You may wish to see an introductory page to this section first.
The principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia abound with monasteries originally established by different Voivodes and it was a long time customary with the inhabitants to consider as great acts of piety bequests of lands, houses, shops or sums of money made to them, insomuch that hardly any rich man died without having allotted a portion of his property to such a purpose. These voluntary gifts had so accumulated and the value of land has so increased that some of the monasteries are now the richest establishments in the country.
William Wilkinson - An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia - 1820
1901 Map of the region of the monasteries; at the time it was divided between the Austro-Hungarian Empire (left/upper section) and the Kingdom of Romania (right/lower section): A) Neamt; B) Voronet; C) Moldovita; D) Sucevita; in the lower left corner the Saxon town of Bistritz (Bistrita) in Transylvania
Bukovina which signifies beech-forest is a pretty and pleasant little district, which is twenty-four (German)
miles in its greatest length, fifteen in its greatest breadth, and which contains about one hundred and eighty square miles, lies at the Northern extremity of that great tract of country inhabited by the Walachians. (..) Like all
frontier countries, it has often changed its masters during the political storms
and convulsions which have agitated these now peaceful regions, and has
been frequently conquered by the Poles, and reconquered by the Moldavians. Bukovina, however, belonged mostly to the latter, for not only
is the principal population Moldavian, which it has probably been from
the remotest ages, the names of all the mountains and rivers in the country, being, with few exceptions, Moldavian, but both the physical circumstances and social condition of the country, are the same as in the rest of
Moldavia. (..) A part of Bukovina on the northern side of the Pruth, has become Russian, but the rest has been Austrian ever since 1775. (..) Bukovina has, properly speaking, only three towns: Tshernovitze,
Seretb, and Sutshava. (..) Our evening companions interested us far more than our dinner society.
They were two well-educated young Moldavians in the Austrian service,
and were enthusiastic patriots. They told us many stories and legends of
the golden age of their country, of the Moldavian, or as they said "Dako
Roman" mythology, and of Stephen the Great, and other heroes of Moldavia.
Johann Georg Kohl - Austria, Vienna, Hungary, etc - 1843
The Bukovina was severed from Moldavia, that is from Turkey, in 1775, and united with Austria. Unlike Galicia, it is hilly and wooded, and differs greatly from it also ethnographically. The inhabitants (about 801,000) are chiefly Ruthenians, Roumanians, Germans, Poles, and Armenians. The political administration is quite separate from that of Galicia, and the official language is German.
1911 Baedeker's Guide Book of Austria - Hungary, with excursions to Cetinje, Belgrade and Bucharest.
Graffiti at Moldovita
Eight churches of northern Moldavia, built from the late 15th century to the late 16th century, their external walls covered in fresco paintings, are masterpieces inspired by Byzantine art. They are authentic and particularly well preserved. Far from being mere wall decorations, the paintings form a systematic covering on all the facades and represent complete cycles of religious themes.Their exceptional composition, the elegance of the characters, and the harmony of the colors blend perfectly with the surrounding countryside.
UNESCO documentation supporting the inclusion of eight monastery churches in the World Heritage List.
Today the major factors of anthropic risk are vandalism, destructive rebuilding, renovations or repainting, conservation and restoration errors and lack of maintenance. On wall paintings in Bucovina vandalism was a much greater threat in the past than today. (..) More organized protection of cultural heritage began with the creation of the Central Commission for the Protection of Historical Monuments in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the year 1850. The commission named honorary conservators for each duchy or kingdom of the Empire.
Blaz Seme - The Problem of Preserving Exterior Wall Paintings on Monuments - 2006
Until the 1850s Byzantine architecture, mosaic and painting were regarded as representing a barbarous interlude before civilization returned with the Renaissance, the more so for the provincial nobility of Bukovina, whose members were not Christian Orthodox. They did not consider the decoration of the churches as a work of art worthy of respect.
Church of the Ascension of the Saviour at Neamt Monastery
Given Moldavia's location at the point of intersection of diverse cultures, especially from the 14th century onward, the art and architecture of the principality came to exhibit an eclecticism with respect to artistic and architectural sources, with elements adapted from Western medieval and Byzantine artistic models alongside forms developed locally. This visual syncretism, most evident in the main monastic churches built initially under the patronage of Prince Stephen III the Great (r. 1457-1504) and then with support from his illegitimate son and heir, Prince Peter Rares (r. 1527-38; 1541-46), contributed to the development of a local style that underwent further transformations in the centuries that followed. Both princes, Stephen and Peter, through their artistic patronage, self-consciously reflected upon the past glory of Byzantium and their contemporary situation, and with guidance from Church officials, contributed to projects that gradually transformed Moldavia's sacred landscape.
Alice Isabella Sullivan - Byzantium in Eastern European Visual Culture in the Late Middle Ages - 2020
The imposing Church of the Ascension of the Saviour dominates the yard. Stephen the Great decided to demolish a damaged church of the XIVth century and to build a new one during the last decade of the XVth century. The stone inscription above the entrance states: "Our Lord Jesus Christ, receive this edifice built with Your help for the glory of Your holy and blessed ascension from earth to heaven, and You, our master, lay Your mercy upon us from now to eternity. Prince Stephen wanted and started and built this edifice as a place of commemoration of himself and his wife Maria and his son Bogdan and his other sons, and completed it in the year 7005 (1497), the 41st year of his reign, the 14th day of November".
Short sides of the church and a small chapel which was added at a later time
The painted and fortified Orthodox monastic churches of the former principality of Moldavia are remarkable for their distinctive architectural features. (..) They reveal the scope, significance, and global reception of Byzantium in a period after the empire's collapse and in a region that was never part of the empire, but certainly under its spiritual power. Moreover, the spatial and visual forms of these edifices elucidate local processes of image translations, the transfer of artistic ideas, and particular dynamics of cultural contact in a region that developed at the crossroads of different traditions and that took on a central role in the continuation and re-fashioning of Byzantine models in the centuries after the fall of Constantinople in 1453. Sullivan
The architecture of this and of the other monastery churches is almost unique and greatly differs from the usual idea of Byzantine architecture in the overall layout of the building and in the absence of brick domes (you may wish to see a page on the Byzantine churches of Thessalonica).
Decoration of the exterior of the church
Unlike the churches of the other Moldavian monasteries, the exterior of that of Neamt was not painted, exception made for some some small niches in the upper part of the wall. The decoration was based on brick effects and a band of circular ceramic discs.
(left) Bell tower; (right) XVth/XVIth century frescoes in the passage
The Neamt Monastery is first mentioned in a XIVth century document, in which Petru I (1375-1391) donates villages and lands to the monastery. Nothing remains of the original monastic buildings which were built and rebuilt several times during the centuries. The present constructions, which form a defensive wall around the church, were built during the XVIIIth and XIXth centuries. The main entrance to the compound is through a vaulted passage under the bell tower. The lower part of the tower is probably the original construction built during the reign of Prince Alexander the Kind (1400-1432), but the upper part was added later. The vaulted passage is decorated with frescoes that seem to have been inspired by the popular novel Varlaam and Joasaph, a medieval account about the conversion to Christianity of the Indian prince Joasaph under the influence of the hermit Varlaam.
(left) VIIth century miraculous icon from the Holy Land; (right) detail of the XIXth century iconostasis
The Church of St. George seen from the south-east with the entrance to the exonarthex to the left
The monastery is located on a riverbank, at the end of the long and narrow village of the same name, near the town of Gura Humorului. The age of the monastic site is not known. According to tradition Stephen the Great, in a moment of crisis during a war against the Ottomans, came to Daniel the Hermit, his spiritual guide, at Voronet and asked for advice. After he won the battle against the Ottomans, keeping his promise to the monk, the prince built a new church, dedicated to St. George, the symbol of military victory over evil. The church that he built included the chancel, the naos with its tower, and the pronaos. A commemorative inscription says: "I, Prince Stephen, by God's mercy leading the Country of Moldavia, son of Prince Bogdan, started to build this foundation at the Monastery of Voronet, dedicated to the Saint and Worshipped and Great Martyr and Victorious George, in the year 6996 (1488) the month of May, 26, the Monday after the Descent of the Holy Spirit, and completed it in the same year, in the month of September, 14". The church was built in less than four months.
In 1547 Grigore Rosca, Metropolitan Bishop of Moldavia, added the exonarthex to the west end of the church. The south and north doors of the exonarthex have rectangular frames, which indicate a transition period from Gothic to Renaissance, but above them is a tall Gothic window.
Effect of prevailing northerly winds and rain on the paintings: (left) apse; (right) northern side
The exterior paintings depict traditional scenes - the Church Hierarchy, the Tree of Jesse, the Akathistos Hymn (a hymn during which the congregation is expected to remain standing in reverence, without sitting down) and the famous Last Judgment, which covers the entire western wall. On the south wall the paintings have not been faded by the passage of time. Notwithstanding the large eaves which protect them those on the northern wall are barely visible.
The external paintings of the churches of Northern Moldavia cover all the facades. They embody a unique and homogeneous artistic phenomenon, directly inspired by Byzantine art. They are masterpieces of mural painting, and are of outstanding aesthetic value in view of their consummate chromatism and the remarkable elegance of the figures. They present cycles of events taken from the Bible and the Holy Scriptures, in the Orthodox Christian tradition. UNESCO
The whole wall of the exonarthex is without any openings, which indicates that the intention of Metropolitan Rosca was since the beginning to reserve it for frescoes.
Last Judgement: detail showing the Muslims portrayed as high Ottoman dignitaries (upper right corner)
The depiction of the Last Judgement is an integral part of the decoration of an Orthodox church; it is usually placed so that the faithful see it on their way out of the building, in order to remind them that they will be judged for their actions; the structure of the painting follows a rigid pattern; the artist can show his skill and his ingenuity mainly in portraying the wicked. You may wish to see some similar paintings at Moni Panagia Mavriotissa at Kastoria and at Agios Nikolaos Anapafsas, one of the Meteora Monasteries. Occasionally the subject was used for political purposes by portraying enemies among the wicked.
South fašade with scenes from the lives of Sts. Nicholas and John the New
The holy, glorious and right-victorious Great-martyr John the New of Suceava was a Romanian saint of the 14th century. His feast days are celebrated on June 2 and June 24. St. John was born in Trebizond in Asia Minor in about 1300 to devout Orthodox parents. His father was a merchant and John followed in his footsteps. On a trading trip to Cetatea Alba, then part of Moldova but now in the Ukraine, he got to know a Venetian merchant named Reiz whilst they were sailing on the Black Sea. They discussed the faith many times and, seeing that John always defeated his arguments, the Venetian decided to take revenge.
On arriving in Cetatea Alba, Reiz spread a rumor that John, despite being raised Christian, was interested in the Muslim faith. Cetatea Alba at that time had been conquered by Muslim Tartars, and when their ruler heard the rumor he called for John. He was taken before the ruler and asked if it was true that he wished to deny the Christian faith and become a Muslim. He responded that he would never give up his faith in the true God in order to worship created things or the inventions of men. This response offended the Tartar ruler, who ordered John to renounce his faith on pain of torture. He refused to do so, enduring many beatings, and was eventually martyred by being dragged behind a horse through the streets of the city before having his head struck off by a fanatical Jew. The year was 1330 and John was only about 30 years old.
On hearing of his death, Reiz resolved to dig up the body of the martyr and steal it as a further act of revenge, but the Orthodox priest in the city had a dream in which John informed him of this crime and asked him to bring his body to the Orthodox Church. This was the first miracle of the great martyr. For years his relics were kept in Cetatea Alba, where they became famous for healings and other miracles, but eventually Prince (Voievod) Alexander the Good heard of the martyr's relics and, at the urging of Metropolitan Joseph Musat of Moldova, arranged to have them brought to his capital, Suceava, on June 24, 1402. John's incorrupt relics have been kept at the monastery bearing his name in that city until the present.
From OrthodoxWiki, a free-content encyclopedia and information centre for Orthodox Christianity.
Detail showing St. George killing the dragon with the help of the Voivode of Moldavia
According to tradition in January 1475, near the town of Vaslui, Stephen III the Great won a victory over an army of 120,000 specially trained Turkish soldiers, supported by 40,000 peasants, 5,000 sekou (Hungarians) and 2,000 Polish mercenaries. The Turks who were taken prisoners reported that during the battle an unknown knight on a white horse raced with a spear. Fearless and invulnerable, he boldly rushed into the fray and penetrated the whole series of enemies, knocking the ground with corpses. By this account Stephen III and his men guessed who was in the victorious battle their mysterious ally, and therefore glorified God and His wondrous saint George. From a Romanian art website.
Tree of Jesse, a depiction of the ancestors of Jesus Christ, shown in a branching tree which rises from Jesse of Bethlehem, the father of King David (see a very simple Tree of Jesse at Kastoria in Greece)
The paintings are particularly renowned for their blue background which was obtained by using natural azurite, a copper-based pigment.
The image used as background for this page shows a door panel which is decorated with the symbols of Bukovina (bull head, star, sun and moon)
You may wish to see the fully painted church of the Monastery of Sumela near Trebizond.
Move to the monasteries of Moldovita and Sucevita.
Plan of this section:
Crossing the Southern Carpathians: Bran Castle and Cozia Monastery
Sighisoara and Biertan
Other locations in Transylvania (Bistrita, Targu Mures and the Eastern Carpathians)
Moldavian Monasteries - page two