The Monasteries in Bucovina

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Some of my friends also on Fulbrights joked with me about our near guilt over the amount of free time over this year. With classes on Thursday and Friday, a five day “weekend” is always theortically possible. And in Romania, the euro/dollar goes a long way. Just to give an example, I took a nine-hour overnight train for $25. Compare that to the cost of an American ticket with a far more incompetent Amtrak and you see what I’m getting at.

Last weekend, I checked Romania’s primary tourist site outside of Transylvania: the monasteries of Bucovina, situated in the northern region of Moldavia. To check them all out in a single day, I hired through my hostel a Romanian driver. Sadly, he didn’t speak “the language” (English, one of my grandfather’s immortal lines as the archetypal American tourist). The monasteries are situated in a region that best depicts my imagined picture of Romania: quaint, pastoral, but obviously poor. As we drove around, I counted at least seven horse-drawn wagons carrying produce. We passed by cabbages sales on the side of the road, quaint and decaying homesteads, and old ladies (who nearly all wear head scarves here) selling jams, fruits, and sauces. There is even your occasional drunk wandering on the road side. When I confessed to my students that this region felt like the “Real Romania” to my students back in Constanta, one was slightly offended: “So you think we all live like peasants??”. Touché, touché.

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There’s a reason countless European tourists head to Romania’s poorest region like I did: the monasteries here are unlike any other in the world. Built in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries by Romanian princes, the monasteries stand as pillars of Orthodoxy against the “infidels” (primarily the Ottomans, who make not-so-subtle appearances as the bad guys in the iconography). What makes these monasteries so unique is their outdoor frescos, which survived 400 years of exposure to tough Romanian winters, rain, and invasion. Eastern iconography is less interested in depicting the full realism of subjects or characters of parallel artists in the Late Middle Ages and Renaissance. The emotions are always more tame, and a solemnness limits expressions of any strong emotion. But it is an incredible style distinct in its own right and standard.

A few highlights are below. One is the fresco “The Ladder of Virtue” at Sucevita Monastery. It depicts the ladder of souls aiming to reach Heaven. Don’t get too confident though, the artist warns. Even those near the top can get tripped over by some vices, and tumble down to join the demons and wailing infidels/heretics below.

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This “less jolly” tone, shall we say, permeated all the monasteries. Most horrifying were the icons within the church (which I could not take photos of) depicting the martyrdom of various saints. To quote our President’s horribly timed comments, the tortures inflicted would’ve made ISIS look like “the JV team”. People boiled in hot water, buried alive, sawed in half, stoned, burned alive, pulled apart by horses – the decapitations (usually numbering at least thirty in a given church’s interior) looked comparatively merciful. The theme of martyrdom made sense, of course, in this context. With the threat of far more powerful Catholic and Islamic empires, believers had to contemplate for their possible acts of faithfulness onto death. dscn0295

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Another painting present at every monastery was “The Tree of Life”. Drawing from the first chapter of Matthew, the icon links Christ back to the “root of Jesse”, the King David. The aim of the icon is to precisely show believers the ultimate continuity between the Old and New Testaments (no easy feat; recall the early Christian heretic Marcion who claimed that the Bible actually spoke of two different Gods). The biblical kings and figures are all connected through beautiful green leaves and branches.

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But one icon will forever remain grounded in my memory. As I was putting together this post, I was struck forcefully again by its scale and pure ambition.

dscn0252The Last Judgment in all of its awesomeness, terror, and glory. This fresco (OUTDOOR!) at Voronet Monastery has been rightly called the “Sistine Chapel” of the East. Any skepticism of this term while reading my guidebook disappeared when I first saw it. There are so much rich details here. Zodiac symbols lie above Christ in his orb. Angels call forth the dead, and the apparently innocent animals actually carry human bones in their mouths. The saints at the bottom wait anxiously outside the door to Paradise. A soul hangs in the balance as the competition takes place between the prayers offered for his salvation and his own past sins. The Tartars and Turks are in limbo, and not the nice outdated Catholic one for unbaptized babies. They wait unsuspectedly for the angels to drag them by the beard into the River of Fire.

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The weather for this trip was not ideal,. But the cold, fog, and rain showers offered their own charm. Add to this the changing leaves, and there was an extraordinary autumn ambiance to the visit. I would love to return in the Spring, where you can hike easily between the major monasteries. Hopefully my Romanian will be far better by then.

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