Monastic Life Lives On in Rumania
text and photos by Daniel Gabriel
Inside the stone courtyard nuns walk silently, swathed against the days chill in layers of coarse black cloth. From a corner tower a bell rings, toning low over the figures passing between their quarters and the church which sits at the hub of the encircling buildings of the convent. Dark nuns, tawny buildings, leaden sky: the sombre, earthy setting is a perfect foil for the brightly colored frescoes which dance vigorously across the exterior of the oval church, calling their viewers heavenward.
The scene is from the courtyard of Sucevita monastery set in the rolling hills of northeastern Rumania in an area known as Moldavia.
What makes this monastery scene so unique are the vivid 15th century frescoes on the outside walls of the church. Sucevita and four other monasteries in Rumania: Moldovita, Humor, Arbore, and Voronet are the only buildings in the world with medieval frescoes on the outside walls. When Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453 certain noble families and leading clerics managed to flee to Moldavia where they continued a way of life based on their memories of Byzantium.
Stephen the Great, spiritual father and military hero of Moldavia employed local craftsmen to build churches while artists were commissioned to decorate the outside walls. Upwards of a dozen churches were built and decorated this way. All were painted with a base coat first then gradually covered with a design.
The purpose of the murals was twofold: to instruct the peasants in religion and to inspire the survivors of the Turkish invasion.
In some ways the frescoes surpass the original upon which they were based. Where traditional Byzantine art may feel overly formalized or otherworldly, these monasteries sparkle with life and imagination. The infusion of the naive realism of Rumanian folk art provided a welcome vigor and freshness to what had become a stiffly dying tradition.
Featuring episodes from the lives of the saints and the history of the church, the dominant themes of the murals are Biblical and encompass everything from the Garden of Eden to the Revelations of John. The vividness of the artists vision is especially apparent in the expanse of such masterpieces as The Last Judgement at Voronet or The Ladder of Heaven at Sucevith.
The church at Voronet, built in 1488, was completed in 15 weeks. In the following century some of the most famous Moldavian painters of the day created the frescoes which are dominated by a cerulean blue. Because of its purity this shade is internationally known as Voronet blue.
A doorless, windowless west wall at Voronet is the backdrop for the powerful Last Judgement mural. A red tunnel filled with gray, bizarre looking devils flow from the feet of Christ and on His right are crowned and haloed people in paradise. Turbanned Turks in purgatory are on his left. Beneath the eves, in unrestored colors as bright as the day they were painted, are signs from the Zodiac.
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Tags: Monastery Art Romania Frescoes