I don’t like to talk about it, but there was a dark time in my life. I mean, I’m not ashamed exactly–it’s not like I was beating puppies or something. The truth is, I was portrait painter. An earnest, hard-working, spectacularly unsuccessful portrait painter. No need to cue what my grandma called “the world’s smallest violin playing the world’s saddest song”. I’m just telling you this so you realize that I qualify as an authority on portraiture. I know how challenging it is to strike the right tone, to represent the complexity of a human life in a single image. Creating a portrait these days is like sitting down with 10,000 years of art history, a high school yearbook and a selfie-stick.
Stan Ion Patras, creator of The Merry Cemetary of Sapanta, in Maramureș Romania, was one hell of a portrait artist. Mr. Patras carved and painted a cemetery full of wooden tribute crosses beginning in 1935 until his death in 1977. Since 1977, Stan Ion Patras’ awesomely-named apprentice, Dumitru Pop Tincu, has continued to produce portrait crosses in a similar style.
Can a cemetery be a work of art? The Merry Cemetary certainly is. Not only is each individual cross a unique, well-crafted artwork, but the cemetery stands together as a whole, like an exceedingly clever art installation. Ironically (it been a field of dead people and all) the cemetery is warm and accessible and refreshingly free of cliques and sentimentality.
The grave of Stan Ion Patras, artist of The Merry Cemetery.
Each cross has a poem carved beneath the portrait. One of our guest houses had a book with translations from many of the graves. The poem-epithets are quite remarkable and often funny, like this inscription on the cross above.
(Thank you Wikipedia for the translation from Romanian)
Under this heavy cross
Lies my poor mother in-law
Three more days she would have lived
I would lie, and she would read (this cross).
You, who here are passing by
Not to wake her up please try
Cause’ if she comes back home
She’ll criticize me more.
But I will surely behave
So she’ll not return from grave.
Stay here, my dear mother in-law!
A couple we saw in the nearby town of Hoteni wearing outfits reminiscent of the son and his nagging mother-in-law.
We tried to find the crosses that would best represent our occupations. I chose seamstress…..
…..and HOB chose TV repairman.
Some of the graves illustrate how the person died.
Apparently this woman was run over by a red car.
Notice the embedded photo of the weaver above the carved portrait.
Weaver we met in Maramureș.
I’m with the band.
Performers at the Hoteni Festival.
Bodhar was a pharmacist.
My turn! My turn!
Yo, pass the bottle.
This bike rider died in 1949.
Straw hats off to you, Stan Ion Patras. You’ve transformed a graveyard into a conceptual art installation about what it means to be a human, about the humor and dignity of an ordinary life. I definitely couldn’t have done it better myself.
How we got to The Merry Cemetary: Florin from Casa Muntean drove us.
Where we slept: Casa Muntean. Price: €18 for a double. Recommended: highly.