For the last month or so, I’ve been keeping fairly constant company with a lovely man who has the most amazing green eyes and even more amazing hands. He’s in his mid-fifties, Jewish, Israeli, and absolutely and utterly fascinating. He goes by many names but the one I like most is his real one – Gabriel Allon. Born of the pen of Daniel Silva he has taken me to places I could never otherwise hope to go.
He works for Israeli Intelligence on the dark side of the dark side. And he’s one of the top four art restorers in the world. He’s taken me through the history of Israel/Palestine and has helped me understand a little more of what’s behind what’s going on. He has spent pages describing his work restoring some of Bellini’s famous church art in Venice. And the insider view of the Vatican has me wondering. Getting kindle versions of all his books was one of the best birthday presents I received. They’re an education.
It was Allon who came to mind when our driver that day in Romania took us to see a monastery in the making [it’s somewhere between Magyarvalkó and Bélis in the middle of nowhere]. The building of this Orthodox church began in 2001 and it’s now in the process of being painted by a team of 12-18 young artists from the University of Theology in Cluj-Napoca (Koloszvár) under the guidance of Alexandru Nicolau, a team chosen apparently by open contest. Money is tight so they work when they have it. Each of them is a religious scholar in their own right and they live their lives in accordance with the Orthodox creed. I know this because we were befriended by a visiting student from the University who showed us around. He’d come to the monastery to clear his head, to enjoy the peace, to paint.
It was a change from the centuries-old churches we’d seen earlier in the day and its newness was a little hard to take. To see paintbrushes and tins of paint, scaffolding and blank walls, a few radios and the occasional bottle of water – there was a little of the Mary Celeste about it all, and it was hard not to think of a life interrupted. The style – Byzantine apparently. Russian Orthodox churches prefer more realistic depictions of their icons, whereas Romanian Orthodox goes more for showing the transfiguration of the saints in its style. I wasn’t quite sure what it all meant – Allon’s teaching stopped at the Old Masters – but I was suitably impressed, both by his telling of the story and by his reverence.
I’ve never before been in a church in the making. And while I’m a great fan of old stuff, I was fascinated by the newness of it all. And in particular by the depiction of the three wise men as angels. That’s something I’ve not come across before. I searched the walls, those that had been completed, and looked to see if I could find any more familiar scenes. I wouldn’t swear to it, but part of an image on a side wall looked remarkably like a human portrayal of the three wise monkeys who hear, see, and say nothing. I could be wrong. It was hot that day.
He also mentioned a movie that I want to watch – Andrei Tarkovsky’s epic film, The Passion of Andrei Rublev (1966) – in which an old icon maker who has lost his faith meets a young boy, the son of a bell-maker. Together they go to the Trinity Monastery where one paints icons and the other makes bells and the whole ‘love thy neighbour’ wins out. We could do with a bit more of that these days. It’s on my list.
Of course, now that I’ve seen the new monastery, I want to see the old ones, too, the painted ones, in Bukovina. After these few days in Romania, I’m really grateful to have had the chance to visit and even more grateful to have it so close to me. I’m already scouring my calendar to see when I can possibly go back. There is so much to see and do, so much to experience. I am blessed to have the freedom to travel and even more blessed to enjoy it as much as I do. I’m grateful too, that I enjoy losing myself in a book or a movie and have an unchartered curiosity about people and places that gets me up off my ass and out there.