Putna Monastery, raised between 1466-1469, the first fortified construction of Stephan the Great, was designed to be the necropolis of the ruler’s family and his descendents, including Petru Rares. The story goes that it was built in a general area picked out by Stephen’s advisor, Daniel the Hermit. The exact position of the church was left up to God when Stephen went to the top of a hill and fired an arrow— wherever it fell the church would be built. A section of tree trunk containing the arrow hole is still kept in the monastery museum and a cross marks the spot from which the arrow was shot. Apparently, a forest was cleared for the building of the monastery.
Putna has known earthquakes, fires and invasions for 5 centuries, the only construction from the 15th century still standing is the “Treasure’s tower”. According to the plaque, it was built in 1481 and it was conceived as a two-floor building, with a terrace at the top, with a crenellated parapet. Today it has a sharp roof. Light comes in through narrow windows, decorated with frames of sculpted rock in a laic manner reminding the late gothic. The monastery was restored several times. Only a few years after the completion of the buildings and fortifications, a dreadful fire destroyed most of the church, the outer walls and the princely home. The following years, the prince and founder rebuilt the church that soon recovered its former lofty appearance. In 1536, another conflagration seriously damaged all the buildings; there followed a new restoration completed in 1559, on the initiative and at the expense of Prince Alexandru Lapusneanu (1552-1561; 1564-1568). In 1653, the church was pulled down to its foundations and replaced in 1654-1662 by a new building which, with slight alterations, has lasted to this day. In this period, the princely residence and the precinct walls were also enlarged and repaired. However, this important restoration did not last more than three quarters of a century, for in 1739, Putna Monastery was destroyed by a powerful earthquake, which made it necessary to start ample restoration work between 1757 and 1761, upon the initiative and with the endeavors of Metropolitan Iacov Putneanul.
Another important stage in the building of the monastery in the past was marked by the restoration work done from 1854 to 1856, when the precincts were enlarged and new walls were erected, 23 m. to the north of the previous ones. New cells were built parallel to the wall; the old princely residence was demolished, a new building – including a kitchen, a refectory and cells – was erected, together with a new abbey on the western side and a chapel on the north side. Restoration work on the monastery was started again towards the close of the 19th century, under the supervision of the Austrian architect K.A. Romstorfer.
Ample scientific restoration work was under way in 1969, when the church, the treasury tower, the entrance tower and the belfry – built in 1882 to replace a 15th-century tower – were restored in succession. Between 1974 and 1977, the former abbey standing on the western side of the courtyard was replaced by a wooden building, a museum housing art collections, while the cells built in 1854-1856 on the northern side were replaced and renewed.
It seems that the church was initially painted both on the inside and on the outside, but unfortunately, none of the frescoes could be preserved. Even though the church does not keep anymore decorative elements, bricks and glazed discs, specific for the architecture of Stephen the Great’s time, it resembles other contemporary churches in shape and dimensions. The walls are split in two areas by a belt in a rope shape, with a row of holes sculpted in the plan of the wall in the higher part. The northern wall was strengthened with counter forts added in the 18th century. With all the transformations, it keeps unchanged the fortress aspect so characteristic for the great Moldavian monastery settlements.
The church is plain and strong, with cable moldings at its facades, blind arcades and trefoiled windows. On the inside, the church is divided into porch, narthex, necropolis, nave and apse. In a recess of the necropolis, supported by two columns and covered by a marble canopy, there is Stephen the Great’s tombstone. The necropolis holds also the tombs of the prince’s second wife, Maria of Mangop,having a tombstone of oriental inspiration, and that of his third wife, Maria Voichita. Tombs of some of Stephen’s descendants, as well as of Moldavian bishops and metropolitans who contributed to the welfare and preservation of the monastery, are also to be found there.
The size and complex plan, the rich decorations (carved stone, terracotta and paintings) as well as the appearance for the first time in the ecclesiastical architecture of Moldavia of the exonarthex and of arches arranged slantingly in the vaulting of the pronaos are the basic characteristics of the earlier church of Putna Monastery. The only carved element preserved from the 15th-century church is the monumental porch which links the pronaos to the burial vault; it is rectangular in shape decorated with crossed moldings characteristic of Stephen the Great’s epoch.
A short time after it was built, Putna Monastery became an important center of Romanian mediaeval art and culture. As early as 1467, scribes, calligraphers and miniature painters who had learned their craft under Gavril Uric came from Neamt to work at Putna Monastery. Besides skilful calligraphers and miniature painters, many embroiderers, icon makers, weavers, silversmiths, sculptors in wood and book-binders toiled on in the quiet atmosphere of the monks’ cells at Putna. Special mention should be made of the sumptuous and elegant Four Gospels created here, adorned with miniatures in which perfect drawing combines with a motley color scheme in which gold prevails, as well as the fine embroideries (epitaphs, iconostasis curtains, coverings of tetrapods and of graves, stoles, etc.), many of them on show in the museum of the monastery.
The Moldavian embroidery is one of the most original creations of Romanian mediaeval art. The icon waves and the tomb covers are evidence of the creative spirit of the Moldavian artists of Stephen the Great’s time. The Putna Monastery can be proud of the rich collection of priests clothes, most of them forming a true gallery of portraits. Among the most original pieces, there are the priests clothes with prophets given to the monastery by Stephen the Great.
A famous school where Grammar, Rhetoric and Logic were taught was set up in the latter half of the 15th century and was open all through the 16th century. One of the outstanding scholars who taught at the school was Eustatie who at the end of the 15th century transcribed the music of several psalms and composed many psalms himself.
The monastic museum at Putna Monastery is one of the richest in the country with precious objects dating back to Stephen the Great’ time. Among them we should mention the embroideries made by golden thread, the tapestries, the vellum manuscripts, the metal-bound manuscripts, the silver Psalters, as well as the ecclesiastical objects, the paintings, the sculptures and the triptych icon won by Stephen during one of his wars.
The two major festivals at the monastery which attract thousands of pilgrims every year are the Dormition of the Theotokos on August 15 and the feast of St. Stephen the Great on July 2.