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Byzantium in Eastern Europe

By Alice Isabella Sullivan and Maria Alessia Rossi

Byzantine cultural models had a profound impact on the development of local artistic traditions among the Orthodox Christian communities of Eastern Europe for much of the medieval and early modern periods. Regions of the Balkan Peninsula, the Carpathian Mountains, and early modern Russia were in contact with the Byzantine Empire in the centuries leading up to the fall of Constantinople in 1453. Afterwards, these lands took on prominent roles in the continuation and refashioning of Byzantine art and culture.

Although historians have tackled the issue of the “influence” of Byzantium in shaping the cultural, religious, and political life of regions of Eastern Europe, the picture that emerged placed emphasis on center-periphery dynamics with Constantinople as the ideologically superior power casting its “influence” across the Eastern Orthodox cultural sphere. However, the textual, material, and visual evidence, considered together, reveals the creativity and ingenuity at play in the negotiations between different traditions in local contexts. The extant works of art, architecture, and visual culture ought to play as crucial of a role in the story as the textual sources. At times, they even help further problematize the long-standing concepts and arguments outlined by prominent historians around notions of a “Byzantine Commonwealth” in particular.

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The current global turn in Medieval Studies is an ideal moment to look more critically at the margins of Europe and in particular at the regions that developed at the crossroads of traditions. For the Balkans, the Carpathians, and further north, western medieval, Byzantine, Slavic, and even Islamic models shaped local political, economic, religious, and cultural facets. And yet for these predominantly Eastern Orthodox lands, the spiritual power of Byzantium left its mark for many centuries, during and after the empire’s collapse.

The recent volume Byzantium in Eastern European Visual Culture in the Late Middle Ages, just published by Brill, puts forth a more nuanced understanding of Byzantium in Eastern Europe. The essays engage with issues of cultural contact and patronage, as well as the transformation and appropriation of Byzantine artistic, cultural, theological, and political models alongside local traditions as evident in architecture, monumental painting cycles, icons, sculpture, textiles, written texts, and ceremonies. Specifically, in discussing regions of Eastern Europe such as Croatia, the Republic of North Macedonia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, and Russia between the 14th and 16th centuries in their own right and in relation to developments in the Byzantine cultural sphere, this volume challenges earlier assumptions about the artistic production of these territories.

The individual essays engage with how the heritage of Byzantium was continued, transformed, and deployed locally to shape notions of identity in the artistic and cultural traditions of Eastern European cultural centers. In Chapter 1, Justin L. Willson examines Byzantine-Slavic relations by analyzing an early-14th-century fresco of Solomon’s Allegory of Wisdom from Bulgaria in light of Philotheos Kokkinos’s discourse on Wisdom. The essay argues in favor of the framework of the “commons” instead of “influence” with regard to cross-cultural contact between Byzantium and regions of the Balkans.

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Alexandra Vukovich, in Chapter 2, tackles the same complex issue by examining the image of Muscovy as the north of Byzantium in the 15th century. Through the exploration of the rite of investiture, she discusses the multilayered relationship among Byzantine models, the local landscape of power, and other cultural contacts, in this case with the Mongols. Particular emphasis is given to the performative part of the ceremony of investiture that allows for invented traditions, ancient objects, well-known rituals, and new idioms to come together to give shape to a new Muscovite image of power. For Vukovich, textual sources are the primary catalysts for the transfer and subsequent transformations of knowledge.

This is a facet central to the study of Elias Petrou as well. Chapter 3 outlines the cultural and intellectual relationships that extended between the Serbian and Byzantine elites from the 13th to the 15th centuries. Two case studies illuminate Serbian patronage in Constantinople and the movement of people and objects from the Byzantine capital to regions of the Balkans.

The next chapters move deeper into the Serbian milieu to demonstrate the cultural connections and new visual forms, iconographies, and styles indebted to Byzantine or Western models that emerged in a local context. In Chapter 4, Marija Mihajlovic-Shipley addresses the sociopolitical issues, cultural interactions, and biconfessional circumstances in the Adriatic region during the 13th century by means of the icon of Saints Peter and Paul in the Vatican Treasury. Mihajlovic-Shipley explores the possible reasons for a diplomatic gift from a Serbian queen to a Latin pope, placing the Serbian Kingdom at the crossroads between Eastern and Western Christendom during the second half of the 13th century.

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Chapter 5 focuses on the newly developed family ties between the Byzantine Empire and the Serbian Kingdom at the beginning of the 14th century by focusing on Christ’s miracle cycle in monumental decorations in the Serbian lands in contrast to Byzantine models. Maria Alessia Rossi discusses similarities and differences in image cycles of Christ’s miracles, showing how this iconography was transmitted, exchanged, and altered in a Serbian context in order to prove a shared Byzantine heritage as well as a need for innovation as a means to express a newly developing identity for the Serbian state.

The dynamics of patronage and identity in 14th-century Serbia are also central to Chapter 6. Ida Sinkević reveals the multiple factors—geopolitical, social, artistic, and religious—that contributed to the unique combination of Byzantine, Romanesque, and Gothic forms in the building of the main church, or katholikon, of Dečani Monastery in particular, and in Serbian medieval ecclesiastical architecture in general. Chapter 7 continues to explore the architectural history of the region and sheds new light on the connections between Serbia and Wallachia in the late Palaiologan and post-Byzantine periods. Jelena Bogdanović examines the long lives of Middle Byzantine triconch churches to the south and north of the Danube River, arguing for vibrant processes of architectural development in Serbia and Wallachia that ought not to be discussed separately and in isolation due to national divides, but rather in dialogue, in order to reveal facets of the interconnectedness of these territories and their shared Byzantine models.

Moving further north and deeper into the multifaceted artistic production of the Carpathian Mountain regions, Alice Isabella Sullivan, in Chapter 8, examines the distinctive architecture and iconographic programs of the Moldavian monastic churches built in the century after the fall of Constantinople in 1453. These monuments express complex social and religious politics, as well as elucidate processes of image translations, the transfer of artistic ideas, and the particular dynamics of cultural contact in the principality of Moldavia, which developed at the crossroads of different traditions, and which took on a central role particularly in the continuation and refashioning of Byzantine forms after 1453. In Chapter 9, Henry Schilb looks at the respective and distinct embroidery traditions of Wallachia and Moldavia, which developed along different avenues of cultural contact with the Slavic and Byzantine cultural spheres, and may reflect and illuminate aspects of the social, political, and even economic differences between these two north-Danubian Romanian principalities.

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The final essay examines east-west relations across the Adriatic Sea. Chapter 10 presents another case study of the artistic contacts and patronage that extended across the Adriatic Sea during the 14th century. Danijel Ciković and Iva Jazbec Tomaić focus on an embroidered altar frontal made for the Krk Cathedral in Croatia by Paolo Veneziano, exploring its production against the tense political situation that unfolded between the Hungarian-Croatian King Louis I of Anjou and the Venetian Republic.

What emerges from these contributions—read in sequence, or each on its own, or paired in various configurations—are issues of cultural contact, local translations, patronage, diplomacy, and ruling ideology, as well as modern politics and their effects on scholarship. But above all, what takes center stage, is the indebtedness of local developments to artistic forms adopted from elsewhere, and especially from Byzantium.

The regions of Eastern Europe, as the volume reveals, are not just places of “influence” from elsewhere. Instead, these territories offer dynamic networks of contact and interchange that may allow scholars to paint richer pictures of the development of local artistic and cultural forms, shared traditions, and the indebtedness of local developments to Byzantine models. The book presents examples of how we may begin to unravel the prismatic dimensions of art, architecture, and visual culture in Eastern Europe, continue to expand the temporal and geographic parameters of the study of medieval and Byzantine art, as well as chart the multitude of connections that extended across the medieval world.

Alice Isabella Sullivan and Maria Alessia Rossi are the co-editors of Byzantium in Eastern European Visual Culture in the Late Middle Ages and co-founders of North of Byzantium

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