partially preserved inscription, situated on the triumphal arch of the church, has been read as follows: “By the hand of Župan Moga and of his brother they made it anew.” Judging by the preserved documents, the family Moga of Hălmagiu enjoyed economic and social prosperity in the 15th and 16th centuries.


The architecture of the church is common for contemporary Orthodox churches in the region. It consists of a rectangular naos with a wooden ceiling, a rectangular sanctuary with a barrel vault, and a western tower. From the beginning, the church had eight buttresses, which were later demolished and then partially rebuilt. The door and window frames are Gothic in style. The windows, which were recently restored, were probably fewer in the beginning. Their frames are copies after a damaged original. The archaeological excavations brought to light a small amount of material, which dates between the 14th and the 19th century. Archaeologists concluded that the building might date from the end of the 14th or the beginning of the 15th century. The church was surrounded by a cemetery, but burials were also practiced inside the church, where the earliest grave securely dated contained a coin from King Matthias Corvinus of Hungary and Croatia (r. 1458–90). Several test trenches indicated the existence of another church in the village of Hălmagiu, possibly built in the second half of the 15th century, and the presence of a late medieval nobiliary residence in the center of the village.

The interior decoration of the church has suffered great damage, but paintings from at least three periods can be identified. The oldest wall paintings have been preserved in the sanctuary and on the triumphal arch. The inscriptions are in Church Slavonic, but the style of the paintings belongs to the International Gothic and bears similarities with a series of wall paintings in the Hungarian Kingdom dated to the end of the 14th and the beginning of the 15th century (e.g., Rimavské Brezovo, Rimavská Baňa, Kyjatice, Rákoš, and Chyžné, all of them in Slovakia, and Nima and Bădești, in Romania).

The iconographic program of the sanctuary generally obeys the Eastern canons, but at the same time adapts to the architecture of the church and reflects the Western training of the painters, who accommodated their iconographic formulas to the requirements of an Orthodox sanctuary. A large image of Christ appears on the vault, and the four Evangelists are depicted in the upper registers of the side walls. This was probably done as such because the church lacks a vault or a cupola over the naos, where these images are usually represented. Nevertheless, Christ in Glory accompanied by the Evangelists or their symbols is also an iconographic scheme that frequently decorates the vaults of the sanctuaries in many late medieval churches in the Hungarian Kingdom, and Central Europe in general. On the east wall at Hălmagiu, on each side of the central window, were painted a cherub and a seraph. In the lower register, two angels probably flanked a table or a huge paten with the Christ Child on it. Five bishops, a deacon, and another saint, probably the Apostle Bartholomew, were depicted on the side walls.

Among the peculiarities of the lower register is a scene situated on the south wall. It shows St. Nicholas giving a blessing to a chalice with the Christ Child in it. The figure of a falling heretic can be seen at the feet of St. Nicholas. A partially preserved inscription invokes the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It has been noted that the scene resembles the Vision of St. Peter of Alexandria, which is commonly represented in the sanctuary, in the prothesis or the diakonikon areas. St. Nicholas was also venerated as a defender of the Trinitarian doctrine, and, according to his vita, he participated in the First Council of Nicaea (325) where he also had a confrontation with Arius. A similar scene to the one at Hălmagiu is found in the sanctuary of another church situated on the valley of Crișul Alb, the church of St. Nicholas at Ribița (Hunedoara County). Although completely different in style, the iconographic programs of the two sanctuaries are alike.

Another surprising figure in the apse of Hălmagiu is a saint who carries his skin and shows a knife. The inscription with his name has not been preserved. This type of representation is characteristic of the Apostle Bartholomew in Western art. It can also be seen in several medieval Catholic churches in the Hungarian Kingdom (at Čerín, Kvačany, Štítnik, and Rákoš, in Slovakia; Abaújvár, in Hungary; Sic, Remetea, and Mediaș, in Romania). According to Western tradition, the Apostle Bartholomew suffered many torments and was finally beheaded. The flaying of the saint appears frequently in Latin hagiographical and liturgical sources and inspired this special iconographic type. In contrast, the flaying torture is mentioned in very few Greek sources. According to Byzantine hagiographic, liturgical, and visual sources, the common belief was that the apostle died by crucifixion. In Western religious spirituality, Bartholomew’s flaying was a symbol of repentance and renewal in Christ. In popular belief, the saint was also a protector against various diseases, particularly those involving the skin, and patron saint of various occupations, such as tanners, furriers, shoemakers, herdsmen, agricultural workers, winegrowers, miners, and butchers. It may be assumed that certain aspects of Bartholomew’s Latin cult, probably those related to the flaying, motivated or stimulated the adoption of the Western iconographic type in Orthodox churches. In Crete, another region of close contact between the Orthodox and the Catholic cultural spheres, St. Bartholomew was also occasionally depicted as a flayed man, holding his skin over his shoulder, and showing the knife. The literature mentions two cases: in the church of St. Pelagia at Ano Viannos, Viannos Province, Heraklion Prefecture (1360), and in the church of the Holy Apostles at Drys, Selino Province, Chania Prefecture (1382–91).

The process of adoption and adaption of the Western appearance of St. Bartholomew requires further investigation. In Transylvania, a surprising twist might have happened. A figure whose appearance is identical to that of the saint at Hălmagiu was represented around 1443 in the naos of the church of St. Nicholas at Densuș (Hunedoara County). According to the preserved inscription, his name is Saint Thomas. Before dismissing the inscription as a misspelling, one should consider that in the Eastern tradition there was a version of the apostle’s apocryphal Acts called Acta Thomae minora or Acta abbreviata, which recounts that the saint was flayed alive before being pierced with spears. Acta Thomae minora was apparently not a widespread text, but it has been preserved in both Greek and Slavonic languages. Therefore, it is possible that the Western appearance of St. Bartholomew was adopted for the Apostle Thomas, as it also happened in some post-Byzantine representations of St. Charalambos, a saint who was also flayed alive before his decapitation. Again, the type of representation points to the fact that the flaying and the skin had a particular significance for the believers, an issue that invites further research.

At Hălmagiu, fragments of a later layer of painting can be seen on the north, south, and west walls of the naos. The Dormition of the Virgin, a few scenes from the Christological cycle (the Annunciation, the Transfiguration, and the Baptism of Christ), two scenes from the Legend of St. Nicholas and two paintings showing members of the ktetor’s family, have been partially preserved. The votive painting is situated at the west end of the north wall, opposite the south entrance to the church. Today, only the traces of St. Nicholas receiving the church from the ktetor are visible. Behind St. Nicholas there is the figure of St. George. To the east end of the north wall, two young figures, probably the children of the donor, are represented on their knees, addressing in prayer the Virgin and Child. The paintings in the naos are of unequal skill and were carried out by post-Byzantine painters, probably in the last decades of the 15th century or the first decades of the 16th century. Fragments of painting possibly dating to the 18th century can also be seen in some parts of the church, such as the prothesis niche and the embrasure of the middle south window.

By its architecture and decoration, the church at Hălmagiu is representative of the economic, social, and religious life of the Transylvanian Romanian elite at the end of the Middle Ages. Both the architecture of the church and its first decoration are rooted in Western local practices. Craftsmen of a Western training and modest artistry were probably more easily available and affordable. As their economic situation improved and the historical conditions changed, the patrons could hire painters who had good knowledge of Byzantine artistic tradition. After the middle of the 15th century, the patrons of the church of the Dormition of the Virgin afforded painters who were well trained in the Byzantine tradition and were also more numerous to the north of the Danube once the Ottomans occupied the Balkan Peninsula. Nevertheless, one can still note a certain freedom regarding the iconographic program, which was characteristic of much of the Transylvanian church decoration in the Middle Ages, probably because of a long history far from important centers of Byzantine culture. In general, the peculiar iconography of the medieval Orthodox churches in the Hungarian Kingdom raises difficulties of interpretation and suggests an intricate mix of acceptance and resistance with regard to the Western culture.

Further Reading

Căpățînă, Dan. “Cercetări arheologice la Hălmagiu și Vîrfurile (jud. Arad)” [Archaeological research at Hălmagiu and Vîrfurile (Arad County)]. Revista Muzeelor și Monumentelor. Seria Monumente Istorice și de Artă 45, no. 2 (1976): 76–80.

The article summarizes the results of the archaeological research carried out in 1974 at the church of the Dormition of the Virgin in Hălmagiu and at other points of archaeological interest in the village.

Cincheza-Buculei, Ecaterina. “L’ ensemble de peinture murale de Hălmagiu (XVe siècle). Iconographie et fondateurs.” Revue des études sud-est européennes 22, no. 1 (1984): 3–25.

The article offers a detailed analysis of the paintings of the church at Hălmagiu, especially of the iconography. The author dates the paintings of the sanctuary and on the triumphal arch to the beginning of the 15th century, and the paintings in the nave to the second half of the 15th century. Cincheza-Buculei also gives the first reading of the inscription mentioning the name of voivode Moga, and identifies and interprets in historical context a series of iconographic subjects, including the scene with St. Nicholas and particular bishops in the sanctuary.

Eskenasy, Victor. “Hălmagiu, un sat medieval din Țara Crișului Alb (secolele XIV–XV). Considerații istorice” [Hălmagiu, a medieval village in the Land of Crișul Alb (14th and 15th centuries). Historical considerations]. Ziridava 5 (1975): 21–38.

The author presents the history of the village of Hălmagiu, center of a Romanian district, and of the voivodes of Hălmagiu in the 14th and 15th centuries.

Mardare, Irina. “L’ ensemble de peinture murale de Hălmagiu (XIVe–XVe siècles). Recherches préliminaires en vue de la restauration.” Colloque sur la conservation et la restauration des peintures murales. Suceava, juillet 1977, edited by Vasile Drăguț et al., 107–112. Bucharest: Conseil de la Culture et de l'Education Socialiste de la Republique Socialiste de Roumanie, 1980.

Irina Mardare was the restorer who uncovered the paintings in the sanctuary. While describing the mural decoration in the sanctuary and the nave, she makes observations about the different techniques of the paintings. She also proposes a date to the end of the 14th century for the paintings in the sanctuary, and to the second half of the 15th century for the paintings on the south and north walls of the naos.

Porumb, Marius. Dicționar de pictură veche românească din Transilvania, secolele XIII–XVIII [Dictionary of old Romanian painting in Transylvania, from the 13th to the 18th century], s.v. Hălmagiu, 156–158. Bucharest: Editura Academiei, 1998.

The entry gives a description of the church and its wall paintings, largely based on the study of Ecaterina Cincheza-Buculei, as well as a short bibliography. The church is presented with its probable medieval dedication, St. Nicholas, and not with the present one, the Dormition of the Virgin.

Prioteasa, Elena Dana. Medieval Wall Paintings in Transylvanian Orthodox Churches: Iconographic Subjects in Historical Context. Bucharest: Editura Academiei, 2016.

The book deals primarily with the paintings in the churches at Ribița, Crișcior, Hălmagiu, Leșnic, Strei, Streisângeorgiu, Densuș, and Sântămăria Orlea. Regarding Hălmagiu, it gives a detailed synthesis of the historical data about the donors and the larger political and religious context, and makes new contributions, primarily concerning the iconography of the sanctuary and the donor portraits. A separate chapter is dedicated to the depictions of the Apostles Bartholomew and Thomas at Hălmagiu and Densuș.

Rusu, Adrian Andrei, and George Pascu Hurezan. Biserici medievale din județul Arad [Medieval churches in Arad County], s.v. Hălmagiu, 97–107. Arad: Complexul Muzeal Arad, 2000.

The authors give a systematic presentation of the history of the church and its decoration. Besides the historical data about the voivodes of Hălmagiu, the text includes a summary of the archaeological excavations and of the research done by Irina Mardare and Ecaterina Cincheza-Buculei.

This contribution was sponsored by the International Center of Medieval Art through the 2021 Advocacy Seed Grant.


Elena Dana Prioteasa, "The Church of the Dormition of the Virgin at Hălmagiu, Arad County," Mapping Eastern Europe, eds. M. A. Rossi and A. I. Sullivan, accessed June 3, 2023,