Among the most picturesque treasures of Romania are the Painted Monasteries of Bucovina (in northeastern Romania). Their painted exterior walls are decorated with elaborate 15th and 16th century frescoes featuring portraits of saints and prophets, scenes from the life of Jesus, images of angels and demons, and heaven and hell.
Deemed masterpieces of Byzantine art, these churches are one-of-a-kind architectural sites in Europe. Far from being merely wall decorations, the murals represent complete cycles of religious murals. The purpose of the frescoes was to make the story of the Bible and the lives of the most important Orthodox saints known to villagers by the use of images. Their outstanding composition, elegant outline and harmonious colors blend perfectly with the surrounding landscape.
Perhaps a tour of Bucovina’s Painted Monasteries should begin with the small Arbore church. Its highlight is a scene from Genesis, which adorns the western wall. The only church in the region with no belfry towers, because it was not built by a prince, the monastery was founded in 1503 by Luca Arbore, the advisor of Stephen the Great.
Perhaps the most famous and stunning of the painted monasteries is Voronet, founded in 1487 by Stephen the Great to celebrate a victory over the Turks. Widely known throughout Europe as “the Sistine Chapel of the East” due to its interior and exterior wall paintings, this monastery offers an abundance of frescoes featuring an intense shade of blue commonly known as ‘Voronet blue.’ The composition of the paint continues to remain a mystery even now, more than 500 years after the church was built. The frescoes of this church illustrate 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 (such as Aristotle and Platon), martyrs, angels and demons.
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.
To put it in a nutshell, the best-preserved are the monasteries in Humor, Moldovita, Patrauti, Probota, Suceava, Sucevita, and Voronet and Arbore. Seven of the churches were placed on UNESCO’s World Heritage list in 1993. Whether you are interested in religion, history, art or architecture, you will be intrigued by the construction and decor — exterior and interior — of these edifices.
The closest airports are in Suceava and Iasi. Gura Humorlui, Putna, Radauti, Suceava and Vatra Moldovitei are gateway towns and can be reached by train. Then drive to each monastery, sometimes a bus is available.