Painted Monasteries of Bucovina

The Painted Monasteries of Bucovina is one of the most impressive UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Romania. It’s a collection of eight Romanian Orthodox monasteries, scattered across the Moldovia and Bucovina regions of northern Romania. These painted monasteries were constructed largely during the 15th and 16th centuries, and added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1993. They’re definitely one of Romania’s most interesting World Heritage Sites, along with the Fortified Churches of Transylvania.

Fun fact: The official name under which the monasteries are inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage Sites List is: Churches of Moldavia, but they are mostly popular as the Painted Monasteries of Bucovina or the Painted Churches of Moldavia.

About the painted monasteries

All of the monasteries are home to intricately painted church buildings. But what’s really striking about these painted churches and monasteries is that along with the sumptuously painted interiors, the exteriors are also covered in beautiful, detailed artworks! 

These paintings, referred to as murals, are almost unique in Europe. They’re largely painted in a Byzantine style, and have been generally well preserved over the centuries. And they aren’t just simple decorations either; each mural has been carefully planned and executed to represent a full cycle of religious themes, and of course to blend in with the landscape.

The paintings were also an important way for the clergy to educate the masses. In an era where formal education was both uncommon and restricted to the wealthy, clearly and simply depicting Biblical lessons on the church walls became a useful and important teaching tool.

Each of these Romanian painted monasteries is worthy of a much closer look, so let’s dive in.

St George Church, Voronet Monastery

Voronet Monastery (Mănăstirea Voroneț) is the most famous and impressive of the Painted Monasteries in Bucovina. Built in 1488 by Stephen the Great of Moldavia, Voronet Monastery is so beautifully decorated that it’s sometimes referred to as the “Sistine Chapel of the East”. Stephen the Great ordered the monastery and church built after a miraculous battle victory against the Ottoman Turks, and dedicated the complex to Saint George.

a church with a beautifully painted exterior predominantly i blue, the Voronet Monastery in Romania
The Voronet Monastery

Looking at the exterior paintings, it’s hardly surprising that they’re world-renowned. The most striking feature here is the vivid shade of deep blue colouring that frames and backgrounds many of the murals. It’s known as Voronet blue, and its skillful use here is genuinely impressive. It appears behind the depictions of hundreds of saints, and is also the background colour for the two largest and most impactful frescoes on the exterior: the Tree of Jesse on the south wall, and an enormous and elaborate depiction of The Last Judgement on the western wall. The latter is particularly notable, since there’s no doors or windows anywhere on the facade – suggesting that a monumental fresco was always planned for this spot.

a large mural fresco in Eastern Orthodox tradition depicting the last judgement scene from the Bible painted mainly in blue
The Last Judgement at the Voronet Monastery

Resurrection Church, Sucevita Monastery

Resurrection Church sits inside the large fortified compound of Sucevita Monastery (Mănăstirea Suceviţa), just outside the town of Sucevita. It was built in 1583 by three local brothers, and was one of the last painted churches to be constructed in the area. Interestingly, it’s also one of the only painted monasteries that wasn’t built by local nobility. The church itself is fairly small, and has a mixture of Byzantine and Gothic styles.

a church completely painted outside with frescoes and with a rounded roof, the Sucevita Monastery in Romania
The Sucevita Monastery

Looking at the artwork, there’s a fascinating mixture of imagery from the Old and New Testaments, including the story of Adam & Eve, and a large depiction of The Last Judgement, along with hundreds and hundreds of saints. One of the genuine highlights is a large mural of the Ladder of Saint John of Sinai, located on the north wall, while the Prayer of All Saints is a prominent scene on the southern facade.

The fortified compound here is also quite impressive! The walls are laid out in a square shape, almost 100 metres on each side, over six metres tall, and with defensive towers in each corner. It’s interesting to remember that in the 16th century, this area was considered quite vulnerable to attack from aggressive neighbours to the south, north, and east, so fortifications for local churches and towns were quite important.

an aerial view of square fortifications with turrets at the four corners and a church with a tower in the middle, the Sucevita Monastery in Romania
Aerial view of the Sucevita Monastery

Anunciation Church, Vatra Moldovitei

Next of the Painted Monasteries of Bucovina is Moldovita Monastery (Mănăstirea Moldoviţa). Construction began in 1532, under the leadership of Petru Rares, an illegitimate son of Stephen the Great (builder of Voronet Monastery). Like several other monasteries, it’s built as a large square fortress with imposing walls, defensive towers, and looming gates, while at the centre of the complex sits the Anunciation Church.

Although broadly similar to the other churches, it’s slightly longer and has an octagonal bell tower at the centre. The exterior is covered in frescoes and paintings, which are exquisitely done. The paintings date from 1537, and have changed very little since they were first added. Moldovitei is often considered to have the best-preserved external paintings of any churches in Romania, and it’s quite difficult to argue with that!

an Orthodox church with exterior mural frescoes and red roses in front, the Voronet Monastery in Romania
The Moldovita Monastery

Unlike several of the other painted monasteries, which are generally believed to have had individual artists painting a whole church, here at Moldovita there are noticeable differences in style across the various scenes. Scholars now believe that a team of several painters was responsible for the work. Like with Voronet Monastery and its striking blue colouring, Moldovita also uses a highlight colour, a resplendent golden shade of yellow. It appears in many highlights, borders, and of course halos, and really makes the painting stand out.

Aside from the usual depictions of Bible stories, saints, and angels covering the outside of the church, there’s one particularly unusual fresco right near the main entrance. It’s a detailed depiction of the Siege of Constantinople in 626, when it’s believed the Virgin Mary interceded and saved the city from a Persian attack. Fascinatingly, the attacking Persians are depicted in Ottoman Turk clothing, wielding cannons and other 15th century arms. It’s a really powerful image, especially when you remember that the Ottoman Turk capture of Constantinople in 1492 had taken place only a few decades prior – and that it was fairly close by, geographically-speaking.

Beheading of St John the Baptist Church, Arbore

Heading east away from Moldovitei, is Arbore Monastery (Biserica Arbore). It’s situated roughly at the centre of all the Painted Monasteries of Bucovina, and was founded in 1503. Construction took just a few months, under the direction of a local noble named Luca Arbore (who also lends name to the village). Interestingly, Arbore and his family are still buried inside the church.

a small Orthodox church with painted exterior with frescoes not in good condition, the Arbore church in Romania
The Arbore Church

The church here, known as the Beheading of St John the Baptist Church, is of course covered in beautiful paintings, though they aren’t quite as well preserved as at other locations. Controversy still exists over when the paintings were actually executed – it’s an inscription suggests they were done around 1541, though other evidence implies the paintings had been completed and the 1541 date refers to other structural modifications.

Either way, it’s still a beautiful church with excellent paintings! The south facade has been fantastically well preserved, with vibrant colour and detail still existing on the paintings of saints and Bible stories. It features an impressive depiction of Scenes from the Life of St George which is beautifully done. Sadly, the western wall is quite faded and the artwork is barely visible in quite a few places.

Dormition of the Mother of God Church, Humor Monastery

Next of the Romanian painted monasteries is Mănăstirea Humorului, also known as Humor Monastery. The church and monastery here were both constructed in 1530 by Petru Rares (the same illegitimate son of Stephen the Great who built Vatra Moldovitei, above). Humor is designed as a fortified monastery, though the walls here aren’t as tall and imposing as other monasteries in the area. It does, however, feature a free-standing tower that keeps watch over both the monastery and the surrounding valley.

a small church with faded exterior paintings and a tower and a few birch trees, The Humor Monastery in Romania
The Humor Monastery

The church and monastery here were among the earliest of the Bucovina monasteries to be painted, as early as 1535, and they’re still in excellent condition. Some of the highlights here include Hymn to the Virgin, the Siege of Constantinople, and of course the Last Judgement as well. Like the other painted monasteries of Bucovina, Humor Monastery has its own highlight colour that appears throughout the frescoes. The highlight colour here is a reddish-brown shade, which gives the paintings a very warm and earthy tone.

Exaltation of the Holy Cross Church, Patrauti

Located just to the north-west of the town of Suceava, sits the painted church of Patrauti. Officially known as the Church of the Holy Cross, Patrauti (Biserica Înălțarea Sfintei Cruci, Pătrăuți), this church sits isolated in what was once a dense forest. There’s no heavily fortified monastery here surrounding the church, which is quite unusual. Patrauti is slightly older than many of the other monasteries in the area, founded in 1487 by Stephen the Great. The exterior was painted only a few years later, though sadly much of the painting hasn’t survived. These days there are some large frescoes around the main entrance, but much of the church building itself has been covered over with plain white paint.

St Nicholas Church, Probota

Next up is the Monastery of Probota (Mănăstirea Probota), featuring the impressive painted St Nicholas Church. It’s located to the south-east of the town of Suceava, and was constructed in 1530 by Petru Rares (the same builder as Vatra Moldovitei and Humor Monastery). Probota is fairly typical of the local monasteries, constructed in a fortified square shape with rounded towers on each corner, and strong fortifications over the main gate.

a church with exterior covered with frescoes but not completely restored and a water well in front, the Probota Monastery in Romania
The Probota Church

Within the monastery compound sits St Nicholas Church. The external paintings here are quite faded in places, but still quite magnificent. Interestingly, many of the frescoes had been painted over with limewash or amateur touch-ups, but a major restoration project in the late 1990s managed to restore most of the frescoes to their original glory. There’s the usual scenes of saints, angels, Bible scenes, and of course The Last Judgement.

Probota is also home to the tomb of Petru Rares, builder of several Romanian painted monasteries. He died in 1546 and is buried in the main church, while he also appears with his family in several frescoes along the church and monastery walls.

St George Church, Suceava

The final Painted Church in Bucovina is St George Church, located at St John the New Monastery (Mănăstirea Sfântul Ioan cel Nou), in the town of Suceava. Suceava is the largest and most important town in this area of Romania, and it’s fitting that the monastery here is one of the most important. The monastic complex was built between 1514 and 1522, and it’s much more like a typical monastery, with a loose campus of buildings spread around a small area. Construction was overseen by Prince Bogdan III and his successor Stefanita, who built the monastery as a replacement for nearby Mirauti Cathedral, which had been destroyed by fire in 1513.

The exterior paintings here were completed just a few years after the main church, and feature the typical scenes of Bible stories, local saints, archangels, and so on. Unfortunately, the external paintings here are quite faded as well, though perhaps not as badly as some of the other Romanian painted monasteries – particularly on the southern facade where some artworks are still vivid and beautiful.

four pictures of churches with exterior mural frescoes and overlay text: UNESCO painted churches in Romania

How to visit the Romanian painted monasteries?

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The best way to visit Romania’s painted monasteries in Bucovina is by car. Clustered together in one region, they are the perfect destination for a road trip. You can visit them in 3 or 4 days. The nearest big cities with good connections to Bucharest are Suceava and Iasi. They both have international airports, so you can fly to either of them and then rent a car for the road trip. Alternatively, you can fly to Bucharest, spend there a couple of day and then drive all the way up to the north.

In the deal-finder below you can search for accommodation in the area:

Some of the monasteries have entrance fees. They are also operating monasteries, so be respectful when you visit them, especially during the morning or evening mass.

About the author

Joel is a digital nomad and travel blogger originally from Sydney, Australia. Joel runs World Heritage Journey, a blog and YouTube channel dedicated to UNESCO World Heritage Sites. As of mid-2020, Joel and his wife have visited over 500 of the 1121 World Heritage Sites, and hope to one day visit them all!

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