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Intro to Romania

Monasteries & Bran Castle

The Monateries


Located on the northern border of Romania, Bucovina, part of the old province of Moldavia, is a mountainous region whose peaks and forests of beech and pine shelter gently sloping valleys. Here, during the short period of a quarter of a century, between 1522 and 1547, a group of churches sprang up, frescoed with a liberality and magnificence unparalleled in any other country. The painting of religious murals was widely practiced throughout the Orthodox Church, for the edification of the illiterate faithful who flocked to church on feast days, but here in Romania it achieved its finest flowering. The painted monasteries are covered within and without in vivid, minutely detailed frescoes whose colors remain fresh and strong. They have been compared to Persian carpets or to jewels set in cases of green grass and flowers within their severe enclosures. That they have survived to this day, despite the passage of time, wars, invasions, and the vandalism of rival religions or ideologies, is little short of miraculous.

Development of Moldavian Style
In the second half of the fifteenth century, the Moldavian ruler Stephen the Great built forty-four churches – one after each of his victories over the Turks – that established the style of elegant octagonal steeples raised on a tall star-shaped base. In his time, monasteries were decorated with enameled disks and colored bricks placed around the steeple, below the cornice, and along architectural elements. There are indications that even then, masons familiar with the technique of fresco painted colored bricks on the parts of the facades that were not adorned with glazed bricks. The idea of extending the figurative interior painting to the exterior surface of the walls may have originated in this practice, although the paintings in the open galleries of many medieval Byzantine churches in Greece, Serbia and Bulgaria do already spread somewhat to the outside walls. Monasticism was always supreme in the Eastern Church. The rulers and rich families of the two Romanian Principalities, Vallachia and Moldavia, continued the tradition of erecting churches and religious buildings. They endowed the monasteries with land, forests, vineyards, orchards and villages, and would enrich them with art treasures long after their founding. About a dozen painted monasteries dating from the second quarter of the sixteenth century remain in Bucovina. The most remarkable are the monastic foundations at Humor (hoo mor), Moldoviţa (mol do vee’ tsa), Arbore (are’ bo ray) and Voroneţ (vo ro nets). Suceviţa (sue che vee’ tsa), dating from 1600, represents a late return to the style developed some seventy years earlier. The tradition of painted churches continued into the nineteenth century in other parts of Romania, although never to the same extent. The painted monasteries show the influence of the Byzantine tradition of the Byzantine artists active in Wallachia in the 14th and early 15th centuries, but increasingly the artists were indigenous.

General Description

Bucovina is a region of continual rain in the spring and autumn, and it is buffeted by blizzards in winter. Violent winds from the steppes have damaged the northern side of the churches over the centuries, but the outer wall frescoes are generally admirably preserved. At one time it was thought that this permanence was due to plant pigments being mixed with egg yolk, which is fatty and therefore more waterproof than water and size. Recent studies find that the rich colors are based on harmonious combinations of a few tones derived from minerals – red ocher extracted from iron oxide clays; red from lead oxide; blue from unstable copper carbonate and in Voroneţ from lapis lazuli; green from basic copper carbonate; yellow ocher from clays rich in hydrated iron oxide. These pigments were mixed with lamp-black or charcoal to counteract the drawing action of the plaster. Other substances including animal size, vinegar, egg, gall and honey have been identified. Classic fresco technique was used, about four square meters or more being painted in a day’s work. Details were added al secco, in particular on faces and in inscriptions, and gold leaf was sometimes added.
The Moldavian churches differ from the cathedrals and great churches of Western Europe in having few windows, and therefore less need for buttressing except where there is a steeple. If there is any visible Gothic influence, it is only as a mere detail in the stone plinths, doorways and window frames of the buildings. Designed for small congregations, they are small and intimate. On holidays and feast days, the neighboring population would attend services, gathering outside the church within the monastery precinct. At Easter, a midnight candlelit procession wound around the church.

The beginnings of Putna Monastery, the most important religious, cultural and artistic centre in mediaeval Moldavia, take us back to the year 1466 when, upon the initiative of Prince Stephen the Great (1457-1504), a church of impressive dimensions was built on a patch of forest cleared for the purpose. The edifice was erected among 1466 and 1469 and consecrated in 1470; to it were added a few more buildings: a princely home standing on the southern side, outer walls and defense towers; all of them completed in 1481. A few years only after the completion of the buildings and fortifications, a dreadful fire destroyed most of the church, the outer walls and the princely home. The following years, the prince and founder rebuilt the church that soon recovered its former lofty appearance.
In 1536, another conflagration seriously damaged all the buildings; there followed a new restoration completed in 1559, on the initiative and at the expense of Prince Alexandru Lãpusneanu (1552-1561; 1564-1568).
Despite subsequent restoration work, partial or complete, time, earthquakes and landslides caused a lot of damage to all the monuments Putna Monastery consists of leaving their indelible marks on them, so that the church more especially required renovation and repairs. In 1653, the church, which had been built in the 15th century was pulled down to its foundations and replaced in 1654-1662 by a new building which, with slight alterations, has lasted to this day. In this period, the princely residence and the precinct walls were also enlarged and repaired. However, this important restoration did not last more than three quarters of a century, for in 1739, Putna Monastery was destroyed by a powerful earthquake, which made it necessary to start ample restoration work between 1757 and 1761, upon the initiative and with the endeavors of Metropolitan Iacov Putneanul.
Another important stage in the building of the monastery in the past was marked by the restoration work effected from 1854 to 1856, when the precincts were enlarged and new walls were erected, 23 m. to the north of the previous ones. New cells were built parallel to the wall; the old princely residence was demolished, a new building - including a kitchen, a refectory and cells - was erected, together with a new abbey on the western side and a chapel on the north side.
Restoration work on the monastery was started again towards the close of the 19th century, under the supervision of the Austrian architect K.A. Romstorfer. Ample scientific restoration work was under way in 1969, when the church, the treasury tower, the entrance tower and the belfry - built in 1882 to replace a 15th-century tower - were restored in succession. Between 1974 and 1977, the former abbey standing on the western side of the courtyard was replaced by a wooden building, a museum housing art collections, while the cells built in 1854-1856 on the northern side were replaced and renewed.
The size and complex plan, the rich decorations (carved stone, terracotta and paintings)as well as the appearance for the first time in the ecclesiastical architecture of Moldavia of the exonarthex and of arches arranged slantingly in the vaulting of the pronaos are the basic characteristics of the earlier church of Putna Monastery, making of it a brilliant prototype in which the most important achievements of the previous epoch perfectly combine with the valuable renewing contribution of Stephen the Great’s masterbuilders who erected the monument. An attempt at reconstituting the plan and spacial structures of the earlier church at Putna proves that even if its characteristic features - the presence of the burial vault and the vaulting of the pronaos more especially - are to be found in other previous monuments, they were to be taken over and adapted creatively to grace other places of worship built subsequently.
The new church, having the same triconch plan, was erected among 1654 and 1662. It was almost the size of the earlier monument and its walls rest partly on the old foundations. There are some important alterations in the vaulting system, while the outer wall on the west, built a little back from the former wall towards the interior, was strengthened by two buttresses supporting obliquely the corners of the building. The wall separating the burial vault from the nave has been replaced by two thick octagonal pilasters resting on strong stone pedestals.
The only carved element preserved from the 15th-century church is the monumental porch which links the pronaos to the burial valut; it is rectangular in shape decorated with crossed mouldings characteristic of Stephen the Great’s epoch. The iconostasis, richly carved in wood, dates from 1773 and belongs to the period of constructive upsurge- characterizing Metropolitan lacov Putneanul’s pastorate. The only edifice dating from Stephen the Great’s time which has been preserved whole - the only evidence that at the time of its first erection Putna Monastery was a genuine fortress, the strongest and loftiest of all Moldavian Monasteries - is the treasury tower, built in 1481, standing on the western side of the precincts.
To the same earlier period belong the vestiges of the former princely home and its outhouses which archaeological diggings rediscovered in recent times and made it possible to study them.
One reaches the courtyard of the monastery by passing under the entrance lower, reconstructed in 1757 at the expense of Prince Constantin Racovitã (1749-1753; 1756-1757), on the site or very close to another tower erected by Stephen the Great in 1481. Besides the repeated filling and levelling of the steep sloping terrain, widely different initially -in height from north to south, one can notice in the evolution of the precincts of Putna a concern for the preservation of its fortified character and for a correct use of the inner space. The outer walls of the monastery, first erected in 1481, were successively rebuilt in the mid-seventeenth (1654-1662), eighteenth (1757-1760) and nineteenth (1854-1856) centuries, when the constructors built the new walls on the old foundations dating from the 15th century.
On the initiative and with the support of its founders, a short time after it was built, Putna Monastery - together with some antecedent monasteries, such as Sucevita, Neamt, Bistrita and Moldovita - became an outstanding seat of Romanian mediaeval culture. As early as 1467, scribes, calligraphers and miniature painters who had learned their craft under Gavril Uric came from Neamt to work at Putna Monastery.
Besides skilful calligraphers and miniature painters, many embroiderers, icon makers, weavers, silversmiths, sculptors in wood and book-binders toiled on in the quiet atmosphere of the monks’ cells at Putna. They continued valuable Romanian patterns and achieved works of great artistic value which today are the pride of all museums and libraries housing them.
Special mention should be made of the sumptuous and elegant Four Gospels created here, adorned with miniatures in which perfect drawing combines with a motley color scheme in which gold prevails, as well as the fine embroideries (epitaphs, iconostasis curtains, coverings of tetra pods and of graves, stoles, etc.), many of them on show in the museum of the monastery.
A famous school where Grammar, Rhetoric and Logic were taught was set up in the latter half of the 15th century and was open all through the 16th century. One of the outstanding scholars who taught at the school was Eustatie, of Romanian stock, who at the end of the 15th century transcribed the music of several psalms and composed many psalms himself.
A careful study of the history of Putna Monastery - an important cultural and artistic centre, a refuge and a defense fortress in times of stress, a princely residence and burial place - reveals that, for Romanians everywhere, the monastery is the symbol of a period of remarkable economic, social and political progress, a telling proof of the permanent aspirations and struggle of the Romanian people for liberty, independence and national unity.

High walls and heavily buttressed defensive towers surround the great monastic complex of Suceviţa, giving it the appearance of a fortress. It was founded in 1581 by Gheorghe Movilă, Bishop of Rădăuţi. His brother Ieremia, ruling prince of Moldavia, added defenses and two porches with oriental pointed arches on either side of the church. An elegant steeple resting on a star-shaped base tops the church. Massive eaves protect the outside frescoes, painted by local artists Sofronie and Ion probably in 1601.
The iconography essentially repeats established models. Here, however, the visitor entering through the fortified gateway in the north wall is first confronted with an unusual and magnificent depiction of the Ladder to Paradise. Red-winged angels in orderly rows attend the righteous on a slanting ladder to the heavens, each rung inscribed with one of the monastic virtues. Sinners fall through the rungs and are driven by grinning dark devils to the chaos of hell. The scene is surmounted by the story of creation in a series of scenes with a light background.
The three apses that form a trefoil at the eastern end show the usual procession of saints on a predominantly green and blue background. The figures are arranged in rows according to their significance: angels and seraphim appear at the top, archangels and prophets beneath them, then holy men (including hermits dressed only in their own hair, which has grown all over them like a shaggy fleece), martyrs, and finally military saints and ancient philosophers. On the south side, foliage entwines the rows of figures in the Tree of Jesse. Following it is the Hymn to the Virgin. The western wall is not painted. Tradition says that work stopped after the painter fell from the scaffolding and died. The rich interior decorations include, in the enclosed porch, the Last Judgement, with its river of fire and enigmatic apocalyptic figures.
Suceviţa was a princely residence as well as a fortified monastery. The thick walls today shelter a museum that presents an outstanding collection of historical and art objects. The tomb covers of Ieremia and Simion Movilă – rich portraits embroidered in silver thread – together with ecclesiastical silverware, books and illuminated manuscripts, offer eloquent testimony to Suceviţa’s importance first as a manuscript workshop, then as a printing center.

Ivy-covered walls enclose the graceful church of the Annunciation at Moldoviţa, a foundation dating from the first half of the 15th century, completely reconstructed by Peter Rareş in 1532. Toma of Suceava painted the frescoes in 1537. The apse paintings depict the traditional procession of the saints leading up to the Virgin enthroned with the Child in her lap above the narrow east window. Below them, a representation of the Paschal lamb reminds the faithful that Christ conquered death in the sacrifice of the Cross. On the south side, an elegant Tree of Jesse on a blue background springs from a recumbent Jesse at the foot of the wall to marshal the ancestry of Christ around the Holy Family.
The Siege of Constantinople along the bottom of the south wall depicts Christians routing the infidel with arrows and cannons and miraculous icons being paraded around the ramparts. Still visible are graffiti scratched by Austrian troops in the eighteenth century.
On the west end of the church, tall arches light the porch and shelter the depiction of the Last Judgment. The interior frescoes are not obscured by soot as much as in other churches, and the Abbess, armed with breviary and laser pointer, proved ready to help identify the saints and martyrs pictured on the walls of the pronaos. The defensive exterior walls, five meters high and more than a meter thick, incorporate white stone buildings with black-shingled roofs. Nun’s cells line one side of the compound, while in the northwest corner is a restored two-story princely residence now used as a museum of ecclesiastical embroidery and religious art.

The Moldavian general Stephen Tomsa II, a former mercenary, built Solca Monastery from which only the church remains between 1612 and 1615.
It is a triconch building, with an octagonal bell tower on the naos. A fortified wall surrounds it, almost 3 meters thick. Very rare are the large cellars for storing gunpowder and the fortified arrow slits in the walls of the naos. It has four pairs of buttresses with Gothic profiles. The vaulting system of the naos is typical Moldavian. Note the moulding rope surrounding the pronaos and the naos in the interior (small shields as ornaments, in Gothic style).
The church has a treasury reached from the naos by a ladder. The tombs are of Duca Voda, Andrei Abaza and his daughter.
The altar screen was painted 1855. Nice are the glazed roof tiles. Solca has a delightful rustic charm.

The church of the Dormition of the Virgin at Humor dates from 1530, as attested by an inscription engraved in stone near the entrance on the outer wall of the church. It was founded by the boyar Teodor Bubuiog, Chancellor of Petru Rareş, who is buried here with his wife Anastasia, and replaced an earlier church that had been destroyed. Nevertheless, these were insecure times when looting and fires resulted from social unrest or exterior attacks. The monastery was enclosed in defensive walls in 1641. Today only a massive tower and the belfry remain, and a wooden stockade hung with colorful local rungs for sale replaces the walls. The Cossacks set the monastery on fire in 1653, and in the eighteenth century, when the Austrians occupied Bucovina and suppressed the Orthodox monasteries (1786), it became a simple parish church. It was re-established as a convent in 1990. A new church with gleaming metal roof stands on a hill nearby.
Baskets of decorated eggs and colorful local rugs are put on display on wooden stockade along the walk leading up to the belfry gate.
The church, topped by a cross-shaped shingled roof, is steeples, indicating that a ruling prince did not build it. The tall walls therefore did not need buttresses and offer a plain surface for the frescoes, which date from 1535. They have suffered great losses, although the south side is relatively well preserved. The dominant colors are dark red, blue, and green. The Virgin’s Council besides the Gothic window is particularly beautiful. More damaged is the Siege of Constantinople that covers the lower part of the wall below it. Both form part of the “Hymn to the Virgin,” after a poem dedicated to her in thanksgiving for her intervention in saving the city of Constantinople from a Persian attack in A.D. 626. In a wonderful political spin, considering the Ottoman threat to Moldavia, the Siege depicts the enemy as turbaned Turks rather than Persians. Unusually, Toma of Suceava, the master painter here, has signed a self-portrait that depicts him as a Moldavian horseman attacking a Turk. Tall arches, probably adopted from Wallachian models, open the porch to the outside and daylight. Within it the Last Judgment covers the entire surface of the west wall with its river of fire and its depiction of the sea giving up its dead to judgment – obscurely symbolized by a woman mounted on a dolphin, holding a ship. The Tree of Jesse has been moved from its traditional place on the south wall to the north face.
The splendid interior frescoes, cleaned some twenty years ago under an UNESCO project, include two donor portraits: Teodor Bubuiog, the founder, and his wife appear in the Burial Chamber and Petru Rareş with his second wife in the nave.

The church of St. George at Voroneţ dates from 1488. Strong buttresses at each corner ground the church to the earth, while its wide roof and spire give it a light winged feeling. Stephen the Great erected it in three months and three weeks after his third defeat of the Turks in 1486, to fulfill a pledge made to a hermit, Daniel, who had encouraged him to fight. The church was built on the spot of Daniel’s wooden hermitage, and he is buried in it. Voroneţ was therefore a votive church, not a monastery, and so had only a naos and nave.
The interior frescoes date from the time of Stephen’s foundation. Between 1547 and 1550 Petru Rareş had an enclosed porch added, creating side entrances, each surmounted by a Gothic window, and ordered the external frescoes painted by anonymous monks. Because of this late date, the siege of Constantinople is not pictured: the Turks had established control over central Europe, and naturally took a dim view of such flagrant propaganda.
The church strikes by its blue coloration, due to the use of lapis lazuli. The paintings on the north and, to a lesser extent, the west sides of the church have suffered damage, but those on the south and west wall are beautifully preserved. The Tree of Jesse is a harmonious composition in which white scrolls and details stand out against the blue background and red-toned figures. Scenes from the lives of St Nicholas and St John surround the door. The enclosed porch leaves an unbroken surface on the west for a magnificent Last Judgment, probably the greatest of all those depicted on the painted monasteries. Angels sound the ‘bucium’, the Romanian shepherds’ instrument similar to the alpenhorn, as the graves give up the dead and wild animals come bearing the limbs they have devoured. An elephant ambles along, King David is shown playing the Moldavian cobza (a kind of guitar or lute), and the Siren who seems to depict the sea rides her dolphin. In a medallion above them sits Christ in glory, while below him is the throne of judgment, adorned with the cross and bearing the Gospel and the dove that symbolizes the Holy Spirit. The hand of God below holds the scales that weighs the souls of men. Devils try to bring down one side, while angels fight them off with lances. To the right, evildoers (depicted as contemporary kings and popes, Jews, Turks, and Tatars) await divine judgment, and a river of fire bears sinners to eternal torment. At the bottom, St. Peter leads the elect, opening the doors to Paradise, identified by a light background with stylized plants, where patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (the latter two holding on their laps the souls of the righteous, depicted as swaddled infants), St. John the Baptist, and two angels attend the Virgin. On the northern wall are shown scenes from the creation of the world and the life of Adam and Eve.
Monks eventually attached themselves to the foundation, but as elsewhere the monastery was dissolved after 1786. The surrounding monks’ cells disappeared, the enclosing walls were destroyed and only the church and bell tower remain. Nuns returned in 1991; they farm and have opened a painting workshop.
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Monasteries, Mountains & Bran Castle
Tour Code: ZZ-HKRM01
9 days / 8 nights ~$1,205.00
Dates: April to October

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The Monateries
Airport: Bucharest
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