The Painted Monasteries of Bucovina

Posted in Nature / Sightseeing, Religious, Traditions / History
Sucevita Monastery in Bucovina, Romania

Among the most authentic regions of Romania, the northern part of the country occupies a special place. The painted monasteries of Bucovina attract thousands of tourists every year eager to decipher the centuries-old frescoes.

Short history of the area

Why is Bucovina so special today? Why is it different than other regions in Romania?

There are 2 things which must be remembered about this region's history. First, in the medieval period, Bucovina has been the capital-county of the larger Moldova Principality. Suceava, the main city, housed a towering fortress, whose walls can still be seen today. Thus, the resources of the area made it rich and coveted by the great powers of its time.

Second, in 1775, the falling Ottoman Empire ceded Bucovina to the rising Habsburg Monarchy. They controlled the region for almost a century and a half. Due to this fact, part of Austrian spirit, law and architectural achievements has been instilled into Bukovina.

The map of Bucovina

How did the painted monasteries appeared in Bucovina?

There are numerous Orthodox churches and monasteries in Romania, all of them having beautiful frescoes decorating their interior. However, only a small number, limited in space and time, are having their exterior painted. These are all found in the northern part of Romania, in Bucovina.

When we speak about Orthodox religious architecture of the 14th – 16th century in Eastern Europe, we speak mainly about the Byzantine style – rigid and canonical. However, Moldova was further away from the Ottoman conquests like Bulgaria or Greece. This allowed the Moldovan rulers to develop a local architectural style: the Moldavian style. The main characteristic of it was the exterior painting.

In that period, education was mainly delivered within the monastic settlements and so were the rulers educated. All the major events during their lifetime, good or bad, were happening in strong relationship with God. So, for all this events, they were trying to please God, usually by building monasteries. As any “house” dedicated to God, they all had to be the best humans can build during that time. As such, most of the painted monasteries in Bucovina are real master-pieces of their time, built with innovative techniques.

Sucevita monastic settlement

What makes them special?

There are several characteristics of the monasteries in Bucovina which makes them special and unique.

Architecture

Most of the painted monasteries are following a similar structure:

  • Exonarthex – the entrance area of a church, always oriented towards West; sometimes it is like a terrace, or it is surrounded by walls; it represents the transition between the lay world and the sacred space of the church;
  • Pronaos – the room where the villagers were attending the liturgy;
  • Burial Chamber – is present only in some larger and more important churches; the place where the sponsor of the church, a ruler or a high noble, is buried;
  • Naos – usually the space between the two apses (one towards North, the other one towards South); it usually hosts the coir and nowadays is the place where people are attending the liturgy;
  • Chancel – always facing East; the most important room of a church, only accessible to the priest;

In addition, strong fortification walls were added to most of the monasteries. There were meant to protect both the monuments, and the near-by villagers in difficult times.

The building techniques and the proportions of the overall construction are really impressive even for our times.

Decorations

We can look at monasteries’ decorations through two different perspectives:

  • Artistic – admiring the colors and the composition. In Voronet monastery scientists are still analyzing nowadays the shade of blue color used here almost 500 years ago. Apparently, the natural pigment used in painting the exterior frescoes of the church is coming from a type of mineral which can only be extracted in Russia. Besides the interior and exterior frescoes, the churches are also decorated with impressive works of art: religious paintings, sculptures or old religious books. Most of the monastic settlements, attended now by monks or nouns are beautifully decorated with flowers or traditional broderies/carpets handmade inside the monastery.
  • Religious – trying to understand the message underneath the frescoes. From the huge painting-surface of a church (interior and exterior) every singly square cm has its own meaning and is never aimlessly painted. In fact, in medieval period very few people knew how to read, so the frescoes were often their “bibles”. A good tour guide will be able to help you decipher the code behind the frescoes. Like that you will understand better the message laying on a painted monastery in Bucovina.
Voronet Painted Monasteries of Bucovina

What else should you expect in Bucovina

Besides the painted monasteries, Bucovina has a lot more to offer. It is an area far away from any large city of Romania, with small industrialization, where people are still following their ancestors’ way of life. As such, you can expect to find here authentic villages, small farms and traditional crafts.

Authentic rural experiences

Bucovina’s villages are like no others in Romania. You will meet hard-working, but welcoming people at every step. Most of them have transformed their own houses into pensions (guest-houses), where they are also cooking for their guests. Expect fresh local ingredients, into simple, but very tasty traditional recipes.

The truth is that not all pensions are up to international standards, some of them not even to a good taste, but with a bit of luck or the knowledge of a local guide, your holiday in Bucovina can get really relaxing. There are places where owners have built up their tourism business respecting the local architecture, like La Moara or La Roata.

La Moara gueasthouse, Bucovina

Wild landscapes

Due to its geographical location and relief, Bucovina offers large areas of wilderness, virgin forests and wildlife. Due to this fact, there are plenty of hiking, mountain-biking or wildlife watching activities available in Bucovina.

A newly restored Trans-Rarau high-altitude road offers spectacular views over the Rarau mountains. Sometimes even a small walk through the surroundings of a village in the area can be as rewarding and relaxing.

The tranquility of the area, the fresh air and the beautiful landscape will help you disconnect from your noise city and gain back your interior balance.

Rural landscape in Bucovina

Arts and Crafts

If you are an admirer of traditional crafts, Bucovina has plenty to offer. Probably the most famous among them all is the egg painting.

Traditionally women are painting red eggs for Orthodox Easter, symbolizing the blood of Jesus Christ on the Cross. Here, along the years, this simple tradition has evolved into an art. Decorating the eggs is now a long and meticulous process, using traditional techniques, symbols and colors.

The “Egg Museum” in Vama, shows an impressive collection of over 7000 eggs, both from Bukovina and other regions of the world.

Pottery is also famous in Bukovina, especially in the beautiful village of Marginea, where local craftsmen are creating unique mate black bowls, vases and cups.

traditional painted eggs in Bucovina

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