On top of a hill in Bucharest sits the historic Patriarchal Cathedral of the Romanian Orthodox Church, centrepiece of a complex which includes the Patriarchal Residence and the Palace of Patriarchy, built on land which was formerly a monastery. Dating from 1658, it is a fine building with beautiful frescoes that have been restored over the years. What however is its future and that of other churches in Bucharest, many of which are in need of tender restoration, as the Orthodox Church completes the immense Romanian People’s Salvation Cathedral?
There must be something in the air in Bucharest that makes politicians and leaders pursue grand projects. Not content with the second largest administrative building in the world, which, judging from the signs of damp and iron staining is already becoming a maintenance burden, it is now building the largest Orthodox Cathedral in the world, a project which seems inevitably to be running late and for which cost estimates vary widely depending on the source, (400 million euros seems the most accurate figure) but it seems that the people of Bucharest are contributing at least 50% of the cost from public funding.
The idea of a new cathedral has a long history, being first suggested in 1884 when 5 million lei was allocated, a hefty sum at the time (£1 million at today’s exchange rate), but with a change in government came a change in priorities and the funding was redirected towards investment in schools. Thereafter the project came and went like the tide on a beach and was obviously stopped altogether under the communist regime. They had their own cathedral to communism to build with the immense Palace of the Parliament. The cathedral project was not however dead, it was only slumbering, awaiting for the end of communism and the dawn of a new era. How appropriate is it, however, that if you are going to build such a grand cathedral that you do so opposite the Palace so that these two cathedrals to religion and to government can look across at each other. A historic reason for the site is that it was previously the location of several churches and monasteries which were levelled by the communists to clear the land for their new Palace and, while the new cathedral will be nowhere as large in floor area as its administrative friend, the dome will be higher, just to make the point about the importance of religion.
To add to the superlatives, the cathedral, which will be able to house 6,000 people – 10 times more than the existing cathedral – will also have the largest free swinging church bell in the world with a weight of 2,190kg and a clapper of 30kg.
The sheer size of the cathedral has, naturally drawn criticism, not least from Le Figaro, with comparisons made to the grand projects of the communist era.
Standing looking at the construction, which can also be seen from the adjacent Museum of Contemporary Art, it does seem a bold attempt to recreate the traditional forms of Orthodox churches using contemporary materials; it also seems optimistic to think that completion will be complete for consecration at the end of November. However, the project managers are confident that this will be the case and interior work is apparently proceeding including the mosaic icons on the iconostasis which will be complete in October. Other buildings will follow to create a larger complex, which does have to be better than the wasteland we see today. It will certainly be an interesting building to visit once it is complete.