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 as “toaca”, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Empire 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.