Putna Monastery in Bucovina © Cristian Bortes
Tucked into the north-eastern corner of Romania, the
medieval principality of the Moldavian region, Bucovina lies in
between the Carpathian foothills and the Romanian plains. Here the
region's hero, Stefan the Great, fought back the Turks in the 14th
and 15th centuries and then built churches and monasteries
throughout Moldavia to celebrate his victories. There are 48
monasteries in total, complete with fortified walls to protect
against invaders. These unique monasteries and Byzantine churches
with their exceptional exterior frescoes are some of the most
fascinating sights in Romania. Seven of the painted monasteries
have been included on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
The area is worth visiting, not only for its wealth
of religious art and the beautiful monasteries, but also for the
natural beauty and simplicity of the region with its rolling hills,
forests, and valleys. The countryside is scattered with picturesque
villages and rural scenery as local folk go about their daily
business. Horse-drawn carts dominate the lanes, driven by people
bundled up against the cold, outdoor wells and piles of chopped
wood adorn the yards, and produce markets bustle with activity.
This fascinating region of Romania is a stark contrast to the
frenetic pace and way of life shaped by the modern face of city
The largest town in the area, and previous capital of
Moldavia, is Suceava, the gateway to the painted monasteries of
Southern Bucovina. The town has various sights of interest,
including old medieval churches, the Bucovina History Museum, and
its main tourist site, the Schaun Citadel, a fortress built to hold
off the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II in 1476.
The Moldovita Monastery, a Romanian Orthodox monastery. © Alex Moise
The Painted Monasteries
The 15th century painted monasteries of Southern Bucovina have been declared UNESCO World Heritage Monuments, they represent some of the greatest artistic monuments in Europe and are among the most picturesque treasures in Romania. Most of the churches are fortified with strong defensive surrounding walls as protection against Turkish invaders that sheltered large armies of soldiers awaiting battle.
The exterior walls of the monasteries are richly decorated with vivid frescoes depicting dramatic Biblical scenes, intended to teach Christianity to the illiterate. The artwork has amazingly survived harsh exposure to the elements for over 450 years and the intense colours have been well preserved. The five main painted monasteries near Suceava are Humor, Voronet, Moldovita, Sucevita, and Arbore. The predominant colour of the artwork at Voronet is a vivid blue that serves as a background to the designs.
The quality of the frescoes, the magnificent Last Judgement and the brilliant colour has earned it the moniker of 'Sistine Chapel of the East'. Humor is characterised by its predominant red colour; and the largest and finest of the monasteries, Sucevita, has its thousands of painted images on a background of emerald green. Moldovita, situated in the middle of a quaint farming village, consists of a strong fortified enclosure with towers and heavy gates, with the beautiful painted church in the centre. Also nearby are Dragomirna and Putna monasteries, the latter home to an active community of monks and a small museum containing medieval manuscripts and rare textiles.