Bucovina Painted Monasteries

Bucovina is a Romanian historical region situated in the northeastern part of Romania – northern Moldavia, between the wonderful Carpathian Mountains and the Prut River. This part of Romania is especially beautiful, with a clean and unspoiled nature, and wonderfully hospitable locals, a unique landscape and well-preserved traditions. Bucovina is set in the northern part of the region of Moldova, bordering with Ukraine. The Bucovina churches and the monasteries are in perfect harmony with the gorgeous mountains, forests and rivers of the surrounding landscape and create a profound communion between the the human being and the sacred world being, having the sign of the Transcendental. The wonderful Bucovina landscape helps conveying a meditative atmosphere. There are 48 Bucovina monasteries and churches in total, seven of which have been included on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Some of the Bucovina churches are surrounded by fortified walls, built to protect against invaders, especially Turks. The unique monasteries and Byzantine churches of Bucovina, with their exceptional exterior frescoes are among the most fascinating sights in Romania.

Archaeological finds in the environs of Chernivtsi give evidence of a Slavic population in the 2nd–5th century AD. In Post-Byzantine times, after the fall of Constantinople to Fatih Mehmet Sultan in 1453, the Romanian principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia played a part out or all proportion to their size and resources in endowing and maintaining the monastic centers of eastern Orthodox spirituality which now found themselves under Ottoman influence. Politically they also filled the role of buffer states in Europe against otherwise substantially unopposed expansion of that influence, without gaining very much credit or external assistance in the process. Artistically, this was the period during which the unique painted churches of Bucovina in the north of Moldavia were created. These are unique masterpieces whose brilliant poly-chrome paintings were carried out on the external as well as internal walls of the churches, where for half a millennium they have retained their splendor in snow and rain. Bucovina was from 1775 till 1918 part of Austrian Hapsburg Empire. When Austria entered into possession in 1777 the country was almost denuded of population and immigration from the adjacent territories was encouraged which brought numbers of Ruthenes from Galicia and Rumanians from Hungary and Transylvania, together with a smaller infusion of Magyars, Poles, and Germans, to reinforce the mixed population of Rumanians and Ruthenes already in possession. Today is Bucovina divided between Ukraine (incorporating Chernivtsi oblast or most of northern Bukovyna) and Romania (containing most of the Suceava region or southern Bukovina). Suceava, in the Bucovina region of north-east Romania, is full of historical, cultural, and natural attractions – remains of the Princely Court, Mirauti Church, UNESCO World Heritage Site Church of Saint George, Church of Saint Demetrius, the Bucovina Painted Monasteries. This part of Romania is especially beautiful, with a clean unspoiled nature, and a unique landscapes of thick forests and imposing crests (“obcine”), branching off from the Carpathians, which allow a wonderful panorama of valleys, with houses scattered here and there, with large gardens and farm yards inviting one to lie down by the haystacks and look up at the blue sky with its marvelous hues. Bucovina is the region where the painted monasteries that now hold a place of pride among the UNESCO world cultural sites were built. They all lie in the Bucovina region close to the town of Suceava, in the northern part of Romania. The exterior frescoes of the painted Bucovina churches represent one of the most astonishing treasures of the Moldavian art, which has been preserved for almost 5 centuries.

The name of Bucovina dates back to its annexation by the Hapsburg in 1774 and means a land covered by beech forests. Note: The region of Moldova (often referred to in the Western press as Moldavia) is not to be confused with the Republic of Moldova, its eastern neighbor. Gura Humorului is a town of some 15000 inhabitants located just in the center of Bucovina, and makes a perfect base for one-day tours of the Bukovina painted monasteries. The European road E81 passes through Gura Humorului, as it is situated 36 km from Suceava and Campulung Moldovenesc or 152 km from Iasi. After the collapse of the communism the town of Gura Humorului became an important tourist destination, when many hotels, guest houses and restaurants were built.

Besides the religious Bucovina Monasteries which are must see, it is strongly recommended to visit the very interesting Museum of the Traditions from Bucovina founded in 1958 as an ethnographic museum representative for this interesting area. The most important moments in life of a Bucovina peasant’s perspective are birth, wedding, and burial. Birth was a significantly joyful event for every family. In those moments, the mother and the midwife would perform a series of rites. The wedding was an event of utmost importance to the village life in Bucovina. It had multiple implications, both for the individual and the rural community life. Compared to birth and burial, the wedding was a voluntary act that the individual made in the name of some interests: love, wealth, obedience towards the rigorous of tradition. As usual for Romanians, burial rites in Bucovina reflect the mindset that peasants had towards death as a natural phenomenon. In the popular belief, death is the last season, the winter of life, returning to the earth from which new slips will sprout in spring. The Museum of traditions Bucovina consists of 5 halls and exhibits the universe of a local village following the Orthodox calendar. There are different types of ovens and stoves in the museum; the traditional furniture, the interior textiles, the folk costumes complete the image of Bucovina traditional civilization. The Museum of traditions of Bucovina entirely reconstructs the original village, as visitors can see a blacksmith where the peasants purified their iron tools in the month of February. Among many other tools, each of them connected to a moment of the year and to a tradition, visitors have opportunity to can see a plow which marks the beginning of the works in agriculture or a traditional sheepfold. The occupations and crafts are presented in specific workshops, such as: the pottery workshop set in Marginea house, the spoon workshop set in Vicov house, and when the other households will be erected, other workshops will be set : weaving workshop, egg painting workshop, sheep spinner workshop. All these workshops are endowed with the specific tools for each craft, so that the traditional work skills can be learned by children or tourists.

A beautiful museum of decorated eggs in Vama in Bucovina is dedicated to the specific type of art and stands as testimony of the egg painting tradition. In Bucovina there is the popular belief, that if the sanctified Easter egg doesn’t crack the entire year until the next Easter, the family will be protected the whole year. The family would put a sanctified egg in the egg tray, thus starting a tradition of collecting decorated eggs, tradition which is kept even today. The Museum of Decorated Eggs in Bucovina hosts a collection of 3000 exhibits gathered from throughout Romania and abroad. Initiator of this private initiative is Mrs. Letitia Orsvischi, artisan and creator of most exhibits found in the museum. She has represented Romania at many international exhibitions as she is very appreciated in her line of work, and as an artist, she learned the craft from her family.

The Bucovina Monasteries have been built in Bucovina area during the 15th-16th centuries at a ruling times marked by the personalities of the Moldavian prince Stephen the Great (1457-1504), and of his son, Petru Rares (1530-1538; 1541-1546). Stephen the Great was an illustrious army commander, a defender of Christendom and a prolific promoter of culture. The frescoes from Voronet, Humor, Moldovita, Arbore or Sucevita are all governed by a unifying spirit, which is expressed on the one hand by the recurrence of artistic styles, means, motifs and scenes, and, on the other hand by the absolute harmony established between man’s genius at work and the beautiful natural background against which the monasteries were set.

The painted churches of northern Moldavia are seven Romanian Orthodox churches in Suceava County, Romania in northern Moldavia, built approximately between 1487 and 1532. Since 1993, they have been listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. Church of the Resurrection of the Sucevita Monastery was added to the site in 2010. The impressive number of Bucovina churches, with their fine exterior and interior frescoes, have been preserved and handed down from medieval times, and because of their uniqueness and artistic value, were added to UNESCO’s World Cultural Heritage List in 1993. There is, indeed, no other place in the world where such a group of churches, with such high quality exterior frescoes, are to be seen. The Bucovina churches were founded, in most cases, as family burial places of princes and high nobles. Each painter, although following the canonical iconographic program, interpreted the scenes in a slightly different way. Using colors like the famous Voronet blue, the green-red of Sucevita, the yellow of Moldovita, the red of Humor and the green of Arbore, the painters (most of them unknown) described the biblical stories of the earth and heaven, scenes from the lives of the Holly Virgin and Jesus Christ, stories of man’s beginnings and of his life after death. The scenes were first painted on the interior walls, and then extended to the exterior ones. The reasons for such vast scenes were both religious and didactic: to promote Orthodoxy and to educate the illiterate.

Arbore Church

Arbore Monastery is located about 30 km away from Suceava and date from the 16th century. The highlight of the small Arbore (Are’ bo ray) church is a scene from Genesis, which adorns the western wall. The Arbore Monastery is the only church in the region with no belfry towers, because it was not built by a prince, but the monastery was founded in 1503 by Luca Arbore, the adviser of Stephen the Great (Stefan cel Mare). It was painted four decades later by Dragos Coman, one of the greatest 16th century mural painters of Romania. The paintings of the Arbore Monastery are remarkable frescoes painted with five shades of green background as a predominant color. The paintings of the Arbore Monastery feature 47 shades of colors combined with ochre, pink, red, yellow and blue.

Humor Monastery

Humor Monastery is set on a hill’s top in one of the most fascinating of the Suceava county landscapes. 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 altar is separated from the naos by a beautiful ancient iconostasis carved in wood. 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 Humor monastery. The interior and the exterior walls have been adorned with traditional Orthodox fresco-paintings in Byzantine style. The most important frescoes which attract the admiration and the appreciation of the visitors, here to the Humor Church are the old painting exterior walls. The important religious themes are: The Acathist of the Annunciation, The Jesse’s Tree, The Last Judgment. To the bottom of the southern façade was painted the extraordinary scene of the Constantinople’s Siege. That fresco represents a mirror of the historical events concerning the conquest of the capital of the Byzantine Empire in 1453 by the Ottoman army.

Moldovita Monastery

The Monastery of Moldovita (Mol do vee’ tsa), located in the village of Vatra Moldovitei, was built by Petru Rares in 1532. 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. 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 626. In a wonderful political spin, considering the Ottoman threat to Moldavia in the 1500s, the Siege on the walls of Moldovita Church depicts the enemy as turbaned Turks rather than Persians. Another stunning representation depicts the Tree of Jesse, representing Christ’s genealogy, a wide-spread iconographic theme in Europe during the Middle Ages. The open exonarthex of Moldovita Monastery protects what remains of a superb Last Judgement. It also contains murals of military saints St George with Sts Demetrius and Mercuries below him, all on springy horses, with a painting of the Emperor Constantine at the Council of Nicaea. The museum collection of the Moldovita Monastery includes some remarkable old icons, religious books and objects.

Patrauti Church

Built in 1487 and dedicated to the Holy Cross, the monastery at Patrauti is the oldest surviving religious site founded by Stephen the Great. Mural paintings, dating from around 1550, can still be admired on the west façade. In 1775, soon after Bucovina was annexed to the Habsburg Empire, the monastery was turned into a parish church. Today, only the church and a wooden bell tower are still standing from the original monastic complex. This little charming church is symbolic for the Moldavian style in architecture and especially famous for one of the interior paintings, The Cavalcade of the Saints.

Probota Monastery

Only the church and the prince’s residence remain today from the original ensemble founded by Petru Rares in 1530 near the site of an older church from the end of 14th Century. In 1532, the church featured both outside and inside frescoes. In the 19th century, a large part of the mural paintings were replaced. Probota was the first monastery to have external frescoes painted in Moldavia. High walls surround Probota with corner towers for defense and a gate tower built in 1550. Throughout its history, Probota Monastery has undergone several restorations and conservation campaigns. More interventions were carried out in 1930 to replace some of the Gothic tracery and repair the floor. In the steeple above the ruler’s residence, a small museum exhibits icons, furniture, old books, coins and several artifacts.

Sucevita Monastery

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 Monastery 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 Monastery 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. 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.

Voronet Monastery

Perhaps the most famous and stunning of the painted Bukovina Monasteries is Voronet Monastery, founded in 1487 by Stephen the Great, the ruling prince of Moldavia to celebrate his victory over the Turks when he fulfilled the pledge to Daniil, a hermit who had encouraged him to chase Turks from Wallachia. Voronet Monastery is dedicated to Saint George and represents one of the first Moldavian creative elements showing a distinctive style, whose church is a combination of Byzantine, Gothic and local elements. The exterior painting on the Western wall of the Voronet Monastery depicts, on five registers, the Doomsday scene, unique in the whole world. Widely known throughout Europe as “the Sistine Chapel of the East” due to its interior and exterior wall paintings, the Voronet Monastery offers an abundance of frescoes featuring an intense shade of blue and the inimitable “Voronet blue”. The composition of the paint continues to remain a mystery even now, more than 500 years after the church was built.

Portraits of ancient Greek philosophers, such as Aristotle and Plato, are featured in the Tree of Jesus fresco. Added in 1547, the frescoes of this church depict 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 Monastery was interrupted in 1785 under Hapsburg 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 providing guided tours of the monastery.

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