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the painted monasteries of Bucovina

Tucked away in the northwest corner of the country, far away from the lights of the capital city, the painted monasteries of Bucovina receive far fewer visitors than other parts of Romania. On one hand, this is a shame because Bucovina’s idyllic landscape is dotted with more UNESCO world heritage sites than can easily be counted, and certainly more than can be visited in a single day. On the other hand, this is a blessing because those who do venture to this serene and scenic region can experience not just the beauty but also the tranquility of these ancient places of worship.

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Those who know the Bible well will no doubt appreciate the different scenes, depicted in dazzling colors, that cover the monasteries from floor to ceiling inside and out. The annunciation at the Humor Monastery; the last judgment at Voroneţ; the ladder of virtues and the story of Moses’s life at Suceviţa; and the story of Jesus’s life at Moldoviţa, which also features an impressively well-preserved fresco depicting the siege of Constantinople.

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With the exception of portraits commissioned by the nobility, virtually all surviving artwork from the Middle Ages is religious, and we have seen a lot of churches, chapels, cathedrals, basilicas, and monasteries during our travels throughout Europe. We have never seen anything quite like the Bucovina monasteries, however. The only place we’ve visited that seems faintly similar is the cave monasteries in Cappadochia.

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Protected by thick stone walls, the Bucovina monasteries doubled as forts. Although Moldavia’s star was never brighter than during the rule of Ştefan cel Mare, who commissioned the construction of the painted monasteries, those were turbulent times for Eastern Europe. The Ottoman Empire was on the rise, and Constantinople had already fallen into Turkish hands by the time Ştefan cel Mare rose to the throne. Under his rule, Moldavia remained a Christian land, but the great warlord was forced to pay tribute to the Sultan towards the end of his reign, and Moldavia succumbed to complete Ottoman domination not long after his death.

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There are several theories that purport to explain why, in addition to their ornate interior, the monasteries’ outer walls are also covered in frescos. The one we find most compelling ties into the monasteries’ double role as both military installations and houses of God.

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With the Ottomans threatening its borders, Moldavia’s soldiers were garrisoned inside the fortified monastery walls. They, like most villagers, were illiterate. Moreover, they were too numerous to fit inside the monasteries during mass — a privilege that was reserved for the nobility. By painting Biblical stories on the outside, as well as the inside walls, the monasteries’ patrons could ensure that the commoners who could not attend mass also imbibed the ethics of Christian dogma.

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Exposed to the elements for more than five centuries, some of the outside frescos do not survive. A surprising number do, however — and in remarkably excellent condition. Meanwhile, the colors — which differ from monastery to monastery — are so vibrant and vivid that the interior frescos appear to have been painted quite recently.

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Not being Christian ourselves, the various frescos began to blur in our minds by the time we had set foot in the third monastery on our route. Guided tours were available at some of the monasteries, but we chose to keep our own council, appreciating their beauty without delving too deeply into the message behind each painting, and soaking in the quiet monastic life that continues to unfold within the fortified walls in spite of the visiting tourists.

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