ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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Monastic Life Lives On in Rumania

Monasteries in Moldavia survive as reminders of the Byzantine era.

Inside the stone courtyard nuns walk silently, swathed against the day’s 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.

Green is the dominant color at Sucevita, the largest and most impressive of the monasteries. A high wall on the north side of the church has helped preserve the painting of “The Ladder of Heaven.” The ladder of St. John from Sinai divides the scene from lower right to upper left. Souls striving to reach Heaven stand on the ladder and 52 angels with wings spread are on the right urging them on. To the left are demons dragging people from the ladder and falling with them to perdition.

Scenes from the frescoes at Humor depict the Three Kings enroute to Bethlehem on horses, looking over their shoulders at an angel above them. In addition to a procession of saints there is a scene of the Return of the Prodigal Son.

The smallest and least dramatic of the five churches is Arbore. Its murals are dominated by five shades of green. In these murals women are depicted more gracefully than in the others, appearing almost like ballet dancers. On the west wall are scenes from Genesis and the lives of the saints. It is believed that in medieval times, priests preached their sermons in front of these scenes.

Rose is the dominant hue of the frescoes at Moldovita. Here too, is a rendering of The Last Judgement, with a tiny dove on an immense throne, signifying the Holy Spirit. There is also a representation of the Siege of Constantinople on the south wall.

Inside the churches the frescoes continue though their impact is diminished. The dim, cold light and the cluttered pilgrim relics make one overly conscious of the smallness of the interior. The paintings’ lustre dulls under the imposition of furniture and books encrusted with gold and silver.

The survival of the murals through generations of rainy springs and snowy winters is attributed to the composition of the paint and the projecting roofs of the churches.

By the middle of the 19th century the monasteries were abandoned and rubble was piled halfway up the walls in some places. Human defacement posed additional danger. Not until this century did the Rumanian government take active steps to preserve the frescoes. When they did, it was with admirable intent. Rather than simply create an outdoor museum, the government re-established active religious communities at two of the finer sites, Sucevita and Moldavita.

Once all-male preserves, the monasteries have been convents since the 1930’s. The nuns occupy themselves with maintaining the grounds and sedately explaining the history of the murals to visitors appearing at the gate. In general, their lives are quiet ones. Aside from the tolling bells that call them to prayer, the sounds of their day are few: a rustle of heavy skirts, the dull clop of a foot on cobblestone, the whistle of wind on the walls. The portly, grey-haired nun dozing in her robes on a bench along the church wall seems a part of the story the frescoes tell.

Daniel Gabriel, a resident of California, is completing a master’s degree in cross-cultural studies.

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