In Romania, The Color of Monasteries
Inside the Ancient Sanctuaries, Painting Is a Religion

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."

The next day at Moldovita, a short drive southwest from Sucevita through lushly forested hills, sunshine accentuated gold-tinted saints under protective black eaves. The frescoes were meant to be "an open book," a resident nun explained, visual translation for an illiterate peasant population.

Education wasn't the only aim. The young sister pointed to one of Moldovita's dominant images, an action-packed depiction of the siege of Constantinople by Persians in 626, a battle won by the outnumbered Christians thanks to a timely storm they credited to the Virgin. The Christians are shown in Moldavian kit, the invaders as Turks.

Under Ceausescu, Moldovita was declared a "protocol church," according to the sister, required to provide meals and lodging to secret-police agents passing through the area. Its resident population had dwindled to nine by the time of the 1989 revolution.

Moldovita, like Sucevita, Humor and Voronet, is now occupied by several dozen nuns. (Arbore is uninhabited.) Abiding centuries-old rules, they rise before dawn for long days of prayer and work, although these days that entails leading tours and selling icons as well as raising crops and weaving clothes. Visiting the monasteries a few months after Ceausescu's downfall, Kaplan described them as belonging to another age, isolated and suffused with ancient mystery and grace. Visiting one of them last fall, we heard a chiming cell phone and turned to see a nun reach into her habit to take the call.

But ancient mystery and grace still have their part in Bucovina. Arbore, a drive of 15 dusty, often unpaved miles from Sucevita, has the most-faded frescoes but retains a village-church tranquility. When we arrived, local women were standing below the west wall's blue-and-green martyrdom scenes distributing bread and cake to parishioners.

Dan ascertained that we'd arrived before a memorial service for a village woman who'd died the year before. Before we could worry about our timing, we were welcomed with bags of bread and shots of homemade plum brandy, both integral parts of such ritual gatherings. We followed a procession across the street to the cemetery and watched while the priest led prayers accompanied by mournful singing.

A few days later at Humor, about 30 miles south of Sucevita and 25 west of Suceava, I walked the lovely grounds, dotted with flowers and wooden outbuildings, to the sound of chanting from the church, where a service marking a feast day for Mary was taking place.

Inside the red-frescoed church, congregants feverishly scribbled the names of loved ones on slips of paper for inclusion in a prayer for the dead. As a group of nuns sang, I studied the painted panels climbing to the ceiling, a fervid panorama of sacrifice and suffering: saints being burned, lanced and boiled alive; strangled, beheaded and dragged by horses; hung by their ankles and tossed over cliffs. There was nothing remote or allegorical about the violent images, or in the way the congregants crowded around the table and lifted it skyward at the climax of the prayer.

"To the believer the liturgy is not a spectacle. He lives the moment. If he doesn't sing with his voice, he must sing with his soul," Father Filon Ionel, the parish priest, told me later. "It doesn't matter if he is Orthodox or another [denomination]. He will enrich his soul."

I asked if they'd been performing this liturgy for the entire life of the monastery, 500 years. Father Ionel smiled indulgently. "We have performed this liturgy for 2,000 years."

Afterward, we drove the few miles south to Voronet, the oldest of the monasteries. It has been dubbed the "Sistine Chapel of the East," and the comparison does Michelangelo credit. Swathed in a satiny indigo known as "Voronet blue," it was the most beautiful church I'd ever seen.

The famous blue derives from lapis lazuli stones imported from Egypt, explained Slemco, whom we'd hired for our last day in Bucovina. As with the other monasteries, the formula for creating the exterior colors died with the painters, so the frescoes can never be repainted -- when a piece fades or flakes off, it is gone.

Slemco talked us through the Orthodox calendar painted just inside the entryway. He showed us the altar with its icon of God holding a Moldavian scarf, representing the universe. With the skies darkening, he hurried me to the west wall to show me the "Last Judgment," Voronet's -- and Bucovina's -- masterwork.

All the monasteries have apocalypse frescoes, but Voronet's is the most overwhelming, and seemingly the one designed to elicit the fiercest identification from its intended audience of peasants and warriors. Angels sound the final call on a bucium, a local shepherd's horn, and send turban-headed sinners tumbling toward a beastly Satan. The apostles watch from a grandstand of Romanian thrones as Jesus weighs souls, with Turks and Tatars prominent among those awaiting judgment. Everybody gets a shot at salvation, Slemco said, describing this image as an olive branch extended to unbelievers and enemies of the state.

We asked how that squared with other frescoes, like that of the siege of Constantinople, that identified the Turks as marauding foes of Christianity. Didn't the monasteries have a propaganda purpose? Weren't they painted to fire up the faithful against their adversaries?

Slemco waved me off. "You are trying to find too many explanations, my friend," he said. "This is a miracle of God, and that's all."

Andy Markowitz is a writer and editor living in Prague.

Details: Bucovino's Painted Monasteries

GETTING THERE: Suceava, Bucovina's largest city, is a 275-mile drive or a six-hour train ride from Bucharest. The round-trip rail fare from Bucharest is about $132 if you book in advance at www.raileurope.com, but you may pay less if you buy in person. Once in Suceava, you'll find that all of the painted monasteries are about an hour away and within an hour's drive of each other. Icar Tours (Stefan cel Mare 20A, www.icar.ro) rents cars from its Suceava office, starting at $54 a day for up to three days, less for longer rentals.

VISITING THE MONASTERIES: All of the monasteries charge admission, usually about $1.50 per person plus $2.25 to take pictures. Wear proper attire -- no shorts or otherwise revealing clothes. Ciprian Slemco (www.mtour.tk,email at monasterytour@yahoo.com) offers a one-day tour with car, driver and guide for about $105 ($45 for guide services only). He can also negotiate customized tours and make arrangements on the fly. Prices do not include gas or monastery entry fees.

Bucovina is home to several other historic churches and monasteries. The village of Marginea a few miles east of Sucevita is famed for its black pottery, which can be purchased from workshops and roadside sellers. Slemco and Icar include these and other destinations on some of their tours.

WHERE TO STAY: The terrific Web site www.ruraltourism.ro provides detailed information in English on local guesthouses. One of its choices, Casa Venera, in the village of Sucevita about a mile from the monastery, offers homey rooms with breakfast and an outstanding dinner for about $18 per person a night. Slemco can also arrange home stays.

Most guesthouses will take payment in euros as well as Romanian lei. The three-star Best Western Bucovina in Gura Humorului, a few miles from Humor and Voronet monasteries, has doubles from $104; check www.bestwestern.com for Web specials.

INFO: Romanian Tourist Office, 212-545-8484, www.romaniatourism.com. The Romanian Travel Guide, www.rotravel.com, has a solid section of practical and historical information along with recommendations on lodging, car rentals and other services.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company