By Octavian-Adrian Negoiță | Institute for the History of Religions, Romanian Academy
Situated on a hill on the right bank of the Dâmbovița River in Bucharest, Radu Vodă Monastery is one of the most renowned monastic establishments within the Romanian Patriarchate. Dating to the mid-16th century (1568), the monastery experienced multiple stages of development in its complex history.
The church follows the triconch plan of the episcopal church of Curtea de Argeș, built between 1515 and 1517 by the ruler Neagoe Basarab, with the difference that the construction material used for the Radu Vodă Monastery was brick and not stone. Whereas the naos presents a steeple-like dome supported on four arches, the expanded narthex is roofed by three smaller domes, the middle one being also supported by four arches that rest on twelve columns signifying the twelve apostles. On both sides of the space between the narthex and the naos, there are two arched niches in which are located the tombs of two of the monastery’s founders (ktetors): the ruler of Wallachia Radu Mihnea (1586–1626) on the right, and the Patriarch Justinian Marina (1901–77) on the left. The naos is separated from the altar by a high iconostasis of sculpted and gilded wood built in a Baroque style in 1839, which is also the date when the canopy that covers the altar’s table was created. Nevertheless, most of the icons of the iconostasis date to the 17th century. There are also 24 tombstones on both sides of the narthex, which are covered today by a glass floor, where various founders of the monastery or members of the Wallachian elite are buried. On the outside, the church is plastered with white parget, while a belt separates two unequal registers, each featuring simple ornamented arched niches. In 1714, a large porch with three arched entrances on each side was added to the narthex.
To the northwest side of the church survives a bell tower that preserves its medieval form. In 1893, a large T-shaped building was erected to the south side of the church, which served at first as a Theological Boarding School, and today hosts the monastic cells and the refectory. To the southwest side of the church, the ruins of the princely palace, which underwent a process of restoration in 2015, are preserved.
A princely charter (hrisov), dated 15 June 1577, attests to the beginnings of Radu Vodă Monastery. According to this document, the monastery was founded by the ruler of Wallachia Alexandru II (r. 1568–77) on the site of a medieval edifice. The same document informs that the lord planned for the church of the monastery to serve as the Metropolitanate of Wallachia and consecrated it to the Holy Trinity, bestowing it with many customs and villages. Although his successor, Mihnea II (r. I. 1577–83; II. 1585–91), is not mentioned as a founder due to his notorious conversion to Islam, he previously financed the completion of the monastery’s buildings and painting, and endowed it in his turn with many properties, as indicated in a document dated 17 December 1586.
In 1595, in the aftermath of the Ottoman military campaign directed by Sinan Pasha (1520–96) against Michael the Brave (r. 1599–1600), the monastery was devastated, as it served as one of Sinan’s strongholds (“Sinan’s palanca”). It was during the third reign in Wallachia of prince Radu Mihnea (r. I. 1601–02, II. 1611, III. 1611–16, IV. 1620–23) that the monastery was rebuilt and received until today the name of its benefactor. The transformation into a metochion of Iviron Monastery on Mount Athos is well-documented in a recently published charter dated 10 February 1613, which was sanctioned by Radu Mihnea, who himself might have spent a few years at the Athonite monastery before his reign. But the monastery had its own metochions (e.g., the churches of Bucur, Sts. Silvester and Foișor of Bucharest, the Monasteries of Bolintin and Flămânda, and the Sketes of Fundul Sacului, Izvorul Voievodului, Mănești and Vorniceasa), which made it one of the most wealthy and influential monastic centers of Wallachia. The third founder of the monastery was prince Alexandru Coconul (r. 1623–27), Radu Mihnea’s son, who completed the construction of the monastery’s buildings and financed its painting program.
Under the notorious Phanariot rules, which were not only characterized by multiple and short reigns of Greek princes, who were appointed by the Ottoman sultans to rule over the Danubian Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia, but also marked a dark period in the historical consciousness of the Balkan people due to the political and economic instability, the monastery too reached a precarious economic and administrative situation. Moreover, the earthquakes of 1790, 1793, and 1794 also affected the structures. In 1863, along with the secularization of the wealth of the monasteries backed by Alexandru Ioan Cuza (r. 1859–66), this situation was aggravated. The monks were forced to leave the monastery, while it was transformed into a parish church. Between 1859 and 1864, the Austrian architect Johann Schlatter (1808–65) modified the initial form of the church by introducing neo-Gothic elements. The Theological Boarding School erected between 1894 and 1897, replaced the cells of the monastery, and the church became its chapel.
During the communist period, the monastery was disbanded, its buildings were seized, and within its premises functioned first a political school of the Communist Party and then the “Ion Creangă” High School. Nevertheless, the site benefited from a restoration program between 1968 and 1971, led by the architect Ștefan Balș (1902–94) and sponsored by the Romanian Patriarch Justinian Marina (1901–77), which restored the monastery’s original appearance, removed the neo-Gothic elements, and embellished it with the painting that is still visible today. It was reactivated as a monastery in 1999 and still functioned as a chapel for the Orthodox Theological Seminary of Bucharest, whose new building was brought to completion in 2005 on the foothill of the monastery. Today, the monastery has a fruitful monastic life, numbering no less than 22 monks.
The monastery was also an important cultural center, playing a crucial role in the social, artistic, literary, and educational life of the Wallachian milieu. During the 17th century, it developed a scriptorium, tending thus to the literary and liturgical demands of other ecclesiastical establishments and various intellectuals of the time, and it hosted one of the first libraries in Bucharest. Over the centuries, the monastery was visited by remarkable personalities that left their mark on its history. As such, the notorious Patriarch of Constantinople, Kyrillos Loukaris (1572–1638), sanctified the church in 1614 and endorsed the monastery’s connection with Iviron, gifting it with books and liturgical objects. In his turn, Paul of Alep (1627–69), the secretary of the Patriarch of Antioch, Macarios III Zaim (r. 1647–72), left a rich description of the monastery in his journal, which he visited with the patriarch in his peregrination toward Muscovy.
Radu Vodă Monastery is also a place of worship and pilgrimage. In 2002, its congregation received a piece from the relics of St. Nectarios of Aegina, who has become the monastery’s patron. In 2014, a fragment from the relics of St. Ephrem the Young were also attained by the monastery. As such, its importance among the Orthodox communities of Romania and Eastern Europe continues to grow.
Balș, Ștefan. “Restaurarea Bisericii Radu Vodă din București” [The Restoration of the Radu Vodă Church of Bucharest]. Revista Muzeelor și Monumentelor: Monumente istorice și de artă [The Journal of Museums and Monuments: Historical and Art Monuments] 1 (1975): 45–52.
This study, authored by the chief architect Ștefan Balș, offers a description of the restoration process of 1968-71.
(Arhim.) Chițulescu, Policarp. Mănăstirea Radu Vodă [The Monastery Radu Vodă]. Bucharest: Basilica, 2009.
This brochure offers basic information about the monastery’s history, library, liturgical objects, and cultural influence.
Popescu, Oana Mădălina, (Arhim.) Chițulescu, Policarp and (Arhim.) Șofelea, Nectarie. Sfânta Mănăstire Radu Vodă din București [The Holy Monastery Radu Vodă of Bucharest]. Bucharest: Basilica, 2018.
This is the most comprehensive account on the history of the monastery. It offers consistent historical information based on archival material, a thorough discussion over the monastery’s liturgical objects and library, along with their cataloguing, and, finally, a description over the present status of the monastery.
(Arhim.) Șofelea, Nectarie (ed.), O cetate a rugăciunii: Mănăstirea Radu Vodă din București [A Citadel of Prayer: The Monastery Radu Vodă of Bucharest], Bucharest: Basilica, 2008.
This is an art album that discusses the monastery’s history, cultural input, and present spiritual status through images.
This contribution was sponsored by the Mary Jaharis Center for Byzantine Art and Culture at Hellenic College Holy Cross.