July 18, 2010

Bukovina: Romania's Centre of Spirituality

The northern province of Moldova - known as Bukovina, is an ethnological and religious enclave intended to symbolize Christianity's triumph against paganism. Many of the Bukovina monasteries were built by the Moldavian voivodes as a token of gratitude to God after each victory in battles against the Turks. The unique beauty of their external frescos, which attract thousands of tourists, prompted the UN to enter seven of them on the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites in 1993.

Built in 1532 by voivode Petru Rares, the Moldovita Monastery has the appearance of a fortress because of the six-metre-tall stone walls that surround the compound and four defense towers. The monasteries, centres of sixteenth century education and culture, were often targets for invading Tartars and Ottomans. The church, painted on the outside in a dominant red-brown chromatic with many yellow inlays, has the best-kept frescos of all the monasteries in the region. After the First World War, and almost two centuries of Austrian occupation, Moldovita again became a monastery for the nuns, many of whom now are guides for the flocks of tourists.

The former treasury of the monastery is a museum exhibiting old embroideries, wooden icons, various archaeological findings and religious books. The monastery was a genuine centre for the copying of books and manuscripts. Tourists, who can find accommodation at numerous pensions in the neighborhood, can buy religious souvenirs from the gift shop or traditional artifacts from the craftsmen stalls at the gates.

Historians, noting the different styles in evidence, say the church of the monastery was painted by numerous painters at different times. The historical and religious scenes depicted on the outside walls -- such as the Last Judgment, Moses and the burning bush, and the Siege of Constantinople -- have an apparent narrative continuity mixed with Byzantine and local elements. The scenes on the southern facade tell the story of the birth of Jesus Christ, with all the related Biblical episodes, from the Annunciation to Jesus' presentation at the temple.

The only painted monastery not built by a ruling voivode, Sucevita was built in 1584 by the Movilesti, an influential aristocratic family. Locally known as boyars, they later gave Moldova a ruler and pre-eminent ecclesiastic figures, whose graves are on view inside the church. As in Moldovita, the monastery is surrounded by high stone walls and watch towers, one of them also being the bell tower. The painters of Sucevita were historically identified as brothers Ion and Sofronie, who painted the church between 1594 and 1595. The siblings had great skills as miniaturists and highlighted contrasts with strong, vivid colors.

A unique theme can be seen on the outside walls of the church -- the all Saints' prayer, along with the Stair of Virtues -- an anti-thesis between good and evil. Since Sucevita was the last of Bukovina's painted monasteries to be built, its outside painting, in a dominant green chromatic, is the best preserved. Local legend says that a small portion of Sucevita church's walls remained unpainted after the scaffolding collapsed, killing the painter.

Bukovina is also famous for its ceramics. The village of Marginea, in Suceava County, stands out with its unique black ceramics, a tradition whose beginnings go back to time immemorial. The pottery is admired at many national and international fairs for its color and traditional decorations as well as various shapes and overall symmetry.

Putna, though not painted, carries the greatest religious and symbolical burden of the Bukovina monasteries. It was the first creation of Stephen the Great, probably the most notorious figure in Romanian history, over whose tomb it shelters. Stephen ruled Moldova between 1457 and 1504. In 1459, he finished construction of the monastery, which had unusually large dimensions in those times, probably because Stephen had decided to make it his family's final resting place.

Stephen, now a saint in the Romanian Orthodox Church calendar, built 43 monasteries and churches during his reign. The museum of Putna exhibits several artifacts, including the shroud of Maria of Mangop, the oldest Moldavian style portrait embroidered in natural size. Also housed there are fifteenth-century religious books and the silver incense dispenser given by the ruler to the priests of the monastery after its inauguration.

The former capital of Moldova, the Suceava seat fortress was built late fourteenth century. After a tumultuous three-century history, during which it was besieged, damaged and consolidated countless times, the fortress fell into oblivion. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Austrian architect Karl Romstorfer undertook the first renovation, along with an archaeological exploration. In 2004 -- 500 years after the death of Stephen the Great -- the fortress went through another thorough restoration. It now hosts many exhibitions and fairs.

Voronet, also named the Sistine Chapel of the East, is probably the most known of all the painted monasteries, due to its dominant blue which is commonly referred to as "Voronet blue". The color was obtained from lapis lazuli, but in measures that remain secret. Built at the direction of Stephen the Great in less than four months in 1488, the monastery served as gratitude to God after a notorious 1475 victory against the Ottomans in the battle of Vaslui. One of the most important frescos was painted on the west side of the church and depicts the Last Judgment. The scene contains local elements, such as musical instruments, folk costumes and landscapes.

This text and photographs are courtesy of the Southeast European Times (SET), a web site sponsored by the US Department of Defense in support of UN Resolution 1244, designed to provide an international audience with a portal to a broad range of information about Southeastern Europe. It highlights movement toward greater regional stability and steps governments take toward integration into European institutions. SET also focuses on developments that hinder both terrorist activity and support for terrorism in the region.