After our time in Translyvania, we headed northeast towards the region of Moldavia specifically to see the Painted Monasteries of Bucovina. The drive from Brasov took almost 6 hours. We based ourselves in the small town of Guru Humorului which is very close to two of the four main monasteries people visit: Voronet and Humor Monasteries. We stayed at the Pension Casa Humor which is acceptable for such a small town and especially since the region of Moldavia is known to be underdeveloped and relatively poor. It is definitely worth the effort to come and see these medieval painted monasteries that have stood in this forgotten land for nearly 500 years. They were built for Roman Orthodox worship in the aftermath of the Byzantine Empire. Most were built by Stephen the Great or by his son Prince Petru Rares. They commissioned artists to cover the monasteries with eleven biblical stories which became like a checklist for the painters. What is special about these monasteries is that they are each decorated with unique colors both inside and out. They are like nothing I have seen elsewhere. The exterior walls are painted with frescoes depicting scenes from the Bible, of angels and demons, and of heaven and hell. Because few people could read in those days, the intention of these beautiful frescoes was to let villagers understand and learn the story of the Bible and the lives of Orthodox saints. The best preserved are the monasteries of Humor, Moldovita, Patrauti, Probota, Suceava, Voronet, Sucevita, and Arbore. These Churches of Moldavia were made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993 with Sucevita being added in 2010.
We visited four of these monasteries with the first being Humor Monastery or Church of the Assumption of the Virgin. This monastery was founded in 1530 and is one of the first of Moldavia’s monasteries to be frescoed on the exterior as well as the interior. It has an abundance of frescoes including the depiction of the “Return of the Prodigal Son” and also a fresco depicting the devil as a woman. The predominant colors of this monastery are reddish brown with some blues and greens. You will notice that the church is without a steeple which means that it was built by a court official and not a prince.
Around the altar on the east is always the depiction of the 5 layers from hermits to martyrs to bishops to apostles to prophets.
The top row depicts the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary where the archangel Gabriel came to the Virgin Mary announcing that she would become the mother of Jesus Christ. Like a comic strip, the frescoes depict her surprise, fear, and then acceptance of His Divine Will, and then going to tell her husband Joseph. The story continues in the second row with the birth of Jesus Christ.
On the bottom left is a faded depiction of the 1453 siege of Constantinople. On the bottom right is the parable of the Return of the Prodigal Son.
On the left, frescoes depict the commemoration of the Virgin Mary. On the right are scenes from St Nicholas’ life and his miracles.
Here Lucifer or Satan, depicted as a woman, comes to tempt St Nicholas
Because of the sun, wind, rain, and snow, the northern side of all the monasteries barely have any frescoes left.
Next we visited Sucevita Monastery or the Church of the Resurrection, founded in 1581 by the Bishop of Radauti. It took over 20 years to build and looks more like a fortress than a monastery. It is surrounded by high walls and guard towers. It is the last of the 22 painted monasteries of Bucovina built and has the largest number of frescoes. The predominant color here is green and red. On the southern wall is the depiction of the Apocalypse of the Book of Revelation. There is a wonderful depiction of the Ladder to Paradise with the virtuous, assisted by angels, ascending up the ladder to heaven and the sinners falling through the rungs into hell. The western wall has been left blank and this was because the head painter fell and was killed leading other painters to believe that the western wall was cursed.
Here at Sucevita Monastery, you can see the same theme where the alter is painted with frescoes depicting the 5 layers from hermits to martyrs to bishops to apostles to prophets.
On the upper part of the northern wall are scenes from the Genesis with Adam and Eve cast away from Paradise on the top right.
The Ladder to Paradise where the virtuous ascended to heaven while the sinners fell through the rungs into hell. You can see the angels hovering behind the virtuous ready to put a crown on their heads.
The blank western wall
Monk admiring the frescoe of the Tree of Jesse on the southern wall of Sucevita Monastery
Tree of Jesse represents the lineage of Jesus where a tree rises from the laying figure of Jesse of Bethlehem, the father of King David.
The Virgin Mary with angles holding a red veil over her head.
From Sucevita Monastery, we continue on to Moldovita Monastery or Church of Annunciation, built in 1537 by Prince Petru Rares. It is predominantly painted in gold and deep blue. The most important fresco here is the Siege of Constantinople where the intervention of the Virgin Mary saved the city of Constantinople from Persian attack. Also well preserved here are the frescoes depicting the Last Judgement. One can only imagine the awe and admiration when the peasants came face to face with this beautiful monastery hundreds of years ago.
As with the other monasteries, the frescoes around the altar on the east depict the hermits, martyrs, bishops, apostles, and prophets. In the middle are the eyes and ears of God in the form of small winged angels or Cupid.
Eyes and ears of God
On the southern wall is the Prayer Hymn of the Annunciation and the Siege of Constantinople on the left and the Tree of Jesse on the right.
Prayer Hymn of the Annunciation on top with the Siege of Constantinople on the bottom
Frescoes depicting The Final Judgement on the western wall.
Above the entrance into the church is the fresco depicting the Hand of God holding the innocent babies who died in miscarriages or abortions. Because these babies never came onto the earth, they were considered truly pure.
Scenes from the Final Judgement with the river of fire and the sea giving up its dead to judgement.
River of Fire with Satan sitting on a two-headed monster
Sneaked a few photos inside… on top is the fresco of the Crucifixion
To know the patron saint of the church, all you have to do is to look at the panel on the far right in front of the altar. Moldovita Monastery is also called the Church of Annunciation and the panel shows the archangel Gabriel visiting Virgin Mary announcing that she will bear God’s child.
Panel depicting the Annunciation of Virgin Mary
Weather beaten and faded northern wall
Monks tap on this long wooden beam with a mallet to call for prayer. It started when the Turks of the Ottoman Empire forbade the ringing of bells. Also wooden beams have little use during war time whereas metal bells were often melted down to make armaments.
Voronet Monastery or Church of St George was the last church we visited. It was founded in 1487 by Stephen the Great who was at the time the ruling prince of Moldavia. Voronet Monastery is often deemed the most beautiful of all the painted monasteries and was known as the Sistine Chapel of the East across Europe back in the day. The predominating color here is an intense shade of blue commonly known as voronet blue made with crushed lapis luzuli. Even to this day, the exact composition of the paint remains a mystery. The exterior frescoes depict scenes from the Garden of Eden all the way to the Last Judgement. Monastic life at Voronet was halted under the Habsburg rule until 1991 when a community of nuns took over. This is arguably the pinnacle of Orthodox religious art of its time and what makes it even more impressive was that it was said to be built in 3 months, 3 weeks, and 3 days.
Tree of Jesse
Patron saint of Voronet, St George, fighting the dragon on the bottom left.
Last Judgement fresco on the western wall with the Resurrection on the bottom right. In the middle at the bottom is a golden door with a cross and a lock. These are the gates to Heaven and the person next to it is St Peter holding the keys in his hand.
Last Judgement with the devil at the bottom of the river of fire in hell.
Judgement Day fresco with God shown in the middle at the very top. Below him, in the white circle is Jesus Christ and below Jesus Christ is the Holy Spirit in the form of a white dove. Below the dove is a large scale held by the hand of God where the soul of a person is being weighed. Angels are putting his good deeds on the left scale, while devils are putting his bad deeds on the right scale. You can see an angel with a long lance fighting with the devils who are trying to tip the scale.
On the left is Lazarus on his death bed where an angel came to collect his soul while King David played a lute. On the right is a greedy rich man with the devils waiting for his soul.
Abraham, Isaac and Jacob holding the saved souls of the babies killed by King Herod when he heard baby Jesus was born.
Faded northern wall of Voronet Monastery
The barely visible Ladder to Paradise fresco on the right.
I have to say few religious monuments are as mesmerizingly beautiful as these painted monasteries. On top of being art masterpieces, they serve the purpose of spreading the teachings of the Bible to a largely illiterate peasant population during a difficult time in the Roman Orthodox faith. To a non-religious person like me, it was still extremely interesting to see how the various biblical stories were depicted by the master painters of the time. These Painted Monasteries of Bucovina are definitely the highlight of my Romanian adventure and a must see for anyone traveling to the country.
Instead of driving all the way back to Bucharest, we dropped off the rental car at Suceava Airport about an hour away from the monasteries and caught the evening flight (a little over an hour flight) back to Bucharest. Stay tuned for my next post on Bucharest!
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