A masterpiece awaits in the remote village of Voronet, in the northern Romanian region of Moldavia. A biblical mural depicts angels and devils on opposite sides of a scale, scrutinizing a man’s life, good deeds weighed against sins.
Around them, corpses rise from graves, joining scores of others awaiting the Last Judgment. It’s a graphic, gripping scene and it’s no wonder the 500-year-old painting has earned the Voronet Monastery the title of "Sistine Chapel of the East."
It’s one of eight similarly painted monasteries that together make up the Churches of Moldavia, a UNESCO World Heritage site. A few stand out, telling their tale in living color. Voronet’s monastery uses a blue-gray shade so distinctive that it has given its name to a color: Voronet blue. The Humor Monastery has an entirely different feel, with a terra-cotta red. And colors decorating the church at Sucevita remain the brightest, with pigments expertly derived from crushed minerals, semiprecious stones, and rare clays. (See more of the world’s most colorful places.)
The buildings were commissioned in the 15th century by Stephen the Great, who defended the region against invaders and even formed an alliance with Vlad the Impaler, a historic figure also known as Dracula. (Read the real story behind the fortress known as “Dracula’s Castle in Transylvania.”)
Because few peasants could read, the Eastern Orthodox Church covered the buildings inside and out with graphic paintings to teach religious themes, creating a biblical picture book of Byzantine art.
Wandering through church grounds, you may encounter nuns and monks who announce prayer times by beating a hammer on a wooden board, a tradition dating to the time when occupiers banned the ringing of the bells.
When to go
Winters in Romania can be bracing, and transportation is difficult, so aim to visit mid-April to early-October.
How to get there
Suceava, the closest city to the monasteries, can be reached by air or train from Bucharest and Vienna, Austria, and is about one hundred miles from the monasteries. Once in the region, it’s best to rent a car, as the sites are spread out and difficult to reach on public transportation.