By Alice Isabella Sullivan
After decades of gradually conquering regions of the Balkan Peninsula and the Carpathian Mountains, the Ottomans had arrived in the heart of Europe by the early sixteenth century.
The Battle of Mohács in 1526 resulted in a decisive Ottoman victory over the forces of King Louis II (r. 1526–1526), ushering in political chaos and civil war in the former Hungarian kingdom. Three years later, the Ottomans arrived before the gates of Vienna, initiating a siege from the south-east that lasted over two weeks between September 27 and October 15, 1529. Their intent to take over the Habsburg capital could have been both an effort to consolidate control over Hungary and move deeper into Europe. The failed Ottoman Siege of Vienna, however, resulted in two centuries of conflict between the Habsburgs and the Ottomans with the already devastated Hungary at the center of the crossfires.
The failure of the Ottoman campaign against Vienna in 1529 had further consequences beyond the center of the conflict. This event seems to have given new hope to traumatized Christian rulers and their subjects that perhaps the Ottoman armies could be halted from their steady advances into Europe. No other defensive operation against the Ottomans, especially after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, had been as dramatic and successful.
For Prince Peter Rareș (r. 1527–1538; 1541–1546) — the ruler of the north-Danubian principality of Moldavia — the events of 1529 transformed his political and military policies, as well as aspects of his princely ideology. His domain had experienced attacks from the Ottoman Empire beginning in 1475 when Stephen III (r. 1457–1504) that defeated the forces of Sultan Mehmed II (r. 1444–1446; 1451–1481) at the Battle of Vaslui. Other encounters followed as the Ottomans sought control of this eastern Carpathian territory and in particular its strategic fortresses of Cetatea Alba and Chilia on the Black Sea.
Peter Rareș aspired to deliver Moldavian and, by extension, all other parts of Europe under Ottoman suzerainty from the control of the Porte. A report from July 31, 1536 (Cașovia, modern-day Košice, Slovakia), written to Ferdinand I (1503–1564; who became Holy Roman Emperor in 1558) by his two emissaries to Transylvania, Balthazar Bánffy and Marc Pemfflinger, offers a glimpse into Peter’s objectives. Peter’s words, as recorded in the letter of these two ambassadors, follow:
I [Peter Rareș] am ready to serve the Roman Catholic ruler [Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, 1519–1556] and the royal one [Ferdinand I], and all of Christendom, willing to give my head and my rule, not sparing my life nor my fortune. I am prepared to face all dangers to defend Christianity and the common good. I only request support from their Majesties [Charles V, Ferdinand I, and all fellow Christian rulers] so that I can pursue with ease my ambitions without great injury to myself or to this country, Moldavia. […] Their Majesties should not worry, because undoubtedly, whatever happens, I will regain with God’s help the whole of Transylvania [from Turkish control] and will bring not an insignificant blow to Turkish rule. And when your Highnesses will embark on a grand campaign against the Turks, send to me 15,000 men to which I will add 45,000 chosen men from my country, 20,000 from Transylvania, and 25,000 from Wallachia.
“With this support, and with God’s help,” the report continues, Peter hoped to arrive at the gates of Constantinople itself.
This account exposes Peter’s desires to attack and defeat the Ottomans not on Moldavian soil, as would be expected in a defensive strategy, but in the former Byzantine capital, thus seeking to transform Constantine’s imperial city once more into a Christian land. According to the source cited above, if indeed a grand Christian campaign were to be unleashed against the Ottomans, Peter would be ready to provide the largest number of men to the operation and would even be willing to lead these troops into battle.
The sources further reveal that one of Peter’s grandest ambitions was, indeed, the recapture of the once glorious Byzantine imperial capital, Constantinople itself, from the Ottomans. The deliverance of Constantinople after 1453 was prophesied in the famous Tale of Constantinople written sometime in the late fifteenth or early sixteenth centuries by Nestor Iskander—an eyewitness to the decisive siege. Iskander’s account, which provides valuable information about the siege, began circulating in the Byzantine-Slavic cultural sphere, including in Moldavia, soon after the events of 1453.
Amidst the political and military turmoil of Eastern Europe then under Ottoman suzerainty, the Romanian principality of Moldavia emerged as an important bastion of Eastern Orthodoxy. For much of the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, the principality managed to remain semi-autonomous relative to the Ottoman Porte and to develop a policy of equilibrium with its other, often stronger, neighbors. Although it was never part of the Byzantine Empire but certainly under the spiritual power of Eastern Orthodoxy, this eastern Carpathian region actively preserved, perpetuated, and even transformed in a new context Byzantium’s cultural legacy in the decades following the events of 1453. This is evident in art, architecture, and visual culture, as well as in the religious, economic, and military facets of the principality.
One image type that took on new visual forms in the Moldavian milieu under the patronage of Peter Rareș was The Siege of Constantinople. Painted on the exterior walls of several Moldavian churches, these murals conflated a number of the triumphant victories of the imperium during the sieges of Constantinople in 626 by the Avars and the Persians, in 717–718 by the Arabs, and in 860 by the Rus’. These are all historical events in which divine assistance was believed to have played a defining role in the outcome. Indeed, later sources reveal that the Virgin Mary and Christ were called up to bring divine protection to the Byzantine capital, and, by extension, to the entire empire.
In the Moldavian murals of The Siege, the representation of the enemy figures in the guise of the Ottoman Turks, as well as the inclusion of contemporary artillery at the center of the composition—such as culverin cannons and Turkish spears and halberds—offer an anachronism that adds a particular urgency to the events depicted, bringing the relevance of those earlier victories of Byzantium into the present. In light of the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the murals of The Siege seem to hold out assurance that divine aid could still be forthcoming for this north-Danubian territory. These carefully designed images, certainly, visualize divine intervention in dialog with the political agenda of Peter Rareș: that Christianity will re-emerge victorious, reclaiming its territories through divine support and protection.
Alice Isabella Sullivan is an art historian specializing in the medieval history, art, and culture of Eastern Europe and the Byzantine-Slavic cultural spheres. She has authored award-winning publications, is co-editor of Byzantium in Eastern European Visual Culture in the Late Middle Ages, and co-founder of North of Byzantium. Follow her on Twitter @AliceISullivan
I. Marin, Contested Frontiers in the Balkans: Ottoman and Habsburg Rivalries in Eastern Europe (I.B. Tauris, 2013).
K. Şahin, Empire and Power in the Reign of Süleyman: Narrating the Sixteenth-Century Ottoman World (Cambridge University Press, 2013).
A. I. Sullivan, “Visions of Byzantium: The Siege of Constantinople in Sixteenth-Century Moldavia,” The Art Bulletin 99, no. 4 (December 2017): 31-68.
Top Image: Map of Vienna, 1530, by Niclas Meldeman