By Alice Isabella Sullivan
2021 marks 500 years since the death of Prince Neagoe Basarab who ruled the principality of Wallachia (now part of modern Romania) between 1512 and 1521. Although his reign was relatively short, he contributed to the political, economic, religious, and especially cultural growth of his domain. Wallachia prospered under Neagoe’s leadership, and extended its contacts across Europe and the Mediterranean.
From a cultural standpoint, Neagoe Basarab fostered relations with Eastern Christian monastic communities outside of his domain, including those in Greece, Mount Athos, Jerusalem, and even Mount Sinai. The Wallachian prince made monetary donations and gifted precious icons, manuscripts, embroideries, and metalwork, which helped support the monasteries while renewing the objects needed for the celebration of the liturgy. His deeds ensured his remembrance among the monks receiving his donations. Moreover, his efforts aligned with the long tradition of patronage of Mount Athos, Sinai, and other Christian centers among the rulers of the north-Danubian principalities—a tradition that began in the fourteenth century and intensified after the fall of Constantinople in 1453.
In addition to being a great patron within and beyond the borders of his realm, Neagoe is perhaps best known for the text titled The Teachings of Neagoe Basarab to His Son Theodosius, which was intended to ensure the proper education of his heirs. This is an unparalleled speculum principum written in Church Slavonic in the Eastern Christian cultural sphere, contemporaneous with, yet divergent in its ideologies from, Machiavelli’s political treatise The Prince (De Principatibus, 1513; published 1532). How these texts and their respective cultural contexts compare remains a rich topic of study.
Around 1505, Neagoe Basarab married Milica Despina of Serbia—a descendant of the houses of Branković and Lazarević—and together they had six children. Their family portrait is preserved in the votive mural designed originally for the south wall of the pronaos in the monastic church at Curtea de Argeș, and now housed in the National Museum of Art of Romania in Bucharest. The image shows, on the left, Neagoe and his three sons: Theodosius, Peter, and John; and on the right stand Milica and the three daughters: Stana, Roxanda, and Anghelina.
A panel I recently discovered in the Sinai Digital Archive at the University of Michigan also displays Neagoe’s family, similarly divided into two groups, with the men on the left and the women on the right. In both examples, the princely family is richly garbed, and all members wear crowns as prominent symbols of their royal status. Unlike the votive mural that shows the Basarab family members frontal and standing, in the Sinai panel all the figures are all kneeling in supplication before an image of the Virgin Mary with the Christ Child (of the Blachernitissa type) in a heavenly sphere at the central upper portion of the composition.
It is likely that the Sinai panel predates the votive portrait at Curtea de Argeș. In the former, Theodosius wears similar garments as those of his brothers. In the votive mural, however, he is already dressed in the princely garb, akin to Neagoe’s, indicative of his successive role to Wallachia’s throne. Indeed, as the oldest among the sons, Theodosius took the throne on September 15, 1521, but due to his young age at the time, his mother, Milica, acted as regent. Unfortunately, Theodosius died only a few months after taking the crown, in January 1522.
Little is known about Neagoe and Milica’s other two sons, Peter and John. Together with Anghelina, these three children of the royal couple died young. As for the older daughters, it is known that Stana married Moldavia’s prince Stephen IV (r. 1517–1527), and Roxanda married Radu of Afumați, who took control of Wallachia after Theodosius’s death (r. 1522–1529), and then she married Radu Paisie (r. 1535–1545, with interruptions).
The Sinai panel belongs to a wooden box. The image displays the indentations of where the hardware once attached the lid to the box with two nails on each side. Therefore, the image in the central composition clearly once decorated the inside of the lid. Upon its arrival at Sinai, those who opened the wooden box would have first encountered the image of the Wallachian prince alongside his immediate family members, kneeling in supplication and directing their attention toward the Virgin and Child. The image makes evident the faith of the patrons, and, through the act of donation, their hope for eventual salvation. But the image was also intended to incite prayer and remembrance for the Wallachian royal family among the monastic community at Sinai receiving the gifts.
Although the evidence is scarce, Neagoe Basarab extended donations to the Monastery of Saint Catherine on Mount Sinai, following in a long tradition of such patronage among Wallachian rulers. The box to which this lid once belonged could have carried precious icons, manuscripts, and embroideries from Wallachia to St. Catherine’s Monastery, with some still preserved in the collection of the monastery.
The Sinai box could have also been a reliquary, akin to that of St. Niphon at Dionysiou Monastery on Mount Athos, which Neagoe Basarab commissioned around 1515. The Athonite example displays a portrait of Neagoe on the inside lid akin to how the Wallachian ruler appears on the Sinai panel. But on the reliquary, Neagoe is extending his petitions to St. Niphon, who appears frontal, larger, and at the center of the composition. On the Sinai panel, in contrast, Neagoe is shown with his family, kneeling in prayer.
The connections that extended between Wallachia and Sinai during Neagoe Basarab’s reign remain to be fully explored. The Sinai panel is certainly a key piece of the puzzle, but more details remain to be fitted together in order to determine the rich facets of his patronage and the cultural connections that he facilitated across Europe and the Mediterranean during his brief but important reign.
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