The painted monasteries of Southern Bucovina, in the northwest corner of Moldavia, are rightfully acclaimed as masterpieces of art and architecture, steeped in history and perfectly in harmony with their surroundings. Founded in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, they were citadels of orthodoxy in an era overshadowed by the threat of infidel invaders. Grigore Roşca, Metropolitan of Moldavia in the mid-fifteenth century, is credited with the idea of covering the churches’ outer walls with paintings of biblical events and apocrypha for the benefit of the illiterate faithful. These frescoes, billboards from the late medieval world, are essentially Byzantine, but infused with the vitality of the local folk art and mythology. Though little is known about the artists, their skills were such that the paintings are still fresh after 450 years of exposure. Remarkably, the layer of colour is only 0.25mm thick, in contrast to Italian frescoes, where the paint is absorbed deep into the plaster.
Perhaps the best of these are to be found at Voroneţ, whose Last Judgement surpasses any of the other examples of this subject, and Suceviţa, with its unique Ladder of Virtue and splendid Tree of Jesse. Moldoviţa has a better all-round collection, though, and Humor has the most tranquil atmosphere of them all. Nearby Putna monastery, though lacking the visual impact of the painted monasteries, is worth a visit for its rich historical associations.
The monasteries are scattered across a region divided by rolling hills – the obcine or “crests” which branch off the Carpathians – and by the legacy of history. Although settlers from Maramureş arrived here in the mid-fourteenth century, the area remained barely populated for two centuries until Huţul shepherds moved south from the Ukrainian mountains. They lived in scattered houses in the hills, and the region was a sort of free republic until the Habsburgs annexed northern Moldavia in 1774, calling it Bucovina, a Romanianized version of their description of this beech-covered land (Büchenwald). Soon the place was organized and the Huţuls moved into villages such as Argel, Raşca, Moldoviţa and Ciocâneşti, where they could better be taxed and drafted into the army. Bucovina remained under Habsburg rule until the end of World War I, when it was returned to Romania, only to be split in half in 1940 – the northern half being occupied by the Soviet Union and incorporated into Ukraine, where it remains today. Thus, Romanians speak of Southern Bucovina to describe what is actually the far north of Moldavia – implying that Bucovina might be reunited one day. Names aside, the scenery is wonderful, with misty valleys and rivers spilling down from rocky shoulders heaving up beneath a cloak of beech and fir. The woods are at their loveliest in May and autumn.