“St. Michael’s” Church is situated at the heart of Cluj-Napoca and represents the city’s social and civic center. It is one of the most popular meeting places and one of the most remarkable architectural landmarks.
Its construction is supposed to be connected to the act signed on the 19th of August 1316 by Charles Robert of Anjou (who was king of Hungary at the time). The act offered certain privileges and liberties to the inhabitants of Cluj-Napoca among which, the right to choose their own priest and vicar.
The church was built to stand for the center of Cluj-Napoca because during the Middle Ages the city lay on the main commercial road that ran from Transylvania to Western Europe. Other designs to strengthen this status for the St. Michael’s are attributed to 19th century aediles, who intended to systematize the city. Their plans also placed the center at "St. Michael’s" Church.
There is still some confusion concerning the actual date when the construction of the building began, different years being circulated. Some sources date this in the second half of the 14th century, while others say it was more likely a century later. We credit the first sources, as there is evidence that supports this alternative. The most convincing is a plate that was placed on the church in 1444 to mark the end of constructions.
Some sources posit that the edifice prior to the church might have been a Roman church, as elements from this initial construction are still identifiable. And indeed, it is probable that there has always been some sort of religious construction on this land, as St. Michael’s was built on a medieval cemetery. According to historians, in those times, people were buried around places of worship.
The initial plan was for a basilica and, as a testament to this, the choir, the lateral apses and the spiral staircase all bear features peculiar to this type of construction. This plan was later changed for a hall church.
Although St. Michael’s incorporates many architectural styles, the overbearing one is the Gothic. The crowning jewel of the Gothic is the cathedral, says journalist Doina Drăguț, because it reunites all the arts: sculpture, decorative arts, furniture, stained glass and textiles.
Gothic cathedrals are said to be “Bibles set in stone” or “histories of the world”, because their adornments describe scenes from the Bible or the artists’ experiences. By this tradition, the murals in St. Michael’s represent a variety of religious figures. The oldest ones, dating back to the end of the 14th century, depict Saint Erasmus, three unidentified female figures and the Three Wise Men. In others we can recognize Virgin Mary and the baby Jesus, St. Helena, St. Margaret of Antioch, etc. At the more secular end of the spectrum are the scenes of a goat herder, a hunter, a woman whipping a child and a stone hewer.
Although Gothic churches may seem fragile, they are in fact very sturdy. Their inner skeleton aptly supports the massive structure while also allowing for ethereal shapes in between. At the same time, they sport a somber elegance that given by the robust piles supporting the interior, the suppleness and height of the shapes.