Dracul awaits sinners at the bottom of a fiery river. Saint George spears a dragon. The beast of the apocalypse blows fire onto dignitaries. At the painted monasteries in northeastern Romania, frescoes tell dramatic stories of salvation and damnation that once were meant to educate Eastern Orthodox Christians living in the countryside.
Surrounded by stone-wall fortifications, the monasteries are scattered through the valleys within the Carpathian Mountains. King Stephen the Great of Moldavia began construction of the Orthodox churches in the 15th century. During his reign, he fought to strengthen his kingdom by pitting it against Hungary, Poland and the Ottoman empire — winning 46 out of 48 battles, many against the pagan Turks. To commemorate his victories, he purportedly built 44 churches, and after his death his successors built more, copying King Stephen’s architectural style.
Our first stop on a tour to see some of these churches was at Gura Humorului, a logging town with one main street lined with restaurants, a supermarket and five newly constructed Orthodox churches. Between 1945 and 1989, the communist government declared Romania an atheist state and turned many churches into community centers or storerooms. But since the 1990s, a resurgence of piety has led to massive church construction throughout the country, often funded by the government.
The painted monasteries, too, have revived their religious communities with nuns and monks dedicated to restoring the monasteries and their frescoes.
We hired a local driver, Daniil, who knows the country roads well and can manage through forests, shepherd villages and unpaved roads. Daniil lived in Italy for a year but returned because he missed the beauty of this region. He first took us to Gura Humorului’s Voronets Monastery, one of the best known of the painted monasteries. Inside, beautiful frescoes and nuns singing Gregorian chants set the atmosphere for Sunday Mass.
The monasteries are constructed in the shape of arcs or ships. Angels often line the top row directly beneath the wooden eaves, symbolizing their proximity to God. We wandered over to the exterior western wall where a Last Judgment scene depicts Dracul (the devil) sitting at the bottom of a crimson river, while a few angels along the banks poke sinners with long sticks.
The background color of these frescoes shines with Voronets blue. Daniil says that researchers have tried to find out where the artists obtained the mineral, lapis lazuli, for the paint, but the mystery remains unsolved. It can be found in faraway places, such as the Badakhshan mines of northeastern Afghanistan, but nowhere near Romania.
Daniil next drove us about 15 miles to the Moldovitsa Monastery, which was built in 1532 by King Stephen’s illegitimate son, Petru Rares. As at Voronets, the Last Judgment scene shows Dracul sitting in his fiery river, but this time a demon pulls a dignitary into the water by his beard.
Builders of these monasteries placed the Last Judgment scenes on the western walls. They often inserted the entrance door, and a nun told me the reason.
“A church,” she said, “is a heaven on earth. To get inside, one must first pass through judgment day.”
Daniil drove us through a windy mountain of pine trees and after five miles or so we spilled into a valley where the Suchevitsa Monastery is tucked inside a mammoth citadel. Along the front wall of the church, the Ladder of Virtue spreads against an emerald-green background. Here, men step up with their good deeds, while angels behind them pray for their success. But many men fall off the rungs and into an abyss.
The Movila family constructed this citadel, the last of the monasteries, at the end of the 1600s. Locals like to recount the story of the Movila Princess Elizabeth, who poisoned her husband, Simeon, in order to get her son on the throne. The Tomb Room of the church holds the remains of many Movila family members — except for Elizabeth, who died in the harem of a Turkish sultan after the Ottomans conquered the region. In the Suchevitsa museum, a silver orb still holds strands of Elizabeth’s brown hair.
Daniil took us to visit several more monasteries and a salt mine in the town of Cacica. The Habsburgs annexed this region in the late 1700s, shutting down the monasteries. They then hired fellow Catholic Poles, Czechs and Germans to build and work in the salt mine. Today, the Romanians have turned the underground space into a gymnasium replete with tennis courts and a dance hall.
Before he left us, Daniil suggested that we eat at the Select restaurant along the main street, a “milk bar” that still exists from communist times. It seemed a good time to ask him whether he resents the Habsburgs and communist rulers who suppressed the wonders of these painted churches.
Daniil said that those leaders were like the people in the frescoes — “Some days evil. Some days good” — a mix of the fires of hell and the wings of angels. And the people of Romania know how to handle that.
Barbara Zaragoza is a dependent spouse living on the naval base in Naples, Italy. Find her blog, “The Espresso Break,” about the food and nooks of Naples, at http://theespressobreak.blogspot.com.