The Painted Monasteries of Bucovina

There was no direct train from Sighiṣoara to Suceava, so Michelle and I had bought tickets on different trains that would eventually get us Suceava by 8am the next morning. The first train ride was uneventful, and at 10pm we disembarked to catch our second train. After being in Ukraine for almost a year, we’ve gotten used to traveling at night by train. In Ukraine, every night train has bunks (no matter whether you buy 1st, 2nd, or 3rd class) so you can sleep for most of the journey and wake up ready for the next day. We had hoped that Romania would be similar, but once we got on our overnight train we realized how wrong we were. Our compartment had 8 seats, with no bunks or options for reclining to sleep. Even worse, our compartment had the most obnoxious, PDA (public display of affection)-filled couple that I have ever had the bad luck of being stuck with. It was distracting (and disgusting) how close they managed to be, and between their antics and being forced to sit up all night, it seemed like the longest journey ever. At one point I nodded off for a bit, only to wake up to suction noises coming from their seats. The worst part was that they were in the seats directly facing Michelle and I, so it was kind of hard to miss. Let’s just say that at 8am, Michelle and I couldn’t get off the train fast enough : )

Once our train arrived in Suceava, we made our way to the “High Class Hostel” (isn’t that a great name for a hostel?) where Michelle had arranged for us to take a tour of the Painted Monasteries. A lady from Australia was going with us too, and soon the driver showed up with the car and we were off. When the tour started, I was worried that our exhaustion would make the tour hard to enjoy, but the car was comfortable and the scenery we passed was beautiful. In no time at all we were at our first stop—Suceviţa.

The weather was a little bit drizzly, but the monastery was beautiful. I’ve never seen a church like this, that is covered in murals both on the inside as well as the outside! Suceviţa is an Orthodox Christian Monastery for nuns, and its the largest of all the painted monasteries. It was built in 1581, and is surrounded by heavily fortified walls to protect the church from Ottoman raids. The most famous mural of Suceviţa is the “Ladder of Virtue, showing the saints ascending to heaven whilst sinners (depicted as Turks) fall down to be taken by demons” (check out this website for more pictures and information about Suceviţa).

The Ladder of Virtue (Click on the picture to see the larger version!)

Our next stop was at the monastery of Moldoviţa, which was built in 1532. Its still in use today, and one of the nuns who lives there described the murals as “the holy scriptures in color.”

The painter of the beautiful murals of Moldoviţa was Toma of Suceava, and his best known mural is the “Tree of Jesse,” which depicts the lineage of Jesus Christ. It was an incredibly visual experience, as you can see the face of each person in Jesus’ family tree there on the exterior wall of the church. I can just imagine how powerful these murals must’ve been for the illiterate peasants who came to these churches to worship; the church is literally covered in murals explaining the Bible for all those who cannot read the words themselves.

The Tree of Jesse

Its unbelievable how well preserved these murals are—they’ve been exposed to the elements for 500 years, and they’re still in excellent condition. 7 of the painted monasteries are even on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites, recognized as masterpieces of Byzantine art and architecture.

Another beautiful mural at Moldoviţa

After seeing Moldoviţa, our driver suggested that we stop for lunch and pulled out a menu so we could order ahead of time. This was our first time eating “Romanian” food, and I was a little disappointed to discover that its very similar to Ukrainian food. Which isn’t bad, but its just not exciting. Here’s a picture of Michelle and I at lunch—can you tell how tired we were? : )

After lunch we headed to see the most famous painted monastery of them all—Voroneţ. It was founded in 1487 by Stephen the Great, Prince of Moldavia, to celebrate his victory over the Turks. According to legend, he built it in under four months!

Voroneţ is the most famous of all the painted monasteries because of its incredible murals, especially The Last Judgment which covers the whole exterior of the western wall.  Our tour guide explained the spectacular composition of the murals by comparing them to the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel, which are of the same age. The Sistine Chapel is indoors and has faced countless restorations since it was completed, while the beautiful murals at  Voroneţ (and the other monasteries) are outside and exposed to the elements, and yet today are still in excellent condition with very little restoration. If you think about it this way, the painted monasteries are even more of a miracle than the beautiful Sistine Chapel!

Voroneţ  is known as “the Sistine Chapel of the East”

A closer look at “The Last Judgment” (Click to see the full-sized image!)

The composition of the paint used on these monasteries remains a mystery to this day, and it continues to amaze people how well the paint has stood the test of time. The dominant color of The Last Judgment is a vivid cerulean blue, which is so distinctive that today art historians refer to it as “Voroneţ blue.”

The final painted monastery on our tour was called Humor, which was built in 1530. This was the smallest painted monastery we saw, but I really liked it. I think if I was a peasant in the 1500s and I had so many incredibly beautiful churches within a 30 km radius (and had a horse to get me there), I would probably go to Humor . It has its own unique character, and the nuns who bustled around (and even led their own services) had an aura of tranquility.

Toma of Suceava, who painted the murals at Moldoviţa, was also responsible for the murals of Humor. But Humor’s most interesting claim to fame is not in the artwork, but in the architecture. The back of the monastery features a traditional Moldavian open porch, which was the first of its kind to be built in Bucovina.

In case you’re wondering, Bucovina is a historical term that refers to the area surrounding the northeastern part of the Carpathian Mountains. The territory once known as Bucovina is now split between Ukraine and Romania; my oblast (or region) in Ukraine, the Chernivetska Oblast, is part of Bucovina, while the Painted Monasteries in northern Romania are also located in the area that was once called Bucovina. Just an interesting historical tidbit for you to know : )

Seeing the Painted Monasteries was the last stop on our tour of Romania. So after a whirlwind trip, Michelle and I headed back home to Ukraine!

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