The area of Southern Bucovina, in northern Romania [North Bucovina is now part of Ukraine] is best known for its painted monasteries, and with good reason. I did a day trip to Gura Humorului from Suceava to visit the two most popular and accessible – Voronet and Humor Monasteries.
In Romania, minibuses are maxitaxis. It sounds confusing because it is. They call them maxitaxis, but they’re minibuses that run fixed and regular routes that you buy a ticket for. I took one of these maxitaxis to Gura Humorului and found a taxi driver who was willing to take me to Voronet and then to Humor using the meter! This was tremendously exciting.
Voronet Monastery was built in 1488, one of the earliest of the Bucovina painted monasteries. The frescoes however, both inside and out, were painted around 1535. The base colour was a vibrant blue, and the majority of the frescoes still remain to this day. The walls are not covered in a single image; rather, in some parts the scenes are set in defined grids while in others individual scenes blend into the others with little sense of linear continuity.
Voronet is an active convent, and it seems that groups of Orthodox nuns from other convents visit this one – the day I was there, a group of nuns were taking a tour of the church. I tried listening in, but there’s no point really when you can’t understand the language anyway. They spent a great deal of time discussing the fresco on the end wall, and I wish I’d been able to understand them. It was beautiful, and showed one of my favourites – the Last Judgement.
One thing I found interesting was that in the scenes of the Last Judgement, where the good ascend to Heaven and the souls nonbelievers and generally bad people [lots of women!] fall into the fires of Hell, the ‘good’ are depicted with facial features typical of the region whilst those condemned to eternal torment are depicted as Turks. This makes sense when you consider that at the time the church was painted the Turks were the enemy.
Humor Church was built in 1530 on the site of an older monastery, and was active for more than two hundred and fifty years, before closing for another two hundred and reopening as a small convent in 1991. The wonderful frescoes that cover the exterior were painted in 1535 – and most remain today, albeit restored. Humor is one of the best preserved of the Bucovina painted monasteries and it is an absolute pleasure to behold. Every space on the exterior is painted with biblical scenes, intended to educate the illiterate – many depict Hell and punishment, while another illustrates the Last Judgement. It’s full on, and it’s beautiful.
I love the Orthodox style of religious art, and I love renditions of Hell and related Judgement or punishment scenes – I find them fascinating, and very telling of the culture of the period and place. I also like to see how they depict beasts and monsters – see how imaginative the artists were and perhaps how fearful. These were very popular themes at both painted monasteries, and I suppose that’s quite logical – what better way to convince people to behave properly than to constantly remind them of the fate awaiting the wicked?
The church is surrounded by gardens and a fortress wall – most of the churches built in Southern Bucovina and indeed during that time in Romania were fortified. Parts of the garden were sheathed in a delicate layer of snow, and specks of snow clung to the roses that remained determined to bloom despite the sub-zero temperatures.
After visiting the monasteries I had to figure out how to get back to Suceava. I knew there were plenty of minibuses but I didn’t know where to get one from as I was dropped off on the side of the road near a hotel – not at a bus station or the like. I figured I would wander around the town in the direction of Suceava and try to flag down a minibus that was going there. This worked, and luckily it didn’t take long. I wanted to escape the cold and sit somewhere warm for a while, even if it was just a bus!