Interior of the naos, church of the Holy Cross, Pătrăuți Monastery, Moldavia, modern Romania, 1487 (Image credit: Petru Palamar)

My new book—The Eclectic Visual Culture of Medieval Moldavia—is the first publication of its kind in English that examines the history, art, and culture of the former principality of Moldavia in the period between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries. Moldavia, at that time, extended within present-day northeastern Romania and the Republic of Moldova, and it developed a bold and eclectic visual culture that reflected its networked position within Eastern Europe.

The book centers attention on a little-known but significant group of post-Byzantine Eastern Christian churches in the region of Moldavia in terms of the cross-cultural interactions that contributed to their eclectic forms. The buildings were designed and erected in the decades after the fall of Constantinople in 1453 in a region that was never part of the Byzantine Empire but under its spiritual and cultural power. These buildings and their images and furnishings exhibit an unprecedented mixture of Western Gothic, Byzantine, Slavic, and, by the early seventeenth century, even Islamic-inspired architectural and iconographic features integrated alongside local forms. 

Map of the Romanian principalities, including Moldavia, and eastern Hungary between 1457 and 1504 (Image credit: Andrei Nacu)

In analyzing the extent to which the Moldavian churches aided in the construction of a new sacred landscape in this eastern Carpathian region, the book also engages with visual responses to, and commentaries on, a series of crises located in the past, present, and anticipated in the future: the events of 1453, the declared end of the world in 1492 as predicted by some Eastern Christians, and the failed Ottoman siege of Vienna in 1529. The expansive mural cycles in particular offer insight into the religious and political motivations for church decoration in sixteenth-century Moldavia, showing how the adoption and manipulation of traditional imagery could speak in ever-fresh ways to contemporary concerns. 

With The Eclectic Visual Culture of Medieval Moldavia and my ongoing research on the visual culture of Moldavia, I help expand understanding of artistic patronage in the so-called post-Byzantine period in Eastern Europe (after 1453), as well as illuminate the varied dimensions of Eastern Christian monastic spaces and the artistic and spatial manifestations of dynastic, spiritual, and military concerns on the part of the patrons in the ecclesiastical sphere especially during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Although deeply rooted in the material and textual evidence, my research also introduces new lines of inquiry into the complexities of cultural exchange and the processes of visual translation across Europe and the Mediterranean. This work, too, involves a reexamination of how we define “medieval art,” since “medieval” artistic forms were produced in regions of Eastern Europe, including Moldavia, well into the eighteenth century.

The arguments put forth in my new book unfold in seven thematic chapters that cover the period from ca. 1450 to ca. 1650, which corresponds with the reigns of Moldavia’s rulers Stephen III (r. 1457-1504), Peter Rareș (r. 1527-1538; 1541-1546), and some of their heirs. The chapters deal with the changing secular and religious landscapes of Moldavia after the fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453; shifting ideologies and ambitions on the part of Moldavia’s rulers; changing patterns of patronage among members of princely and noble ranks; the structuring of sacred spaces in the Moldavian churches; how the mural cycles were calibrated in dialogue with the architecture and the ritual activities that took place at the sites; concerns with burials and memory as evident in the monastic context; as well as further developments in Moldavian church architecture, ruling ideology, and patronage during the second half of the sixteenth century and the beginning decades of the seventeenth century. 

Burial cover of Maria of Mangup, ca. 1477, embroidery with gold and silver thread and colored silk on a red satin foundation (Image credit: Putna Monastery)

In mediating between many different artistic traditions, the Moldavian artistic production reveals how cross-cultural contacts contributed to diversity, shaped notions of identity, and yielded eclectic visual forms in regions that developed at the crossroads of competing traditions between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries. Together with the rest of the artistic production of Eastern Europe, the study of Moldavian art and architecture expands the geographic and temporal parameters of medieval and Byzantine art, and contributes to the recent push toward more geographically and methodologically global approaches to the study of the Middle Ages.

As readers will learn, Moldavian objects and monuments—ranging from fortified monasteries and churches enveloped in fresco cycles to silk embroideries, delicately carved woodwork and metalwork, as well as manuscripts gifted to Mount Athos and other Christian centers—negotiate the complex issues of patronage and community in the region. The works attest to processes of cultural contact and translation, revealing how Western medieval, Byzantine, and Slavic traditions were mediated in Moldavian contexts in the post-Byzantine period.

What first drew me to this subject is a combination of my art historical training and my heritage. My graduate studies in the Western medieval and Byzantine artistic traditions prompted me to question early on what the artistic production of Eastern Europe might have to offer. This material has long been excluded, if not altogether ignored, from the broader conversations. For much of the twentieth century, the presence of the Iron Curtain has created actual and ideological barriers to much of Eastern Europe, limiting access to sites, sources, and the local intellectual communities. My interest in the material is also closely intertwined with my roots, as I was born and raised for part of my childhood in Romania. As such, my academic and personal backgrounds have converged in my research in a way that, I believe, allows me to gain particular insights from the works I study. This is reflected in my overall research and the present book.  

Tetraevangelion or Gospel Book, Humor Monastery, 1473 (Image credit: Putna Monastery)

I wrote The Eclectic Visual Culture of Medieval Moldavia for my current and future colleagues, for medievalists, Byzantinists, and early modern researchers at various career stages. Additionally, I wrote it for those interested in the history, art, and culture of Eastern Europe, in the cultural interactions between the Latin, Greek, and Slavic traditions in regions of the Balkans and the Carpathians, as well as in Eastern Christian art, architecture, and visual culture in the post-Byzantine period. Although I intend this book to function as an introduction to the material, I also hope that it will be of interest to specialists, particularly those concerned with notions of cultural contact, artistic exchange, and issues of visual eclecticism in art and architecture. 

The visual culture of medieval Moldavia and of Eastern Europe in general desperately need and richly deserve further study. If this book serves as the launching pad for future investigations of the diverse history, art, and culture of these regions of the world that have long been marginalized or excluded from the broader conversations, then part of its purpose is accomplished.

The Eclectic Visual Culture of Medieval Moldavia is now published in Brill’s series Visualising the Middle Ages. Use code 72325 at checkout for 25% off through December 31, 2023!

Alice Isabella Sullivan, Assistant Professor of Medieval Art and Architecture at Tufts University, is an award-winning author and co-founder of North of Byzantium.