The Painted Monasteries of Bucovina

Gura Humorului, Romania – It was a long and lonely drive over the Carpathians. It began with a steep climb through dense forests, where the sun occasionally pierced the thick canopy and burst into hundreds of yellow flecks of light. On the opposite slopes, bright green hillsides swooped down below phalanxes of sharp pine. Beyond the woods were great long meadows, the occasional wagon-town village, and more steep mountain roads. I stopped for a rest atop a pass where the air was cold, the hills bare, and the empty road unraveled like a ribbon below. Two Romanian men sat in the bed of a truck, but it was otherwise empty and quiet. And after a while, I began the descent along the Carpathian’s eastern slopes into the northeast territory that was once called Moldavia…

Shortly before dusk I arrived at the outskirts of Gura Humorului, where a small ranch house advertised rooms for rent.  I was greeted at the door by a jovial Romanian guy in his twenties.  His name was Stefan, and the house belonged to his mother in law. There was a group of eight French bicyclists staying with him, but for €10 (about $13) he said he’d find space for me. So I ended up sleeping in a dusty side room that likely belonged to the chain-smoking mother in law I’d seen on the back porch. And before long I was collapsed on the bed with the images of the rugged Carpathian hills flickering through my mind.

* * * *

I spent the next few days tracking down the painted monasteries of Southern Bucovina. The weather was perfect: crystal blue sky, 23 degrees Celsius (73 F), and sunny. It was 9am. I rolled down every car window to let the summer in and sped off across broad grassy hills.

The first stop was Voronet, one of the most famous of the churches. Voronet is small with prominent butresses and long roof overhangs that reveal an undercarriage of wooden ribbing. The exterior is covered inch-by-inch in intricate murals, and from afar they resemble colorful tattoos on the irregular surface of a body. I thought the church resembled a stocky contraption or large insect—possibly the way a 15th century peasant would imagine a spaceship, if they imagined that sort of thing.

I took out a book and reviewed the history. These 15th century Christian orthodox monasteries were built during a period of Ottoman expansion, when Islam began piercing the Carpathian frontier and Christianity receded into the depths of Romania’s brooding forests. While Ottoman Muslim forces were sweeping through the Balkans, further north Stephan the Great of Moldavia was beating back invading armies and carving out an oasis of Christian rule.  To insulate the religious thinkers from conflict, the monasteries were built deep within the beech tree forests of Moldavia’s northernmost region, Southern Bucovina. Stephan had them colorfully painted—every inch, inside and out—with Biblical stories.  The slaughter of martyrs, accession of saints, and victories of kings are recorded on walls of lavish gold, blood red, and regal blue. Although Ottoman suzerainty was a foregone conclusion by the time Stephan the Great died in 1504, the monasteries stood firm.


Photo: The church at Voronet.

Voronet in particular is a treasure; some even call it “the Sistene Chapel of the East.” In 1488, it was the first to be constructed, and it’s said that Stephen himself had a hand in building it. So distinct are the church’s rich blue murals that they’ve lent their name to the eponymous color,voronet blue. A fantastic depiction of The Last Judgment sprawls across the exterior rear wall. An enormous funnel of red flames creeps down from the feet of Jesus to the base of the mural. Demons and popes and saints and sinners flutter in the blue space around it. The whole mess of activity is at once chaotic and choreographed.

I continued on to Sucevita monastery. Built a hundred years after Voronet, it was the last of 22 monasteries to be constructed.  It sits at the center of a courtyard fortified by a six-meter high wall and four pointed watchtowers worthy of a medieval castle. The western exterior wall is unpainted, and it’s rumored that it was intentionally left unfinished after a painter fell from a scaffold and died. Nuns in black robes float about the grounds.

On one wall is a badly fading mural known as the Ladder of Virtue. It’s the most famous of the paintings at Sucevita. Legions of angels assist the righteous on their climb toward heaven. Meanwhile, Turks tumble writhing into an abyss below, yanked down by winged demons: dark stuff from the dark ages.

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Photo: The Ladder of Virtue (and the suckers who didn’t make it).

At the corner of the courtyard a husky old nun sat on a tiny stool working out a crossword puzzle. She hollered at me in French, and when I went over she started to chat about the weather.

“Tu n’est pas francais,” she said at one point.

“Ben, non,” I said, and shrugged (trying poorly to sound like I was).

“So many French,” she said.

You meet a lot French travelers in Romania, she pointed out. It was true. To their credit, the French seem more willing than most to travel to remote and less-touristed places. Unfortunately for my ego, it wasn’t my accent that had suggested I was French—it was simply fact that I was in northeast Romania.

I said adieau to the husky nun and headed back to the car. It was nearing lunch and I had several more monasteries to visit before sunset.

* * * *

My last evening in Gura Humorului, I sat for tea with Stefan and his wife. They were telling me that they wanted to move to Canada. Stefan is a computer programmer and his wife is a legal adviser. They wanted a better education for their kids and talked of Canada like it was the land of dreams. They were in the process of completing applications to work there.

“Canada?” I scoffed. Why would anybody want to move to Canada. “Come to the U.S.,” I told them.

“Not possible,” Stefan said. He explained the hurdles to getting a work visa or a student visa in the U.S. The process is lengthy, and the odds are not good.  He pointed out that the same process is far easier in Canada.

“But why go all the way to Canada. It’s so far. Romania is in the EU—go to France, or Germany. They have good schools. Skip the paperwork, go to Europe.”

Stefan laughed. He’s a little plump and has a big smile, so it was a jolly laugh. His wife smiled too and took a sip from her tea.

“Not possible,” she said. “We can’t take our kids to France. You know what they think of Romanians in France?”

I did, although it hadn’t occurred to me. Before beginning my trip I had been living in France, and I had witnessed the bias some French display toward Romanians.

When I moved to France in September of 2010 the Sarkozy government had just begun implementing new policies to remove ethnic Romani people from the country. Known as “Roma” (which is technically a subgroup of the Romani), the target of the campaign was largely people of Romanian and Bulgarian origin. I recall reading in the papers that the government’s campaign included providing free one-way flights out of France for Romanians, and paying them as much as €300 to leave the country. By some estimates, 8,000 people were relocated. The campaign was rightly condemned by many in France, but it belied a lingering climate of deep bias against Romani people that is a fact of life in western Europe.

“We are not moving to Europe,” Stefan said. I did not blame him. There may be an ocean between them and Canada, but there was no way Stephan’s family was moving to France.

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Photo: Sunset behind Stefan’s house.

I sat beneath a pavilion in the back yard as Stefan rocked his boy in wooden rocket ship he had built.

The sun had disappeared behind black hills, and from there it lit the sky in blues, pinks, and yellows. The colors were rich as the pigment that colored the monasteries of Bucovina. These were the same clouds that Stephan the Great slept under, and I wondered if his pious artists weren’t as inspired by these colorful skies—by Romania’s mundane beauty—as they were by biblical passages.

I had really fallen for Romania, and in the worst way: unexpectedly. The countryside was peaceful and mysterious, and I was sad to leave. But there was a girl in Budapest. And so although I didn’t like backtracking (and it was a very long way back) I decided I was turning around. So I went to bed early, and in the morning I began heading west for the first time in months.

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