Today we will take a look at part of the large and detailed “Last Judgment” fresco on the wall of the famous Church of St. George (Biserica Sfantul Gheorghe ) at the village of Voroneț in the county of Suceava (pronounced Su-cha-va) in northeastern Romania. But first some useful things to know for students of icons.
First, in Romanian a Biserica is a church. Sfantul is the Romanian equivalent of Svyatuiy (Holy, i.e. “Saint”) in Church Slavic. And Gheorge, as you might guess, is the Romanian form of George.
As mentioned, the church is at Voroneț. Do not be confused when elsewhere you may see it written either as Voronet or Voronets. The reason is that Romanian has a distinctive letter — ț — with a little “tail” at the bottom. That means it is pronounced “ts.” Many sources spell it simply Voronet in English, because English does not have that letter; but that gives the mistaken impression that the last syllable is pronounced “-net,” while actually it is pronounced “-nets.”
Now, having taken care of those little but useful details, we can go on to the fresco. It is painted on the exterior of the church. In the photo below, you can see the protecting roof above it:
Though very elaborate, it is on the whole much like Russian representations of the Last Judgment. The Romanians call this type the Judecata de Apoi, literally the “Judgment of Afterwards” or more loosely the “Next Judgment.”
As we shall see, that notion of “next” is significant in regard to today’s image. Here is the detail from the fresco on which we wish to concentrate now:
It shows us a huge crowd of the Righteous (males seem to get preference) coming in a long line to the Gate of Paradise, which is at left. Note the winged “cherubim” just above the gate (remember that Slavic uses the plural for the singular). Let’s look a little closer:
At the front of the line, we see the Apostle Peter, holding the key that opens the Gate of Paradise. And holding his hand is St. Paul. That distinguishes this “after” entry into Paradise from the “before” entry that we find in standard iconographic depictions of the Resurrection of Jesus, in which the figures seen winding up to the Gate of Paradise are the Righteous of the Old Testament. In that depiction, we see the Righteous Thief (called Rakh in Russian iconography) at the head of the line, instead of St. Peter.
If we look to the left of the Gate of Paradise in this “after” depiction, we can see that it shows Mary seated in Paradise, with the Archangel Michael at left, and the Archangel Gabriel at right. Just to the left of Michael (and long inside the gate) is the Repentant Thief, still carrying his cross (his ticket to Paradise) after all this time — but of course icons do not deal with time in a rational fashion.
To the left of the Repentant Thief, we see a type occasionally found by itself in Russian iconography — the Old Testament patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob seated in Paradise (see my earlier posting https://russianicons.wordpress.com/2015/04/04/three-old-men-on-a-park-bench-the-patriarchs-in-paradise/),
Here is a closer look at the patriarch on the right, Iakov — Jacob:
You can see his abbreviated title just above his head at left. The writing just to the right of the head of the Righteous Thief is that of a tourist, and it is not the only graffito by visitors to be seen on this fresco, unfortunately. As is traditional with the Patriarchs in this depiction, Isaac holds the souls of the righteous in his lap, a depiction derived from the biblical phrase “in Abraham’s bosom,” as in Luke 16:22:
“And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried…”
So the souls of the righteous are to be in the lap/bosom of the patriarchs, so this iconography tells us. In some examples, one or more of the little souls are seen climbing in the background trees.
Finally, if we take a look up on the garden wall behind the Patriarchs, we find two inscriptions:
We need not bother with the lower one. It is another “tourist” graffito from 1903, someone named Larionescu who wanted to be immortalized (how I wish tourists had changed!). The important one is the original inscription above, which is in Church Slavic:
РАИ (Rai) is the word for “Paradise.” Rai-skoe makes it adjectival, and Selenie means a house or dwelling or residence. So this portion of the larger fresco is identified as the “Paradise Dwelling.”
It is helpful to know why, in Romanian iconography, one sometimes finds inscriptions in Church Slavic, and other times in Romanian. The reason is that Church Slavic was originally the liturgical and administrative language in Christian Romania. But between the 16th and 17th centuries it was replaced by Romanian for administrative purposes. Church Slavic continued to be used as the Eastern Orthodox liturgical language in Romania into the first half of the 18th century, but by the latter half of that century it had given way to Romanian So one can get a rough idea of how old a Romanian icon is by whether it is inscribed in Church Slavic or in Romanian. As a rule of thumb, a Church Slavic inscription often means it is older than about 1750, and a Romanian inscription generally means it is more recent (unless, of course, a modern painter has faithfully copied an older icon with its inscription).
And finally, you may wish to know that Church Slavic is of course a Slavic language, but Romanian is a Latin-based language with a strong admixture of Slavic elements. That is why Romanian may seem more akin to Italian and French.