The painted monasteries Romania

| August 6, 2013

Alison Metcalfe shares with us some thoughts on her recent holiday in Romania, in particular the painted monasteries.

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This May, my sister and I deserted our husbands and joined 22 other travellers to sample a little bit of Romania, particularly the painted monasteries of southern Bucovina (part of Moldavia, in the north). Our trip was almost circular, travelling from Bucharest to Brasov, on to the monastery of Neamt, followed by impossible-to-pronounce Gura Humorului featuring our four painted monasteries, returning to Sighisoara and Sibiu, and finally to Bucharest. Our total mileage was considerable, and we spent two whole days on a coach, but our journeys were broken by visits to palaces and castles, fortified Saxon churches, and medieval towns. The scenery was beautiful throughout – the north awash with apple blossom and bright fields of golden dandelions, the Carthusian mountain gorges dramatic, the gentle plains of Transylvania green with cereals or the brown earth ridged ready for their famous potatoes.

I was much impressed by a fresco at one of the four painted monasteries we visited. The monasteries are all run by nuns and have been restored, some weathering better than others. Our first was at Voronet monastery, just south of Gura Humorului. The monastery’s church of St George was built by Stephen the Great in 1488, and is painted inside and out, the dominant colour being blue.

The curved east end of the monastery is covered by pictures of saints and philosophers, with the colours richest beneath the protective eaves. Our guide was one of the nuns, and she explained in some detail the magnificent fresco on the western wall of The Last Judgement. Zodiac symbols are depicted beneath the eaves on either side of God the Father, and below that Christ sits in majesty, surrounded by saints and apostles. The third layer shows those in limbo, surrounding a chair where a dove depicting the Holy Spirit sits upon the Book of Judgement. On the right are the sinners – Turks and Tartars – identified by their headgear and destined for hell, while on the left are bishops and other righteous souls destined for heaven.

The battle between angels and devils for the souls of the departed is shown in the centre right of the third section. Below that is a worthy soul clothed in white and guarded by angels, ready to enter heaven, while on the right a sinner carried by devils is pierced by an angel’s lance. Sinners descend into the blood-red fiery maw of hell, to be greeted by dragons and demons.

On the two lower right sections, the land and sea are depicted. Splendid beasts – lions, elephants, bears, wolves, deer, and dragons – are shown on land. Angels blow their horns as the dead, dressed in white, rise from their coffins, endearingly resembling double Jack-in-the-boxes. This is my favourite part of the whole fresco, and I wonder whether English religious painter Stanley Spencer ever saw it.

On the lower centre left is the golden door to heaven, with St Peter on the right holding his key. In heaven sit saints, holding the souls of the righteous suspended in large cloths.

This was our first experience of a 16th-century artist’s vision of the Last Judgement, and in many other Greek Orthodox churches and cathedrals, ancient and modern, we saw the same topic, painted slightly differently on each of their outer western walls. Here’s a photo of St Peter at heaven’s gate, taken at the modern cathedral at Gura Homerului.

This was certainly a memorable holiday, incorporating far more than the Painted Churches, and I would certainly recommend a trip.

View Cox & Kings’ selection of holidays to Romania.


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