In Romania, The Color of Monasteries

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By Andy Markowitz
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, March 13, 2005

Flights of angels greeted me as I entered Sucevita Monastery. Dozens of them, clad in a red that refuses to fade after more than 400 years.

Before me was a monumental vision of Heaven and Hell, several dozen feet high, the angels guiding the virtuous up a ladder to salvation while Boschian devils drag down sinners clinging to the rungs. Whatever your feelings about the afterlife, it's an image of frightening immediacy.

Sucevita is the largest of the five painted monasteries built from the late-15th to the late-16th century in the Bucovina region of northeastern Romania, about six hours by train from Bucharest. Covered with Byzantine frescoes whose vivid colors have largely -- one is tempted to say miraculously -- survived the elements and generations of upheaval, the monasteries are unique in the annals of art and religion.

Built by a series of warrior-kings and nobles, Voronet, Arbore, Humor, Moldovita and Sucevita were painted in turn by artists who alchemized plant and mineral dyes into impossibly lustrous shades, with each one ascribed a chief hue. The result is a kind of medieval Bible Comics Illustrated, the gospels, prophecies and lives of the saints rendered in intricately detailed panels in the Byzantine style that prevailed in the Orthodox world.

Today, they're being discovered by visitors finally looking beyond the twin demons that have long defined Romania in Western minds -- a fictional vampire and an all-too-real megalomaniac. Even amid nun-staffed gift shops and busloads of German visitors, it is possible to glimpse the living Orthodox faith that sustained the country and its people through centuries of war, occupation and dictatorship.

In "Balkan Ghosts," his account of traveling through the Balkans, journalist Robert D. Kaplan calls Bucovina "the land beyond Dracula's castle." The main road into the region sweeps down the Carpathians from the Borgo Pass, where Bram Stoker situated his vampire's lair. The crest of the pass was empty when Stoker wrote the novel in the 1890s; it is now occupied by the Castle Hotel Dracula, a disarmingly tacky and only nominally castlelike tourist trap the Communist government built in the 1970s. When it comes to exploring the real Romania, though, the Gothic castle's got nothing on the Orthodox church.

All located within an hour's drive of each other and of Suceava, Bucovina's main city, the monasteries can easily be visited in a day but are better spread out over a few. On our first morning, Dana, our photographer friend, was determined to shoot Sucevita by dawn. While Dan, a Romanian journalist who was serving as our translator, and my wife slept in at our guesthouse, Dana and I drove to the monastery.

At 6:30 on an overcast morning, Sucevita sat silent behind the imposing perimeter wall, a vestige of its days as a garrison-church. The enormous front gates were shut, but a small door set into them gave when Dana tugged the handle. We stepped gingerly through, half-expecting to be busted by a watchdog nun. Instead a little man in a cap casually motioned us in.

"There is no doubt that the first view of Sucevita is the revelation of something entirely new to the experience," the English traveler Sacheverell Sitwell wrote in 1938. Standing before the monastery's north wall on that cloudy morning, I understood what he meant.

There are no soaring spires or glowering domes, none of the magisterial flourishes we associate with great religious buildings. I live in Prague, home to some of the grandest churches in the world. But my first glimpse of Sucevita's other-worldly images stopped me in my tracks. Renaissance art may move a person with its distant ethereal glow, but the Bucovine frescoes, with their vivid colors and unruly imagery, their agonized faces and rivers of blood, pack a Holy Roller's punch.

The fervent identification with suffering and redemption has dimmed little in these parts since the monasteries were painted, according to Ciprian Slemco, a divinity student-turned-private tour guide who walked us through two of the monasteries a few days later. "Eighty-six percent of Romanians are Orthodox. We are one of the few countries in the world that is still keeping the Orthodox traditions," Slemco said.

"We have been occupied by Turks; we have been occupied by the Austro-Hungarian Empire. We have been occupied by the Russians, by the Germans, after that by our own people, by [Communist dictator Nicolae] Ceausescu. [But] religion was never occupied in people's minds and people's souls."

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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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