Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Painted Monasteries

The Espresso Trek:  It’s where warrior martyrs beat back demons and the Apocalypse beast blows flames at angels. These are the painted monasteries, located in the northeastern part of Romania.

Surrounded by stone walled fortifications, the monasteries sprout up from the valleys of the Carpathian Mountains. King Stephen the Great of Moldavia first began construction of these Orthodox churches during the 1500’s. Still today Romanians hail ‘King’ or ‘Saint’ Stephen as a national hero; during his long reign, he fought and won forty-six out of forty-eight battles, many against the pagan Turks. To commemorate his victories, he purportedly constructed forty-four churches.

We arrive at the logging village of Guru Humorului and hire a local guide, Danil, who expertly winds us through the (sometimes unpaved) roads. We start with Voronets (shown above).  The monastery is shaped like a ship (arc) and the wooden roof fans out into eaves. Our guide, Danil, explains that researchers have scoured the Bucovina region, always unsuccessfully, in search of where the artists of Stephan’s time found the lapis lazuli that so richly color the walls.

Each monastery has a well offering fresh water to visitors, who haul up a bucket and then scoop out a drink with one communal cup. Fresh water in Romania still abounds and we wonder how long it’s been since we’ve tasted the beverage -- untreated.

Next Danil drives us twenty-five kilometers to Moldovitsa.  We walk to the Western wall (exonarthex) where the Last Judgment displays, among other things, another fiery river with Dracul at the bottom. The entrance to the church is here, the idea being that a church is heaven on earth, but parishioners can only get into heaven if they pass through the Last Judgment first.

Our guide next takes us to the large Suchevitsa citadel. We enter the citadel walls and are immediately graced with a vast image of the Ladder of Virtue where men step up with their good deeds, while crimson and emerald green angels pray for their success. But many still fall down the rungs, pulled down by demons.

Our last stop is the Humor Monastery. The Last Judgment here depicts a scarlet woman as the devil. It comes from the folktale of this region that hell is a cavern upheld by seven old women who are more evil than Dracul himself. The women are mortal, so Dracul always has to find replacements – and he always has an abundance of choices.

We return to Guru Humorului and enjoy dinner at a former communist milk-bar, eating sour soup, boiled potatoes, and snitzel. Out here in the middle of nowhere, we’ve decided that the painted monasteries are truly one of the contemporary wonders of the world. 

No comments: