Unless you are a carefree, two-year- old toddler who is only obsessed with their next treat, you will have heard someone say at sometime or other, ‘They just don’t make things like they used to in the good old days’. Never have I seen a greater display of this statement than by laying my eyes upon the painted monasteries of Bucovina. We had extensively searched Google images to get a sense of what to expect from these 15 th century feats of architecture. However, not even the swagger of beautifully presented Google images prepared us for the real deal. Painted from head to toe, inside and outside, in a vibrant richness that looks like it has come from yesterday’s paintbrush, these monasteries are a true marvel and simply must be seen.
We were lucky enough to visit three in total: Voronet, Sucevita and Moldovita. Each one had its own appeal, each one lured us deeper into the past and each one told a story without the presence of words.
After visiting Voronet in the fading late afternoon light we found ourselves reading anything and everything we could find about these monasteries in preparation for seeing two more the next day. Interestingly, the outside of the monastery was seen as a bible for the non-learned man. Something that I am often saying in the classroom is, ‘Come on kids, paint a picture for me using words’. Well, here it was the opposite, as they interpreted the ancient words of the bible into magnificent pictures. When you had a trained eye (with thanks to our Lonely Planet guide and a hoard of other internet sites) you could see ‘The Last Judgement’, ‘The Last Supper’, ‘The Tree of Jesse’ and other more obscure frescoes like ‘St John’s Ladder’ and battle scenes between countries. Both Lauren and I were left gawking at the detail of these frescoes as they were truly memorising. In fact, on more than one occasion I tripped on the footpath that surrounded the monastery, as I couldn’t take my eyes of the paintings.
Unbelievably, at each monastery we visited, we were often the only ones that were around. You put this sort of building in a country like Italy or France and there would be lines around the block and more paraphernalia than you could poke a stick at. I guess, that is the appeal of Bucovina. It still feels real. It feels like you are a part of the history when you visit.
As we stepped inside, our eyes were met with wall-to- wall frescoes. The colours were arresting and the images magnetic. However, in contrast to the outside, the frescoes on the inside walls were essentially the original handbook for ‘1001 ways to kill a man’. Never have I seen so many decapitated heads, impaled bodies, squashed torsos and ripped limbs. However, in a strange way, they were remarkably beautiful. Nestled in a corner of the freezing monastery there would be a nun either praying or looking contemplatively at the frescoes. In many ways, being surrounded by these images day in and day out, I can see why they are struck to pray so frequently; perhaps prayers of thanks that their fate isn’t as bloody as their ancestors that line the walls.
With brains swimming with images and feeling like we had walked on sacred land we hopped back into our car to find the next jewel in the Romanian crown…. Maramures.