Painted monasteries in Bukovina (North of Moldavia)

by Victor Grigore, Webphoto.ro

Moldavia (Moldova) is for the time being separated in two countries. The larger, eastern part, belongs to Romania, and the territory west of river Prut forms the independent republic of Moldova. As this historic region was split up shortly after the secret pact between the communists and the nazis in 1939, this makes Romania the last European country still divided as a consequence of a treaty signed by Hitler and Stalin. Both countries share the same language, the same religion and the same history, having a profound respect for medieval king Stephan the Great, who ruled over a unified Moldavia. In fact, the Romanian Orthodox Church even sanctified Stephan the Great for his merits in defending the faith.
Monasteries and fortresses built by Stephan the Great can be found on both banks of Prut river, but most of them are found in Bukovina, the north-eastern part of Romania, mainly around modern cities like Suceava, Radauti, Vatra Dornei and Gura Humorului.
Bucovina is a happy combination between an open air museum, a natural unspoiled mountainous landscape and a reservoir of traditions. The beech forest hills are sprinkled with resorts like Vatra Dornei or Gura Humorului and with the 44 monasteries erected by Stephan the Great. The king built one monastery for each of his battles (most of them with the Turks), including the two battles lost. (Numbers that give the king a pretty good overall fighting balance.)
What makes Bucovina special in the bigger Moldavian region is the Austro-Hungarian occupation in the end of the 18 century, which brought a sense of order to the bucolic life of the county. The name itself, Bucovina, was given by the Habsburgs. The monasteries of Bucovina are on the heritage list of UNESCO and most of them date from the half a century long reign of Stephan the Great an that of his son, Petru Rares. The main monasteries are: Voronet, Humor, Sucevita, Arbore, Moldovita, Varatec and Agapia. The last two are more recent, are not painted on the outside, but are famous for their intense monastic life.

The particularity of the monasteries in Bucovina is the fact that they are completely painted on the outside, which makes them unique in the hole world. The frescoes had both a liturgic purpose and an educational one. The scenes from the Old and the New Testament were a visual representation for the peasants who were usually illiterate. The frescoes were faithful Byzantine paintings done by a strict code, which made the characters recognizable by some features. They also stood as a political manifesto of a dynasty constantly under Ottoman threat, as legendary scenes like the contemporary siege of Constantinople frequently appear on the walls of the churches. The Evangelical parables, the Genesis and the Last Judgment are typical topics for the (usually) unknown artists.
At Humor Monastery, the Siege of Constantinople is presented quite contrary to the historic truth, as a victory of the Byzantines over the Turks. Also here at Humor, built by Petru Rares, is one of the best portraits of Stephan the Great.
Varatec Monastery is famous for the tomb of Veronica Micle, the famous muse of Mihai Eminescu, the national poet of Romanians.
The monasteries are usually different from those in the south of Romania, where Constantin Brancoveanu created his own architectural style. The Moldavian monasteries are made of wood with high spires, in a style that is called Romanian or Moldavian Gothic. On the inside, the Byzantine frescoes are the same like in other Orthodox churches made of brick with a round dome. Except for the high spires, the churches are humble in size, understandable not only for the architectural stage of medieval Romania but also considering the political context of a region that was invaded by foreign armies sometimes on an annual basis.
In the medieval period, only rulers were allowed to build churches with high spires, the noblemen who would finance a church having to settle for a more modest architecture. Such is the case of Arbore Monastery, which only has the main nave, built by a boyar Luca Arbore, later killed for political reasons at the orders of Stephan.
Many monasteries in Bukovina are fortified with high walls to withstand invasions, as is the case with Voronet and Sucevita. Unusual for the medieval ecclesiastic monuments in the West, these monasteries preserved a vivid religious life, with hundreds of monks living in the cells and observing a strict routine of praying, fasting and engagement in numerous physical works such as farming, crafting or painting icons.
Sucevita has the largest collection of painted images, with thousands of portraits on the walls of its church. Here you can see representations of The Tree of Jesse (the genealogy of Jesus Christ), a Stairway of Virtues (an optimistic view of the Last Judgment), the poem of patriarch Sergey (about the siege of Constantinople), but also some unexpected depictions of the Greek philosophers – Pythagoras, Sophocles, Plato, Aristotle or Solon. This was a reminder of the Byzantine heritage of the Romanians, and a nice coincidence with the way Raphael Sanzio painted the rooms in the Vatican just in the same century.

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