The Written Stone Monastery (Manastirea Piatra Scrisa)was built on the site of an Icon of the Holy Trinity, painted onto the rocks of a cliff-side in rural Romania. Above the Icon is the Caransebes-Orsova railway, built in the 19th century, which had to be diverted from its original route in order to preserve the image.
The Icon shows the “New Testament” Trinity, that is, Jesus Christ holding the Cross seated opposite the Father as an old man, and between Them the Holy Spirit depicted as a dove. An Austro-Hungarian military map of 1788 labels a the site as “Trinity Rock”, suggesting the icon was already painted onto the cliff-side by that date. In 1822, the icon was restored by a local painted, Moise Buru Scriitorul; the Caransebes-Orsova railway came through the region towards the end of the 19th century. The original plans specified the railway run straight through the icon, but this was met with such local opposition that the engineer deviated the line a few metres west of the image. Grigore Dragomir, then mayor of the local village Armenis, said: “the icon and site are sacred for us and for all Romanian believers, and we never pass by the icon without uncovering our heads and crossing ourselves”.
The buildings surrounding the icon appeared much later: in 1929, a chapel was built by a couple in memory of their deceased daughter; a year later the Bishop of Caransebes allowed a small house to also be built, to home a few monastics. Thus, the Piatra Scrisa Hermitage began.
Origins of the Icon
Although it is known the icon existed in 1788, the exact origin of the icon is unclear, as more there are many stories. One relates how a a Christian army commander being chased by the Ottoman army, fell with his horse from the cliff into the Timis River which ran alongside. Having escaped unharmed from the river, and having escaped the pursuing Ottoman Turks who gave him up for dead, the commander ordered the Holy Trinity to be painted onto cliff-side’s rock in gratitude for the miracle.
Another legend describes a cattle-merchant who traveling through the region on Sunday of All Saints was caught in a violent storm. Sheltering in a recess in the cliff-side, the rock above his head was struck by lightening, but miraculously he was unharmed. The local priest advised him to pain the icon of the Holy Trinity, as it was the entire God-head, through the intercession of the Saints, Who had intervened to save the merchant’s life.
Yet another tradition has a party of travelers from Wallachia being saved from plunging into the river Timis when their out-of-control coach struck a rock and came to a halt. Upon the rock was painted the Holy Trinity.
Finally, a local church-builder from Armenis lost his son when he fell from a steeple; in this story, the icon is painted in memory of the dead son.
Whatever the origins, it was certainly believed the icon was sacred and worked miracles, as shown by the locals’ response to the railway in the 19th century. There are reports even today of people being healed of disease by praying before the icon. The reverence held for the Piatra Scrisa Holy Trinity icon is strong in the region, and may explain why the girl’s name Icoana or Iconia is common, despite being rare elsewhere.
A note on the New Testament Trinity
The New Testament Trinity is to be distinguished from the “Old Testament” Trinity, which shows the three Angels who visited Abraham by the oaks of Mamre. The New Testament Trinity shows the Holy Trinity as revealed in the Gospels, i.e. the Word of God is shown as the incarnate Jesus Christ (often holding the Cross), the Holy Spirit is shown as a dove, just as He appears at the Baptism of Christ, whilst the First Person of the Trinity is depicted as “the Father”, an old, white-haired, man. They are often surrounded by angels, and the Father and Son are frequently shown with a globe, the earth, beneath their feet. This depiction can be described as “New Testament” because it is Jesus Christ, more than anyone before Him, Who most often describes “the Father”, inviting all Christians to pray to God as “Our Father”. The image of God the Father in the Old Testament is much rarer, so this image of God as Our Father does indeed properly belong to the New Testament.
There is some controversy as to the New Testament Trinity, as various Church councils do proscribe depicting God the Father as an old man, as He is invisible (“no one has seen God” – John 1:18). Furthermore, the Holy Spirit was only seen as a dove at the Baptism of Christ, and is revealed as tongues of fire elsewhere, so it is not perhaps proper to show the Holy Spirit as though He were always, or normally, incarnate as a bird.
Nevertheless, Icons of the “New Testament” Trinity are widespread, both today and in the past (see the icon above, which is late 11th century). The Holy Trinity Icon of the Written Stone Monastery is also claimed to be a wonder-working icon. The Romanian locals in the 19th century honoured the Holy Trinity depicted in this form, and strongly opposed the possible destruction of the icon. Likewise, there are people even today who recognize and honour the Holy Trinity depicted in this form, and would not want this image to be swept aside.
O Most Holy Trinity have mercy upon us:
O Lord, cleanse us from our sins,
O Master, pardon our transgressions,
O Holy One visit and heal our infirmities
For Your Name’s sake.