Heavenly monasteries, down to earth

The painted monasteries of northeastern Romania are remarkable—these churches have been standing in Bucovina more than half a millennium, exposing their colorful frescoes to summer sun and winter snow in testimony to God’s grace.

They are all that. But the first time Sheilah visited one of them, she was impressed with the connection between the remarkable and the everyday, down-to-earth aspects of life at the monastery.

On a clear, cold early spring day, she visited Voroneţ, 20 miles west of Suceava. Voroneţ is sometimes called the “Sistine Chapel of the East” because of its magnificent frescoes. It was built at blistering speed—less than four months—in 1488 by Stephen the Great to give thanks for a victory over the Turks.

Voroneţ blue, an intense shade made from lapis lazuli, is known to artists around the world. Sheilah stood staring at the west wall, wondering why, if medieval artists could make such vivid pigments last outdoors for centuries, Sherwin-Williams can’t make a house paint that holds its shade for twenty years.

Pushing her mind past that conundrum, she began to recognize some of the faces in the Last Judgment laid out before her. Several of the angels looked very much like the Romanian women she’d seen at breakfast at the hotel in Suceava. One of the saints resembled a taxi driver she’d noticed on the street. Then she looked more intently at the figures of the damned, roiling in hot coals at the Lord’s feet. Here she didn’t recognize features, but she did notice that many of the condemned were wearing Turkish turbans, a clue that Stephen the Great’s Moldavian artist knew who he regarded as the bad guys. Also writhing among the tormented was a character wearing a Catholic bishop’s mitre.

As Sheilah was absorbing this very site-specific interpretation of the biblical story, one of the monastery’s young nuns came to her side and struck up a conversation in English. Sister Gabriela Platon was slender and erect, with serene brown eyes. She looked as if, just that morning, she might have stepped to earth from the ranks of angels praising God at the Lord’s right hand. The faith she expressed was not only simple, it was practical and matter-of-fact. Describing the saints depicted on her church’s wall, she told Sheilah, “They are taking our petitions to God. That is their job.”

Voroneţ was closed as an Orthodox monastery in 1785 under the Catholic Hapsburg Empire—perhaps they didn’t appreciate that image of the accursed pope—and only resumed life as a working monastery in 1991, after the Communist era.

On Sheilah’s next visit, the stocky, gray-haired woman who leads the community, Mother Superior Irina Pântescu, invited her in for a visit. They toured the stable, which housed several cows, one new calf, and an enormous sow suckling seven tiny pink piglets. Then, at 11 a.m., Mother Irina poured glasses of home-fermented ţuica, and discussed her plans to build a wooden guesthouse so more pilgrims could spend a few days tasting the heavenly faith and homely lifestyle of Voroneţ.

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