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Discover The Painted Monastery Churches Of Bucovina: A UNESCO World Heritage Site

Built in the 15th and 16th century, the painted churches of Bucovina are well-known for their unique style with brightly colored fresco paintings on both the inside and outside. Eight of these churches and monasteries located in the historical Bucovina region, now Suceava County, form an ensemble that has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The beautiful churches are aestatically pleasing and have a high historical and cultural significance, making them a popular attraction for visitors. So in this guide you’ll find everything you need to know about the painted churches of Bucovina, from their history and why they were built to how to plan your visit and other tips for your trip.

Why Visit The Painted Churches

The painted churches of Bucovina have been listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site for good reasons. The fresco paintings are not simply wall decorations, but real authentic masterpieces of Byzantine art representing complete cycles of religious themes. Because the habit of painting churches inside out only happened in this particular region and during a relatively short period of time in history, the well-preserved churches are unique in the world.

Another reason to visit the painted churches is because they are considered one of the most important historical treasures of Romania. The Romanian newspaper Evenimentul Zilei even listed the ensemble as one of the Seven Wonders of Romania.

History Of The Painted Churches

The painted churches of Bucovina all belong to monasteries built in the 16th and 17th century, when the region was part of the Principality of Moldavia. The oldest one on the UNESCO list, the Church of the Holy Cross in Pătrăuți dates from 1487, while the Saint George Church in Sucevița from 1584 was the last one erected.

The tradition of constructing churches and monasteries was started by Stephen the Great (Ștefan cel Mare), who ruled over Moldavia from 1457 until his death in 1504, but was also very religious. His illigitimate son Petru Rareș followed him in his footsteps by continuing this tradition when he became voivode (prince) of Moldavia in 1527, but also promoted a new vision for the churches of Moldavia. He ordered skilled artists from the region to paint the monastery churches that were built over the years with detailed frescoes on both the inside and the outside, something that hadn’t been seen before.

Fresco paintings on Voroneț Monastery

After the death of Petru Rareș in 1546, the tradition of painting churches soon died out, but eight of the masterpieces that had been erected since the era of Stephen the Great have survived over time.

In the aftermath of the Russo-Turkish War of 1768-1774, when the Russians had defeated the Ottoman troops and occupied Moldavia, the Habsburg Empire was rewarded a part of Western Moldavia for their aid. The region, which became known as Bucovina, stayed under Habsburg, and later Austrian and Austro-Hungarian rule until it became part of the Kingdom of Romania in 1918.

After Bucovina was annexed by the catholic Habsburg Empire, in 1783 Emperor Joseph II signed a decree forcing the closure of orthodox monasteries and hermitages in the region. The monastery churches were transformed into parish churches and the monastic assets were seized and repurposed or simply neglected, which lead to deterioration.

After the unification of Southern Bucovina with the Kingdom of Romania, some of the monasteries were reinstated over time and in 2022, the Arbore Church was the last church on the UNESCO list that was reinstated as a monastery.

Why The Monasteries Were Built

The historical region of Moldavia, which consists of the current territories of northeast Romania, parts of southern Ukraine, and the entire territory of Moldova, has experienced a very turbulent past, especially during the middle ages. There were constant threats and invasions from the Ottomans in the south, the Polish in the north, and the Hungarians in the east.

Since Stephen the Great raised to the throne as voivode (prince) of Moldavia in 1457, he bravely fought 36 battles, of which he won 34. This is why he is still seen as one of the national heroes of Romania and in 1992 he was even cononized as a saint by the Romanian Orthodox church.

This is not a coincidence, because Stephen the Great was also a very religious man and as a sign of gratitude after winning a battle, he would built a new church or monastery. This is why the churches have a very strong link with the history of the region, and if it wasn’t for these victories, they might not have existed.

Why The Churches Were Painted

With so much going on during the troubled past, faith was very important and hence religion played an important role in both politics and society. Churches were the center point of the local community and the fresco paintings on the church walls were basically an innovative elaboration of the existing Byzantine painting traditions. In times when reading and writing was only for a handful of elites, the paintings were the simplest way of visualizing the bible to the common people.

Fresco painting of the Battle of Constantinople at Moldovița Monastery

The way some of the biblical scenes are depicted also shows that they are interpretations in light of the cultural and historical background, and that the painters intended to tell stories beyond the letters of the holy book.

Painted Churches Listed By UNESCO

Eight of the monasteries with painted churches which have been best preserved are listed together as the Churches of Moldavia UNESCO World Heritage Site. The monasteries are all located in Suceava County, in the city of Suceava and in the villages of Arbore, Mănăstirea Humorului, Pătrăuți, Probota, Sucevița, Vatra Moldoviței, and Voroneț.

Pătrăuți Monastery

Built in 1487, the Pătrăuți Monastery is the oldest preserved monastery founded by Stephen the Great. Today, only the church, which is dedicated to the Holy Cross, and a wooden bell tower from 1725 survive.

The church only has external fresco paintings surrounding its entrance on the western side and, unlike onther monasteries, it is not enclosed by a fortification wall. An interesting object to observe in the yard is a stone round table, which is thought to have been the inspirational source for the creation of the Table of Silence, a sculpture by Constantin Brâncuși in Târgu Jiu.

Voroneț Monastery

Only one year later, in 1488, Stephen the Great built the Voroneț Monastery to honor the request of a hermit who convinced him not to surrender against the Ottomans, after which he won the Battle of Vaslui. The monastery church, which is dedicated to Saint George, was built in a record time of only 3 months, and 3 weeks.

The Voroneț Monastery is probably the most beautiful and famous one of the painted monasteries and is even nicknamed the ‘Sistine Chapel of Eastern Europe’. The internal and external fresco paintings of the church are among the best preserved and have a shade of blue that is so unique that it is even called ‘Voroneț Blue’.

Arbore Monastery

The Arbore Monastery dates from 1502 and was built by Luca Arbore, one of the most influential advisors of Stephen the Great, and the brave defender of the Suceava Fortress. The founder was however beheaded for treason by one of the ruler’s successors, Ștefăniță Vodă in 1523. His grave inside the church has nevertheless one of the most remarkable Gothic tomb stones, which was modeled after the Wawel Cathedral in Kraków.

The church was only painted 40 years after its construction by the painter Dragoș Coman. His most significant work can be found on the western wall, which is filled with miniatures. One of these paintings depicts a scene from Genesis: the Beheading of Saint John the Baptist to which the church is dedicated.

Monastery Of Saint John The New Of Suceava

The construction of the Monastery of Saint John the New in Suceava was started in 1514 by the son and successor of Stephen the Great, Bogdan III, and was finished by Bogdan’s son Ștefăniță Vodă in 1522. The church is the largest and most important in the area and served as the metropolitan cathedral of Moldavia until 1677, since Suceava was the capital of the Principality of Moldavia at that time.

The church is surrounded by a large monastic complex which includes several buildings, including a bell tower from 1589, and a chapel from 1629. Although some of the external frescoes have been faded away, the entire complex is still very impressive.

Probota Monastery

The Probota Monastery was the first monastery built by Petru Rareș, the illigitimate son of Stephen the Great, when he raised to the throne in 1527. The church, which is dedicated to Saint Nicholas, was completed in 1530.

The Probota Monastery served as a royal necropolis, so inside the church there’s a dedicated tombs room with the graves of several dignities, including Petru Rareș and his family. Although some of the external fresco paintings on the church have faded, the monastery is still very impressive.

Around the church are archaeological excavations of former monastic buildings and the princely court and the entire complex is surrounded by defensive walls with towers.

Humor Monastery

The Humor Monastery also dates from 1530 and was built by Toadar Bubuiog, a respectable politician under the reign of Petru Rareș.

The church, which is dedicated to the Dormition of the Virgin Mary, was painted 5 years later by Toma from Suceava, the court painter of Petru Rareş. These frescoes are among the best preserved and stand out for their redish-brown colors.

Around the church you can find a stone watch tower, the archaeological remains of the enclosure wall and other monastic buildings that didn’t survive, and a wooden bell tower from the 19th century.

Moldovița Monastery

The Moldovița Monastery is another legacy of Petru Rareș, which he built in 1532 to replace another monastery that was ruined by a landslide. The church is dedicated to the Annunciation, a dedication it took over from the old monastery.

Gold and yellow shades predominate the fresco paintings, which are very well-preserved on both the inside and outside. Among the highlights are the paintings depicting The Crucifixion on the inside, and the Akathist Hymn and the Siege of Constantinople on the outside.

The Moldovița Monastery is also surrounded by thick fortification walls and has a small museum with historic items from the times of its founder in the north-western corner.

Sucevița Monastery

The Sucevița Monastery was built a few decades later, in 1584, by the Movilă family, who later ruled over Moldavia around the 1600s. The church, which is dedicated to the Resurrection of the Lord, is the last surviving painted church that was built in the area.

The church stands in the middle of an impressive fortified complex of almost 100 by 100 meters, with a tower on each corner and one at the entrance. There is also a small museum with a collection of religious art and other historic items.

Opening Hours Of The Monasteries

All eight monasteries can be visited and are open every day between 9 am and 6.30 pm. Be advised though, that masses can take place during these hours as well, which should be respected by not taking pictures and staying silent.

How To Visit The Monasteries

If you are flying to Romania from abroad, the nearest airport is Suceava International Airport, but you can also fly to any of the other airports, for example in Bucharest or Iași, and take a train or rental car to Suceava.

The eight monasteries are scattered around different locations in Suceava County, but in most cases. you won’t have to drive for more then 30 minutes from one to another. You do however, need some form of private transportation due to their remote locations.

Rental cars are available in the city of Suceava or at any of the airports in Romania. Another option would be to take a guided tour to the monasteries.

How Long Do You Need To Visit The Monasteries

If you have a car you could probably squeeze a quick visit each of the eight monasteries in a single day if you’re really rushing it, but two days would be more realistic. However, we really recommend taking more time to take in the beauty of the places and their surrounding landscapes, but also to see more of the historic Bucovina region. There are many more things to see in Suceava County, like the capital city Suceava and the town of Rădăuți, and various other sights like the Putna Monastery, the Cacica Salt Mine, or the Moldovița steam train. You’d really be missing out if you were only coming to Suceava to visit the painted churches and skip the rest, so definitely take at least three or more days for your visit.

Where To Stay During Your Visit

Since you’re probably staying for more than one night when you’re visiting the painted monasteries, you can either stay at different accommodations while traveling around, but since distances are not very far, you can also simply use one location as a base.

While there are not many large chain hotels, there are plenty of charming guest houses. The best locations to base yourself are the capital city Suceava, or the towns of Gura Humorului and Rădăuți where you can find plenty of accommodations and restaurants, but you can also stay in smaller villages.