I saw the cemetery of Sapanta and met its initiator Ion Stan Patras (19081977) in 1962. The fame of Patras was already established and he had numerous visitors. As he would put it in the long autobiographical epitaph he composed for himself (and of which only a small part could fit on the cross): “With lots of people did I sit talking/ Over twenty thousand/ All liked me/ I received them well” (Mazzoni, p. 30)..
Sapanta is a village situated in the northern part of Romania that is known under the name of Maramures. It has approximately 3.500 inhabitants, while the population of Maramures as a whole does not go much beyond 200.000. Maramures is recognized as an area whose people combine in a strong and resilient identity the traditions of the past with the modernity of the present and this is what we notice when we start examining the coming into existence of the “Merry Cemetery.” Let me also underline, from the very beginning, that the cemetery of Sapanta is unique, both in Maramures and in Romania. It is therefore strongly connected to the personality of its creator, Ion Stan Patras, and, as I will show later on, to that of his fellow villagers.
Toward the middle of the 1930’s Patras used to carve the monumental wooden gates that Maramures farmers take pride in as well as crosses for the cemetery in his village. Little by little, wishing to better serve his clients, he started to paint the crosses, in order to protect them from rain and frost thus making them last longer. Blue was the color that imposed itself from the very beginning. To explain it, art critics love to refer to the extraordinary shades of blue that singularize each of the painted monasteries in northern Moldavia. I tend to think instead of the old Transylvanian houses, dark blue inside as well as outside. Women plastered and colored them with their palms, whose traces subsisted on the walls. One could still see such houses in Maramures in the 1960s and 1970s.
Pretty soon, the geometric or floral motifs, or those of the sun and moon that he used to carve on the gates were to be painted by Patras on the crosses as well. The colors he chose for these motifs were those he saw around him: on the woven rugs and clothes for which the Sapanta women were reputed, on the local ceramic, or on the icons painted on glass. Thus, the blue background came to alternate with red, yellow, dark green, black and white shapes.
It is difficult to imagine at what moment Patras decided to paint a portrait of the deceased on the upper part of the cross. What seems clear, however, is that the idea must have originated not only from the painted troitsas (crosses erected on the roads, usually representing Jesus Christ or the Mother of the Lord) but, at least in part, from the newer custom of putting photographs on the crosses, in rural as well as urban cemeteries. It is possible that Ion Stan Patras tried to paint portraits that do not easily deteriorate, as photographs do. Maybe he wanted to help, well knowing that his fellow villagers could not afford to pay for the more expensive glass or porcelain photographs they were fond of. And we shouldn't exclude the simple joy he must have felt when realizing that he was able to do something that had never been done before.
So, the crosses in Sapanta came to include painted representations of those buried underneath. The blue village of the dead, with its cross-houses, gained overnight, due to Ion Stan Patras, the windows through which one could take a glimpse at those who had come to dwell in it.
From the portrait to the detailed representation of the deceased in traditional or modern clothes, and from likenesses to dynamic scenes, all were steps that Patras would go through, naturally reacting to the needs of the moment. One can hazard, again, that the representation of violent death might have determined the gradual complication of the painting. At the beginning, the likeness of the dead would be set in the context of the accident: near the car that killed him or her etc., with the victim standing to narrate the event. Gradually, the depiction of the accidents appears to have gained in realism and the victim is shown meeting her/his death while walking, being run over etc.
Patras was more and more solicited by people who wished for themselves the posthumous pleasure of vivid color and, through it, the guarantee that they will thus be able to pleasantly welcome their visitors, even after death. They wanted the unusual painted crosses and they gladly paid for them in advance, like they used to pay the priest and diac (deacon) for their burial, years before dying; like they chose and hired well in advance the woman who would cook the ritual meals for their funeral. There is a saying in Maramures: “The priest and the mayor never die.”
In parallel with the evolution from protective color to ornamentation and static or dynamic representation, the inscription on the lower part of the cross was amplified, thus balancing the visual development. From an impersonal specification of the name, age and date of death, Patras went to first-person singular inscriptions that added to the official name the familiar surname or nickname, the rhyme that could make them easy to remember and even some memorable idiosyncratic notations. Together with the first person singular, the systematic use of the present in most inscriptions gave to the voice of the addresser an existence that seemed to continue, interrupted but not stopped by death.
From case to case, organic additions enriched the texts. Some of their “utterers” had had special professions, which deserved to be mentioned. Others had worked with passion, loving their cattle, horses, apple-trees, grassland or house with an intensity that set them apart. For some, their individualization was due to a prolonged illness, an unexpected early death, or an accident. Others had died far from Sapanta, at war, in political prison, while mining and, nowadays, in the richer European countries where they temporarily migrate in order to make ends meet.
In a continued expansion, the inscriptions came to be not only “auto presentations” by the deceased, to bring them back in the memory of their visitors or to make them known to younger generations, but also the occasion to “voice” one more piece of advice or to evoke a good and full moment in their lives. Some inscriptions started to draw the attention of the onlookers on the painted image as well. They did so, on behalf of the deceased, via separate phrases functioning as legends, or in the versified inscription itself.
The effect of the perpetually renewing work of Ion Stan Patras is strong. The village of the dead is loquacious, its dwellers talk with the naturalness and humor of the living Sapanta people, each of them would like to be visited and invites you to recognize or to discover her/him.
The villagers answered the unfolding idea of Ion Stan Patras with so much enthusiasm that he had to hire help and enlist apprentices. The number of crosses to carve and paint grew steadily. To this one should add the upkeep work. Crosses had to be repainted, or at least refreshed, after eight or ten years. Since men often work with wood in Sapanta, when they don't raise cattle, it was not difficult to find whom to teach.
It is not easy to recapture the personality of a popular creator. We know about Patras that he was an orphan since early childhood (his father died during WWI), worked in forest exploitation for 14 years, was a soldier for five years and fought in WWII. All these circumstances seem to have nourished an aspiration to act so as to please his fellow villagers. He says as much in his autobiography mentioned above: “And for five years I was a soldier/ Tough hardship hit me/ I endured a year in the war/ I knew great trouble./ I came back from there/ Thanked God/ For escaping alive/ And coming home again.// I started to work/ So as to be pleasant to the village” (Mazzoni, p. 26). Carving wood brought him to cross-making and, from that moment, having reached the center of his life and discovered an essential thing to do for the village as well as for expressing a general existential aspiration, Ion Stan Patras’s art and initiatives kept growing.
Patras could not have invented the “pleasant” cemetery that he wanted had he not been deeply immersed in the local traditions. We saw already some of the elements that fed his painting. The talking inscriptions he created are clearly connected with the funeral rites and ceremonies in Maramures. While we do not have space for details here, let me mention that the “grand passing” (as poet Lucian Blaga used to call it) is still lived according to mythical beliefs well preserved in the area: the “white wanderer” (dalbul de pribeag) set out toward the “other world” has to pay customs, get helpers and vanquish perils that those who burry him/her have minutely considered, performing the needed gestures and procuring the wanted objects.
At a more personal level, a second, lyrical component of the ceremony gives way to the voices of women in the family, who sing laments (improvised according to the occasion) during the three days that the dead will still spend at home. The laments are sung in the morning, at noon and in the evening, when the bells ring at church. They extend talking beyond the limits of life. In them, the woman who laments addresses the dead in the second person, rhetorically trying to distract her/him from death and silence.
A third component is represented by the religious ceremony. In rural Maramures the funeral service is still held in the yard of the house of the deceased. I have seen, once, a funeral service that was attended by five hundred people from the village and the surroundings. After the religious songs, one can hear the so-called versh composed and sung by the diac (deacon). The versh is characterized by the fact that, in contradistinction to laments, where the deceased appeared as addressee, in it s/he speaks in the first person singular of the present, addressing herself/himself to family, neighbors, friends and acquaintances in and outside the village. The deceased rememorates her/his life, thanks those who took care of her/him, gives advice to those s/he loves, tells her/his grief, relief or resignation at having to die and, in the last part, called iertaciuni (forgivenesses), asks to be forgiven by all in turn, starting from proximate family and ending with remote acquaintances. In Breb, where I did fieldwork for more than ten years, people ordered from and paid the versh to deacon Oprea, during their healthy years. Once composed, they read it carefully and asked for changes. If notable events intervened later on, they required the diac to insert them in the text.
In communities intent on everybody’s talk, that keep in their memory the words of people whose looks have been long forgotten, the arch described by laments and iertaciuni can be viewed as a way to felicitously cut the thread of the talk that used to bind the deceased to the members of the community. The first move, of the lamenting women, marks the refusal of entering into silence. Even if the dead do not answer, they will sing/talk to her or him during three days in the house and, after the funeral service, on the way to the cemetery, during the six to twelve ritual stops meant to delay the definitive moment of inhumation. In a second move, the dead, “impressed” by the laments s/he has listened to, speaks through the mouth of the diac and carefully but firmly cuts the dialogue, trying to resolve former conflicts and to ease the suffering of those left behind.
In his inscriptions, Patras was inspired by the versh. He might even have started from elements heard (or notes borrowed) from Pop Toader a Diacului, whom we know to have been a composer and singer of versh in Sapanta.
Besides versh lines, the talking inscriptions of Sapanta also include elements belonging to local songs (frequently shouted rhythmically at the Sunday dance, at feasts and weddings).
On a par with tradition, talking to those who ordered their cross and told him how it was supposed to look appears to have been extremely important for the gradual elaboration of Patras’s understanding of what the Sapanta cemetery should look like. The painted encryptions continue these dialogues, hinting at things that must have been told to him on that occasion.
After Patras died, Dumitru Pop (also known as Tincu, or Mitica) Vasile Stan, Toader Turda (Sepe), Gheorghe Stan, son of Toader Stan, and Ion Stan (Nacu) continued to paint crosses as taught by the master and commissioned by the Sapanta people. The first also takes care of the memorial house of Ion Stan Patras, where notebooks with old epitaphs composed by him are kept, together with old crosses and his autobiography. The new carvers brought some innovations as well. They use more than one shade of the same color I could count on the cross of Shtets Grigore no less than four shades of blue. They trace delicate trees with rare leaves through which one can catch sight of fruits or flowers as well as of a pale sky. The sky itself is often covered by transparent clouds in more recent images.
On the cross painted by his successors (as we are told by an inscription surprisingly appearing on the edge of Patras’s cross), Ion Stan Patras is represented as he carves a cross while a fiddler sings to him. What Patras thought, whether he felt that he needed the fiddler to cheer him up or simply to confirm the serenity with which he carved the sign that separated life from death is hard to know As it is hard to know whether he was carving his own cross or that of somebody else at the moment. In both cases, however, it is probable that Ion Stan Patras knew indistinctly but firmly that, through his work, the immutable-and-changing ceremony of entering death had been modulated for a while in the village where he lived a well-rounded life, from his birth till he died.
Photographer Peter Kayafas and translator Adrian G. Sahlean are Ion Stan Patras’s posthumous good luck. The first, a New York artist whose meditated works are exposed in the great museums of the United States and teach us to look anew at New York's people, at the South of the U.S.A., Cuba or Romania, met the Sapanta cemetery with a fraternal and sensitive understanding. The second, whose translations of Eminescu’s poems came to be widely admired, put himself to the service of Patras’s simple choices. Both have my heartfelt admiration and friendship.