The Sistine Chapel of the East
The most famous of Romania's "Painted Monasteries"
Romania's "Painted Monasteries" are UNESCO World Heritage monuments. Perhaps the most famous and stunning of the painted monasteries is Voronet. Widely known throughout Europe as "the Sistine Chapel of the East" due to its interior and exterior wall paintings, this monastery offers an abundance of frescoes featuring an intense shade of blue commonly known as ‘Voronet blue.’ The composition of the paint continues to remain a mystery even now, more than 500 years after the church was built. Voronet Monastery was founded by Stephen the Great in the year 1488. Stephan, the ruling prince of Moldavia, built the monastery to fulfill a pledge to Daniil, a hermit who had encouraged him to chase the Turks from Wallachiia, one of the 3 ancient provinces of Romania which Stephen succeeded in unifying. After defeating the Turks, Stephen erected Voronet in less than four months.
Added in 1547, the brilliant frescoes of this church illustrate biblical scenes, prayers, episodes of sacred hymns and themes such as The Last Judgment and The Ladder of St. John, featuring colorful and detail-rich imagery of apostles, evangelists, philosophers, martyrs, angels and demons. Since most people at that time were illiterate,
The Last Judgement
Fresco masterpeice on the end wall of the monastery
the frescos were educational and uplifting as well as beautiful.
Here’s some information on how the frescos were made, as written by Andrew Curry and published in Smithsonian Magazine, June 2007 Creating the frescoes took a sure, quick hand. Teams of four or five painters would first even out the church’s rough stone walls with a thick layer of mortar, then smooth on a thin, fine-grained layer of lime plaster mixed with natural fibers such as finely chopped straw. Once the last layer was applied, the artists had only a few hours to work before the plaster dried. Apprentice painters would apply background color and decorations, while faces and hands were reserved for master painters.
Artists had to be chemists as well, mixing pigments from rare clays, semiprecious stones and common minerals. Azurite and malachite created vivid blues and greens. Ochre from clay was heated to produce reds, yellows and browns. As the plaster dried, it reacted with the mineral pigments, fixing the colors. The technique, which involved no organic materials unlike frescoes that use egg whites as binder, made the colors unusually durable. The colors at Voronet are vivid and bright to this day.
Detail of frescos
The Last Judgement
at Voronet was interrupted in 1785 under Habsburg rule. It returned only in 1991 with the arrival of a community of nuns which strives to harmoniously combine a religious life of prayer with housekeeping and farm work. The nuns run an icon painting workshop and provide guided tours of the monastery for visitors.
Adjacent to the monastery is an interesting cemetery. Not only are the graves well tended, with colorful and abundant flowers better than most gardens (except for my sister’s of course), there are also many interesting gravestones. Many feature portraits of the deceased and several have magnificent etchings on granite. (These types of etched gravestones are popular in Georgia as well. There, they often contain information on how the deceased met their end. One gravestone I saw in Georgia had etchings not only of the deceased, a family of 4, but also of the poisonous mushrooms that killed them.)
Not to be irreverent, but I can imagine my gravestone- etched with a giant chocolate bar and a huge cup of coffee. Further irreverence: Irakli tells a hilarious story about a funeral in Svaneti, a mountainous region in Georgia where feuds are common. Thus early death often
results and there are elaborate rituals to deal with grief. One of these is to bury the deceased with favorite items (wine and cigarettes are common). Apparently, one unfortunate fellow, a big talker, was buried with a new cell phone, prepaid of course. The grave digger saw this expensive item and stole it after the funeral, unbeknownst to the grieving relatives. At the subsequent wake feast, several of the relatives, drunk by now, decide to call the number. Imagine the shock when the phone is answered! Apparently, one of the callers had a heart attack. Result-second funeral.
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