The Painted Monasteries of Romania

15 February 2014

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You would reasonably expect a monastery to have frescoes - inside.  Yet a number of monasteries in the Romanian region of Moldavia have centuries old frescoes on the exterior of their katholikon (main church) which have, incredibly, survived the years and the elements.  Perhaps the most famous, which you can see here, is the Voronet Monastery with its bright azurite background – known to Romanians as Voronet blue - but it is not alone in this remarkable tradition.

The scope of the fresco is enough to make you dizzy.  Each part of the exterior wall seems to be dedicated to telling a Biblical story.  On its western wall, it shows the Last Judgement.  The northern wall shows Genesis with the southern wall featuring the family trees of people from the Old Testament.  Yet what is, seemingly, implausible is that these frescoes have survived for so long without being touched up in any way.  The paint, after all, is just a few millimeters thick. Yet here they are.

Image Credit Flickr User Marche-Lointaines
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Image Credit Flickr User Marches-Lointaines
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Although exactly when the frescoes were painted is not known the monastery itself was ordered by Stefan the Great of Moldavia in 1488 who wished to celebrate and venerate his victory in a recent battle against the Ottoman Empire.   His construction of the monastery coincides with the arrival of Saint Daniil the Hermit who is buried inside the monastery and was its first abbot.

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The frescoes are, quite simply, astonishing.  Yet when the Hapsburgs annexed the northern part of Moldavia in 1775 it was deserted soon after and the monastic community did not return until the 1990s.  How it weathered its abandonment so well remains something of a mystery: some say it is little short of a miracle. It is little wonder, then, that Voronet is often referred to as the Sistine Chapel of the East.

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Yet Voronet is not the only Romanian monastery to have its exterior walls painted.  There are other lesser known examples which add up to an extraordinary gift to the cultural heritage of the country.  Humor Monastery (above) boasts its own external frescoes which may not have weathered the elements as well as those at Voronet but are still incredibly striking.  Humor was built in 1530, abandoned in 1786 and, like Voronet, did not reopen again until the end of the twentieth century.

Image Credit Flickr User Prof Mortel
Image Credit Flickr User Prof Mortel
Unlike those at Voronet, we known when the Humor frescoes were painted and by whom. Choosing a dominant reddish brown for his work, Toma of Suceava oversaw the painting of the frescoes in 1535.  His subjects were from the Bible – the Last Judgement and a visual paean to the Virgin.  However, his work also includes the Siege of Constantinople which was a propaganda tool against the Ottoman Empire, which was at the height of its powers at the time the frescoes were created.  Even though this particular siege of Constantinople was in 626CE and the invaders were Persians, they are still nevertheless depicted as Turks!

Image Credit Flickr User Marches Lointaines
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Image Credit Flickr User Marius Burlan
Moldovita Monastery was built in 1532 to serve as a symbolic and protective barrier against the Turks.  It was built by Voivode  (warlord) Petru Rares who was the illegitimate son of Stefan the Great (who ordered the construction of Voronet).

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Rares was a Turkish vassal who, despite inheriting his father’s love of constructing religious buildings, oversaw a number of disasters for his country and actually lost the throne for two years in 1539.  Moldivata remains one of his finest achievements, however.

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The 1500s saw a massive investment in religious buildings in the country.  In 1585, Sucevița Monastery (above) was built and this too had exterior frescoes.  As with the other monasteries, Sucevita combines elements of both Byzantine and Gothic architecture and its paintings too show incidents from both the Old and the New Testament.  However, it is probably the last of the monasteries to be painted: it is thought its frescoes date from the beginning of the seventeenth century.  It is also different in as much that it was the residence of local nobility as well as monks.

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There is a certain mystery to Sucevita.  The western wall of the monastery is unpainted – and so stands out as a certain puzzle.  The local legend maintains that the artist responsible for the frescoes fell to his death from the scaffolding.  The other artists, seeing this as a portent of evil, were too afraid to continue the work and abandoned it, unfinished.  There is no other story offered, so perhaps it is best to believe this one.

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Image Credit Flickr User Globetrotter Rodrigo
Image Credit Flickr User Globetrotter Rodrigo
Although Sucevita was never abandoned it had a period of relative inactivity.  While the communists were in power, from 1947-1989 only nuns over the age of fifty were permitted a licence to remain at the site.  Once democracy came to Romania after the 1989 Romanian Revolution, the place began to thrive once more.

Images by Waqas Ahmed, G Travels, Richard Mortel, iursu
Despite their UNESCO World Heritage status the painted monasteries of Moldavia remain little known outside Romania.  These represent, however, an amazing story of survival through the centuries as well as contributing significantly to both Romanian and European heritage.

First Image Credit Flickr User Marius Burlan


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