Voronet Monastery. The Esoteric Message Behind Orthodox Painting

by Victor Grigore, Webphoto.ro

The Voronet Monastery is the most famous buildings of Stephan The Great, a monument included on the list of UNESCO’s world heritage. Its frescoes speak of subtle esoteric knowledge held by medieval theologians of Moldavia and also of the skills of anonymous painters.

Voronet is situated 5 km to Gura Humorului, in the county of Suceava. Starting 1991 the monastic life was resumed (after centuries) alongside with the now traditional tourist destination. The building was erected in 1488 in just three months and three weeks at the advice gave to the king by the legendary monk Daniel. The monastery was given by the king three villages and several possessions.

The closed threshold was added during the reign of Petru Rares, the son of Stephen the Great. Walls have very little space for windows in order to gain as much space possible for paintings which held an pedagogical role, as well as aesthetically. Since the majority of the medieval population was illiterate, religious painting was also considered “the Gospel of the simple man”.

The western wall holds The Last Judgment, the southern wall, the patron of the monastery, St George killing the dragon, Genesis, The Testament of Virgin Mary and lives of various saints such as St Joan and St Nicholas; on the northern wall there is painted the passage of soul after death.

The exterior painting, dating from Stephan’s time was supervised by Metropolit Grigorie Rosca. The workers that actually painted the church are unknown.

The fresco of The Last Judgment from the western wall is so impressive that it is also compared with Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, created almost in the same period of time. It is the most eloquent presentation of the theme of Revelation in the Eastern Christianity. Its details reveal phenomenal esoteric knowledge and a strict compliance with the Orthodox canons.

With all this studiousness, originality is not at all absent: the turks (the country was often invaded by the Ottoman Empire) are depicted as the villains, while various Romanian costumes are mingled with the saints army along with traditional instruments.

It is impressive how medieval theologians were able to compress tens of chapters from the Revelation of St Joan, the prophet Daniel and other texts of the Bible in a picture with such impact.

The composition of The Last Judgement from Voronet is organized on five horizontal layers, but the difference between these layers almost goes unnoticed in comparison with the drastic contrast between the two hemispheres: the left and the right, chromatically marked by the river of fire bursting from the feet of the throne of The Judge.

In the upper layer, right under the wooden roof, under a decorative line with folkloric symbols is represented The Father. Angels open Heavens Gates revealing the face of the Creator that could not be seen by men until that day. The Lord is surrounded by a round rainbow. Unsuspecting tourists might be shocked to discover here clear representation of the zodiac signs, but the esoteric message is clear. From the two sides, two angels are rolling the sky with stars like stripes of carpet. So Medieval theologians don’t dismiss the occult, but also acknowledge that signs and secret knowledge will cease their role in the presence of Truth, personified by God in the end of history.

In the center of the second layer of the painting there is the second person of The Holy Trinity, Jesus Christ, sitting on the throne, blessing the believers with one hand and showing His hand wounds to the sinners on the left. The Mother of God is at His right, while Joan is at the left. The Apostles are in the first row of the jury.

In the center of the third layer is The Holy Spirit, symbolized by a white dove, the form in which He revealed at the baptism of Jesus. From the throne of The Holy Ghost goes out a hand holding a balance on which souls are weighted. On each side, angels and devils fight for the souls of humans.

At the limit of the two worlds departed by the river of fire stands Moses, presented with the aura of a holy man, holding a scroll with the prophecy of a Messiah from the Old Testament which he is showing to Jews and pagans.
The sinners presented in the struggle between angels and demons are naked, as the usual representation of Adam and Eve in various representations of the Genesis in Romanian churches. In the style of naive picture, the runs are exaggerated as a symbol of a humanity governed not by spirit, but by matter. But in the vision of those who painted Voronet, the primordial couple have finally surpassed this phase. So Adam and Eve are painted as patriarchs at the end of time, with aura just like saints. They both atoned their original sin and after a waiting that lasted as the entire history kneel on one side and another of the throne of The Holy Ghost.

Two interesting diagonals are obtained by looking at the two pairs that frame the throne of The Savior and the throne of The Holy Spirit. In the superior row, The Mother of God wears garments that are different only in shade of those of Eve. She reaches the greatest honor accessible to a human maintaining her role as an archetype of woman. The place she occupies in this scene is eloquent and superior to that of Apostles, prophets or patriarchs and we have to assume that this status of The Holy Mother is accompanied by a similar level of knowledge by her participation to a revealed truth. It is an image and a philosophy that makes futile all speculations about the misogynism of the Orthodox world.
The second symbolic diagonal is created by Adam and St Joan, or between the one that had fallen because of his lack of obedience after tasting the fruit from The Tree of Knowledge, and the one who which the secrets of the end were revealed in the Revelation.

A particular impact has the wall of saints with golden aura gathered at the wall of Heavens. Their leader is Peter, recognizable by the key he holds in his hand. The status of Virgin Mary is reiterated by placing her in the middle of the garden of Heaven. Near her, there is the robber from the cross whom was promised to be the first citizen of Heaven by our Lord during His crucifixion The patriarchs are also there, holding their numberless progenies.

In the river of fire are depicted infidels, idol-worshipers and the Devil sitting on a dragon with two heads holding a black cup. Across the river, The Sea and Earth in human forms release the bodies of all dead in the entire history. Wild beasts also return the bodies of their killings for the moment of resurrection.

The threshold was constructed after the building was erected and changed the side from which believers enter the church, but it also made room for a wall on which to lay this painting without any window at all. On the Southern wall the famous blue color, known as “Voronet blue” is most present. The color is obtained from an unknown natural pigment that shifts shades by the level of humidity, turning from blue to almost green. The picture of the Northern wall is the most deteriorated since this is a mountain territory with heavy snow falls and snow storms during the winters.

In order to protect this world treasure, a massive stone wall was erected. Because of that wall and of the very large trees surrounding it is impossible to photograph the monastery from one of the surrounding mountains. The landscape is however magnificent and there are several monasteries that can be visited in regular tours created by travel agencies.

When visiting Voronet or any other monastery in Bucovina you will be asked to wear decent clothes (garments are given to tourists at the entrance in case you happened to wear shorts or short skirt). Filming or taking pictures is not allowed inside the church of the monastery, but the outside can be photographed for a very small fee (3-5 dollars). Accommodation possibilities are numerous as tourism tends to be the primary occupation in the area.

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