Bucovina and Moldavia

Moldavia rivals Transylvania when it comes to rich folklore, natural beauty and astonishing history. Over the past 500 years, history, culture and religious life have molded Iasi, the cultural capital of Moldavia. Iasi boasts an impressive number of Orthodox churches, almost 100, most of them located in the Golden Plateau, representing the nucleus of the city, around which the city developed over the centuries. One of the most famous monuments in the city is the stunning Church of the Three Hierarchs, built in 1639. Another major landmark in Iasi is the neo-gothic Palace of Culture, built between 1900-1926, currently housing the Ethnographic Museum, the Art Museum, and the History Museum of Moldavia.  (Iasi Museums)

Nestled in the rolling hills of northern Moldavia is the region of Bucovina, home to one of the world’s greatest art treasures: the UNESCO World heritage sites of the Painted Monasteries of Bucovina. Built in the 15th and 16th centuries and featuring colorful exterior frescoes depicting dramatic religious scenes, these richly decorated houses of worships are unique in the world.

The most famous of these, often called “the Sistine Chapel of the East” is Voronet Monastery. Erected in 1438 by Stefan the Great, Voronet’s most stunning feature is a Last Judgment fresco painted – as at all the churches – on the exterior façade. The blue paint that has miraculously never faded is known throughout the world as ‘Voronet blue’. The artists here worked in isolation, guarding their trade secrets and to this day, the composition of the paint remains a mystery.

Other painted churches not to be missed include Sucevita, with its distinctive greens, and Humor, where the frescoes are predominantly red. Also nearby are,ArboreDragomirna, Moldovita and Putna monasteries.

The Painted Monasteries Highlights

Among the most picturesque treasures of Romania are the Painted Monasteries of Bucovina (in northeastern Romania). Their painted exterior walls are decorated with elaborate 15th and 16th century frescoes featuring portraits of saints and prophets, scenes from the life of Jesus, images of angels and demons, and heaven and hell.

Deemed masterpieces of Byzantine Art, these churches are one-of-a-kind architectural sites in Europe. Far from being merely wall decorations, the murals represent complete cycles of religious murals. The purpose of the frescoes was to make the story of  The Bible and the lives of the most important Orthodox saints known to villagers by the use of images. Their outstanding composition, elegant outline and harmonious colors blend perfectly with the surrounding landscape.

Visitors to the Painted Monasteries will often witness a nun or a monk beating a long beam with a mallet, tapping out a call to prayer. The tradition started during the siege of Moldavia by the Ottoman Empire when the Turks forbade the ringing of bells. The striking of wooden or metal bars, known astoaca”, replaced the ringing of bells and thus, became a tradition, reinforced by the fact that in times of war, bells were often melted down to make cannons.

Whether you are interested in religion, history, art or architecture, you will be intrigued by the construction and decor — exterior and interior — of these edifices.

The best-preserved are the monasteries in Humor, Moldovita, Patrauti, Probota, Suceava, Sucevita, and Voronet. Another, a small church, is located in the village of Arbore. Seven of the churches were placed on UNESCO’s World Heritage list in 1993. The eighth, Sucevita, is awaiting sanction to be added on the list.

Humor Monastery

Location: Bucovina – Northeastern RomaniaNearby large town: Suceava (25 miles east)Access: car, bus (from Suceva), trainNearest train stations: Gura Humorului

Founded in 1530, Humor (Hoo mor) is rather small physically, but looms large among Bucovina’s treasures with a variety of frescoes dating from 1535, including one illustrating the Return of the Prodigal Son” and one with a “humorous” depiction of the devil as a woman.

The church, topped by a cross-shaped shingled roof, is without a steeple, indicating that it was built by a court official rather than a prince. The predominant hues of the frescoes are reddish brown with some rich blues and green infusions. An extremely valuable collection of icons from the 16th century is displayed in the monastery.

Moldovita Monastery

Location: Bucovina – Northeastern RomaniaNearby large town: Suceava (55 miles southeast)Access: car, train (from Suceava to Vama, 1¼ hours, and from Vama to Vatra Moldovitei, 35 min.)Nearest train station: Vatra Moldovitei hc

The Monastery of Moldovita (Mol do vee” tsa), located in the village of Vatra Moldovitei, was built by Petru Rares in 1532.“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. In a wonderful political spin, considering the Ottoman threat to Moldavia in the 1500s, the Siege on the walls of Moldovita Monastery depicts the enemy as turbaned Turks rather than Persians.The predominantly gold and deep blue paintings on the exterior walls were completed in 1537.  The large and vivid Siege of Constantinople” highlights the frescoes.

Another stunning representation depicts the “Tree of Jesse”, representing Christ’s genealogy, a wide-spread iconographical theme in Europe during the Middle Ages.

Sucevita Monastery

Location: Bucovina – Northeastern RomaniaNearby large town: Suceava (31 miles southeast)Access: car, bus (from Radauti)Nearest train stations: Radauti, Vatra Moldovitei hc

High walls and heavily buttressed defensive towers surround the great monastic complex of Sucevita, giving it the appearance of a fortress. Founded in 1581 by Gheorghe Movila, Bishop of Radauti, it was later expanded by his brother, Ieremia, ruling prince of Moldavia, who added massive ramparts and turrets.

An elegant steeple resting on a star-shaped base tops the church. Massive eaves protect the outside frescoes, painted by local artists in 1602-1604.

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.

Sucevita boasts a magnificent depiction of the Ladder to Paradise”. Red-winged angels in orderly rows attend the righteous on a slanting ladder to the heavens, each rung inscribed with one of the monastic virtues. Sinners fall through the rungs and are driven by grinning devils to the chaos of hell. On the south side, foliage entwines the rows of figures in the “Tree of Jesse”. Following it is the “Hymn to the Virgin”.

Sucevita was a princely residence as well as a fortified monastery. Today, the thick walls shelter a museum presenting an outstanding collection of historical and art objects. The tomb covers of Ieremia and Simion Movila – rich portraits embroidered in silver thread – together with ecclesiastical silverware, books and illuminated manuscripts, offer eloquent testimony to Sucevita”s importance first as a manuscript workshop, then as a printing center.

Voronet Monastery

Location: Bucovina – Northeastern RomaniaNearby large town: Suceava (20 miles east)Access: car, bus (from Gura Humorului), 3 ½-mile walk from Gura HumoruluiNearest train stations: Gura Humorului

Perhaps the most famous and stunning of the painted monasteries is Voronet (Vo ro nets), founded in 1487 by Stephen the Great to celebrate a victory over the Turks. Widely known throughout Europe as “the Sistine Chapel of the East” due to its interior and exterior wall paintings, this monastery offers an abundance of frescoes featuring an intense shade of blue commonly known as ‘Voronet blue.’  The composition of the paint continues to remain a mystery even now, more than 500 years after the church was built.

Voronet Monastery was founded by Stephen the Great, ruling prince of Moldavia, to fulfill a pledge to Daniil, a hermit who had encouraged him to chase the Turks from Wallachia. After defeating the Turks, Stephen erected Voronet in less than four months.

Portraits of ancient Greek philosophers, such as Aristotle and Plato, are featured in the Tree of Jesse” fresco.

Added in 1547, the frescoes of this church illustrate biblical scenes, prayers, episodes of sacred hymns and themes such as The Last Judgment” and The Ladder of St. John”, featuring colorful and detail-rich imagery of apostles, evangelists, philosophers, martyrs, angels and demons.

Monastic life at Voronet was interrupted in 1785 under Habsburg rule. It returned only in 1991 with the arrival of a community of nuns which strives to harmoniously combine a religious life of prayer with housekeeping and farm work. The nuns run a painting workshop and provide guided tours of the monastery for visitors.

Original Fresco-Making Tehniques

Scripture Alfresco

Smithsonian Magazine, June 2007Excerpts of an article by Andrew Curry. Mr. Curry is a Berlin-based journalist and former editor at the Smithsonian.

Creating the frescoes took a sure, quick hand. Teams of four or five painters would first even out the church’s rough stone walls with a thick layer of mortar, then smooth on a thin, fine-grained layer of lime plaster mixed with natural fibers such as finely chopped straw. Once the last layer was applied, the artists had only a few hours to work before the plaster dried. Apprentice painters would apply background color and decorations, while faces and hands were reserved for master painters.

A portrait of the donor and his family presenting a miniature version of the church usually appears to the right of the door in the nave of the churches. These painted models are important historical records of the original appearance of the monument.There are no chairs or pews in Orthodox churches, only occasional choir stalls in the nave.

Artists had to be chemists as well, mixing pigments from rare clays, semiprecious stones and common minerals. Azurite and malachite created vivid blues and greens. Ochre from clay was heated to produce reds, yellows and browns. As the plaster dried, it reacted with the mineral pigments, fixing the colors. The technique, which involved no organic materials unlike frescoes that use egg whites as binder, made the colors unusually durable.

Food & Wine

Traditional food

Bean soup, stewed sauerkraut, “parjoale” (the local version of meatballs) or “iahnie” (a dish made of beans), are some of Moldavians’ favorite dishes. Standing out among the soups and broths is “ciorba de potroace”, made with chicken entrails boiled with carrots, onions, parsley, a spoonful or two of rice and flavored with “bors”.

The Moldavian sarmale” (meat rolls in sauerkraut leaves) are not only very popular in Romania but are also a famous dish served in romanian restaurants around the world. These meatballs, rolled in cabbage or vine leaves, are made from minced pork mixed with rice, salt, pepper, chopped dill and parsley as well as chopped onion; small portions of this mixture are then rolled in cabbage or vine leaves and boiled. Thesarmale” are always accompanied by “polenta”, a finely ground yellow cornmeal.

Local deserts include papanasi” – cottage cheese dumplings (boiled or fried) and “Poale in Brau”(sweet cheese pie).

Other local specialties:Poale-n brau – small pies made from dough, eggs and cheese and fried in oilPasca – a sweet cheesecake

Vineyards

For centuries, Moldavia has been renowned for its vineyards and wines. One third of the wine growing surface of Romania is to be found in this part of the country.

Cotnari Vineyard

Located in the small village of Cotnari, the Cotnari vineyards are famous for their delicious sweet white wines made of grapes rich in sugar and harvested in late autumn following the first frost. The quality of these wines relies on a combination of rich soil, the late harvest and the presence of a special mold(Botritis cinerea). The vineyards have a long history, spanning over seven centuries, dating from the time of Stephan the Great (1457 – 1504).

The winery’s most popular wines include Francusa (dry), Feteasca Alba (semi-sweet) – highly appreciated for preserving the flavor and freshness of the grape; and the sweet, golden Grasa and Tamaioasa dessert wines.

Grasa de Cotnari – A naturally sweet wine with a delicate fragrance and a smooth interplay of fruitiness and acidity.

Tamaioasa Romaneasca – A naturally sweet or semi-sweet white wine with subtle honey and basil aromas, an exquisite amber color and a persistent rich taste. Its sweet taste may also suggest a blend of rose petals and wild berries.