At the Crossroads of Europe & Asia

Beginner’s Guide to Romania’s Painted Monasteries of Bucovina

As a MIR tour manager since 1998, I’ve led many MIR tours to the Bucovina region of Romania and to its painted monasteries, constructed in medieval times. Bucovina is a remote province tucked in the northeastern corner of Romania near Ukraine.

What is a Painted Monastery?

These are no run-of-the-mill churches. They are Romanian Orthodox monasteries with stories from the Bible and from history painted on their church walls: masterpieces of Byzantine art. Each painted monastery is distinctive in color and in its frescoed Bible stories. Because few could read or write in the Middle Ages, these pictures – inside and out – taught peasants these tales.

Moldovita Monastery, Bucovina, Romania. Photo credit: David W Allen
Moldovita Monastery, Bucovina, Romania. Photo credit: David W Allen

Today, the monasteries are pilgrimage sites for Romanian Orthodox believers as well as highlights for travelers from all over the world.  Nuns live and work at most of these monasteries, standing out in their distinctive black habits and veils.

Here are some notes on what to look for when you visit four of Bucovina’s most notable monasteries:

Voronet: Blue on Blue


Voronet monastery’s distinctively vivid blue color is now known among artists as “Voronet blue.” Sometimes called the “Sistine Chapel of the East,” Voronet’s Gothic and Byzantine details dominate its most famous fresco, the Last Judgment.

Voronet Monastery is actually a convent, where nuns combine farm work, painting, housekeeping, and tour guiding with a life of prayer and contemplation. Photo credit: Martin Beguin
Crushed lapis lazuli gemstones are used to create an intense blue known as “Voronet blue.” Photo credit: Michel Behar
Voronet frescoes illustrate dozens of religious themes, biblical stories, and sacred songs. Photo credit: Martin Klimenta
Today Voronet is a convent; this nun is tapping out a call to prayer. Photo credit: Martin Klimenta
The 15th-century Voronet painted monastery was built in less than four months. Photo credit: David W. Allen
  • Voronet Monastery is actually a convent, where nuns combine farm work, painting, housekeeping, and tour guiding with a life of prayer and contemplation. Photo credit: Martin Beguin Voronet Monastery is actually a convent, where nuns combine farm work, painting, housekeeping, and tour guiding with a life of prayer and contemplation. Photo credit: Martin Beguin
  • Crushed lapis lazuli gemstones are used to create an intense blue known as “Voronet blue.” Photo credit: Michel Behar Crushed lapis lazuli gemstones are used to create an intense blue known as “Voronet blue.” Photo credit: Michel Behar
  • Voronet frescoes illustrate dozens of religious themes, biblical stories, and sacred songs. Photo credit: Martin Klimenta Voronet frescoes illustrate dozens of religious themes, biblical stories, and sacred songs. Photo credit: Martin Klimenta
  • Today Voronet is a convent; this nun is tapping out a call to prayer. Photo credit: Martin Klimenta Today Voronet is a convent; this nun is tapping out a call to prayer. Photo credit: Martin Klimenta
  • The 15th-century Voronet painted monastery was built in less than four months. Photo credit: David W. Allen The 15th-century Voronet painted monastery was built in less than four months. Photo credit: David W. Allen

(click image to view larger photo)

Voronet Notes:

  1. History: They say Voronet was built in 3 months, 3 weeks, and 3 days.
  2. Dominant color: “Voronet blue” is a dark sky-blue hue made with crushed lapis luzuli.
  3. Most famous fresco: Last Judgment, with angels rolling up the zodiac to indicate that the world is ending. At the bottom of the fresco are the condemned – Turks and Tatars – who are claimed by the devil.
  4. Notice: About 20 resident nuns live at the Voronet Monastery.

Sucevita: Ladder of Virtues


In Sucevita blue-green dominates the frescoes on the façade of the church, with its single steeple and massive fortress walls.

A nun taps a mallet against a wooden semantron, calling faithful to prayer in Bucovina, Romania. Photo credit: Peter Guttman
A nun taps a mallet against a wooden semantron, calling faithful to prayer in Bucovina, Romania. Photo credit: Peter Guttman

Sucevita Notes:

  1. History: It’s the last painted monastery built in Romania, and the only church with two iconostases – altar screens filled with icons and carvings.
  2. Dominant color: green
  3. Most famous fresco: Ladder of Virtues
  4. Notice: More than fifty nuns live here, the largest number of all the monasteries.

Moldovita: Historic Frescoes


Another popular painted monastery is Moldovita, where gold and yellow predominate in the frescoed depictions.

The original 1532 Moldovita Monastery was ruined in floods and mudslides, and later rebuilt on higher ground. Photo credit: David W. Allen
The original 1532 Moldovita Monastery was ruined in floods and mudslides, and later rebuilt on higher ground. Photo credit: David W. Allen

Moldovita Notes:

  1. History: First built in the early 15th century, this church was destroyed by mudslides and later rebuilt in the 16th century.
  2. Dominant color: golds and deep blues
  3. Most famous fresco: Siege of Constantinople, depicting the Ottoman capture of the Byzantine capital
  4. Notice: The Moldovita Monastery is well fortified, surrounded by thick fortress walls.

Humor: Parables


A fourth famous monastery is a tiny treasure called Humor, known for its reddish-brown hues.

Built in 1530, Humor Monastery is located near the Humor River in Bucovina. Photo credit: Martin Klimenta
Built in 1530, Humor Monastery is located near the Humor River in Bucovina. Photo credit: Martin Klimenta

Humor Notes:

  1. History: It’s the smallest of the monasteries seen on a MIR tour, and located near the Humor River. Built in 1530 and closed in 1786, Humor reopened in 1990.
  2. Dominant color: reddish-brown
  3. Most famous fresco: Return of the Prodigal Son, as well as a fresco of the devil depicted as a woman
  4.  Notice: The three-story lookout tower is made of wood and bricks; you can climb it for views of the bucolic Romanian countryside.
Sinners and righteous await their last judgment in this fresco at Humor Monastery. Photo credit: David W. Allen
Sinners and righteous await their last judgment in this fresco at Humor Monastery. Photo credit: David W. Allen

Travel to Romania with MIR

MIR has more than two decades of Romania travel experience, offering on-the-ground support, quality you can trust, and guides and tour managers that clients rave about. 

Where once people sought sanctuary from war inside these monasteries, today Bucovina is a sanctuary for travelers in search of illustrated history and medieval places of worship.

You can stand in awe before these historic buildings on MIR’s small group tour that visits Bucovina – Bulgaria & Romania: Frescoes & Fortresses – or on our pre-packaged private Essential Romania program. MIR can also create a hand-crafted, custom private journey that includes these UNESCO-listed painted monasteries in your itinerary.

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