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The Protector of Mount Athos

By Alice Isabella Sullivan

The siege of Constantinople in 1453 diminished and shifted in curious ways the generous support Mount Athos had received from Christian patrons throughout the Middle Ages. The Eastern Christian monastic communities on the Holy Mountain had benefited for centuries from external gifts and donations, and especially the support of the Byzantine emperors.

In the decades after the fall of the Byzantine Empire, the patronage of Mount Athos among Bulgarian, Serbian, Albanian, Muscovite, Georgian, and even Wallachian patrons, among others, declined or ended altogether due to precarious local conditions. However, the Moldavian rulers, and in particular Prince Stephen III (r. 1457–1504), took an increasingly active interest in the monastic communities on the Holy Mountain.

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During his long reign – spanning almost half a century – Stephen made substantial monetary donations, as well as gifts of manuscripts, icons, textiles, and liturgical objects to the Athonite monasteries. Even the Venetian historian Marino Sanudo (1466–1536) noted that Mount Athos is “a place in which all that is good and Christian flourishes, and it is a place favored by Stephen III.”

Map of the principality of Moldavia ca. 1483. Image by Andrein / Wikimedia Commons

The political and economic stability in Moldavia as a result of Stephen’s lengthy reign facilitated his ongoing support of monasteries in his domain and on the Holy Mountain. But Stephen’s interest in Mount Athos was also deeply intertwined with his princely aspirations as a Christian ruler. The Moldavian-Athonite contacts Stephen initiated were motivated by personal piety and hopes for salvation, but also reveal his self-fashioning based on an imperial Byzantine model. The surviving textual and material sources underscore the cultural, artistic, historical, and ideological implications of Stephen’s fervent patronage of Mount Athos in the decades after the fall of Constantinople.

During the second half of the fifteenth century, Stephen III of Moldavia provided substantial support to the Athonite monasteries of Zographou, Hilandar, Vatopedi, Saint Paul, and Gregoriou, among others. He also extended funds to Protaton, the oldest church on Mount Athos, which dates to the first half of the tenth century and served as the major church in Karyes, the seat of clerical and secular administration on the Holy Mountain.

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Stephen’s support of Zographou and Hilandar—two monasteries about 5.1 km apart on Mount Athos—intensified in 1466. Zographou received its first monetary donation from the Moldavian ruler on May 10 of that year, while a document from two months later, dated July 27, marks the earliest monetary gift from Stephen to Hilandar. Although the evidence is scarce for subsequent support of Hilandar, Zographou appears to have received the most lavish of Stephen’s bequests.

Zographou Monastery, Mount Athos – photo by Georgid / Wikimedia Commons

In addition to the large annual payment of one hundred Hungarian ducats (about three thousand pieces of gold) promised to Zographou in 1466, Stephen rebuilt the arsana (boat dock depot), the refectory (dining hall), the water supply, and the large tower of the monastery. The Moldavian prince also gifted to Zographou liturgical objects such as carved and gilded crosses, icons, embroideries, and manuscripts related to the various religious services of the Orthodox Church. His support renewed for the monastery the objects needed for the celebrations of the liturgy. Through such gifts, Stephen also marked an ongoing connection between himself, Moldavia, and the sacred landscape of Mount Athos.

Stephen may have favored Zographou because of the dedication of its main church (katholikon) to Saint George, one of Moldavia’s popular patron saints. The Moldavian leader made at least four major gifts to Zographou with images of Saint George: two icons and two embroideries. One icon shows Saint George holding a sword in his left hand and a spear in his right, while the other, dated to 1484, carries the inscription: “in memory of the holy and glorified great martyr, renowned for his victories.” To this day, these icons remain in the collection of Zographou, with one prominently displayed in the naos of the katholikon, before the iconostasis.

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Stephen’s Battle Standard with Saint George gifted to Zographou Monastery, now in the collection of the National History Museum in Bucharest. Photo by Cristian Chirita / Wikimedia Commons

The two Moldavian embroideries at Zographou are battle standards. One is a two-sided gonfalon (heraldic banner) that shows Saint George defeating the Dragon on one side and the Baptism of Christ on the other. The second embroidery, much larger, is a one-sided standard with Saint George crowned and enthroned at the center with a three-headed dragon at his feet. The inscription in Church Slavonic around the perimeter of the composition reads:

O great martyr and bearer of victory, George, who in case of need or misfortune is a prompt protector and ardent helper and brings inexpressible joy to the afflicted, receive from us also this prayer, that of your humble servant, John Stephen voivode, through God’s grace prince of the land of Moldavia, protect him in this life and in the future, through the prayers of the people who honor you, as we glorify you forever, amen. This was made in 7008 (AD 1500), in the forty-third year of his (Stephen’s) reign.

It is possible that Stephen carried these victory banners into battle. However, it is also possible that these served as a kind of spiritual replica of what he might have fought under. In gifting such objects to Zographou, Stephen personally asked for prayer from the monastic community receiving the gifts, and for intercession in his earthly deeds from the victorious Saint George represented and addressed visually and textually on the embroideries.

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Votive relief showing Stephen III on the exterior of the arsana, Vatopedi Monastery, 1496. Photo by Silviu Cluci

Between 1472 and 1496, Stephen directed funds toward Vatopedi Monastery. He supported there the construction of a depot at the boat dock (the arsana). The exterior wall of this structure preserves the only extant relief sculpture of the Moldavian ruler. A 94 x 91 cm marble panel set into the fabric of the wall illustrates Stephen presenting a model of a building (perhaps the very arsana he helped rebuilt) to the Virgin Mary, who holds the Christ Child in her arms. The relief shows Stephen presenting the model to Christ via the intercessory role of the Virgin. The emblem of Moldavia, a frontal bull head, hovers between the figures. The inscription in Greek along the top reads: “The most devout John Stephen voivode,” while the one along the bottom indicates: “in the year 7004 [1495–96], during the time of Abbot Cyril, hieromonk.”

By the turn of the sixteenth century, Stephen began directed resources toward the monasteries of Saint Paul and Gregoriou on Mount Athos. He built an aqueduct, a baptistery, and a mill at Saint Paul. Gregoriou started receiving a very substantial annual donation of four thousand aspra (about eighty gold pieces) from the Moldavian ruler. Stephen’s support of Gregoriou continued a family tradition. His son, Alexander, and his second wife, Maria Asanina Palaiologina of Mangup, both extended precious gifts to Gregoriou, including sumptuous liturgical embroideries and icons.

Through his monetary donations and gifts to Mount Athos, Prince Stephen III of Moldavia ensured the continuing autonomy of the monasteries at a critical moment in their long history. Stephen’s support also demonstrated his piety and devotion, as well as paid tribute to his own dynastic past. The donations, moreover, ensured his perpetual commemoration through prayer and his spiritual protection among the Athonite communities.

Finally, through his patronage of the Holy Mountain, Stephen III of Moldavia sought to nurture and renew symbolically the former glory of the Byzantine Empire at a moment when Constantinople was no longer. His actions, by extension, render the principality of Moldavia, as a polity, an heir to Byzantine Orthodoxy.

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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 and Mapping Eastern Europe. Follow her on Twitter @AliceISullivan

Further Reading:

P. Ș. Năsturel, Le Mont Athos et les Roumains: Recherches sur leurs relations du milieu du XIVe siècle à 1654 (Rome, 1986).

A. I. Sullivan, “The Athonite Patronage of Stephen III of Moldavia, 1457–1504,” Speculum 94, no. 1 (2019): 1–46.

Broderies de tradition byzantine en Roumanie du XVe au XVIIe siècle: Autour de l’Étendard d’Étienne le Grand. Paris: Musée du Louvre, 2019.

Top Image: Stephen III of Moldavia and his immediate family in the votive mural at the Church of the Holy Cross, Pătrăuți, Romania, painted between 1496 and 1499. Photo by Alice Isabella Sullivan

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