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Bukovina's Painted Monasteries

The Painted Churches of Northern Moldavia are eight Romanian Orthodox churches in Suceava County - Romania in northern Moldavia Region, built approximately between 1487 and 1585.

Since 1993 they have been listed by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites.


The Church of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist, Arbore, built 1503 

 

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   In 1503 the Great Hatman (military and nobleman title used during the middle ages in Moldova) Luca Arbore founded a chapel in the village that bears his name, as part of his court. An inscription found in the church specifies that Dragos Coman of Iasi priest's son, painted the church in 1541, at the request of Anna, niece of Luca Arbore. Usually, this is considered as time frame of both exterior, as well as the interior paintings.

   Arbore was one of the leading noblemen at the court of Stefan the Great, Bogdan III and Stefan Voda. A political difference separated him from Stefan Voda, so he lost his titles and in 1523 was beheaded. The church is dedicated to the "Beheading of St. John the Baptist".

   Some researchers believe that 1541 refers only to later changes. Inside, the plan is conch, with the two side aisles of the nave carved in wall thickness. The western façade of the church has its specificity: only here in Arbore and in Reuseni a large alcove replaces exonarthex (a porch on the western side of the early Christian churches). At first, the church bells were placed here on a wooden bar, but now the space is used to make an offering to the dead.

   Exceptionally, all facades are smooth, without niches. The church follows the lowest plan possible: there are only three rooms, the narthex, the nave and the altar. It has a high roof, divided into levels, rounded at the ends. Some researchers believe that the church was painted immediately after being built and that 1541 refers only to later changes. From an architectural point of view, the church, along with the Dobrovăţ and Reuseni, is part of the style marking the end of the reign of Stephen the Great.


The Church of the Assumption of the Virgin of Humor Monastery, built 1530 

 

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   Humor Monastery is an Orthodox monastery in Romania, built in 1530 in the village of Humor, comissioned by the great chancellor Toader Bubuiog. The monastery church has the patronage of the Assumption (celebrated every year on August 15th) and Saint George (celebrated on April 23rd).

   According to historians, in the early XVth century, during the reign of Alexandru cel Bun (1400-1432), a stone church was built on the banks of a creek, near its confluence with the Humor river. Here was a monks settlement who previously had a wooden church. During the XVth century, a monastic settlement known as Humor Monastery was developed around the new church. The rulers of the time have endowed the monastery with precious objects and manuscripts, some of them still being preserved today.

   In the first decades of the XVIth century, the old church collapsed for unknown reasons. The ruins of the ancient monastery can be seen today about 500 meters away from the current church. The ruins of  Humor Old church were included on the List of Historical the Monuments - Suceava County, since 2004.

   In 1530, about 500 m northwest of the ruins of the old church, the grand chancellor Toader Bubuiog (political dignitary from the reign of Petru Rares) began the construction of a new stone church. Vasile Lupu fortified monastery in 1641 by building a wall around and a watch tower. The tower had a defensive role. It was included in the List of the Historical Monuments of Suceava in 2004, just as the bell tower built in the XVIIth century on the eastern side of the assembly.

   In 1775, the Austrian administration closed this monastery, as well as all the other orthodox monasteries of Bukovina, transforming it into a parish church and the monastic buildings were abandoned and dilapidated. In 1980, a new church was built for the comunity of the village and the old church was opened for visitors.

   In 1993, UNESCO included the Church of the  "Assumption" and "St. George " Humor Monastery, together with other six churches of northern Moldavia (Arbore, Pătrăuţi, Moldovita, Probota, Suceava - "St. John the New " and Voronet) on the World Heritage list, as the group of „The Painted Churches of Moldavia”.

 
The Church of the Annunciation of the Moldovita Monastery, built 1532 

 

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   The Monastery of Moldovita was built by the care of ruler Petru Rares, son of Stefan the Great, in 1532. A royal house, cells, four defense towers and the church make up this ensemble. Defended by strong walls with a height exceeding 6 meters, having a thickness of 1.20 meters, the monastery gathered a slight look of a fortress, but this does not affect the charm of Moldovita monastery.

   It is known that, before the building of the monastery, Prince Alexander the Good built a stone church dedicated to the Annunciation, around which was developed a monk settlement known as the Monastery of Moldovita. Due to heavy rains, in XVIth century  Alexandru cel Bun's settlement collapsed. Only a few ruins remain, some of which can be seen today.

   Moldovita is individualized by some iconographic elements, the painting style and the dominant red-brown hue. Also, the painter`s style can be rather compared to a plastic drawer, a miniaturist.

   The church owns several heritage objects of inestimable historical and artistic value: the diptych and the epitaphs (the diptych - outstanding artwork by the sculptural decorations and also historical document due to the scraps included and the two embroided - epitaphs from the XV-th century). Among the most beautiful pieces, stands the royal chair, attributed to the ruler Petru Rares. Notable proportions which give him a monumental allure, the stall is decorated with the emblem of Moldova, with braided lines and small flowers.


The Church of the Holy Cross of Patrauti, built 1487

 

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   The "Holy Cross" Church of Patrauti is a true architectural gem, located 10 kilometers away from the Suceava city, in the village of the same name. It is the oldest Christian structure built in Moldavian style and also the oldest church preserved of Stefan the Great`s foundations, the votive painting depicting the prince with his family. The church was part of the only nunnery founded by the prince of Moldavia.

   Initially, the building was intended to be a care perimeter for the victims of the fights around the Fortress of Suceava. But this Christian place had a dramatic history. Assaults have reached the interior of the edifice and the traces they left can still be seen today on the walls, on the destroyed plaster. Later, the spiritual jewelry has been plundered by robbers and then abandoned for more than two centuries.

   The church was "revived" in the early XVIIIth century by Bishop Calistru of Chernivtsi. In the second half of the same century, the building served as a parish church.

   Although not imposing in size, this church being the smallest of the ones founded by Stefan the Great, the building is harmoniously proportioned and the inside painting is an undeniable value of the Moldavian art. Outside, the church is simple and elegant. The exterior painting, which summarizes for the most part fragments of the "Doomsday" scene, is balanced and combines elements of Byzantine architecture, but also Moldavian tradition.

   A detail about this church built by Stephen the Great is that in the courtyard are two large pieces of stone that look very much like the "Table of Silence" by Brancusi. But interesting is that locals claim that the stones are there in this form for hundreds of years and not just a copy of the famous work of art. On the contrary, Brancusi would be inspired by this sculpture when he made his sculptures in Targu Jiu...


The Church of St. Nicholas and the Catholicon of the Probota Monastery, built 1530 


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   Although the current building dates from 1530, this monasterie`s history begins from the time of Peter I (second half of the XIVth century), who raised on  these lands a wooden monastery, dedicated to "Saint Nicholas". Later, Alexandru cel Bun built close to this place a stone church with the same patron.

   Years later, here was buried Stephen the Great's mother, Lady Oltea, who became a nun under the name of Maria. Because of the advanced state of decay, Petru Rares abandon this place and in 1530 built the monastery we can see today.

   Probota`s degradation period begins with 1677, when the Metropolitan bishop Dosoftei donated this church to the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem. Greek monks came to the monastery and used the shrine, but destroyed the original architecture by covering some of the windows and painting over some of the outstanding frescoes that previously covered the interior walls.

   As if its fate wasn`t sad enough, after the secularization of Alexandru Ioan Cuza in 1863 Probota monastery was abolished and the church "St. Nicholas’’ becomes a village parish church. The buildings begin to deteriorate, and a fire of the early XXth century destroys the cells.

   The restoration and rehabilitation of the buildings started in the `80s and almost a decade later, in 1993, the "Saint Nicholas" church of the Probota Monastery was included, along with six other churches - Arbore, Humor, Moldovita, Patrauti, Suceava and Voronet - on the world heritage list, as the group of "The Painted Churches of Moldavia".


The Church of St. George, Suceava, built 1522 

 

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   Built between 1514-1522, the monastery`s church is on the road to the city of Suceava and has the patronage of St. George (celebrated every year on April 23rd) and St. John the New (celebrated every year on June 24th). The founders of the church are the son and the grandson of Stephen the Great, Bogdan III and Stefan Voda

   The Monastery of St. John the New functioned as a residence Metropolitan of Moldova (between 1522-1677) and is now the residence of the Archbishops of Suceava and Radauti (from 1991), and in 2004 was included on the list of historical monuments in Suceava.

   Most precious jewels of the parish of Saint George the Great Martyr, are of course the holy relics of Saint John the New in Suceava, brought  in 1589 from the Mirăuţi Church. They are placed in a silver gilt reliquary, made with great craftsmanship by the local artisans of the time. Shaped by hammering and engraving, the silver plates contain 12 scenes from the life of the martyr, the masterpiece of the silverware of Moldova.

   The legend has it that John was a Christian merchant born around 1300, somewhere in Asia Minor, who was selling silks and religious objects, then buy cattle or wheat, especially from Moldavia. In one of his travels by a ship of the shipowner Reiz, they engaged into a religious dispute. Reiz, angered and eager for revenge, denounced John at the Diocese of the White Fortress, as he wanted to leave their faith and move the Islamic one. Hearing these words, John tries to defend himself. Instead, he is tortured, beheaded and then abandoned. When three angels descended near his lifeless body, a pagan tryed to shoot an arrow at them, but remained hardened in firing position, all night long. On hearing miracle, the Tartar Khan accepts John to be buried in the Christian cemetery, following the customs of the Orthodox Church.

   Placed on the holy altar of the orthodox church in the White Fortress, the relics of St. John had been there for about 70 years, being venerated by the faithful people for the endless miracles and healings. In 1402, they were brought to Suceava by Alexandru cel Bun and his wife Anna, which was healed miraculously by them. They`ve been then deposited in the Mirauti church, till the finishing of the St. Gheorghe church.


The Church of St George of the Voronet Monastery, built 1488 

 

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   The St. George Church of the Voronet Monastery is probably the most famous church in Romania for its exterior frescoes, showing bright and intense colors, also for the well-preserved hundreds of figures painted on the azure-blue background .

   The monastery is located on a riverbank at the end of a large village with the same name, near the town of Gura Humorului. The Age of the monastic settlement is not known. The legend has it that Stephen the Great, during a crisis during a war with the Turks, came to Archimandrite Daniel, the hermit of Voronet and asked him for advice. Winning the battle against the Turks, the Prince has kept his promise to the monk and built a new church dedicated to Saint George, patron of his victory in battle. This is the current church, built on the old wooden church settlement, whose dating remains is not known.

   The exterior with pillars, doors and window frames follows the Gothic influences of Western Europe. The current was spread in Transylvania and Poland by artists who were invited especially here to build churches. The church of St. George opens with a commemorative inscription placed at the entrance to the exonartex "I, Prince Stefan by the will of God, ruler of Moldavia, son of Prince Bogdan, began to build this foundation of the Voronet Monastery dedicated to the Adorated and Great Martyr and Victorious St. George year 6996 (1488 moon of May day 26, the Monday after the Pentecost and ended in the same year in September 14)”.

   The text shows that the church was built in less than four months. This gives us an idea of ​​the high professional level of construction of that time, particularly taking into account that the Monastery of St. John in Suceava was built exactly the same time.

   This Stephen the Great`s foundation, including the altar, the nave and narthex with the tower, indicates that the plan was identical to the churches of Patrauti, St. John and St. Milişăuţi. In 1547, the Metropolitan Bishop of Moldavia, Grigore Rosca added in the final exonarthex, on the west side of the church. The doors of the north and south of the exonarthex of 1547 had rectangular frames indicating a transition period from Gothic to Renaissance. But above them, on each wall is a tall window with a flamboyant Gothic arch.

   The entire west facade doesn`t have any openings, which indicates that the intention of Metropolitan Rosca was, from the beginning, to preserve it for frescoes.

   In the half century that separated the execution of the exonartex paintings from the nave paintings, Moldavian art has evolved from a serious and rigorous structured style to a complex one, decorative and full of life. Floral decorations fill all the empty spaces and separate registries and scenes and sharp architectural elements, as niches and arches. The figures, from simple garments pass now to sumptuous, while the white area of the wall  is now filled with vegetation.


The Church of Resurrection, Sucevita, 1585 

 

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   Located in the village of the same name, on the river valley of Sucevita, 18 km southwest of Radauti in the region of Suceava, Sucevita Monastery was built in the last decades of the sixteenth century, with the expense of the entire noble family Movila, of which Ieremia reigned the seat of Moldavia between 1595 - 1606.

   Movila family`s first foundation was a more modest church, dating from about 1581. During the reign of Petre Schiopul, Movila brothers, being the counselors of the Prince and reaching a prosperous economic situation, start the construction of the actual monastery complex. First, the church has been built between 1582 - 1584. After he had become a ruler in 1595, Ieremia Movila added two porches to the church, located at the both entrances of the church, to the north and to the south. Then the towers and the walls followed, which give the moanstery the shape of a medieval fortress. Later, a royal house was raised, the ruins can still be seen on the northern side of the complex.

   Also, during the reign of Ieremia Movila, the church has been painted inside and outside. The frescoes of Sucevita, preserved in its original form, show a narrative style and complete cycles play of the lives of some saints: St. Prahomie, St. John the New of Suceava, St. Nicholas, St. Martyr George, the Life of Moses etc, presented in this form for educational purposes.

   The fresco painting was executed by two Moldavian painters, John Zugravu and his brother Sofronie. They respected the tradition started in the first half of the XVIth century, the era of Petru Rares, but introduced some new themes of a theological-dogmatic nature.

   The exterior painting of the Sucevita Monastery is the best preserved of all Moldavian churches of this kind, the only one which preserve the northern side, showing the scene "Ladder of Virtues", the most impressive by its size and by the contrast between the angelic order and chaos of hell. This stage play fight between good and evil depicts the human attempt to approach the divine perfection.

   On the walls of the three apses, in seven registries  is "The Prayer of All Saints”, an Orthodox Christian theme in art, perfect example of the creative painting school in Moldova.

   The south facade is decorated with the "Tree of Jesse", having at the base the ancient philosophers, the "Acatist of the Virgin Mary ", the "burning Stake" and the "Protection of the Virgin Mary".

   The mural paintings of Sucevita, considered by the French art researcher Paul Henry a „testament of the Moldavian art" is the one that ends the era of reference of the Romanian Medieval art of  the XVIth century, whose monuments with exterior paintings from Sucevita, Humor, Moldovita, Arbore and Voronet are recognized as masterpieces of world art.