ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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Stories Washed Away by Time

Romania’s cultural heritage is just beginning to catch the attention of art lovers around the world. In this article, we will discover how this heritage is fading.

Traveling through Romania can be an alienating experience: there are a chronic lack of basic goods and services, endless lines for fuel and a tremendous amount of bureaucratic red tape. Sooner or later the visitor despairs – it appears that little, or nothing, can redeem this country from its abject poverty. And yet wealthy Western Europe is at its back door.

Romania’s ruthless dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu (1965-1989), forced his nation to industrialize – with little regard for economic and ecological factors. Nevertheless, Romania remains primarily an agricultural country that functions much as it did in the 19th century.

Today, however, huge industrial complexes dot the landscape, monuments to Ceausescu’s poor planning. Many are empty shells, but from the smokestacks of those factories that still operate, heavy black soot blankets the surrounding villages.

These oppressive impressions dissolve, however, when one penetrates Romania’s northwestern province of Moldavia. Here one is surrounded by treasures that cannot be found elsewhere.

Whether hiding between mountains or lying among hills, Romania’s medieval monasteries and the frescoes that emblazon the exterior walls of their churches reflect the life and times of this nation located in the heart of the Balkan peninsula.

Modern Romania, which was created in the 19th century, is composed of three former principalities: Walachia, Transylvania and Moldavia. Although most of the people who inhabit these regions are ethnically and linguistically related to the West, most Christians practice Christianity in its eastern, or Byzantine, form; the only Latin people to do so. The overwhelming majority of Romania’s believers are Orthodox. The Byzantine Catholic Church, which was suppressed by the communists in 1948, was reestablished after Ceausescu’s fall.

Throughout much of the 14th century, and for most of the 15th, medieval Romania, like its Balkan and Byzantine brothers, waged war with the Turks.

By the mid-15th century, Walachia and Moldavia had fallen while Transylvania had been absorbed by the Hungarians and Germans. Constantinople, the heart of Orthodoxy, was captured by the Turks in 1453 and became the capital of the Ottoman Empire.

However the princes of Walachia and Moldavia did not lose their autonomy completely. Acting as the vassals of the sultan, these Machiavellian princes collected taxes and paid tribute to the new emperor in Constantinople. Yet they styled themselves as heirs of the Byzantine realm – erecting churches, cathedrals and monasteries.

In 1600 a scheming Walachian prince, Michael the Brave, proclaimed himself prince of Walachia, Transylvania and Moldavia, briefly uniting the region for the first time since the first century.

But Michael’s reign ended one year later when he was captured and executed by representatives of the Holy Roman Emperor, whom he had betrayed.

This devastating period of war, subjugation and dashed hopes was boldly captured in full color by artists – popular historians who painted the exteriors of Moldavia’s churches.

Today historians liken them to pages in a manuscript, images created for communicating faith and legend to an illiterate population.

Images of the Last Judgment depict the Turks consumed by the fires of hell. The intention is clear: the Turks are the vanquished enemies of the Orthodox faith.

Images depicting the 24 strophes of the Akathist, or hymn to the Virgin, appeal to the populace to defend the ancestral faith and its spiritual center, Mt. Athos, a mountainous peninsula in the Balkans that still shelters more than 20 monasteries.

The recurrent presence of warrior saints in Moldavian iconography reinforces this symbolic invocation to resist the Turk.

Surrounded by powerful walls and robust towers, Sucevita Monastery appears suspended in time. Life in this functioning monastery has not changed for centuries.

The frescoes of Sucevita, which was built between 1582-1596, are among the best preserved in Romania. The church’s walls – exterior and interior – are covered with scenes; each encompasses hundreds of faces and figures. One scene features peasants and nobles in 16th-century dress. This particular fresco depicts an old Moldavian belief: recently departed souls, before confronting judgment, must undergo various “heavenly trials” for entry into the kingdom of heaven.

Moldavita Monastery (1532) is also a functioning monastery. Unlike the church in the former Soviet Union, Romania’s Orthodox Church was permitted to keep many of its monastic establishments, although intermittent persecution did exist.

Immersed in a lovely bucolic landscape, Moldavita, unlike Sucevita, diffuses a feeling of warmth.

Twilight is the most enchanting hour to visit Moldavita. When the sun sets, priests and monks gather in the church to pray. The flames of the multitude of candles almost animate the icons of the saints and martyrs that have been blackened by centuries of incense and smoke. One cannot but revere the spirit that enlivens Romania’s houses of God.

An extraordinary blue background characterizes the frescoes of the Voronet Monastery. The pigment was created from ground lapis lazuli, a semiprecious stone found in the Ural Mountains of Russia.

Experts consider these frescoes, painted in 1547, as the masterpieces of medieval Moldavian art.

One of its most astounding murals, located on the south facade of the church, represents the siege of Constantinople.

With astonishing realism, the artist created a moving portrait of the fall of Constantinople. The Turks, clearly and accurately represented, surround the ancient capital while the city’s churches shelter the huddling masses.

In these sequels the conventional rules of Byzantine iconography are broken and replaced with a historical event that would later become a rallying point for the 19th-century independence movements of the Bulgarians, Greeks, Romanians and Serbs.

The originality of these frescoes has provoked an on-going debate among scholars regarding their origins. Some claim they are of Iranian provenance; other scholars link them to the Byzantine city of Trebizond; yet others think they are of Byzantine-Balkan derivation. The fact is, nowhere else in Europe can one find a church enveloped in a glorious iconostasis.

It was here in Voronet that I had a short conversation with a nun on the poor condition of most of these frescoes:

“UNESCO promises [financial support], but meanwhile the funds for restoring them arrive in small drops – when they arrive. On the other hand, the Romanian economic situation is of such gravity; the first problem to face is reconstructing the country. When you are confronted with poverty, all other problems naturally lose importance. With the earnings from the entrance tickets, we try to do our best.…”

The exteriors of most of these monuments of Romanian culture are deteriorating rapidly. Natural elements such as rain, snow and the impermanence of the materials have played a role. But it is the forces of humanity that are destroying these treasures: acid rain, pollution and defacement.

The price of admission is just 10 leis, which is less than 15 cents. One can imagine how much can be done with this meager amount.

As I drove from the monastery I was preoccupied with the fate of these monuments and again I began to despair.

Then I approached the Arbore Monastery. If blue characterizes Voronet’s frescoes, then green is the triumph of Arbore. Of all the Moldavian monasteries I visited – each one in a different state of decay – I saw restorers only at Arbore.

It seems that the creators of these Moldavian frescoes knew some formulas that resisted the elements, but these are lost today. The elements, natural and human in origin, are wiping away a fragment of our history.

If it is true that history can always teach us something, then it would be a pity to let these frescoes – images that record the medieval history of Romania, the Balkans and the Byzantine Empire – vanish.

Bruno Pavan is a freelance photojournalist who travels frequently to Eastern Europe.

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