The Great Medal of the 1922 Coronation / The History of Romania in One Object
Updated: Dec 1, 2020
Photo 1: The Great Medal of the Coronation of Ferdinand I and Marie of Romania, 1922
The greatest event in our history is, without a doubt, the unification of all the Romanian historical provinces, concluded in Alba Iulia on December the 1st, 1918. Made possible by the victory of the Entente (the alliance between the Russian Empire, the French Third Republic and Great Britain), which Romania (comprised at that time only of Wallachia and Moldavia) joined in 1916 after two years of neutrality, the Union of December the 1st brought in Bessarabia, Bukovina, and finally Transylvania. As a result, all Romanians were united under the scepter of the Royal House of Romania and the newly unified Romania became the largest country in Central and South-Eastern Europe.
Photo 2: Map of Smaller Romania (prior to 1918)
Photo 3: Map of Greater Romania (after 1918)
Like all other European states crushed by the long war, Romania found itself in an extremely difficult situation: the country was devastated by two years of heavy fighting. It came after a period of German occupation and the exile of the Royal House to Moldavia, after the Bolshevik revolution had haunted its borders, and after considerable human and material loss. The country's economy was based exclusively on agriculture, its treasury was forever lost to the shadows of Soviet Russia, and there was poor road, rail, and maritime infrastructure. Moreover, Romania had the obligation to pay part of Austria-Hungary's war debt for the united territories that had previously been part of the Empire. Yes, in 1918 Romania gained considerable territory and dramatically increased its population, but it was also faced with unprecedented challenges.
Photo 4: Image from the coronation ceremony of King Ferdinand I and Queen Marie of Romania
A true country and a true nation, aware of its place in history, had to be built of these territories which had been artificially separated throughout the ages. The heavy burden of integrating the new territories from an administrative, institutional, legislative, financial and economic perspective fell to the political class led by the country's sovereign, King Ferdinand I. A paramount condition for the success of these tasks and the creation of a truly unitary state was for all Romanians to realize they now had a single leader whom they should follow. The solution which was put in place: the coronation of King Ferdinand I and Queen Marie.
Photo 5: The Court de Argeș Monastery, he traditional place of coronation of the voivodes of Wallachia
Although he had been King since 1916, after the death of King Carol I, Ferdinand could not be crowned in the difficult and uncertain conditions of WWI. After the end of the war, the coronation became a necessary political and patriotic act. It was postponed until 1922 for practical reasons; the place of coronation had to be carefully chosen and symbollicaly charged. Alba Iulia, the city where Michael the Brave had achieved the first temporary union of Romanians in 1599, and where the Union of all Romanians was proclaimed in 1918, was chosen to the detriment of Bucharest (the country's capital) or the Court of Argeș (the traditional place of coronation of the voivodes of Wallachia).
Photo 6: The Roman-Catholic Cathedral of Alba-Iulia
Photo 7: The Orthodox Coronation Cathedral under construction, 1921 (courtesy Alba24.ro)
Photo 8: The The Orthodox Coronation Cathedral
Still, there was a major problem. Alba Iulia only had a Catholic cathedral, where Iancu de Hunedoara (John Hunyadi) was buried. Although Ferdinand I came from a German Catholic family, he flatly refused to be crowned in a non-Orthodox church while most of his subjects were Orthodox. This was an important decision that showed Romanians the solidarity of the Royal House with its subjects and it became one of the most important steps in creating national cohesion. As a result, with the support of the Royal House, the construction of the Orthodox Cathedral of Alba Iulia began in 1921. It was almost a miracle that this jewel of Orthodox ecclesiastical art was ready in less than a year and that the coronation could take place in 1922, with all the due splendor of such an event.
Photo 9: Costin Petrescu painting the interior decorations of the cathedral of Alba Iulia, 1921 (courtesy Alba24.ro)
Photo 10: Pomp and splendor of costumes at the coronation ceremony
Important events, such as this one, must be prepared down to the smallest detail. Exquisite costumes were specially designed for both the King and the Queen. They were conceived, in the Byzantine style, by the official painter of the Court, Costin Petrescu, who also painted the interior decorations of the Cathedral of Alba Iulia, including portraits of the sovereigns at the entrance of the church. He later painted the great fresco at the Romanian Athenaeum in Bucharest, the most beautiful concert hall in Romania and one of the most beautiful in Europe.
Photo 11: King Ferdinand I and Queen Marie during the coronation ceremony in 1922
Photo 12: Queen Marie of Romania in coronation attire
Ferdinand's costume was inspired by the fashion of Romanian voivodes from the Middle Ages. The sovereign wore the steel crown of Romania made of the bronze of a Turkish cannon captured in 1877 during the Independence War and also worn by King Carol I at his coronation in 1881. For Queen Marie, things were more complicated. It seems that the coronation dress was made in Paris, but the cloak, 4 meters long, made of blades and threads of gold, was made by Elena Niculescu Frunzăreanu, director of the School of Sericulture in Bucharest. On her head, the Queen wore a crown, also in Byzantine style, specially created for this event from 4 pounds of gold donated by a private individual from the Apuseni Mountains, the richest area in gold deposits in Romania and in all of Europe. Both costumes were embroidered with the coats of arms of the united provinces and of the houses of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen and Edinburgh, the personal coats of arms of the sovereigns. Both cloaks were edged with ermine.
Photo 13, 14, 15: The Coronation cloaks and crowns
As it was customary at coronations, several medals were issued to pay homage and to help preserve the event in collective memory. Although modest in terms of design and realization, one of these pieces stands out. It is a large bronze medal (5.7 inches in diameter) representing Ferdinand I and Marie. In a solemn and majestic attitude, the King sits leaning with his left elbow on the back of the throne that bears the motto of the Royal House, NIHIL SINE DEO ("Nothing without God"). His right hand holds the scepter, the ultimate sign of power.
His attitude is one of calm, strength and determination, all qualities paramount to a leader. Queen Marie stands next to him, with her back turned, looking over her right shoulder. She holds a lily vine that touches a pedestal reading: CROWNING / THE SOVEREIGNS / OF UNITED / ROMANIA / 1922. In the background one can distinguish the silhouette of the coronation Cathedral. The exergue of the medal presents the message and the homage of the queen to the nation: Through their sacrifice / the Country grew greater / Marie. This medal seems to rather convey a message from the Queen instead of the King and this is probably due to the fact that Marie was widely loved and appreciated, the more popular of the two monarchs.
Throughout the dramatic events of WWI King Ferdinand had experienced moments of hesitation, indecision, and even surrender. Meanwhile, Queen Marie had been as steadfast as a rock, unconditionally supporting the ideal of achieving a Greater Romania with the help of the Entente. Even after the war, at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, the Queen’s advocacy in favor of the recognition of the 1918 Union was vital. Both through official appearances and through complicated backchannels, she managed to secure the support of the British Crown and of the U.S. President Wilson.
Photo 16: Statue of Queen Marie, erected in the city center of Oradea, sculptor Kara Mihaly
The medal was created by Kara Mihaly, a Transylvanian sculptor who also designed the life-size statue of Queen Marie in full coronation attire erected in the center of the North-West city of Oradea. We do not know how many copies of the medal were issued and if it was widely circulated or not. Most likely gold copies were made for the monarch, silver copies for the more important guests, and bronze copies for collectors.
Its large size indicates that the piece was intended either for display or for embedding in various objects (the cover of a book or a piece of furniture, for example). We do not have much information on the medal, but it is obvious that it was cast of superior bronze and presented a design worthy of a jeweler.
Photo 17: Statue of Queen Marie of Romania (Marie of Edinburgh) in coronation attire. The statue was erected in 2018 with the support of the Romanian Cultural Institute in the Queen's hometown of Ashford in Kent, UK
The finesse of the details is remarkable, and the message of national unity is flawless. Three Romanian artists – Costin Petrescu, Elena Niculescu Frunzăreanu and Kara Mihaly – contributed to a memorable fatuous coronation act. Cohesion between subjects and sovereigns was becoming a reality. Greater Romania was already on its national and European path, forged by the sacrifice of its people and the determination of its leaders.
The National Museum of Transylvanian History bought the medal in 1998 from Vasile Chiorean, the biggest collector in Cluj.
Text by Dr. Livia Călian. Video presentation by Dr. Ana-maria Gruia. Film concept by Geanina Simion and Dragoș Popa. A team of The National Museum of Transylvanian History in Cluj-Napoca.
The second season of THE HISTORY OF ROMANIA IN ONE OBJECT, our online program that evokes decisive epochs in Romania's past starting from objects with powerful symbolic and representative value, is developed in partnership with two of the most important history museums in the country, Moldavia's History Museum in Iași and The National Museum of Transylvanian History in Cluj-Napoca.
This episode is part of the series of events dedicated by RCI New York to the celebration of the National Day of Romania 2020.