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21st International Congress of Byzantine Studies

Communication (VI.8 Art and Orthodoxy)

Elena Ene D-Vasilescu

Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, UK

Inspiration and Innovation: Orthodox Art in the Romanian Lands in the Fourteenth
and Fifteenth Centuries

One in the series of overlapping Christian discourses which Averil Cameron speaks
about in her book Christianity and the Rhetoric of the Empire1 could be considered
the Romanian discourse in Church-painting as a manner of expressing faith,
especially taking into account that Orthodox Christians consider that icons in their
worship places are ‘written’.

The literature in the field has paid attention to sixteenth-century Romanian

achievements in mural and icon-painting, but not to earlier works. This paper attempts
to answer the question “What is Byzantine and what is local in icon- and wall-
painting in the Romanian lands between fourteenth and fifteenth centuries?” by
providing a few examples of frescoes and icons from that time.

It is only possible for a country to have a coherent artistic life when that country has
attained a certain administrative centralisation, and a degree of economic prosperity,
as well as independence. In the fourteenth century this was the case with the territories
of present-day Romania, and under these circumstances an organised Church
dependent on the Byzantine Patriarchate developed. The preliminary phase of artistic
development on these territories (ninth - tenth century), which involved mural
paintings with geometric and vegetal motifs, was completed with the unification of
the first forms of state organisation called voievodates and knezates.

During the Middle Ages the Byzantine religious tradition in Eastern Europe became
more homogeneous, and the slight variations in the type of icons painted at that time,
visible in the early Middle Ages between the churches and monasteries of different
Eastern European areas, were far less significant than the underlying unity of formal
structure and spiritual message they conveyed. These variations became even less
perceptible after 13002, “when a new current of asceticism and spirituality, which
originated in the leading monasteries of the Byzantine Empire, further strengthened
the ties that bound together the various local branches of Eastern European

In the central area of the Byzantine Empire, the fourteenth century was the
Palaeologan period, in which Church-art was characterised by a tendency towards
expressivity.4 In wall and icon-painting this means that the holy figures were depicted
with “human” appearance, their faces showing individual traits and feelings.

A. Cameron, Christianity and the Rhetoric of the Empire. The Development of Christian Discourse
(Los Angeles, London, 1991).
D. Obolensky, The Byzantine Commonwealth. Eastern Europe, 500-1453, (London, 2000), 294-295.
Ibid., 295.
P. A. Michelis, An Aesthetic Approach to Byzantine Art (London, 1964).
But in the Romanian lands the figures from the beginning of the fourteenth century
visible today on the walls of churches are depicted as rigid, and somehow ‘atemporal’,
which is considered to be a feature of Byzantine painting in some historical epochs.
This is, for example, the case of the church in the village of Sântămărie Orlea,
Hunedoara County, Transylvania, erected by the Cânde Princes and adorned with
mural paintings in 1311. The finest scenes in that church are The Birth of the Virgin,
The Presentation to the Temple and, especially, The Discovery of the Holy Cross
(Fig. 1), in which the Byzantine influence is obvious in the style of the attire and

Fig. 1. The Discovery of the Holy Cross, Sântămărie Orlea, anonymous painter,
1311, Drăguţ, Romanian Art, vol. 1, 121.

Another church with paintings from the fourteenth century is Streisângeorgiu, also in
Hunedoara County, which not only contains the oldest inscription from the Romanian
Middle Ages, but also the oldest wall-painting in the Byzantine tradition which has
been preserved in its entirety in the country.5 The church was built in the twelfth
century, but was painted only two centuries later on the initiative of kneaz Bălea.

M. Păcurariu, Istoria Bisericii Orthodoxe Române, Editura Sophia, Bucharest, 2000; 83, and also the
illustrations on p. iii from the special section following 64 (Fig. 7 on that page).

Fig. 2. Streisângeorgiu Church. The votive painting from 1408-1409 when the church
was rebuilt. They represent Kneaz Cândea Laţcu, his wife Nistora, and other members
of the family. Păcurariu, Istoria Bisericii Ortodoxe Române, 2000; the illustration is
on the third page from the special section following p. 64, the caption p. 83.

The layer of painting from 1313-1314, by a Master Teofil (Fig. 2), was applied over
an older one. The best preserved example of frescoes is the Last Judgement on the
west wall. From the older layer of painting in the church, the preserved fragments
show a soldier (in the sanctuary), and the figures of Saint Basil the Great and Saint
Nicholas (on the walls). Drăguţ suggests that these paintings are a proof of an old
local tradition which “can be traced back, through Southern Italy, to the distant
Cappadocia, where the iconography of Basilian churches offered similar solutions.”6

Since the Byzantine hierarchy on which the Romanian lands were dependent
maintained a widespread network of relations, it may be presumed that the iconic
materials required by the churches in this area were either brought from Byzantium,
or were copies produced locally because the Byzantine strongholds built along the
Danube after the fall of the first Bulgarian tsardom (1018), at Durostor, Păcuiul lui
Soare, Drobeta and Dinogeţia made a substantial contribution to the spread of South-
Danubian art.

Obolensky emphasises that, when Romanian lands entered the ‘Byzantine

Commonwealth’7 in the fourteenth century, they were ‘caught’ in the ‘movement’ in
which icon-painting spread from the Byzantine Empire to the Balkan countries and to
Russia. The prestige enjoyed by the art and culture of Constantinople throughout the
Orthodox world, despite the political and economic decline of the Empire, made the
young principalities from North of the Danube receptive to its influence. Drăguţ,
commenting on this, says:

V. Drăgut, Romanian Art: Prehistory, Antiquity, Middle Ages, Renaissance, Baroque, (Bucharest,
1984), vol. 1, 116.

Obolensky, Byzantine Commonwealth, 257-260.

As was to be expected, Byzantine painting, which had reached the stylistic phase
peculiar to the Paleologus epoch, was adopted especially by the Greek-Romanian
Orthodox Church; it is to be found in the numerous foundations of the Transylvanian
princes or of the voivodes in Wallachia.8

Awareness of Constantinopolitan art forms came to Romania either through direct

contact, or via the Serbian kingdom, which had adopted the Palaeologan style as early
as 1321 (in Gračanica Monastery).9 Both Obolensky and Drăguţ draw attention to this
fact. Drăguţ says that “The [Romanian] iconography recalls several models coming
from the flourishing Serbian kingdom of the time.”10 Therefore one may say that in
the style of Romanian icon-painting there is “a twofold orientation: on the one hand,
the integration of the artistic forms common to the Balkan Orthodox countries in the
period so very well labelled by the historian Iorga ‘Byzance après Byzance’, and on
the other hand the tendency to stress, beyond the stylistic diversity with which it came
in contact, those elements original and specific to Rumania.”11

Obolensky stresses the presence of the Byzantine element in Romanian icon-painting

by giving a concrete example: “Curtea-de-Argeş, completed between 1364 and 1377,
was attached to the court of the Wallachian princes and was built as their place of
burial. Its frescoes are the most complete cycle of Byzantine Palaeologan painting on
Rumanian soil.”12 Drăguţ accepts this but, at the same time, he highlights the capacity
for assimilation and selection of Romanian icon-painting, which is: “In point of style
[…] an art of synthesis which turned to good account both the expressive elements
peculiar to Byzantine-Paleologan painting and to the Italian one.”13 This means that
Romanian Church-art has never limited itself to borrowing styles, techniques and
motifs, but has instead selected them in such a way to suit the sensibility of the
Romanian artists and worshippers. Moreover, it has displayed openness not only to
Byzantine art, but also to other sources of inspiration, such as local folk art. Voinescu
underlines the same idea stating that, despite a context in which “Byzantium was the
age-old substratum on which grew the art of Romania”, the iconography of this
country was “remarkable from the earliest period for its originality and its exceptional

Drăguţ, Romanian Art, vol. 1, 116.

S. Ćurčić, Gračanica: King Milutin’s church and its place in late Byzantine architecture,
(Pennsylvania, 1979); Obolensky, Byzantine Commonwealth, 252-254.

Drăguţ, Romanian Art, vol. 1, 116.

T. Voinescu, “The Post-Byzantine Icons of Wallachia and Moldavia”, in K. Weitzmann, ed., The
Icon, (London, 1982), 373; N. Iorga, Bizanţul după Bizanţ [Byzantium after Byzantium], (Bucharest,

Obolensky, Byzantine Commonwealth, 353. Current research is trying to establish whether this
monastery is of an even earlier date (cf. Voinescu, Post-Byzantine Icons, 374).

Drăguţ, Romanian Art, vol. 1, 116.

gift for interpreting, processing, and synthesizing.”14 The paintings within the church
mentioned above by Obolensky - St Nicholas, the foundation of the Basarab voievozi
(voievodas) at Curtea de Argeş- illustrate this. The church is decorated with frescoes,
“which, though observing Byzantine tradition, are very much alive and personalized,
and thus much closer to Giotto's art than to the rigid mannerism of the Greek
masters.”15 (Fig. 3)

Fig. 3. Communion of the Holy Apostles, St Nicholas Church, Curtea de Argeş, 1350,
Drăguţ, Romanian Art, vol. 1, illustration and caption 121.

Drăguţ affirms that, in addition to its artistic merit, St Nicholas’ Church in Curtea de
Argeş was considered, in the theological conception of the time, to be not only an act
of faith but, first and foremost, an act of secular authority destined to strengthen the
idea of independence16 because “the setting up of the Metropolitanate of Wallachia in
1359 was also part of the effort made by the first Basarabs to ensure the full authority
of their young state”.17

This effort towards freedom in the artistic field - in parallel with the political struggle
for independence – was to be expected. Drăguţ shows that
…the Romanian feudal high nobility did not hesitate to call upon foreign artists in
order to see its ambitions for pomp and ceremonial satisfied as rapidly as possible. We
are still in a period of assimilations, but these assimilations prove both daring and
fruitful. Adopting a Constantinople Byzantine architectonic style - the Greek inscribed
cross of a complex type - the Princely Church at Curtea de Argeş raised this to
monumental proportions never met with in Byzantium, while ensuring noble spatial
harmony and perfect balance of the architectural masses. Rivalling the artistic value of

Voinescu, Post-Byzantine Icons, 373.

Drăguţ, Romanian Art, vol. 1, 116.

Idem, Romanian Painting in Pictures. 1111 reproductions, 12.

the great building they decorate, the interior mural paintings constitute the largest and
finest iconographic ensemble of the early period of Romanian medieval painting.18
Drăguţ provides several other examples of a Byzantine element, even from earlier
times than those at Curtea de Argeş. One is the ensemble of mural painting preserved
in the Hermitage Negru Vodă in Argeş County, Wallachia, built in 121519, and
another one concerns the frescoes in the cave-church at Corbii de Piatră, Argeş
County, attributed to the initiative of same Basarab the First, the founder of the
princely church in Curtea de Argeş.

Fig. 4. Deisis, The Hermitage Corbii de Piatră, ca. 1300, attributed to Ştefan Zugravul
(Stephen the Painter), http://www.corbiidepiatra.ro/corbi/index.jsp

In his opinion, the paintings here “evince an early assimilation of artistic solutions
typical of the Paleologan style, although there are also numerous traces of a simplified
form of representation peculiar to provincial workshops”20. On the east wall of the
naos, over the two niches of the sanctuary, there is the image of the Deisis (Fig. 4),
while the Annunciation, as in the church of Sântămărie Orlea, is on both sides of the
sanctuary. On the south wall, and partially on the vault, images from the
Christological cycle are preserved, of which the Nativity, The Presentation to the
Temple, and the Resurrection of Lazarus are the more outstanding.

The monumental image of the Archangel Michael surrounded by an ornamental frame

made of semi-palmettes recalls the numerous similar images in the cave churches in
the south of Italy, or for example, from St. Apollinare in Classe. As at
Streisângeorgiu, this mural ensemble is strongly marked by tradition, “a fact which is
due to some older monastic rules, replaced in the new princely foundations by a freer
interpretation, aulic in character.”21 According to Drăguţ, only the paintings in the
Church of Sântămărie Orlea are visibly influenced by Byzantine art (and they were
executed by a painter from south of the Danube), while the other paintings from the
beginning of the fifteenth century in Transylvania are original works by Romanian
iconographers. This means that in the respective period there existed an authentic


P. Baron, G. Mărculescu-Popescu, F. Andreescu, România. Schituri, Mânăstiri Biserici (Bucharest,
1999), 27.
Drăguţ, Romanian Art, Prehistory…, vol. 1, 117.

Ibid., pp. 117-118.

Romanian artistic phenomenon with specific characteristics, in parallel with the one
influenced by Byzantium; that was the so-called Transylvanian School of Painting,
which emerged in close connection with the political and military development of the
first state formations in that land.22

From Wallachia the fresco from 1391 in Cozia Monastery in the pronaos depicting the
Holy Trinity (Fig. 5) is also very well realised and proportioned, and the same is true
of the frescoes from the apse and nave painted in the same year (Fig. 6).

Fig. 5.The Holy Trinity, fresco in pronaos, Cozia Monastery, 1391,

G. Vaida, Mânăstirea Cozia. Ieri şi astăzi, (Râmnicul Vâlcea, 1983), 15.

Fig. 6. The Church and the frescoes in the apse, Cozia Monastery, 1391, M.
Diaconescu, Biserici şi Mânăstiri Ortodoxe, (Bucharest, 1998), 78.

Obolensky affirms that Moldova “developed a fully articulate artistic tradition only in
the second half of the fifteen century, during the reign of Ştefan cel Mare [Stephan the
Great].”23 However, he acknowledges and gives examples of earlier Moldavian

Ibid., p. 118.
Obolensky, Byzantine Commonwealth, p. 353.

churches from the time of Alexandru cel Bun [Alexandru the Kind] which are
frequently recorded in historical documents as having ornamental objects, Byzantine
manuscripts and icons commissioned by the rulers of the Byzantine Empire. From the
beginning of the epoch which Obolensky considers an example that is not very
famous, but still well-preserved, is the fresco in Stephen the Great’s side chapel
[paraclis] in Bistriţa Monastery, Suceava County from 1498 (Fig. 7).

Fig. 7. The frescoes in Stephen the Great’s side chapel, 1498, eastern wall, Bistriţa
Monastery, I. Bălan, Mânăstirea Bistriţa, (Suceava, 1977), [1].

Contemporary with these works yet revealing a completely different artistic outlook is
a small panel supposedly from the casket which preserves the relics of St John the
New, brought to Suceava in the fifteenth century (Fig. 8).24

Fig. 8. St John Brought Before the Diocesan, The Church of St John the New Church,
Suceava, small panel, perhaps from the coffin that enshrines the relics of St John the
New, fifteenth (or sixteenth century?), tempera on wood, 26x28 cm. Voinescu, “The
Post-Byzantine Icons of Wallachia and Moldavia”, in Weitzman, The Icon, 384.

This is
Voinescu, Post-Byzantine Icons, p. 384; Al. Lascarov-Moldoveanu, Viaţa Sfântului Ioan cel Nou de
la Suceava, (Bucharest, 2002).

…rendered in exquisite pictorial images. The main group is depicted in tones
of deep red and creamy white against a mild dark brown background. It is a
unique example of narrative painting, which corresponds to the skilfully
chiselled plaques of silver gilt framing the reliquary that still contains the remains of
the legendary martyr.25

The Moldavian masters employed a wide variety of warm colours, shades of brown
and dark red with a predominance of gold; by contrast, the style of icon-painting in
Wallachia is more discreet and perhaps more refined.

The end of the fifteenth century constitutes the outset of the external mural painting
on the Romanian territories. The external walls of churches had occasionally been
decorated with pictures in several Balkan countries before that time, but the practice
of covering the entire surface with elaborate cycles of paintings seems to have been an
innovation of Moldavian artists.

The earliest example in Moldova of the technique of decorating the entire external
walls of the church with cycles of painting is Arbore monastery’s church, in the very
beginning of the next century (1503). But before that, a last example of a fifteenth
century Church–painting consists of the votive fresco from Voroneţ Church (Fig. 9),
which indicates that the influence of Byzantine models in the iconographic domain
was manifested also in Moldova. Obolensky describes this fresco in which “the
monastery’s founder, Stephen the Great of Moldavia, followed by his family, offers a
model of his church to Christ”. He emphasises that “the vigorous and realistically
painted faces contrast with the more abstract features of St George. The princely
clothes, and the treatment of the subject, are purely Byzantine.”26 Also Drăguţ and
Lupan show that “wearing with dignity his princiar crown, Stephen the Great, whose
face allowed the artist to realise an expressive portrait, is depicted holding in his
hands the model of the church. He offers it as a sacrificial gift to Jesus having the
Emperor Constantine, his precursor in the battle of affirming the cross, as an
intercessor…”27. The majestic manner of painting, as well as the presence of the
Byzantine Emperor, represent additional factors indicating that the influence of the
Empire was strong in the painting of the Romanian lands.

Voinescu, Post-Byzantine Icons, pp. 374-375.

Ibid., caption of fig. 6.
Drăguţ and Lupan, Pictura Murală din Moldova, sec. 14th – 16th, (Bucharest, 1984).

Fig. 9, The votive painting, Eastern wall, Stephen the Great, his son Bogdan, his wife
Maria Voichiţa, and two of his daughters, Maria and Ana, 1488. M. A. Musicescu
(ed.), Voroneţ, (Bucharest, 1971), Plate 5, [31].

This example, also with most of the above, mirrors in iconography the idea that “the
Romanian princes of the modern times [are] inheritants of the Empire of
Constantinople”28, which Romanian historiography very often stresses, and to which
Patlagean and Năstase29 draw attention. Developing some of Iorga’s ideas, Năstase
emphasises the capacity of these princes to be “the successors of the Byzantine
emperors”. They achieved it through the Hospodar system of patronage, which aimed
at helping monasteries and churches belonging to the Patriarchate of Constantinople
and Antioch (even when these establishments were in the Ottoman Empire), and
monasteries on Mount Athos, and later on Mount Sinai (from the 16th century on).
The Romanian princes adapted some of their own institutions to the “décorum of the
vanished Byzantine Empire” achieving an extension in time and, therefore “a survival
of Byzantium”30 and a “Byzantine cultural concentration”31 of which Church-painting
was a part.

Iorga, Patlagean and Năstase help us in formulating an answer to the Congress’ main
question. The answer to that question is that there are, actually, two notions of
Byzantium – one historical, and one a construct of the modern mind – but that they
have some elements in common.

The conclusion of my paper is that the rise of the Romanian medieval states and the
canonical organization of the Orthodox Church in each of them, led to the
development of a specific Romanian style of icon and mural-painting with distinctive
characteristics that ‘grew’ on an initial Byzantine base. This specific style was a
combination of the canonical Byzantine guidance and many innovations, including the
acceptance of elements from folk art and, gradually, from Western art.

E. Patlagean, Figures du Pouvoir á Byzance (ix e-xii e siècle), Collectanea 13 (Spoleto, 2001), 12.

D. Năstase, “L’idée impériale dans les pays roumains et ‘le crypto-empire chrétien’ sous la
domination ottomane. Etat et importance du probleme”, in Symmeikta, IV (Athens, 1981), 201-225.
Ibid., 202.
Iorga, idem, 106.