Voronet and Sucevita: Painted Monasteries of Romania
by Bobbie Leigh
Visit Voronet and Sucevita, vividly painted church monasteries in the Bucovina region of northern Romania, and you will be blown away. Eight churches in this region are listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites, but these two— the youngest and the oldest—are the most compelling.
Part of the magnetism of Voronet is its history. Stephen the Great (1433-1504) was Romania’s George Washington. Revered throughout the ages, he was made a saint in 1992 because he relentlessly fought the Ottoman Turks, winning 48 battles and losing only two. At a moment of crisis, doubting his ability to face 120,000 Turks with an army of 40,000, legend has it that he visited Daniel the Hermit and asked for divine guidance. Daniel told him not to surrender as he would win the war. Stephen fought, won the war, and then built a small church in 1488, after fasting for 40 days and giving credit for his victory only to “the Lord.” (He built a church after every big win, but the most impressive is Voronet.) His son, Petru Rares, had the foresight and the funds to hire master fresco painters to expand and turn his father’s wooden edifice into the stunning, although modest, painted church we see today.
Still surrounded by high stone walls built to repulse Ottoman invaders, the mural-covered church stands in a green valley adjacent to rolling hills. The predominant color used in the murals is a deep and vibrant blue which blends with the sky and contrasts harmoniously with its lush surroundings.
Every centimeter of the church’s façade and interior is covered with frescoes illustrating the “Annunciation,” the “Last Judgment,” and “the Tree of Jesse” which traces Christ’s genealogy, as well as a parade of saints and ancient Greek philosophers. Voronet’s “The Last Judgment,” well preserved and eloquent, has been dubbed “the Sistine Chapel of the Orient.”
Another biblical theme at Voronet is the positively nightmarish “Resurrection of the Dead,” an easy “read” with fantastic imagery recalling the medieval artist Hieronymous Bosch (1450-1516). One question remains: Since the interior walls of the church were frescoed with religious murals, why paint the exterior ones as well?
A second questions mystifies the visitor: How did these local folk artists create these frescoes? Here is a simplified version. After the church was built nothing could be done for about two years while it settled into its foundation. When the master painters arrived with apprentices, their first huge challenge was to gather the ingredients for the paints. In effect, they had to be chemists, steeped in the science of mineral and plant pigments.
To get red paint, these savvy artists had to collect insects (the cochineal louse) and boil them in ammonia. The white to highlight saints’ hands and flesh came from the oxidation of lead soaked in vinegar—that took weeks. Black was easier—it came from burning wood or bones. Yellow came from the buckthorn tree whose berries yielded a yellow dye when cooked with other plant minerals. How they were able to produce so much blue paint is mind boggling considering that it came from the indigo plant probably brought from India.
Before painting the church’s rough stone, walls had to be prepared in a time-consuming process. For a start, they had to be covered with a thick layer of mortar mixed with sand, followed by a thin, fine-grained layer of plaster mixed with lime, flax and fatty egg-yolk as a binder. Once a final layer was applied, the artists painted quickly as once the plaster dried, repainting was not possible. The paint became an integral part of the plaster which somehow could withstand the harsh climate.
Voronet was once a cultural center, housing a school of calligraphers, illuminators and translators from Greek and Slavonic. Parish priests, monks, and friars learned to read and write and translate religious texts. It remained a working monastery until 1775, when the Hapsburgs dismissed the monks. In March, 1991, “after 206 years of desolation” wrote one nun in a religious document, the nuns returned. Today, they run tours, painting workshops, care for animals, and ring the ancient bell to announce prayers – seven times a day.
From a distance, Sucevita (also called Suceava) Monastery looks like a defensive fortress with a central church. Its murals, painted by local artists from 1602-1604, are, for the most part, still in pretty good condition. The “The Ladder of St. John,” on the church’s north façade, is the show-stopper. Like all the church murals in this region, its purpose is to tell stories for the illiterate masses who could “read” the images and interpret their meaning. Also called the “Ladder of Virtues,” it expresses the struggle between good and evil, and man’s effort to reach perfection.
The scene is based on the writing of St. John Climacus. Each rung of the slanting ladder represents a path to heaven. The imagery leaves nothing in doubt. Angels with red wings in orderly rows assist the righteous mounting the allegorical ladder. Sinners are embroiled with nightmarish struggles with grinning demons. As they climb to join Christ in heaven, the demons attack them with arrows, push them off the ladder, and hurl them into hell. There’s no mistaking in this and many other frescoes that the “straight and narrow path” is the only safe one in this world and the next.
Academic Arrangements Abroad (www.arrangementsabroad.com; 212-514-8921) in their Black Sea trip sponsored by Yale and the Metropolitan Museum of Art organized chartered flights from the Romanian port city of Constanta to Suceava. Contact the company for other trips in the region or similar cultural programs.