The Painted Monasteries of Bucovina

Nestled in the northeastern corner of Romania, the historic Bucovina region is special in a way that’s hard to put into words. Thick beech forests, a rich folk tradition, scenic rural landscapes still worked by hand, and a deep sense of spirituality all combine to give the land a unique and almost magical feel. Spread throughout this region, the medieval painted monasteries with their vibrant frescoes are a real treasure of Romania’s historic, artistic, and religious heritage. 

Built over the span of nearly a century from 1487 to 1585, most of these monasteries with their richly decorated churches were built by Moldavian princes like Ștefan cel Mare and Petru Rareș to give thanks for victory in battles defending their land from invaders. The concentration of these painted monasteries is unique to this small geographic region and relatively brief period of history. UNESCO recognized the unique value of these monasteries by inscribing several to the World Heritage List starting in 1993.

Sucevita (2)Like most medieval religious art, the frescoes were painted to teach a largely illiterate population the stories of the bible, the lives of the saints, and the core beliefs of the Orthodox faith. What is unique about the monasteries in Bucovina is that frescoes were not just painted inside the church buildings, but on their exterior walls as well. The vibrant colors, the skill of the artists, and the stories they tell are all impressive, but what is most remarkable is that so many of these exterior frescoes have survived well over 400 years after they were painted.

This blog focuses primarily on the exterior frescoes, since those are the unique element of the Bucovina monasteries. Most of the churches also feature impressive and historic interior frescoes as well, and several monasteries host museums of medieval religious artifacts.

Moldavia and Bucovina: A Note About the Geography and History 

Moldavia (or Moldova in the Romanian language) is a region in central Europe that was an independent state from the 14th century until it became part of unified Romania in the 19th century. During the Middle Ages, Moldavia was a principality that had its heyday during the reign of prince Ștefan cel Mare (Stephen the Great) from 1457 to 1504. Nicknamed the “Athlete of Christ,” he successfully defended Moldavia’s independence from numerous attacks by the Ottoman Empire, which sought to expand its territory. Following Ștefan’s death, the Moldavian princes began paying tribute to the Ottoman Empire, but they still kept the state’s autonomy. It was during the two reigns of Ștefan’s illegitimate son Prince Petru Rareș (1527-1538 and 1541-1546) that most of the exterior frescoes were painted.

The votive painting at Moldovița Monastery showing Petru Rareș and his family offering the Church of the Annunciation to Christ with the assistance of the Virgin Mary

Bucovina is the northern part of historic Moldavia. Nicknamed the “land of beech trees,” this region is the home to the famous painted monasteries which we visited.

Like much of central Europe, Moldavia’s borders have shifted throughout history. Today the territory of historic Moldavia is split among three countries: the western part forms the Romanian region of Moldavia, the eastern part is the independent Republic of Moldova (the former Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic), and the northern portion is now part of Ukraine. Bucovina is also divided, with southern Bucovina and its monasteries in Romania and the northern part in Ukraine.

Common Scenes Found in the Paintings

While many of the mural themes are repeated throughout the murals at several of the monasteries, each monastery has its own unique character and style. After visiting a few monasteries, you can start to recognize many of the stories. Some of the most common themes include: 

The Last Judgment – Jesus has a prominent place at the top of this scene, from where he judges all of humanity. On the left, groups of righteous men and women will go to heaven, while on the right a river of fire brings the sinners to the devil. In many cases, political enemies and non-Christians are shown on the right going to hell. The Last Judgment on the western facade of Voroneţ is the most famous in the region.

The Akathistos Hymn – a Byzantine poem about the life of the Virgin Mary. Each of the 24 stanzas of the hymn are illustrated, starting with the Annunciation and Birth of Christ. In Moldavia, painters added the Siege of Constantinople as a final scene, when an icon of Mary protected the city from invasion. The depiction of the Siege of Constantinople at Moldoviţa is one of the finest examples, showing Turkish ships on the left and the army on the right, while the emperor on the ramparts carries an icon of the Virgin Mary and the face of Christ imprinted on a cloth.

The Tree of Jesse – Jesus’s family tree, both spiritual and genealogical. Typically Jesse is found at the bottom on his side, with the tree sprouting from his body. In addition to teaching about many of the biblical personalities, this tree also connects the Old and New Testaments.  

The Lives of the Saints – Many facades are filled with scenes of the saints, showing how they lived, spread the faith, or in the case of many martyrs, how they met their end.

The Ladder of VirtuesA row of monks climb a ladder towards the open gates of heaven, assisted by angels. The 30 steps each represent a virtue (or a vice) that must be overcome. Those who fail are shown slipping from the ladder and are dragged down by waiting devils. The best representation of the Ladder of Virtues is found at Suceviţa.

The Monasteries and Churches

Voroneţ – Nicknamed the “Sistine Chapel of the East,” Voroneţ is the most popular and among the best preserved of the painted churches in Bucovina. Artistically, it is best known for its vibrant blue paint, made with lapis lazuli and widely known as “Voroneţ Blue”. The church was built in 1488, founded by Ștefan cel Mare to celebrate an important victory against the Ottomans. The exterior frescoes were painted later, in 1537. The famous blue color is visible as the background for scenes including the Tree of Jesse, the Lives of the Saints, and a particularly impressive Last Judgment on the western facade. As the best-known of the painted monasteries, expect to find bigger crowds here as well as a number of vendors selling food and souvenirs outside the monastery walls.

Humor – Because Humor Monastery was founded by a nobleman and not a prince, the church was built without a bell tower. While it appears smaller as a result, it is similar in size to the other monastery churches in the region and its high quality frescoes make it a popular place to visit. The current church was built in 1530 and its interior and exterior were both painted around 1535. The dominant color here is a brownish red. While the regular north wind has faded the frescoes on the northern facade, the rest of the walls are still in very good shape. Most of the  original defense structures haven’t survived, but a large tower is open to visitors who can climb for an overview of the monastery grounds. A community of nuns has lived at the monastery since the early 1990s. We visited Humor for an early morning service, which included beautiful chanting by the nuns. After the service had finished, one of the friendly nuns welcomed us and spent some time talking and showing us around, pointing out many of the notable frescoes, and offering us some food that had been blessed during the service. The small village that surrounds the monastery is filled with small guesthouses and makes a good overnight stop.

Suceviţa – With impressive defensive walls and corner towers, Suceviţa looks more like a medieval fortress from the outside. Inside, visitors find the largest of the painted monasteries, and also the last one to be built. Three brothers, descendants of prince Petru Rareș, founded the monastery in 1585 and had its exterior painted in 1601. Green is the dominant color here, along with other light colors. The most famous fresco here depicts the Ladder of Virtues, encouraging the viewers to live a virtuous life so they too can climb to heaven. The western facade was left unpainted. Legend says that a painter died by falling off the scaffolding here and this scared others from finishing up his work.

Moldoviţa – The westernmost of the painted monasteries, Moldoviţa is about a half hour from Suceviţa, reached by a twisting mountain road through thick forests and farmland. Built in 1532 by Petru Rareș, it was painted five years later. The exterior frescoes here are the best preserved in Bucovina and the southern and eastern facades remain particularly vibrant. Yellow is the most notable color here, and its use really brightens up the murals. The Siege of Constantinople is one of the most famous scenes. While the story is about an attack on the city by the Persians in the year 626, the painters actually depicted the more modern fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453. This was no mistake or coincidence, since the Moldavian princes were continuously fighting the Ottoman Turks to maintain their sovereignty at that time and the population could easily identify the Turks as their enemy. 

Arbore – The small church of Arbore was founded in 1503 by a nobleman named Luca Arbore, the gatekeeper of the city of Suceava. He had purchased the surrounding village and the church was part of his estate. The interior and exterior frescoes were not painted until after Arbore’s death, around 1541. While centuries of weather and neglect have taken their toll, many of the frescoes have held up well. The highlight is the western facade, built in a large niche, that features eighty scenes from the Lives of the Saints. Many of these show martyrs in the way they lost their lives for their faith and are quite graphic. The Siege of Constantinople on the south wall is the last fresco of this story painted in the region, while the Last Judgment has suffered from some bad fading and most of Hell is no longer visible.

Pătrăuţi – The tiny church in Pătrăuţi was built 1487, one of the first of many churches founded by prince Ștefan cel Mare during his reign. It is historically significant because it is the oldest of his churches still standing in its original layout. The only remaining exterior paintings are limited to a small section of the western wall surrounding the main entrance; the Last Judgment here was painted around 1550—only the lower part is original, with the upper section a reproduction. The interior frescoes, completed a few years after the church’s construction, are among the oldest in the region and are impressive with their gold accents. As is common in Moldavian frescoes, there is a votive painting showing the founder of the church presenting a small model of the building to Jesus.

Probota – The southernmost of the painted monasteries, Probota was the first one we reached coming from Iaşi, and it was a good starting point for an exploration of the region. Moldavian prince Petru Rareş built the church in 1530 and its exterior walls were painted two years later. The rest of the monastery compound was constructed between 1530 and 1550. The exterior frescoes are quite faded; aside from centuries of weather and moisture, this might also be because they are some of the oldest in existence and the painters may not have mastered the science of getting the colors to last. A restoration in the late 1990s helped make the frescoed scenes more visible, if still subdued compared to the better preserved paintings of neighboring churches. The interior frescoes are impressive and are considered among the finest in the region. 

Râşca – About an hour west of Probota, the Râşca monastery is one of the least-visited of Bucovina’s painted monasteries, likely because it is not included on the UNESCO World Heritage list and it’s further off the beaten track. Built in 1542 and painted with exterior frescoes a decade later, the church has had several modifications throughout its history, following destruction from Turkish invaders and an earthquake. More recent additions include the porch and entry on the southern side and the twin bell towers. The remaining frescoes are next to that entrance, covering about half of the southern wall, with prominent depictions of the Last Judgment and the Ladder of Virtues painted by a Greek painter around 1552. The interior frescoes are a mix of original and recent work and it was fairly dark inside the church. There isn’t much more to see here than the frescoes outside, so our visit here was brief, but having the place to ourselves was a nice reward for our detour. 

Saint John the New (Suceava) – Unlike the other monasteries which are spread throughout the countryside, the monastery of Saint John the New is right in the city of Suceava in a hilly, wooded part of town. The monastery’s church of Saint George, built in 1522, is much bigger than the other painted churches. The exterior frescoes are fairly faded, but some mural scenes are still visible on the southern and western walls. During a renovation in the early 1900s, when the region was under Austrian rule, a glazed tile roof reminiscent of churches in Vienna was added. 

Putna – Originally founded by Ștefan cel Mare in 1469, most of the site was destroyed by invading Cossacks and was rebuilt in the 17th century. The only original 15th century structure is the treasury tower. While Putna does not feature exterior frescoes, it is an important place of pilgrimage for Orthodox Romanians, who call it the “Jerusalem of Romania” and come to visit the tomb of Ștefan cel Mare inside the monastery church. The beautiful grounds of this active monastery host an extensive museum of medieval religious articles and a large guesthouse just outside the monastery walls offers free accommodation for visitors. 

Dragomirna – Not far from Suceava, Dragomirna was built between 1602 and 1609, just after the custom of painting murals on the church facades had ended in the region. Here, intricate stone carvings decorate the exterior, while the unique tall and narrow structure of the church makes it especially striking. The location at the edge of a forest with a small lake adds to the peaceful environment. A small community of nuns are active here and they offer some limited overnight accommodation at the monastery.

Dress Code and Other Tips for Visitors

It’s important for visitors to show respect for the customs and beliefs of the priests or nuns who live in these monasteries and for the simple, peaceful life they have chosen to live. Visitors are expected to follow a conservative dress code. For men, this means wearing long pants, preferably not jeans and never shorts. Women should wear a dress or skirt that covers their knees, or pants as long as they are not tight. Shoulders should always be covered. It’s also important to act respectfully by not being loud or eating, drinking, or smoking on the monastery grounds.

Attending an Orthodox Religious Service

With many of the Bucovina monasteries still active, religious services take place most mornings. The Romanian Orthodox service, known as the Divine Liturgy, bears little resemblance to western Christian services, so it is not always evident what is happening. Filled with chanting, incense, candles, and traditions reaching back to the early days of Christianity, attending one of these services can be a beautiful, moving, and interesting experience. Much of the service occurs behind the iconostasis, adding an air of mystery to the experience.

Probota Interior 13
The interior of the Church of St. Nicholas at Probota Monastery

If you do choose to attend a liturgy, there are a few things to keep in mind. The services are longa midweek liturgy can last an hour and a half, while Sunday services are typically two and a half or three hours long. There are no seats or pews, though there are sometimes chairs along the side walls for older visitors, so be prepared to be on your feet. You’ll notice, however, that many attendees don’t stay for the entire service, and it seems to be perfectly normal to come and go throughout the service. People tend to pray in their own personal manner throughout the service; some will continue to move around the room kissing the icons, others will bow and lay prostrate on the floor at some points in the service, while still others prefer to just stand and take it all in.

The south facade and main entrance to Arbore

While the structure of the Liturgy feels very foreign, everyone is welcome to participate, including receiving communion. Unlike in Catholic churches, only a small number of peopleincluding the priests and those receiving their first communionreceive the consecrated bread and wine. Therefore, everyone can participate in communion even if they aren’t Orthodox. Everyone lines up and, once at the front, kisses an icon and the hand of the priest, receives a blessing while the priest draws a cross on your hand and forehead with holy oil, and then receives a handful of small pieces of bread that were blessed during the ceremony.

The text of the Divine Liturgy, including a side-by-side Romanian-English translation, is available here.

Making the Trip

While it’s possible to see the most impressive painted monasteries in a single rushed day, we found that having at least two or three full days allowed for a more thorough and relaxed exploration of the region.

Getting There: Suceava is the main city in Bucovina. Trains from Bucharest take about 6 hours, but there is also a small airport just outside of town with regular flights from Bucharest and a handful of other European cities. On our most recent trip, we flew into Iaşi’s slightly larger airport and visited that historic city as well. We rented a car from Autonom, a Romanian rental chain, at the airport before the two and a half hour drive west to Suceava and Bucovina.  

Getting Around: Renting a car and driving yourself is by far the most efficient way to explore Bucovina. The roads are generally in decent shape, though driving in Romania requires some attention, as not all drivers obey the rules of the road and you will be sharing the road with horse-drawn carriages and occasional wildlife. If self driving isn’t your style, it would be worth basing yourself out of Suceava and hiring a driver or exploring with an organized tour. Trains do reach some of the monasteries, but service is not very frequent on many of the small branch lines.

The guesthouse at Putna Monastery

Where to Stay: There are lots of different options for accommodation in the region. The larger towns like Suceava and Gura Humorului offer a variety of hotels. Many of the towns throughout the region have lots of smaller family-run bed and breakfasts. We spent a night in one such place right near Humor Monastery, and that gave us the chance to get up early and attend a morning service with the nuns at the monastery. Finally, some of the monasteries have guest rooms for pilgrims where visitors can stay overnight. We stayed overnight at Putna Monastery, where we had a spacious, clean double room with a private bathroom in their large guesthouse. When staying at a monastery, you’re expected to respect the rules and you are encouraged to join the church services in the morning. Dragomirna and a few of the other monasteries have guest rooms, but we haven’t experienced those ourselves.

This site offers an extensive list of bed & breakfast options throughout Romania.

Additional Resources

This website is packed with information on the monasteries and also offers an extensive guidebook for purchase that can be downloaded as a PDF to your computer, tablet, or phone. The guide includes detailed descriptions of the paintings and we found it to be very helpful on our trip.

Another site with some good background on each of the monasteries can be found here.

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