The various Orthodox Churches of Europe have always dazzled with the colourful iconography that embellishes their buildings and enhances their liturgies. Cross the portal of almost any Orthodox church in central or eastern Europe, or the Balkans, and your senses will be bombarded by stories told in lavish frescoes. There are tales of saints and benefactors, lessons from the Scriptures, glorious visions of Heaven and gruesome warnings of Hell.
All well and good, but travel to a quiet corner of north-east Romania and you will discover religious imagery not only within the church interior but also adorning the outside walls. Like a ranting, impatient preacher, the painted monasteries of southern Bukovina do not wait for visitors to cross the threshold but instead blast out their spiritual message in intensely coloured, almost psychedelic, images even as you approach from a distance. A handful of these exquisite churches inhabit the valleys of this pastoral region like exotic architectural birds of prey. Whatever your religious orientation, southern Bukovina’s painted monasteries have a magnetic appeal, somehow contriving to be both naive and sophisticated at the same time.
The industrial town of Suceava may not be the most prepossessing of places but it is a likely first stop in Romania for anyone entering the country from the Bukovina region of western Ukraine just to the north. The erstwhile political entity of Bukovina, meaning ‘beech-covered lands’, no longer exists other than in name, but it was once a historical kingdom within the Habsburg Monarchy, a part of the Principality of Moldavia annexed by the empire in 1774. The region’s painted monasteries, some of which are now UNESCO World Heritage Sites, date from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. They were built when Stephen III of Moldavia (Stephen the Great) was on the throne and marauding Ottoman armies threatened the region. The decision to cover the walls with biblical scenes and Christian instruction was no doubt taken as a means of educating the region’s illiterate peasants and the soldiers of the popular armies that would frequently assemble within the monasteries’ defensive walls.