Painting God in Romania – Suceava, Bucovina, Romania

Painting God in Romania
Suceava, Bucovina, Romania

Forget borders, maps, and checkpoints for the moment. If you visit the painted monasteries for which the Romanian region of Bucovina is famous, it’s easy to look at them through modern tourist eyes and wonder that they don’t seem out of place among the cows, chickens, horse-drawn carts, and rural villages that surround them. Until you back up and realize that’s the point. The first monastery we visited, Voronet, has been called the “Sistine Chapel of the East,” but unlike the Sistine Chapel, which was built in the very heart of a thriving Renaissance culture, Voronet is a lonely outpost on a distant landscape, a tiny piece of confidence against an otherwise nervous backdrop. Bucovina’s location — on an open slab of land in east-central Europe, with a relative lack of natural defenses — has left it forever vulnerable to marauding bands of invaders, looters, expansionist empires, and all-around thugs. Although the monasteries today are strictly religious institutions, they were built 500 years ago as fortresses, too, and they are all the more striking because of their remote location.

The monasteries were first erected in the mid-1400s and got their name because of their elaborate frescoes, painted, notably, on the outside walls as well as the inside, which for reasons unknown have withstood 500 years of weathering. The language of the clergy back then not the vernacular of the people, and it was written in Cyrillic script, which was rarely read even by the few laypeople who were literate. The paintings on the monasteries, therefore, were provided as something for church-goers to look at and study when they visited, since they couldn’t read the Bible and couldn’t understand the services.

And what pictures. This is not your happy-go-lucky, post-Vatican II, Unitarian Universalist version of Christianity. Death and carnage are the most popular subjects; over and over again panels recreate the beheading of this guy, the grisly stabbing of that one. My traveling companions, more adept with Christian history than I, were able to recognize various Biblical lessons from the specific forms of death depicted in each painting, but to me they portrayed one long, undifferentiated series of grueling sacrifice and punishment.

Cultural Exchange: Old School

You know you’ve spent too much time around Muslims when you have to ask, “who’s that guy up there above Jesus?”

“…Uh, you mean, God?”

I’d suspected as much — the long white beard and wise, Obi-Wan Kenobi expression should have been a giveaway — but after traveling so long in the world of Islam, where there is little that is considered more blasphemous than portraying God in human form, I was startled at seeing Him up there, under the roof, looking like a regular guy, someone’s stern but kindly grandfather.

What was even more intriguing was the scene below. It was the depiction of Judgment Day, and portrayed all the Orthodox priests on St. Peter’s right, preparing to enter heaven, and all the Turks on his left, preparing to enter hell.

“What’s interesting,” said our guide for the day, as we surveyed the mural before us, “is that the Turks didn’t destroy this when they invaded.” We laughed, but he was right, it was interesting. Then again, the Turks occupied this part of the world when Islam was still on top, when the Europeans were only beginning to climb out of their humble Dark Ages past, and the Ottomans had every reason to be confident that no single painting could undermine their influence in the world. I thought about the Taliban destroying Hindu statues in Afghanistan a few years ago, and what a sad act of cowardice and defeat it was: a sign of a religion on the defensive.

Even today, the Turkish influence is not lost entirely in this part of the world. Although the monasteries are billed to foreigners as a tourist attraction, to Romanians they remain a place of worship, and as we strolled about, looking at the frescoes, several people came inside to pray. They would stand before the altar, cross themselves, kiss the icons, and then — this is what took me aback — bow their foreheads to the ground, stand up, cross themselves again, bow, cross themselves, and so on until they had completed a private ritual of humility and devotion.

“Did you see that?” I whispered to my husband. “They’re praying like Muslims!”

“Yes, but I’m sure you can’t ever tell them that, or they’ll take offense,” he said.

Later I risked the question anyway with my new Romanian friend, Ancuta. I told her what I’d seen, and asked if anyone ever attributed this style of prayer to Muslim influence.

“Oh, of course,” she said.

In fact there was little modern animosity toward the Turks, which was surprising to me since every third historical monument was devoted to their torture and humiliation, and Romania’s national hero, Vlad the Impaler (“Dracula” to those of us in Anglo countries), got his name for his propensity to shove spikes through the bums of Turkish invaders and then have dinner while they squirmed to death before him. The Ottoman Empire fell less than a hundred years ago and since there are residents in plenty of other countries — Greece comes to mind — who have yet to overcome their resentment toward their eastern neighbor, I thought it reasonable that Romanians might harbor some of that suspicion and disdain as well. But no: “We hate the Russians,” they said.

Reclaiming History
Romania is a very religious country. Unlike the U.S., where secularism and atheism often emerge as responses to political conservatism, here there was a heightened sense of religiosity in the face of a political machine hostile to anything but strict materialism. At the Putna monastery a plaque on the wall described the blow to monasticism under Decree 410 in 1959, during the Communist period. “Some 75% of the inhabitants of the monasteries were expelled and ‘integrated’ in social life… [but] after the Revolution brought about by the sacrifice of the young in 1989, Romanian monasticism underwent a rejuvenation.” Today the monasteries are maintained by nuns, which, I was told, remained a popular career option for young women, even though severe poverty no longer made this the only option for women without prospects.

Men, however, were less drawn to monasticism than before. “We’re having a problem with our monks,” they said.

(“Yes,” I answered, “in America we’ve been having a problem with our priests.”)

Try as I might to remain impressed by the official history of the monuments, it was, as always, the little things that caught my attention — in this case, the graffiti on the monasteries’ entrances. It’s easy enough to realize they were built in the fifteenth century and think of that as a long, long time ago, but it’s when you see the names of visitors etched into the walls, next to the dates these now-ancient delinquents so boldly placed alongside their own names as they defaced the pictures of Christ (1822, 1846, 1860…), that you truly realize just how old these buildings actually are. I pictured a group of snickering schoolboys, generational contemporaries of Mark Twain and Frederick Douglass, being dragged to visit the building I was standing in now, and, in a moment when no pesky adult was watching, marking their names into the stone. To them the visit to the monasteries was undoubtedly nothing but a field trip, a ho-hum obligation undertaken at the insistence of their elders that they visit and study something of local and historical significance, and they responded to that obligation as teenage boys will always do, by mocking it, overwriting history with that of their own names.

Would it ever occur to them, I wondered, that someone would visit this monastery 150 years later and find their history just as, well, historical as they saw it when they were working their names into the stone, so long ago? Probably not. But the crude nineteenth-century engravings of these boys were somehow as significant to me as the meticulous paintings of the fifteenth-century monks before them. Quality aside, both were evidence of what I see as a universal human impulse: the desire to leave a record of our existence. This is my name, and I was here.

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