I thanked Saint Peter for finding Gavrilă Hotico-Herenta at home in his Ieud village – it was 29th June and work across all villages of Maramureş was grounded to a halt in observance of one of the most important religious festivities of the year. Otherwise, it would have been impossible to get hold of him, as it is several decades now that he moves between various sites across Romania, which his wife can attest.
After an apprenticeship as carpenter in the nearby Bârsana village, Gavrilă Hotico-Herenta began to work as a church restorer when he was just twenty years old. His first restoration may have been his most important one: the Church-on-the-Hill, the oldest wooden church in Europe, built in 1364 in his very village and now one of the eight in Maramureş on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. By the time we spoke, he would go on to restore another 67 churches, build 9 new ones and move another 10 (he dismantled, moved and re-assembled them again on other sites).
His lineage is also all but ordinary: his father was a peasant poet whose work was recognized by the Romanian Academy. His grandfather was a church builder: he is the one who moved a centuries-old wooden church from a nearby village, Dragomirești, to the newly created Village Museum in Bucharest, in 1936. Herenta is very proud to have built a new church in the very same place (opposite page).
At 71, the church restorer feels much younger. After 51 years of restoration work, he is still out there, so busy working that he barely has time to come home. When he does, he usually goes haymaking. It is mainly only during the religious holidays that his large family can fully reunite: one daughter and four sons, whom he has also initiated in the art of wood carving and restoration.
Our talk was only half merry: an artist to the bone, Herenta tells us with deep sorrow about his profound disappointment with Romania’s chosen cultural path. He has seen it all: the neglect of Romania’s cultural heritage under communism, the brief period of hope and revival after the revolution, followed by an ever deepening period of cultural looting. His protests, he says, like the ones of many people of culture, have fallen on deaf ears.
When he does not restore or build churches (he only has time in winters), Herenta carves crosses and crucifixes.
UNESCO recently recognized his exceptional lifetime work and inducted him into its Living Human Treasures Program. Despite his fame, the church restorer is one of the most modest people I have ever met.
For more photos of Gavrilă Hotico-Herenta and his work, visit The Artists section of this website.