Painted churches and monasteries moldavia romania

Painted Monasteries and Churches of Bucovina in Moldavia, Romania

A bit like seeing things inside out, these architectural treasures, unique to the Moldavia area of Romania, have their highly colored, exquisitely detailed 15th and 16th century frescoes on the exterior walls. Exposed to sun, wind, rain for 500 years, they are elaborately decorated with portraits of saints and prophets, scenes from the life of Jesus, images of angels and demons, and heaven and hell. All sought to send a religious message to the people.

Parts have faded away, other areas more protected from the weather, are still vibrant. None of have been retouched, making them even more impressive. Eight of these masterpieces are listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Most were built by Stephen the Great, or by his son Petru Rares with commissioned artists to cover the interiors and exteriors with elaborate murals considered to be masterpieces of Byzantine art.

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Voronet Monastery

Built in between 1487 and 1488 by Stephen the Great, the background color is an intense blue now called Voronet blue. The nuns of the monastery provide excellent guided tours.

One of the exterior murals in particular provides a very positive and uplifting message. The nun who provided the commentary explained that in the painting all religions can find a paradise of love - all enter heaven through the same gate. On another wall, philosophers and prophets are depicted to provide the message that those not reached by the message of prophets can achieve spiritual enlightenment through the message of philosophers.

Outside the walls is the town of Gura Humorului, an incredibly atmospheric and photogenic cemetery, and a market featuring locally produced handcrafts. The town provides fine examples of traditional architecture, and a glimpse at rural living.

Moldovita Monastery

Constructed in 1532 and painted in 1537, the monastery has beautiful grounds that provide a sense of peace and gentleness. One of the noteworthy frescoes depicts the siege of Constantinople (or Istanbul as it is known today).

According to the Romanian tourism website: The Siege of Constantinople frescoes were inspired by a poem dedicated to the Virgin Mary in thanksgiving for her intervention in saving the city of Constantinople from a Persian attack in A.D. 626.

Another noteworthy fresco is the Tree of Jesse, representing the lineage of Jesus, shown as a tree which rises from Jesse of Bethlehem, the father of King David.

The museum of the monastery holds manuscripts dating to the 15th century.

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Sucevita Monastery

Looking more like a fierce fortress than a spiritual place, this monastery also shelters one of the more depressing depictions of the fate of sinners. Founded in 1581 and painted by local artists in 1602 to 1604, it has been a princely residence as well as a fortified monastery. Today, the thick walls shelter a museum presenting a collection of historical and art objects.

But it is best known for the Ladder to Paradise, a fresco that is as far away from the tolerance and ecumenical spirit of the Voronet Monastery as can ever be envisioned.

At first glance I saw a large panel on the northern wall covered with angels. "Uplifting," I thought, until I noticed a ladder climbing to heaven. It was the ladder the led the virtuous to heaven, but woe on those who did not meet the tough standards of each of the 30 steps. They fell through and the devil lurked there to pull them to hell. An angel guards the top of the ladder to make sure that none of the unfortunates falling to hell can somehow escape their fiery fate and scramble up to paradise.

The timing of our visit was perfect, however, since I heard the toaca played to call the nuns to prayer. The nun used mallets to strike a hauntingly beautiful cadence on a wooden board. The use of the toaca was said to have begun when Moldova was under siege by the Ottoman Empire, and the Turks refused to allow the ringing of bells. The use of mallets and a wooden board also became a very practical tradition, since bells could be melted down to make armaments, but a wooden board had little military importance. Others suggest that it is likely a pre-Christian custom to frighten away evil spirits. Regardless, if you have the opportunity to hear the toaca played, do so.

According to Romanian Tourism Sucevita was the last of the 22 painted churches of Bucovina and has the largest number of painted images. The western exterior wall of the church is not painted. Legend has it that work stopped after one of the painters fell from the scaffolding and died.

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Neala McCarten

Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by the author

Updated: September 21, 2016

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