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Eastern Europe has its own Sistine Chapel

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A glimpse at the Orthodox monastery of Voronet, in Romania.

The monastery of the small Romanian villa of Voronet is perhaps the best known and most beautiful of the so-called “painted monasteries” of Ukraine, Romania and Moldavia.

However, this was not always so. During the era of communist totalitarianism, both Voronet and the other monasteries in the area remained almost anonymous, if not almost purposely hiding in silence, supported and maintained only by the dedicated hands of local Orthodox nuns and monks. Today these monks and nuns welcome visitors who come to admire the exquisite frescoes of the “Sistine Chapel of the East,” the great Voronet Monastery, which took only three months and three weeks to build, back in 1488.

The monastery is covered, both internally and externally, with frescoes that illustrate not only biblical scenes and iconographic references of religious themes, but also include portraits of the Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle, as belonging to the Christian theological and philosophical traditions.

But the uniqueness of Voronet, which separates it from traditional Byzantine painting and its neutral golden backgrounds behind the characters represented, is a mysterious blue color, which is everywhere around the monastery. Voronet’s frescoes are, in fact, known for this intense blue background pigment, known as “Voronet Blue.” Its composition remains a mystery today, more than 500 years after the founding of the monastery, except to the monks who religiously keep the colors of the building alive.

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