In the midst of a village placed at the foot of the Carpathians, against the solemn green background of the pine forest, it rises a simple church with the outer walls adorned with frescoes – the church of the Holy Monastery of Voronet. The building seems a wide open, bright Gospel. It is thus that long time ago the anonymous painters and those who ordered these paintings had imagined it: the walls with a tapestry of frescoes had to depict the teachings of the Holy Scripture. It is in the same way that it appears nowadays to the eyes of the worldwide visitors thrilled to discover, in the midst of a harmonious nature, an even more harmonious edifice, built more than 500 years ago by inspired hands that expressed their faith and lyricism in stone and colour.
The church of Voroneţ Monastery is the foundation of the celebrated ruler Stephen the Great and the Saint, built in 1488 in only three months and three weeks (from the 26th of May to the 14th of September).
Competent experts estimate that its architecture is representative of the Moldavian style being an original and specific synthesis of some traits of Byzantine origin (the trefoil and three-apse structure of the apses of the nave, the division into altar, nave and narthex, the arching system) with elements belonging to the late Gothic (the church height, the external abutments, the door and window frames in broken arch, the way of handling the carved stone). Over these there were superposed, melted in a single whole of unique beauty, the characteristics of the native art (the simplicity and the intimate character of the building, the pointed roof made of fret-saw clapboard like in the peasant houses).[ ]
The church of Voroneţ Monastery, a stone ship, full of grace, simplicity and charm, imposes itself through verticality, harmonious proportions, through the solidity of the structure, of the massive walls supported by abutments, and especially through the skilful passage from the rectangular body of the building to the lateral apses and to the great apse that corresponds to the altar, all of semi-circular shape.
Inspired from the more archaic and austere models of the Byzantine iconography, the interior painting made in 1496 thanks to the great founder, impresses through the clarity and the rigor of the iconographic display, through the vigorous drawing, the colour range with solemn combinations, through the expressivity of the characters which is far from being stereotypic or conventional.
It is particularly known the fact that the Moldavian ruler built and renovated many churches and monasteries ; nevertheless, the sacred story of Voroneţ brings close to the great Stephen the Pious Priest Daniil, one of the greatest Saints that Moldavia has ever given birth to; this is the famous hermit and confessor who created an almost unequalled Hesychastic movement at Putna, in a small cell carved in stone, and later on at Voronet, for 20 years. The legend of the “origin” of Holy Voroneţ Monastery unifies forever in our national destiny the two great personalities.
”And Stephen the Great, going from the Neamţ Fortress to the highland of Moldavia, took the route to Voronet, where there lived a hermit whose name was Daniel. And when Stephen the Great knocked on the door of the hermit, he answered by asking Stephen the Great to wait outside until he finished his prayer. And after he finished his prayer, he called Stephen the Great into his cave. And Stephen the Great confessed himself. And Stephen the Great asked the hermit what to do, as he could no longer fight the Turks; should he yield the country to the Turks or not? And the hermit said not to yield it, that the victory was his, on the condition that after his victory he would build in that place a monastery, dedicated to Saint George”.[Ion NECULCE]
The Pious Daniel the Hermit, the first spiritual adviser and prayer to God of ruler Stephen, is buried in the narthex of Voroneţ church; only 47 years after he had passed to eternity, he was painted as a Saint on the South wall and in the Orthodox Calendar on the porch. His creative spirit has watched and continues to watch over the good work that changes the transient things into standing ones and the perishing things into eternal ones. [ ]
In the XVIth century – more exactly in 1547 – one of his disciples, the Metropolitan Bishop Grigorie Roşca, scholar with broad preoccupations, enlarged the church adding to the West side a closed porch; after that, he began immediately adorning the entire place with paintings on the front sides. It was at that time that the interior of the porch was also painted.
Made only a year after the death of Petru Rareş, the frescoes on the exterior walls of Voroneţ belong in fact to the epoch of this ruler (together with those of Probota, Humor, Moldovita, Arbore). They bring to a large extent the artistic brightness and fame to Voroneţ Monastery and because of them the Metropolitan Bishop Grigorie Roşca is considered to be the third founder of Voroneţ Monastery – after the Saint Stephen the Great and the Saint Daniil the Hermit. The supposed author of this real Renaissance masterpiece in South-East Europe is the herald Marcu.
Against a blue background, of intense brilliance, the exterior paintings cover the walls as a colourful carpet, delighting the eyes with the youthful charm of harmonies. The drawing is firm, masculine, the images are created with the rigor of an authentic portrait, and the sense of reality is evinced in here more than in other monuments. The exceptional artistic quality of these paintings is given by the monumental vision, by the decorative beauty of their composition, by the erudite alternation of the themes arranged in registers and panels with those unfolded in friezes. [ ]
On the West side, the porch does not have any opening and the chosen solution is unprecedented: the architecture was subordinated to the decoration that was going to be painted. The ample space, together with the lateral areas of the massive abutment, becomes an immense scene where it takes place in bright colours the well-known drama of the Doomsday – an enormous work, unique in the art of the entire Christian East. The Doomsday, lacking the nightmare faces that appear later on in the Occident, presented as a festive peacefulness, shows first of all how the Father accomplishes his plan concerning the world through His Son, the one that judges it and that leads it to Salvation.
The other front sides of the porch are used to represent some themes that the Metropolitan Bishop Grigore Rosca was especially fond of: in the South, The Life of Saint Nicholas and of Saint John the New of Suceava, on the abutment Saint George Killing the Dragon, in the North The Customs of Heaven, an eschatological theme frequently used at the monastic buildings.
On the exterior walls of the porch and of the narthex (the church of the Saint Stephen the Great), the iconography follows the traditional lines.
We should mention first of all the vast representation of the Monastic Order (The Heavenly and Earthly Hierarchy), for which there are always reserved the walls of the altar’s apse as well as the adjacent walls of the nave and of the lateral apses: the Procession of all the Saints from the Old and New Testament is heading towards the East as if towards a target. The second theme, placed on the South façade in the area of the narthex, represents the Tree of Jesse or the Genealogic Tree of Jesus Christ. The third theme, represented on the North façade, is the Hymn for the Dead, which was apparently habitual for the exterior decoration of that period.
Nevertheless, three elements do not comply with this order.
At the Voronet Monastery, more than anywhere else, the painting is first of all a prayer for the defeat of the invaders and for saving Moldavia. The way in which the country’s most dangerous enemies of those times – the Turks (the inscription carefully and calligraphically written mentions that they were the Turks, in order to better outline the place of Moldavia’s enemies of those times in the midst of those condemned) or the more ancient enemies, the Tartars etc. – were pictured among the sinners in the great work The Doomsday, certifies precisely such a political intent that also seems to characterize the processions of the religious characters on the apses with the Tree of Jesse. In order to stress further on this idea, the master of Voroneţ placed on the South façade a detailed representation, in 12 episodes, of the Martyrdom of Saint John the New and the Bringing of his Relics to Suceava, during the times of Alexander the Good. (St. John the New was martyred by the Tartars, allied subjected to the Turks and who brought very often suffering to Moldavia).
A second specific element derives from the obvious insistence on the tradition of monks and hermits as leaders of the resistance against the foreign domination: the themes – Life of St. Nicholas, Life of St. Anton (one of the founders of Eastern Monasticism) and Customs of Heaven – glorify in fact the hermits’ pure life.
Finally, the paintings reproduce the life known by the painters and rendered with verve and naturalness: Eve spins the wool just as a housewife. Adam, just as a peasant, ploughs with a wooden plough pulled by oxen. Abel looks like a shepherd next to his sheep flock. The angels in the Doomsday scene blow Moldavian alphorns. The fire chariot with which Saint Elias went up to heaven is a simple peasant cart. The members of the master’s family from the parable The Prodigious Son are caught in a Moldavian ring dance. Women with loose hair lead crying a dead to the eternal place just as it can be seen even nowadays in our villages. The folk people wear autochthonous costumes and some of the high officials seem to be boyars from Moldavia of the times of Rareş. The weapons which appear in some scenes are the ones commonly used in the Moldavia of the XVIth century: the bow with arrows, the sword, the spear, the shield etc. The animals (deer, wild boar, wolf, squirrel, bear, stag, hair, trout) and the flowers (tulips, bellflowers) are also from the region. In some scenes there frequently appear Moldavian benches, arm chairs, carpets, towels and musical instruments (lute, flute and alphorn).
Beyond the architecture and the painting bearing the above-mentioned values, the Holy Voroneţ Monastery preserves a richness of medieval art: the tombstones in the narthex and in the porch have decorative motifs of an exquisite artistic value, the armchair and the pews bring ornaments from various styles ingeniously combined and impress through their discreet merge with the architectural interior without disturbing the space or entering in competition with the wall decoration. The real masterpieces of the wood sculptures are in the Temple of the altar. To all these, there must be added several other pieces that can be found in various collections and museums: epitaphs, embroideries of large dimensions and the precious metal framing offered by the Metropolitan Bishop Grigorie Roşca to Voroneţ Monastery (1557) which brings the novelty of a more decorative interpretation and on the back cover it has the image of Saint Daniil in a solemn interpretation inspired by an icon model.
For more than three centuries – until the end of the XVIIIth century – the Holy Monastery of Voroneţ, place of high spiritual experience, assumed under the spiritual influence of the Saint Daniil a double mission: a cultural and an educative one: “from the pew of the church they have handed down to us the pure Orthodoxy and the love of people” (His Holiness PIMEN ). Here, numerous priests, Superiors, monks and country’s high officials learned and got accustomed to the spiritual hardships. The Medieval Monastery used to be a real school of calligraphists, miniaturists and translators from the Greek and Slavonic languages, a place where those scholars thoroughly worked to create the national language and to introduce it in the Orthodox rite. It is particularly known by two of the oldest Romanian manuscripts: The Old Manuscript of Voroneţ and The Psalms Book of Voroneţ copied in the XVIth century.
There followed two centuries of spiritual poverty concerning the authentic natural, cultural and monastic vocation.
In 1785, the Monastery of Voroneţ was among the 23 monasteries closed after this Northern part of Moldavia was attached to the Austrian Empire. The monks were forced to leave their Monastery; the cell gradually turned into ruins. Over the time, the village of Voroneţ was formed out of the former workers on the lands of the Monastery and the church was used to celebrate the services for the faithful ones.
At the beginning of the XXth century – after the Great Unification – cultural and political personalities brought to the public awareness the historical and artistic value of the old foundation. The Holy place was declared an historical monument. The number of visitors from the country and from abroad was increasing continuously.
During the communist period, the real identity of the place passed under a cone of shadow: people visited “the historical and the art monument of Voronet”. Given the exquisite artistic value, this monument, considered a museum of architecture and painting of the time of Stephen the Great, was not allowed to be used in other purposes. Gradually, the candles and the sermons were totally forbidden in the Church. [Petre COMARNESCU] There were made some restoration works enlarging the roof’s eave in order to protect the exterior painting and some works for the removal of moisture that threatened some frescoes, for the consolidation of some wall parts that were on way of deterioration, for the repair and the consolidation of the floor.
After 206 years, in 1991, the Holy Synod of the Romanian Orthodox Church decided to «re-establish the Voroneţ Monastery as a monastery of nuns», the Christian Orthodox Superior nun Irina PÂNTESCU being named the first Abbess of Voroneţ Monastery.
The kind and quiet hermit Daniil, the miracle maker, one of the great Saints of Moldavia and of the Orthodox world, a founder of the Romanian spirit, awaits us at the Holy Voroneţ Monastery in order to teach us to climb the spirals of the inner life, under the light of dazzling blue of the life spent in Kindness and in Truth. The founding blue. The guiding blue. The crucifying blue. The purifying blue. The loving blue.
From Voroneț, Monahia Gabriela Platon, Mănăstirea Voroneț, 2007