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Wall-to-wall art

25 January 2013

In northern Romania, eight painted monastery churches have UNESCO World Heritage status. Laurence Mitchell visits four of them


Historic: the defensive walls of Sucevita Monastery surrounding the Church of the Resurrection 

Historic: the defensive walls of Sucevita Monastery surrounding the Church of the Resurrection 

I AM staring up at a vast mural, The Siege of Constantinople, that shows the city in all its Byzantine glory. The dominant colour is ox-blood red, as it is in the huge fresco St George and the Dragon. Both are painted in a style that combines formal tradition with cartoon-like folk art.

As I take in the detail, the scent of roses drifts in on the breeze - a reminder that these extraordinary frescos are not inside a dark church, but outside, adorning the walls of the Church of the Assumption of the Virgin, in the village of Humor, in northern Romania.

Humor would receive few visitors were it not for the remarkable murals of its monastery church, one of eight in the Southern Bucovina region awarded UNESCO World Heritage status.

The frescos are deemed to be masterpieces of Byzantine art. Seven of the eight date from the 15th and early 16th century, when Stephen the Great of Moldovia, and his son and successor, Petru Rares, reigned. The monastery at Sucevita was built later, in 1582, but in the same tradition.

It is said that covering the walls with biblical scenes was an attempt to educate illiterate peasant-soldiers that were assembling within the monasteries' defensive walls while waiting to fight Turkish invaders, who battled over the region in the latter part of the Middle Ages. The paintings may also have been a way of securing their loyalty.

At Humor, most of the murals are in incredibly good condition, considering their long exposure to the elements. There are more within, and vivid frescos depicting saints and sinners cover every available surface.

If Humor is the "red" monastery, the Church of St George, of the former Voronet monastery, where a small community of nuns now lives, is the "blue". To reach it, I drive through the logging town of Gura Humorului, four miles south of the town.

The blue of Voronet, now known as "Voronet blue", is intense, and is a result of using lapis lazuli as a pigment. It is evident in The Last Judgement, which takes up the entire western wall of St George's, and depicts Christ sitting in judge- ment above a river of fire, while turbaned Tartars and Turks await their fate.

Voronet, whose frescos depict Old and New Testament themes, local legends, and the lives of saints, was the first of the monasteries built by Stephen the Great (1433-1504) in thanksgiving for his victories against the Turks. There are 46 in total.

To reach the Church of the Annunciation, of the Moldovita monastery, north-west of Gura Humorului, requires a 25-mile drive through countryside. This timeless corner of Europe remains largely unmechanised, and I pass horse-drawn carts piled high with freshly harvested corn-straw along the way.

Moldovita was refounded by Rares in 1532, and here, rather than red or blue, the predominant colour is yellow. As at Humor, there is a splendid mural, The Siege of Constantinople, on the southern wall, but I am saddened to see that there is graffiti, too - mostly German, Polish, and Russian names, carved with lapidary precision.

Moldovita has a higher number of scenes and personages than any of the other churches. Here, it is also possible to see manuscripts and icons, as well as Rares's original throne in its small museum.

Sucevita, the last monastery on my tour, involves a switchback drive over a 1100-metre pass in the Carpathian mountains. Once within its heavily fortified compound, I am immediately directed towards the Church of the Ressurection, in the centre, and towards its finest fresco, The Ladder of Virtue, which depicts the journey between heaven and hell as a perilous climb up the rungs of a ladder.

The south wall has a charming painting, The Tree of Jesse; but I am surprised to find the western wall devoid of any decoration. My guide offers an explanation: folklore has it that the artist fell from his scaffolding and died, and no one else was brave enough to continue the job.


Review: George Bell House, Chichester

AS SOON as you step into Canon Lane - approached by turning off one of the four main shopping streets in Chichester that meet, literally, at a monument called "The Cross" - you feel instantly that it is possible to leave the hec- tic pace of life behind, just for a while.

At the end of the cloistered close is George Bell House, the only Enjoy England five-star-rated accommodation in Chichester. It is primarily a retreat and study house, but, on vacant days, B&B guests can stay in one of its eight well-appointed ensuites (three double, four twin, one wheelchair-accessible single).

The house belonged to Bell, Bishop of Chichester from 1929-1958, after he retired. In 2008, it was refurbished and opened to B&B guests, to subsidise retreat and study breaks here, and support the cathedral's running costs.

After arriving in the entrance hall, complete with Hans Feibusch paintings, Delft-tiled fireplace, elegant staircase, and galleried landing, I am led to the "Bamburg" room.  William Morris curtains; super-king-size bed flatscreen TV; and tea-, coffee-, and hot-chocolate-making facilities (with Scottish shortcake biscuits) greet me. Not so five-star is a naff flower print, and shelves with granny-like knick-knacks, but all can be forgiven for the glorious view of the cathedral.

George Bell House offers two conference rooms, a garden room, and an oratory for individual prayer. It has no guest lounge, but perhaps it is not needed: outside the cathedral environs are shops, bars, and restaurants galore, Chichester Festival Theatre, and Pallant House Gallery - which hosts an important collection of 20th-century British art and the wonderful restaurant Field & Fork.

I explore the Bishop's Palace Gardens, and book a guided tour of the cathedral, renowned for its artworks and the tomb that in- spired Philip Larkin's "An Arundel Tomb".

Guests, £70-120 prpn, breakfast from £6.50 pp extra (my only criticism is that this is not in- cluded in the price); retreat guests: £56.50 full board per 24 hours (minimum booking of three rooms).

With tranquillity on offer, plus five-star comforts (not forgetting culture and shopping, should you not come to hide away with God), George Bell House is proving a hit.

Contact: Phone 01243 813 586 or visit www.chichestercathedral.org.uk/visiting/_folder1/

Christine Miles



TAROM, the Romanian national carrier, has daily flights to Suceava from London, via Bucharest, for about £300 return. Hotels, restaurants, and car rental can all be found in Suceava. Villa Alice, in Suceava, has rooms from £33, and the Continental has doubles from £25. In Guru Humorului, Hilde's Residence has doubles from £36, while Best Western Bucovina Club de Munte has doubles for £55.



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