Arbore Monastery

Located 30 km from Suceava, Arbore Monastery was built between the 2nd of April and the 29th of August 1503, by Luca Arbore, in the village of Soloca, that he owned. He was one of the important boyars of Stefan cel Mare, being since 1486 the gatekeeper of Suceava. He had defended bravely the Suceava Fortress in 1497 against Polish attacks. Five month later, he erected the monastery, next to his private residence, meant as a family chapel and cemetery. Luca never saw the paintings of his monastery completed because he was beheaded along with two of his sons, having been falsely accused of treachery. The monument was dedicated to Saint John the Baptist.

The monastery, with it’s rectangular shape,was built of brick and stone extracted from the quarries in the region. It is smaller than other painted churches and, probably , less spectacular. There is no steeple, as it was built by a landowner, and not by a ruling prince. A semicircular arcade which doubles the outside west wall of the pronaos was designed to house the bells. These now have a separate bell tower above the entrance to the church-yard.

It has remarkable fresco paintings against a predominant green background, unlike Voronet, where blue is the predominant color. The green is in five shadows and 47 hues combined with red, blue, yellow, pink and ochre. Unfortunately the secret of combining colors held by the painters of Arbore is now lost. However, scientists were able to identify thirty substances, including animal size, vinegar, egg, gall and honey. Restorers can now only stabilize what has been left of the frescoes. The interior paintings were seriously damaged in the 17th-18th centuries when the church remained without its roof.

The paintings were made by a team led by Dragos Coman from Iasi. The artist proves to be a genius: a widely-traveled man, he innovates, has a new vision different from the one of his predecessors, he succeeds in making a bold synthesis of oriental and western elements, well integrated in tradition though. Most of the paintings represent scenes taken from the Genesis and the Saints’ lives. They are delicate and vivid, whereas houses are drawn in perspective. The best preserved frescoes are found on the relatively sheltered south and west walls. Among the most valuable scenes one may see are The Hymn of the Prayers to the Virgin, The Siege of Constantinople, The Last Judgment, The Prodigal Son and many others. The Siege of Constantinople is a syncretic representation of the attacks of Persians, Avars and Slaves upon Constantinople in 617. The Journey of the Magi, the Holy Virgin and other scenes show the painter’s disposition to rocky landscape against a predominantly green background, like in the Last Judgment where he finds his own solutions to render the characters’ movement fluid. In the Prayer of All Saints on the apse, Christopher, the defender against death, with Baby Jesus on his shoulder is also among the martyr saints, it is a unique and unusual image for Moldavia, influenced by the mural painting in Catholic countries.

On the west wall, in the niche beside which services for the dead are usually celebrated, Dragos painted a series of vivid “miniatures” like a large version of an illuminated manuscript. The top register shows The Holly Family on the flight into Egypt and the Massacre of the Innocents. Below these, there are scenes from the Life of the Virgin, followed lower down by episodes from Moses’s story. The lowest bands contain the Siege of Constantinopole, updated to reflect the contemporary fears about the Turks, rather than the Persians who were the original aggressors.

No other monastery has such an ensemble of miniatures, seemingly the best painting of Stephen the Great-Petru Rares period. Adam ploughs and Eve spins in the Genesis, some of the table companions at the Feast of Saint George are with their back at spectators (arrangement uncharacteristic of Byzantine style, introduced by the Italian Renaissance), the way the landscapes are painted, the rocks in this case, resembles Giotto’s technique, but the characters move more naturally, they live the event, all against the same dark green background. When passing from one wall to another, the painter boldly paints the dragon’s head in one scene and its tail in another (Bringing the Dragon).

The south wall contains eight registers devoted to scenes from Genesis and the Lives of the Saints. The Last Judgment is badly damaged, but it must have been a strong and imaginative composition: what remains is of excellent quality and, in the raking light, you can see some of the incised underdrawings that were made before the paint was applied. Worth noticing are the parcels containing souls which are being weighed in the balance, and the lush vegetation in the Paradise Garden

The two heavy slabs of stone preserved near the church since the time it was painted, have fifteen small holes which used to serve as containers for the mixing of colors. Traces of pigment corresponding to the frescoes have been found in the hollows on their surface.

In the narthex, which also functions as a burial chamber, one may find the tombs of the church founders, Luca Arbore and his Polish wife, Iuliana, decorated with unusual Gothic stonework that bears a strong Polish influence.

The icon screen dates from about the same time as the church itself. It is heavily encrusted with smoke, but paintings underneath are intact, preserved by the very grime which obscures them.

Inside the monastery, an ethnographic museum with a rich display of the region’s most valuable assets is worth visiting. The monastery was restored between 1909-1914 and 1936-1937, and appears on the UNESCO list of monuments.