The Moldavian monasteries in southern Bukovina are captivating for their unique colourful frescoes that cover the interior and exterior walls as well as the protective walls all over.
The Moldavian monasteries are located in southern Bukovina in Romania, the former crown land of the Austrian monarchy. Some of the colourful places of worship have been UNESCO World Heritage Sites since 1993 and 2010, respectively, and are among our top 10 sights of Romania, as well as our top 10 monasteries in the world worth seeing.
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Emergence of the Moldavian monasteries
When the Romanian Orthodox Moldavian monasteries were built in the 15th and 16th centuries, the area was still called the Principality of Moldavia, hence their name. The first patron of the Moldavian monasteries was Ștefan cel Mare (Stephen the Great), who went down in history as the ruler and symbolic figure of Moldavia.
Allegedly, he had a church or monastery built after each successful campaign. This resulted in no fewer than 40 sacred buildings, which are said to commemorate his victories over the Hungarians, Poles and Turks. His successors, above all Petru Rares, continued the traditional building of Moldavian monasteries.
Uniqueness of the Moldavian monasteries
Monasteries are everywhere - why should you visit the Moldavian monasteries in particular? The special thing about the Moldavian monasteries is their colourful painting, which is unique in Europe.
The monks also wanted to bring the contents of the Holy Scriptures closer to the lower classes, who could neither write nor read. And so they used the interior walls, façades and protective walls of the monastery to depict scenes and parables from the Bible in colourful drawings, paintings and frescoes.
The decoration of the outer walls also drew people's attention to the stories from Christianity who, for whatever reason, did not want or were not allowed to enter the churches. The frescoes were created by partly unknown artists and are considered absolute masterpieces of Byzantine art.
Where can you find the Moldavian monasteries?
The first Moldavian monastery built by Ștefan cel Mare was the Putna Monastery in the town of the same name. It was built between 1466 and 1469 and is picturesquely situated in a valley of the eastern Carpathians.
The largest city in the region of the Moldavian monasteries is Suceava, which can be reached by car, train or plane. All the Moldavian monasteries worth seeing are within a radius of 60km.
From Suceava, the route continues to Gura Humorului (near the Humor and Voronet monasteries) and to Vatra Moldovitei (near the Moldovita monastery). The monasteries south of Suceava can be reached via Falticeni, Pascani and Bacau. Accommodation can be found in almost all places.
Which are the most beautiful Moldavian monasteries?
Some of the paintings were destroyed by the weather over the course of time, but a large part of the depictions have survived to this day. The paints used, which have lasted until today, still puzzle experts. It is now known that they were made from plant and mineral pigments and used on the wet wall, but the recipe could not be fully traced.
The most beautiful paintings can be found on the walls of the monasteries of Arbore, Moldovița, Sucevița and Voroneț. These are also all part of the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage. They also include the monasteries of Humor, Pătrăuți, Probota and Suceava.
The Putna Monastery is the first of the monasteries in the Vltava to have a special status. When visiting the monasteries of the Vltava, you should not miss it.
At the time of its construction, the monastery, like the other Moldavian monasteries, was decorated inside and out all over with masterful frescoes. The monastery church was destroyed by the Tartars in 1653 and rebuilt by 1662 - but the spectacular wall paintings were not renewed.
Therefore, unlike most other Moldavian monasteries, the Putna monastery is not so fantastic to look at from the outside. However, due to its deeper significance for the monasteries of Bukovina, it is always worth a visit!
Pictures: Putna Monastery
Origin of the Putna Monastery
The Romanian Orthodox monastery in Putna was built between 1466 and 1469 by Prince Ștefan cel Mare in a picturesque valley of the eastern Carpathians. According to legend, he shot an arrow and where it landed stands the altar of the monastery today. The monastery was consecrated on 3 September 1470.
In the following centuries, Putna developed into a spiritual centre where monks were trained, religious texts translated, valuable manuscripts preserved and chronicles written. The flourishing forestry on the largest landholding in Bukovina also made Putna widely known.
The Putna Monastery also has special significance as the final resting place of Prince Stefan the Great. He was buried in Putna in 1504, where his second and third wives are also buried. Their gravestones can still be seen in the monastery cemetery today. In 1992, Stefan cel Mare was canonised by the Orthodox Church as the "umbrella and protection of the Christian faith" and has been celebrated on 2 July ever since.
Visit to the Putna Monastery
The Putna monastery, enclosed by a thick wall, is entered through a gate in the treasure tower dating from 1481. The monastery, monastery church and monastery garden form a picturesque ensemble behind the archway. A bust in the Putna monastery garden commemorates Mihai Eminescu, Romania's most important poet in the 19th century.
Inside the monastery church you can now also see the frescoes for which the Moldavian monasteries are so famous. Here, too, the master painters Mihail and Gavill Morosan were at work. Under a canopy of white marble, the tomb of Prince Stefan immediately catches the eye.
Putna Monastery Museum
Also interesting is the monastery museum, which reminds us of the monastery's importance at that time with valuable manuscripts and historical maps and is considered the most important monastery museum in Romania. Furthermore, gold and silver work, paintings, icons, linen cloths and sacred objects are among the exhibits, which date back to the 15th century.
Among the greatest treasures are the elaborately decorated burial shrouds of Stephen the Great and his second wife Maria de Mangop from 1477, as well as the iconostasis curtains intricately embroidered with gold threads from 1484. They are among the most important in the world and are of inestimable cultural-historical value.
The present monastery church of Humor was built in 1530 under Petru Rares and dedicated to the Feast of the Assumption. Not far away, the ruins of the previous church built in 1415 can still be seen. At that time, responsibility for the construction was assumed by the Grand Chancellor Toader Bubuiog and his wife Anastasia, who are both buried in the church.
PICTURES: Humor Monastery
Origin of the frescoes at Humor Monastery
Five years after the completion of the monastery, i.e. in 1535, the fantastic murals by the artist Toma Zugravul of Suceava were added to bring the teachings of the Bible closer to the illiterate of the region. Two years later, he also decorated the Moldovița Monastery. This makes the frescoes at the Humor Monastery the oldest of all Moldovan monasteries and yet they are still amazingly well preserved.
In 1785, the monastery became a village school, in 1850 it was converted into a warehouse and only since 1991 has it been used again as a monastery - until today by Romanian Orthodox nuns. Due to the absence of the tower and the partly faded façade paintings, the Humor Monastery appears somewhat more inconspicuous than other monasteries in Bukovina.
The square bell tower, located next to the monastery, was built in 1641 under the rule of Moldovan Prince Vasile Lupu.
Frescoes and features of the Humor Monastery
The Humor Monastery differs from other Moldovan monasteries by its striking open porch with the two large round arches, which are otherwise only found at the nearby Moldovița Monastery.
On this west façade, the Last Judge ment with the stream of fire pouring from the feet of Jesus into hell is the predominant motif. Since the frescoes were better protected from wind and weather behind the arches, they are also better preserved here than on the unprotected outer walls.
The ornate murals on the weather-protected south side of the Humor Monastery are the best preserved to this day and also the reason for its designation as a World Heritage Site.
A total of 24 scenes depict the 24 stanzas of the hymn Akathistos and the depiction of the siege of Constantinople from 626, so famous at the Moldovița Monastery, can also be seen, in which the Persians were depicted as Turks at the time for propaganda reasons. The predominant colour, reddish-brown, can be seen particularly well here.
Frescoes inside the Humor Monastery
Inside the church, the vestibule impresses with representations of the church calendar with images of saints and martyrs in the agony of their last hours. In the main room, the Assumption of the Virgin Mary and the Passion of Christ dominate.
There is also an image of Petru Rares giving a miniature version of the church to Jesus Christ. The dome and the burial chamber are dedicated to Saint Mary, who is surrounded by hosts of angels and queens.
Hidden above the burial chamber of the Grand Chancellor and his wife is a secret room where valuables used to be kept in times of crisis - another uniqueness of humour among the Moldavian monasteries.
The best preserved exterior frescoes
The reason why the murals of the Sucevița monastery are so well preserved lies in its comparatively late construction. While the first Moldavian monastery in Putna was built as early as 1466, the Sucevița monastery was only built almost 120 years later.
At that time, built from 1582 to 1584, it was donated by the Moldavian prince Ieremia Movilă. The bones of Ieremia and his brother Simion rest in the church today under elaborately hewn marble tomb slabs and an impressive ceiling fresco depicting Moses' Exodus from Egypt.
A year after the building was completed, the imposing defence walls and the four corner towers around the church were added. The former council hall of today's nunnery now houses a small museum which, in addition to manuscripts, books and icons, also displays precious burial cloths embroidered with gold and jewels from the ruling Movilă family.
PICTURES: Sucevița Monastery
Stunning frescoes at the Sucevița Monastery
A year after the completion of the monastery walls, both the exterior and interior walls were decorated with the magnificent painting, which still amazes tourists and experts alike. The brothers Ion and Sofronie Zugravul are named as the artists of the frescoes on the monastery of Sucevița.
The colours they worked with over 400 years ago, and which are still visible today, could not be fully reconstructed until now. Together with the green of the garden and the blue of the sky, the colourful tapestry on the church façade makes a stunning photo motif.
"Ladder of Virtues"
The "Stepladder of Virtues" on the north side of the church is particularly impressive. It shows with colourful details the contrast between heavenly order - angels floating in rank and file - and hellish chaos - people pursued by horned creatures and dragged into the abyss. In between, the ladder of the living leads to the gate of heaven. Experts consider this depiction to be one of the most beautiful of all the Moldavian monasteries.
Other frescoes and interiors
In addition to the ladder of virtue, the façade also shows the Last Judgement on the porch, as well as famous figures of Greek antiquity such as Plato, Aristotle and Pythagoras. Only the west side remained unpainted.
Inside, the main room is dedicated to the life of Christ and shows the Movilă ruling family to the west and south, while the vestibule depicts the church festivals in the cycle of the year. The baroque altar wall, whose carvings were completed around 1800, is also worth a look.
The monastery church of the MoldovițaMonastery, dedicated to the Annunciation , was declared a UNESCO World HeritageSite in 1993 . The imposing monastery church is enthroned in the middle of a magnificent garden and is surrounded by 5m-high and a good 1m-thick walls with circular stone defence towers.
The most detailed murals
Amidst this idyllic backdrop loom the beautifully painted walls of the Moldovița Monastery, once aptly described by a local nun as "Holy Scripture in colour".
In an outbuilding of the monastery there is now a museum which houses, among other things, embroideries from the 16th century personally donated by Stephen the Great and a gospel book from 1613. The small museum was founded by Bishop Efrem, who is buried in the monastery.
PICTURES: Monastery of Moldovița
History of the Moldovița Monastery
The predecessor of today's monastery was first mentioned in 1410, but fell victim to a landslide. In 1532, Petru Rareş, son of Stefan the Great, the initiator of the famous Moldavian monasteries, had a new monastery built. As at the Humor Monastery, the creator of the magnificent frescoes on the monastery façade was Toma Zugravul from nearby Suceava.
Five years after the monastery was built, the colourful works of art in red, blue and yellow were completed. Today, unfortunately, they are not as well preserved as the paintings of the Voroneț or Sucevița monasteries, but are worth a visit for their incredible level of detail. In 1785 the monastery was dissolved and reopened in 1935 as a Romanian Orthodox women's monastery.
Frescoes at the Moldovița Monastery
The most famous fresco at Moldovița Monastery is the fantastic depiction of the siege of Constantinople on the south façade.
In contrast to other famous frescoes, such as the Last Judgement, which takes up the entire west façade of the Voroneț Monastery, Moldovița's "hanging fresco" is almost small. It shows in incredible detail a scene from the year 626, when the fortress of historical Istanbul had to withstand a siege by the Persians and, according to legend, was saved by a miracle of the Virgin Mary (the enemies in the picture, however, are clearly depicted as Turks).
The motif can also be found on other Moldavian monasteries, but this depiction is clearly the most beautiful and best preserved.
Also on the south wall, to the right of the Siege of Constantinople, the famous and often painted Jesse family tree presents Christ's ancestors, while prophets, saints, monks and apostles adorn the curves of the apse.
The porch of the monastery is also striking, with its three large round arches on the east side, which can otherwise only be seen at the Humor Monastery. Both the outer wall and the interior of the porch are decorated with scenes from the Last Judgement, with the glowing red river of fire and the sea of the damned. However, the magnificent paintings on the east façade of the monastery are hardly recognisable due to weathering.
The interior of the church shows all 12 months of the church year and numerous martyrs in impressive pictures. In the chancel, the gilded wall and the depiction of the Passion of Christ, which is one of the most precious works of art of all the Moldavian monasteries in Bukovina, are impressive. Monastery founder Petru Rareş and his family are also immortalised here in effigy.
The Voroneț Monastery in the village of the same name in northern Romania houses the Church of St. George within its monastery walls. The "Sistine Chapel of the East" was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993.
The Voroneț Monastery was built from May to September 1488 in the record time of three months and 21 days under the rule of Stephen the Great. However, it received its elaborate façade decoration only in 1534-1535 under Prince Petru Rares, son of Stephen the Great.
Getting to the Voroneț Monastery
The village of Voroneț is located in the north of Romania 5km from the town of Gura Humorului (where the Vltava Monastery of Humor is located) and is widely known for its famous monastery. Not only because the church is the only one of the historic monastery buildings still standing, but especially because of its colourful exterior walls.
Frescoes of the "Sistine Chapel of the East
Particularly famous is the depiction of the Last Judgement, which takes up the entire windowless west façade of the Voroneț Monastery. From top to bottom, five rows of images range from God with his angels to Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit as a white dove with Adam and Eve to the scales dividing people into good and evil and hell with the devil, into which the striking bright red stream of fire pours.
On the south side to the right of the entrance, under the window, is the so-called intercession group with Jesus Christ, the Mother Mary and John the Baptist.
Next to it on the right, the particularly detailed "family tree of Jesse" is impressive. Here the famous "Blue of Voroneț" can be seen particularly well, which was once made from ground azurite (and not lapis lazuli, as can sometimes be read). Today it is known far beyond the country's borders.
Further to the east, apostles, saints and martyrs are depicted with Saint Mary and the Child Jesus. The apse is also literally littered with images of saints. Among the figures from the Bible are also philosophers of antiquity, such as Plato, Socrates or Aristotle. The two large figures immediately to the left of the entrance door are also striking.
They show Bishop Grigore Roscas, who at that time supervised the creation of the paintings, and the hermit Daniil Sihastru with a halo, who, according to legend, predicted to Stephen the Great his victory against the Turks, on the basis of which the Moldavian monasteries were built. Both men are buried in the monastery to this day.
On the north side, which is the most faded of all due to weathering, Adam and Eve in Paradise can be made out. In order to leave enough space for the magnificent paintings, the Gothic windows have turned out to be very small and also allow only a little daylight into the interior of the church, which creates a very special, mystical atmosphere.
Frescoes inside the Voroneț Monastery
The magnificent frescoes on the Voronet Monastery also continue inside the church and are still amazingly well preserved today (due to a paint formula that is still partly unexplained). Inside the tower is the famous Moldavian dome, whose painting is also still clearly visible.
The monastery was inhabited by monks until 1786, but was abandoned by the then Austrian government of Bukovina. It was not until 1989 that life returned to the famous Voroneț Monastery.
At first glance, Arbore Monastery seems less spectacular than the other Moldavian monasteries in Romania. It is small, delicate and does not even have a tower. Nevertheless, it has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1993 and is listed in many travel magazines as one of the most beautiful painted monasteries in the country. The painted interior in particular leaves every observer in speechless amazement.
PICTURES: Arbore Monastery
Visit to the monastery church of Arbore
The monastery of Arbore is located in the north-west of Romania, about half an hour's drive west of the county capital Suceava. Somewhat more remote than other tourist attractions, Arbore is rarely crowded. Besides the church, which is well worth seeing, the monastery also houses an ethnographic museum.
The church Tăierea Capului Sfântului Ioan Botezătorul ("Beheading of Saint John the Baptist") was built from April to August 1502 by Luca Arbore, a general, advisor and good friend of Stephen the Great, the "Father of the Moldavian Monasteries".
This is also the reason for the missing tower of the monastery church. Its builder was not a prince, but only a simple nobleman who, by the way, is buried in the church together with his wife Iuliana. Nevertheless, there are bells at the monastery church, but in a separate tower that was built a little away from the little church as an entrance to the monastery courtyard.
Colourful depictions in the monastery of Arbore
The masterful paintings on the church of Arbore are by the famous master Dragoș Coman from Iași and his pupils. The predominant colour of the frescoes is green, as can still be seen clearly on the south and west façades. The best-preserved paintings are to be found here, dating from around 1541.
The west façade with its almost 2m deep niche is particularly worthy of contemplation. Here, besides the lives of saints, the creation of the world is depicted. The south façade shows the story of Moses, Adam and Eve in the lush Garden of Eden and the Last Judgement.
The Siege of Constantinople, Moldovița's famous "placard fresco", can also be found here. Above the entrance gate is the church's namesake: John the Baptist with his head in a bowl.
A juicy detail: Luca Arbore also died by beheading in 1523 after being convicted of high treason by Ștefăniță Vodă cel Tânăr, the grandson of Stefan the Great.
Unique Arbore frescoes - liveliness and internationality
The frescoes differ from the paintings on other church façades by their high level of detail and appear downright alive. This is achieved through the use of five different shades from a total of 47 colour tones.
The sculpted stone troughs in which the colours were mixed from the basic materials yellow, blue, pink and ochre can still be seen in the church today. Some figures show their backs to the viewer, an atypical scene, but one that gives life and movement to the paintings.
The interior is also entirely covered with colourful motifs, with some special features that stand out. Some figures wear elegant hats, which were not known in the region at the time, and stand out with their detailed facial features. This suggests that the master painter travelled a lot and was inspired by Italian fashion and painting, for example.