- Location: Suceava County, Romania
- Attraction Type: Monasteries
- Significance: Painted Monasteries (13th — 14th century), Frescoes, Art, Architecture
- Best Time to Visit: July – September
- How to Reach: Flights are available from a range of destinations including Bologna, Milan, London, Rome, Valencia, Timisoara, Torino, and Bucharest. Take a car to reach your spot.
- Nearest Airport: Bacau International Airport (BCM)
Painters in Moldavia and Romania have been lavishly painting the interiors of their monasteries from the earliest days. It is surprising that at some point of time, they also planned to intricately paint the exteriors in the rather uncompromising weather of Northern Moldavia. What is even more surprising is that the paintings have survived the elements! The frescoes on the painted monasteries of Moldavia are nothing short of a miracle. Being only two millimeters thick, they have somehow braved the six months of torrential rains and winters of snow and blizzard for over five hundred years to still amaze the religious and the secular alike with their charm and grandeur.
History of the Painted Monasteries in Moldavia The painted churches of Moldavia was built within a span of only fifty years — between the middle and the end of the fifteenth century, during the time of Stephen the Great. Stephen was able to stall the progress of the mighty Ottoman Turks in the upper reaches of Moldavia and ascribed his success to the grace of God. Each victory was followed by a church, and by the end of his life, he built no less than forty-four churches distributed all over the Northern Moldavian region.
These monasteries, and the churches within it, were very different from the Gothic cathedrals popular in Western Europe at that point in time. It had fewer windows, and the only Gothic influence can be seen in the window frames and certain minor decorative details. Moreover, to make a largely illiterate community more mindful and educated in religion, the monks planned to paint the exterior of the churches in beautiful paintings narrating scenes from the scriptures. What resulted was quite unique.
The Monasteries of Moldavia Seven of the Moldavian monasteries are designated UNESCO world heritage sites as parts of a single group. However, the entire region is full of churches, and there are some you cannot afford to miss. You can approach the itinerary in your own way, and spend as much time as you like on each, but it is preferable that you take a tour guide along to make the best of your visit. The monasteries can be approached in groups in terms of proximity and artistic affinity. Based on that, a typical itinerary is as follows:
Moldovita, Sucevita, and Putna
Moldovita is usually the best place to start your tour of the painted churches of Moldovia. Built by Petru Rares, a follower of King Stephen the Great, this 16th-century monastery is noted for the richness of its exterior wall paintings. The colors that dominate the frescoes here are a deep hue of red and gorgeous gold. Figures of hundreds of saints and martyrs, standing in noble postures, create an environment of unbelievable solemnity.
The route to Sucevita, located within a fortress on a high hill, is as beautiful as the monastery itself. You have to make your way through a number of Alpine villages, picture-perfect in their quaintness and beauty to reach this church and monastery. What you find finally however surpasses everything you have seen yet in its mystic grandeur: a near-perfect Bucovian monastery with thick walls and intricate paintings covering every inch of it, well almost every inch. The Western Wall is conspicuously bare with not a dash of paint on it. The legend goes that the painter fell off the scaffolding, got killed, and nobody dared to follow in his footsteps. However, the remaining walls are extensively painted. The most striking fresco is the ‘stair of virtue’ in one of the side walls. It shows saints and the righteous climbing a stairway to heaven with devils and evil-doers trying to distract them. The devils are painted in a quasi-comic way. Angels on the top of the stairs, however, try to help the ones on their way.
Reaching Putna is difficult. It takes a three-hour hike to reach there. Yet, once you reach there, the sublime seclusion of the place does not make it difficult for you to understand why Stephen the Great chose this place as his burial spot. His tomb, as well as the overt and exuding spiritualism of the place, makes it a popular pilgrimage for Romanians as well as for people from other parts of the world.
Arbore is the name of the village, about 10 km south of Radauti, from where the church derives its name. It is different from other monasteries of the Moldavian group in a number of ways. First, it is not a monastery but a church. Second, being built by a trusted vessel of the king and not the King himself, it does not have a tower. A bell tower, however, stands nearby. The church is extremely attractive because of its unobtrusive purity and also because of the beautiful frescoes painted all over it, with a dominant emerald green color.
Voronet and Humor Monastery:
The most magnificent painted monastery in Moldavia is ironically the worst preserved of all. The frescoes in Voronet appear like a lustrous blue tapestry of the lives of saints and martyrs, painted in intricate detail. However, the tin roof was added to complications, and moreover the inner wall was collapsed, the rebuilding of which has added to possible complications. Increasing the humid micro-climate, it can potentially take a claim on the bottom range of the frescoes. Of all Voronet frescoes on the outer wall, the most fascinating is the one on the western wall, representing the ‘Last Judgment’. It shows Christ sitting in his regal role as the judge, with ‘Christians’ on the right, and ‘pagans’ on the left. They are identified by traditional iconographies and costumes. Below him, the dead rise to meet their faith, which includes animals as well. The presence of an elephant and a whale adds a quirky touch to the theme. They march in procession as St. Peter opens the gates of heaven to the right. The Northern Wall, in a state of decay feature scenes from the Genesis, while the southern wall features Biblical saints and the tree of Jesse.
A dark red hue dominates the outer wall paintings in the Humor monastery. The greatest attraction is the painting of the Defense of Constantinople. The localization of the theme is the most wonderful aspect of this fresco. The defenders of the city are in local Moldavian costumes, while the Persians are in Turkish costumes, highlighting the defense of Christian Moldavia against the Ottoman Turks. Humor frescoes are in a better state of preservation than Voronet, and extensive restoration works have been undertaken.
Neamt Monastery, Agapia, and Varatec Monastery
This group is not a part of the original group of Moldavian painted churches that have been made a part of the UNESCO World Heritage site. However, the excellent paintings in these churches, as well as their expanse and importance in Romanian religious life, make them a must see attraction in Northern Moldavia. They are also some of the most visited monasteries.
Neamt is the oldest monastery in Romania, built back in the 14th century; about a century before the first painted Moldavian churches were built. This was the first important introduction of the Moldavian style of architecture. There are wonderful paintings on the nave, the altar and the room containing the tombs, all dating back to the 15th century. The monastery also has a wonderful library with over 18,000 books and a medieval art museum within its fortified compound. Agapia lies on the road between Targu Neamt and Piatra Neamt. It is a village inhabited by an active community of about 400 nuns. There are two monasteries over here — the 17th-century Agapia din Vale, repainted and restored in the 19th century, and the Agapia din Deal at the further reaches of the village. Founded by Lady Elena, wife of Petru Rares in the middle of the 17th century, this monastery has a number of modern frescoes. Varatec monastery is easily accessible from Agapia. The entire area is called the Vanatori Neamt Forest Park and contains a large number of wild animals held in semi-captivity and old, grand trees like oak and birch.
Accommodation in Moldavia
The road to Agapia has a large number of hotels and guest houses. There are rooms available on rent throughout the year. Usually, this is the best way to approach the group. Another option is to take up accommodation in Sucevita. Your itinerary will be determined by the place where you stay.