Visit the blog
announces a new imprint

Search Articles

Search Authors

Advanced Search

Join our Mailing List
Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Arts & Letters

The Byzantine Art of Seduction: The Slavic World’s Eager Embrace of Byzantium

In 1395, the Byzantine patriarch Anthony gently admonished a wayward Russian prince, Vasilii I, for disrespecting Byzantine imperial authority. The patriarch reminded the prince of the sanctity of the imperial office: “The holy emperor has a great place in the church, for he is not like other rulers or governors of other regions….Indeed he enjoys such great authority over all that even the Latins themselves, who are not in communion with our church, render him the same honor and submission which they did in the old days when they were united with us. So much more do Orthodox Christians owe such recognition to him….” The patriarch then went on to say that “it is impossible for Christians to have a church and no empire….”1 But was the patriarch right? What happened to Byzantine imperial authority? Could “Christians…have a church and no empire,” and what was the dynamic of the relationship between the Slavic world and Byzantine culture?

Byzantine political and ecclesiastical culture, in many ways, was definitive in shaping Slavia Orthodoxa. Successive Bulgarian, Serbian, and Russian rulers emulated the costume and court ceremonial of the Byzantine emperors. Byzantine imperial regalia — including purple garments decorated with a jeweled scarf (loros), red boots, a crown decorated with hanging ornaments (prependoulia), and a scepter — are depicted (as is a halo) in the first image, of Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos, in the catalogue of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s recent exhibition, Byzantium: Faith and Power. These imperial symbols of political authority were emulated and appropriated by different rulers,2 some of whom boldly proclaimed that Byzantine political authority — that is, the idea of the empire — had been transferred to them.

The Byzantine shaping of the Slavic world was not limited to imperial bedazzlement, however; it was also an immensely successful project of Christianization. Southern and eastern Slavs adopted Orthodox Christianity because of the spectacularly effective missionary efforts of the two ninth-century Byzantine ecclesiastics who would be celebrated as Saints Cyril and Methodius. They created an alphabet and a literary language known as Church Slavonic. Liturgical texts were translated into the Slavic language and this process fostered a sophisticated written culture. You can see the elegant Slavonic script in the Kiev Psalter, which in the exhibition was open to the translation of Psalm 119.

The remarkable artworks on display in this exhibition were produced during a very dynamic and dramatic period in Byzantine history. While the empire was fragmented and gradually disintegrating, the allure and seduction of its culture remained powerful and palpable. It was also a period of complex cultural interaction and pervasive cultural synthesis, which unfolded against the backdrop of imminent Ottoman conquest. Cultural interaction was achieved in different ways: in contact, in conflict, in negotiations. Even after the Byzantines managed to recapture Constantinople from the Latins in 1261, the Latin presence continued to be an important aspect of the cultural landscape in the Balkans, Greece, and even Constantinople. Therefore, in our vision of the period, we cannot disregard Latin influences. During the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth centuries, Greece and the Balkans were fragmented into numerous principalities that constantly fought, contested boundaries, and made alliances. Important political ties were frequently cemented through marriage: Catholic princesses married Orthodox rulers, Orthodox noblewomen were married off to Ottomans, and every minor and major ruler in the Balkans seems to have coveted a Byzantine bride.

Noblewomen came to their husbands with retinues of advisors, artists, and, often, spies. One of these brides was Helen of Anjou, a Roman Catholic who became Queen Helen of Serbia. In view of her cultural heritage, it is not surprising, therefore, that an icon she commissioned would serve as a diagram of cultural influences and performance in a very complex and dynamic region. The icon is divided into two registers: a larger, sacred one, and a smaller one inhabited primarily by temporal figures. In the upper register, the apostles Peter and Paul are blessed by Christ, who is centrally positioned. The apostles are represented in Byzantine style, and their names are written above their heads in Slavonic. In the lower register, below each apostle, stand two kings dressed in Byzantine imperial fashion. Each is raising his hands to the saint above him. Although their features are differentiated, neither king is identified by inscription. In the center of this register, under a prominent red arch, a veiled woman bows low to a blessing saint (perhaps Saint Nicholas), who is dressed as a Catholic bishop. The blessing figure of Christ and the blessing received by the woman visually form the composition’s central axis. The blessed woman is in fact the dowager queen, Helen of Serbia; the two imperial figures are her sons, Dragutin and Milutin, future kings of Serbia.

This icon reflects and idealizes a very complex political and cultural reality in the Serbian lands at the end of the thirteenth century. Helen was a powerful presence in the lives of her sons and people, which is reflected by her central position in the icon. Although Roman Catholic, she shrewdly patronized both Catholic and Orthodox institutions in primarily Orthodox Serbia. This icon is, in many ways, a balancing act between the two cultural spheres, and this balance is reflected in both iconography and style. The icon’s artist was equally comfortable representing saints in “Greek” fashion as well as “Latin” (robes, miter, and scepter); and Peter and Paul were represented together (rather than giving precedence to Peter and, thus, to the Catholic church). Therefore, the icon displays a careful balance between Orthodox and Catholic worlds and identities.

Helen’s two sons appear as pious and equal rulers, and are dramatically clothed in the visual language of Byzantine imperial power, below the apostles, who are also represented in Byzantine style. The visual equality of the two kings disguises the political realities of a protracted power struggle and family feud. Dragutin, the eldest, rebelled against and defeated his father (who abdicated and became a monk). In 1282, Dragutin fell from a horse, broke his leg, and consequently abdicated in favor of Milutin. Dragutin, however, continued to control large territories and even provoked open hostilities with his brother. This icon, which serves as a political manifesto of the family, visualizes a familial harmony that did not quite exist in reality, and emphasizes a special rapport with the divine. Just as Peter and Paul are depicted as pillars of the church, the brothers, positioned immediately beneath the two apostles, are depicted as the pillars of the Serbian state.

The queen’s Catholic identity was not subsumed by the Orthodox identity of her sons. Clearly a powerful woman, she was the driving force behind the display of dynastic, cultural, and ecclesiastical harmony in this icon, which ended up in the Vatican and might have been a gift to the pope. A few years after her death, in 1317, Helen joined the ranks of Orthodox saints, with her cult centered at her mausoleum-church.3

Queen Helen’s son, Milutin, continued the well-established precedent among Serbian kings of building his own mausoleum-church during his lifetime. A sculpture that decorated the exterior of this church was displayed in the exhibition. The frontal Virgin, with a frontal Christ-child seated on her lap, was part of the church’s extensive sculptural decoration. Such decoration, which would have been positioned in a lunette above an entrance to the church, is highly unusual for a Byzantine Orthodox church and betrays the strong influence of Romanesque artists. In fact, Latin master-builders were regularly employed in Serbian construction. Christ’s hand gestures here are identical to those on a Byzantine icon of the Virgin Blachernitissa, who is shown blessing with her right hand and holding a scroll in her left. In this instance, sculpture and icon are functionally quite similar, suggesting that a sculpture executed in Romanesque style was influenced by Byzantine models. As in the icon above, this sculpture of the Virgin and Child attests to the position of Serbia as a cultural crossroads.

In his personal and political life, King Milutin flirted with different cultural models. He finally, and decisively, settled on the Byzantine imperial model in order to give luster to his court life and administration. Only a generation earlier, a Byzantine envoy had fairly tartly characterized the great aspirations of the Serbian rulers: “The Great King, as he is called, lives a simple life in a way that would be a disgrace for a middling official in Constantinople; the king’s…daughter-in-law [Dragutin’s wife] works at her spinning wheel in a cheap dress; the household eats like a pack of hunters of sheep stealers.”4 Most likely unaware of this criticism, Milutin was determined to be civilized in the Byzantine manner and in a style befitting his new status as a Balkan ruler. It so happened that Milutin conquered parts of Byzantine Macedonia, greatly enlarging his domain, and became a greatest force in the Balkans. After three marriages of questionable legality, Milutin sought a Byzantine bride. Byzantine emperor Andronicus II was forced to conclude a marriage alliance with Milutin, but the only eligible bride proved to be his five-year-old daughter, Simonis, whose dowry, however, consisted of the very lands Milutin had just conquered from the empire.5

Milutin did more than appropriate Byzantine lands, titles, and features of the administrative system; he also translated his aspirations into images. He had himself portrayed as an equal to the Byzantine emperors. He appropriated the double-headed eagle (the Palaiologan court’s symbol) for the frescoes decorating his churches. Several frescoes painted in the fifteen foundations attributed to Milutin represent the divine ordination of his rule. A genealogy of the Serbian ruling house appears in Milutin’s churches as a not-too-subtle parallel to the Tree of Jesse, thus drawing a correspondence between the Serbian ruling house’s genealogy and that of Christ. Thus, in self-presentation, the Serbian royalty elevated itself above Byzantium’s emperors. An active dynastic cult focused on the devotion to royal saints, such as Queen Helena and, eventually, Milutin himself.6

But not all was well in the Serbian kingdom. In 1314, Milutin’s eldest son, the future Stefan Urosh III Dechanski, rose against his father in an attempted coup. Dechanski was defeated, apparently blinded (on Milutin’s orders, thus making him unfit to succeed), and exiled to Constantinople with his family. He was allowed to return to Serbia shortly before Milutin’s death in 1321. In the war of succession that broke out, Dechanski gained the upper hand, in part because of his announcement of the miraculous restoration of his sight, which brought him a large following.7

Dechanski did not, however, enjoy power for too long. History repeated itself, and his son, Dusan, rebelled against him in 1331. Unlike Dechanski nearly 20 years earlier, this time the son — a charismatic and successful military leader — was victorious. Dechanski was taken prisoner and quickly died under mysterious circumstances (it was broadly rumored that he was strangled). Poor Dechanski’s fate would have made a fine Greek tragedy: “Blinded by his father and strangled by his son — the almost mythical dimension of this tragic destiny has had a strong impact on the popular mind.”8

Dechanski’s tragic destiny made such a strong impression that he was eventually venerated as a martyr-king. (The model of the martyred royal was fairly common in the Slavic world, although uncommon in Byzantium.) An impressive physical testament to Dechanski’s sainthood was exhibited at the Metropolitan. The beautifully carved, brightly painted reliquary is unique in Serbian art, being the only surviving reliquary of a medieval Serbian ruler. This exquisitely carved box held Dechanski’s body after his canonization in 1343. Thus, besides being the final resting-place of his bones, it also became the focal point for the cult of this tragic king, who, even after his death, was expected to serve his dynasty and people.9

In order to fully appreciate this unique object, we need to consider its function within Dechanski’s mausoleum-church, and then connect it to the politics of sainthood of medieval Serbian kings. Not only is the Dechanski reliquary unique, but so is the church in which it was placed. Put simply, and according to one scholar, “it is the most spacious church in Serbian architecture and it contains the largest assemblage of painted decorations in the world of Byzantine art.”10 The Decani church, which was conceived and begun by Dechanski as his burial-place, was completed after his death by his son and adversary, Dusan. Exhibiting Byzantine and Latin architectural and decorative features, the rib-vaulted edifice was constructed by a master-builder named Vita, who belonged to the Franciscan order. The builder’s inscription is positioned above the south portal, a prominent point unprecedented in medieval Serbia and the wider Byzantine sphere. Lunettes above church entrances were decorated with carved sculptural reliefs, as in earlier Serbian mausoleum-churches. Western features on the exterior combine with Byzantine frescoes in the interior to express the region’s complex cultural vocabulary. While the construction of the monumental church was completed in 1334/35, it took ten years to cover it with frescoes, so that the entire church was not completed until 1347/48.11

When Stefan chose the site for his burial church and laid its cornerstone, he was following the time-honored example of his predecessors, who erected “wonderful temples in their great and eternal memory.”12 Complex cultural, political, and philosophical ideals are embedded in these mausoleum-churches. On the one hand, they served to preserve the historical memory and legacy of an individual ruler and were a physical testament to, and reminder of, his munificence, piety, and power. On the other hand, they had a powerful spiritual dimension: they were built for the salvation of a dead king’s soul. His memory was made eternal in the prayers of the faithful, who would keep the royal legacy alive. Cultural, political, and religious memories converged at the holy site of the tomb, where the ruler provided the stage for the audience to make his memory and legacy present, and to participate in his salvation through its active prayers. In this way, the ruler’s presence quite literally echoed in his church.

How was Dechanski’s presence invoked in his church? Inside, in the southwestern part, a freestanding, red-marble sarcophagus originally housed his mortal remains. This freestanding position is most unusual for Serbian and Byzantine burials. Next to his sarcophagus, a smaller sarcophagus held his wife’s remains. The fresco’s iconographic program highlights the themes of the Last Judgment. The dynasty’s family tree is positioned against the Tree of Jesse, thus displaying ideological continuity with Milutin’s patronage and emphasizing the Serbian dynasty’s sanctity. A number of Dechanski’s images grace the church’s walls, portraying the patron in imperial garments. Since the painting program was produced during Dusan’s reign, Dechanski twice appears in the company of his son, and both men are designated as founders of the holy place (although only Dechanski bears the designation of “holy”).

Dechanski’s cult began soon after his death. In order to qualify for official canonization, certain conditions had to be met, such as revelation of sainthood through omens (such as dreams), incorruptibility of the body, a pleasant odor emanating from the tomb, and performance of miracles, especially of healing. The translation of the body took place in 1343, in the presence of King Dusan and the court. In this solemn ceremony, Dechanski’s remains were removed from his marble sarcophagus and deposited into the wooden reliquary that is on display in the exhibition. The reliquary was placed in an honorary place in front of the entrance to the sanctuary below an icon of Christ. The saint-king’s icon was painted on a pier near the reliquary, thus creating a powerful devotional focus because of its physical proximity to and visual dialogue with his relics. According to the inscription accompanying Dechanski’s representation, the saint-king would intercede on his descendants’ behalf at the time of the Last Judgment (and, if his son’s actions were any indication, the descendants would require a lot of help).13

In this complex and elaborate ritual, royal death became a dynastic reaffirmation. Typically the most unstable period in a dynasty, royal death was thus transformed into a celebration of dynastic unity. The tragic king was reimagined as a saint who would watch over his descendants and aid them from the afterlife. Dechanski’s final and most lasting acclaim was achieved after his death, when the literary account of his life spread across the Slavic world, into Bulgaria and Russia, and he became an international saint.14

The unusual combination of patricide followed by the celebration of his father’s sainthood was not Dusan’s only achievements. He also had imperial ambitions. After conquering considerable portions of Byzantium’s territories, he had himself proclaimed emperor of the Serbs, the Greeks, and the Coastal Lands in 1346. Dusan was not the only Balkan ruler driven by imperial ambitions, however. Ivan Alexander (1331-1371), Dusan’s brother-in-law and ruler of Bulgaria, had the same intentions and made the same declarations.

A most impressive testament to Ivan Alexander’s ambitions, patronage, piety, and dynastic politics was likewise on display in the exhibition: the magnificent Gospels of Tsar (or “Emperor”) Ivan Alexander, which he commissioned for his library in 1355 and were completed in just one year. The richly illuminated manuscript (367 miniatures) is a masterpiece of medieval Bulgarian art.15

The miniature on display represented a summary of royal power, continuity, and magnificence. A static, regal representation of power is captured by the sumptuous jewels, crowns, scepters, haloes, and — as red was the imperial color — red garments, red cushions upon which the figures stand, and red boots. Ivan Alexander is the tallest figure and is depicted with a gray beard. Dressed like a Byzantine emperor in full imperial regalia, he stands on a red cushion embroidered with the Palaiologan regal symbol, the double-headed eagle. The inscription above his head proclaims: “Ivan Alexander in Christ God faithful Tsar and Autocrat of all Bulgarians and Greeks.” He is flanked by two small boys (his sons). The one on his right, a miniature copy of Ivan Alexander in costume and attributes, is his heir and successor, designated as “Ivan Shishman, tsar, son of the great tsar Ivan Alexander.” Next to Ivan Shishman stands Theodora, his mother, who is given the following inscription: “Theodora in Christ God newly enlightened Tsaritsa and Autocrat over all Bulgarians and Greeks.” (The phrase “newly enlightened” alludes to her conversion from Judaism.) From the heavens, the hand of God is represented twice, blessing Ivan Alexander and Theodora. Ivan Alexander’s three daughters and the husband of the eldest daughter are represented on the next page, with each figure named and identified in terms of its relationship to the ruler. The family stands in hierarchical order, with the most important figures positioned closest to the ruler.

Behind this depiction of royal majesty and harmony, however, lurks great controversy: the image is, in fact, a realignment of royal power and succession. While the portrayed succession was quite unambiguous, life did not imitate art. Ivan Alexander’s eldest son from his first marriage is nowhere to be found. After Ivan Alexander had sons with his second wife, he disinherited his eldest son and designated the eldest son from his marriage to Theodora as his heir. This move was unprecedented, and Theodora was blamed for turning her husband against his first son in order to ensure succession for her own child. The controversy continued after Ivan Alexander’s death: his realm was contested between the two sons, who were unable to unite Bulgaria against the Ottoman threat. They have subsequently been blamed for the loss of Bulgarian independence.16

There is much more to this book beyond a diagram of royal power, however. The text is written in an especially fine script, with exceptional images of the life of Christ. The illuminations were produced by different artists who were intimately familiar with Byzantine illuminations. Remarkably, Ivan Alexander was inserted into the sacred narrative of Christianity in five miniatures not on display in the exhibition: he is depicted with each of the evangelists and is portrayed as present at the Last Judgment, positioned between the Virgin Mary and Abraham.

Ivan Alexander’s iconographically anachronistic participation in Gospel narrative, although unusual, was not unique. Another fine example on display at the exhibition was a late-fourteenth-century icon of the Doubting of Thomas that includes, among a group of classically dressed apostles, a woman richly clad in contemporary fashion, wearing a red dress with gold accents, crown, and red shoes. She approaches Christ and stands behind the apostle Thomas. She has been identified as Maria Palaiologina, and it has been suggested that her husband, Thomas Preljubovic (whose namesake was the apostle) also appeared in the icon next to her. New political realities, however, eventually dictated erasing his memory — and historical presence — as Maria purportedly aided her lover in his assassination! Thus, Preljubovic’s image was also masterfully deleted from the splendid Cuenca Diptych, which appears next to this icon in the same display case. On the left, a female figure kneels at the feet of the Virgin in a gesture of supplication, while, on the right, what used to be a male figure at the feet of Christ has been skillfully blurred into Christ’s footstool — politics requiring a “revision” in the visual interaction between heavenly and earthly spheres.

The diptych, simultaneously an icon and a reliquary, is a striking masterpiece of painting and metalwork, with images and relics of various saints framing two icons: that of the Virgin and Child on the left, and that of Christ on the right. A physical relic of each saint appears on the respective image. This arrangement parallels — albeit on a miniature scale — the relationship between Dechanski’s icon and his reliquary casket.

Although Ivan Alexander would never become a saint, he very much publicized his contribution to Orthodoxy and considered his Gospels an achievement of monumental stature, comparable in scope to the contribution of Saints Constantine and Helen. An inscription made by the scribe at the end of the book reads: “Just as the great in Holiness Tsar Constantine and his mother Helena unearthed the life-giving cross of our Lord, so [in greatness] is the creation of this manuscript of the four gospels.”17 While comparing himself to the Christian luminaries of the past, Ivan Alexander was also actively shaping the Orthodox present. According to another inscription in the manuscript, Ivan Alexander embraced and actively promoted a new and very powerful trend in Orthodox spirituality: hesychasm.

“Hesychia” means silent contemplation. Hesychasts believed that through solitude, disciplined meditation, and constant recitation of a short prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me”), one could achieve the spiritual vacuum necessary for receiving the light of divine vision. This light was believed to be the uncreated light of God, which had shone around Christ at the Transfiguration and had blinded the apostles on Mt. Tabor. Hesychasts claimed they could see that very light, which, in fact, transfigured them. While post-Enlightenment sentiment was well-summarized by the scathing criticism of Edward Gibbon, who dismissed hesychasm as “the production of a distempered fancy, the creature of an empty stomach and an empty brain,” the doctrine not only bridged the gap between humanity and God for fourteenth-century observers, but actually allowed the incomprehensible God to be seen.

The Transfiguration became the poster-image of hesychasm. A number of Transfiguration images were seen in the exhibition, in various media ranging from embroideries on liturgical vestments to icons and manuscripts. One voluminous manuscript in particular merited attention: Emperor John VI Kantakouzenos’s theological works. It was opened to a page with two illuminations: an exquisite Transfiguration and a seated figure of the church father, Saint Gregory of Nazianzus. John VI, who embraced and aggressively promoted hesychasm, was instrumental in making it part of wider Orthodox doctrine at the church council of 1351. This manuscript contains two other images that were not displayed: one of the emperor presiding over the council and another of him in his two incarnations: emperor and, after he was driven from power, monk. John VI himself most probably commissioned the volume since it contains his images, theological writings, and treatises attacking Islam and Judaism.18

Although the Byzantine empire and the Bulgarian kingdom were frequently at war, the leaders of each embraced hesychasm at virtually the same time. While politics separated them, religion united them. They treasured the same Byzantine texts, followed the Byzantine liturgy, and venerated Byzantine icons. Copies of Constantinopolitan icons were revered as powerful and miraculous in Byzantium and elsewhere in the Orthodox world. The Mandylion (an imprinted likeness of Christ on a cloth) was a holy image not only known and venerated across the Orthodox world but in the West as well. In the exhibition, an icon of the Mandylion that was painted somewhere in the Slavic Orthodox world is inscribed, in Slavonic: “The Face of the Lord on the handkerchief.” It could have been produced in Serbia, Bulgaria, or Russia. The Slavic world embraced icons of the Virgin with the same passion. On an icon from the monastery of Bachkovo (Ivan Alexander’s burial site in Bulgaria), two imperially dressed archangels (Michael and Gabriel) hold a medallion with the Virgin Blachernitissa. The very same miraculous image of the Virgin appears on a fifteenth-century Russian icon in the exhibition. The Virgin Blachernitissa became known in Russia simply as the Virgin of the Sign, in reference to the miracle of the Incarnation and the prophecy of Isaiah concerning the virgin birth.

A copy of this miracle-working Constantinopolitan icon of the Virgin Blachernitissa was the most revered icon of Novgorod, and it was believed to have miraculously defended the city from the army of Suzdal’, a rival Russian town, in 1169. The icon delivered Novgorod just as it had delivered Constantinople more than 500 years earlier. A remarkable fifteenth-century icon narrates this miracle. The dynamic composition is divided into three registers, proceeding from the upper-right corner and concluding with the battle in the bottom register. The events in the top two registers are accompanied by discreet captions, while the divinely aided battle in the bottom register is self-evident. In the upper register, the icon of the Virgin of the Sign is removed from its church, carried in a public procession through the city, and revered by Novgorod’s defenders. In the second register, the icon takes its place as the leader of Novgorod’s army and is shown facing the assailants above the city’s fortified gates. The besieging army begins its assault on the city, with arrows flying “like abundant rain.” An arrow is shown at the moment it hits the icon. According to the legend, the icon turned toward Novgorod’s defenders after being hit, and tears appeared to flow from the Virgin’s eyes. Simultaneously, darkness descended upon the besieging army. In the bottom register, Novgorodians, heartened by the miracle, are led by the archangel Michael and four military saints (George, Boris, Gleb, and perhaps Alexander Nevskii) to rout the enemy.19

But why did a miraculous event of the twelfth century become an iconic image in the fifteenth? The icon of the “Battle” was part of Novgorod’s political discourse during the second half of the fifteenth century. The icon was created as a reminder of Novgorod’s glorious history, and it stood as a metaphor for the city’s precarious political reality under new conditions. The icon was a testament to the difficult relations between Novgorod and Moscow (successor of Suzdal’), which was aggressively trying to capture this rich emporium that controlled the fur trade. Desperate to preserve its sovereignty, Novgorod attempted to summon the memory of its miraculous past to preserve its independent present. Thus, the besieging army of Suzdal’ symbolized the Muscovites. No miracle, however, could save Novgorod from Moscow, and it was conquered in 1478. A hundred years later, its miraculous and most venerated icons, including the revered Virgin of the Sign, would be taken as spoils to Moscow.

Boris and Gleb, two of the icon’s saints depicted as Novgorod’s defenders, were the first Russian saints. Sons of the first Christian prince of Rus’, Vladimir, Boris and Gleb met their unfortunate demise in 1015 during the complex internecine feud that ensued among Prince Vladimir’s numerous sons. The elder of the two princes, Boris, died Christ-like, refusing to fight another elder brother, Svyatopolk (called “the Damned”), while the younger brother, Gleb, died pleading for mercy while his throat was cut by hired assassins. Following a civil war, a fourth son of Vladimir and the victorious prince, Yaroslav, found their incorruptible bodies (through miraculous signs) and, some time before 1035, the two princes became the first Rus’ saints to be formally canonized. Boris and Gleb performed healing miracles, but as saints they were most famous as heavenly warriors and patrons of the ruling Riurikid dynasty.

Russian princes regularly commissioned churches and icons in honor of the two. A large, mid-fourteenth-century icon portrays them as royal saints. Both are richly attired, but Boris, the elder, is in more splendid garments, with his cloak embroidered with gold and lined with fur. Gleb is represented as a beardless youth. They carry identical attributes, however, as each holds a cross in the right hand and a sword in the left; in this way, they affirm their status as martyrs and military saints. (There was another image of them in the exhibition on horseback.) Their cult, which validated the authority of the dynasty and served as a focus of dynastic loyalty, was promoted so briskly that, by 1200, a traveler reported that an icon of Boris and Gleb was displayed in the church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople.20

By the fifteenth century, it would seem that Boris and Gleb were firmly affiliated with Moscow, then ruled by Ivan III. Like Milutin of Serbia, Ivan III acquired a Byzantine bride (living in Rome) to add luster to his royal ambitions. In fact, he married the last eligible scion of the Byzantine imperial family, Sophia Palaiologina, niece of the last Byzantine emperor, Constantine XI Palaiologos. The marriage took place in 1472; following it, Ivan began to use the title “tsar,” appropriated the double-headed eagle for his seals, and was referred to as “the new Constantine” by one of his eulogists.21

This marriage was perceived by some as an attempt to keep the flame of the Byzantine empire burning, but no one was able to rekindle the embers of the captured Byzantine state. Both Bulgaria and Serbia were engulfed by the Ottoman conquest and lost their independence; only Russia remained as an independent Orthodox state. Although every now and then the rhetoric of Moscow as the “Third Rome” splashed across the surface of political waters, it made few serious waves. There was no new Rome after the “Second Rome,” that is, Constantinople. However, despite the extinction of the Byzantine state, Orthodox culture proved resilient. Orthodoxy survived under Ottoman authority and flourished in Russia, as attested by the numerous icons displayed in this exhibition that were produced after the fall of Constantinople. Byzantium: Faith and Power defined its chronological boundaries from 1261, and the Byzantine recapture of Constantinople, to 1557, when the term “Byzantine” entered European discourse. One can argue that the latter boundary remains open since Orthodox culture, in Greece and in the Slavic countries, still preserves and celebrates the Byzantine legacy.

1. The selection was translated in Deno Geanakoplos, Byzantium: Church, Society, and Civilization Seen through Contemporary Eyes (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1984),

2. For descriptions of the exhibition pieces and the bibliography, the exhibition catalogue is indispensable; see Helen C. Evans, ed., Byzantium: Faith and Power (1261-1557) (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2004).

3. The discussion in the previous four paragraphs is based on: Kurt Weitzmann, The St. Peter of Dumbarton Oaks (Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, DC, 1983), pp. 24-28; M. Chatzidakis and G. Babich, “The Icons of the Balkan Peninsula and the Greek Islands,” in The Icon, ed. Kurt Weitzmann et al. (Knopf, New York, 1982), p. 140; Hans Belting, Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image before the Era of Art (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1994), p. 337; Bratislav Pantelich, The Architecture of Dechani and the Role of Archbishop Danilo II (Reichert, Wiesbaden, 2002), pp. 16 -18; and John Fine, The Late Medieval Balkans: A Critical Survey from the Late Twelfth Century to the Ottoman Conquest (The University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 1994), p. 217.

4. Quoted in Fine, Late Medieval Balkans, p. 204.

5. The discussion in the previous two paragraphs is based on Pantelich, Architecture of Dechani, pp. 9-11, and Fine, Late Medieval Balkans, pp. 222.

6. The discussion in this paragraph is based upon Pantelich, Architecture of Dechani, p. 20. For a good overview of Milutin’s architectural legacy, see Slobodan Curcic, Gracanica: King Milutin’s Church and its Place in Late Byzantine Architecture (University Park and London, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1979).

7. For a brief introduction to Dechanski’s vicissitudes, see Fine, Late Medieval Balkans, pp. 259-268.

8. Pantelich, Architecture of Dechani, p. 23.

9. The discussion in this paragraph is based on: Babich and Chatzidakis, “The Icons of the Balkan Peninsula and the Greek Islands,” p. 344; R. M. Price, “Boris and Gleb: Princely Martyrs and Martyrology,” in Martyrs and Martyrology, ed. Diana Wood (Blackwell Publishers, Oxford, 1993), pp. 105-116; Danica Popovic, Srpski vladarski grob u srednjem veku [The Royal Tomb in Medieval Serbia] (Mileseva Monastery Research Papers, Belgrade, 1992), p. 193. See also Gerardo Cioffari, Gli zar di Serbia la Puglia e S. Nicolà. Una storia di santità e di violenza (Centro Studi Nicolaiani, Bari, 1989).

10. Gojko Subotic, Art of Kosovo: The Sacred Land (Monacelli Press, New York, 1998), p. 188.

11. The discussion in the paragraph is based on Subotic, Art of Kosovo, pp. 181- 189.

12. Pantelich, Architecture of Dechani, p. 24.

13. The discussion in the above three paragraphs is based on Pantelich, Architecture of Dechani, pp. 24-33, and Popovic, Srpski vladarski grob, pp. 193-197.

14. See A. Davidov et al., Zhitie na Stefan Dechanski ot Grigori Tsamblak (Sofia, 1983).

15. For a recent publication on the manuscript, see Ekaterina Dimitrova, The Gospels of Tsar Ivan Alexander (The British Museum, London, 1994).

16. The discussion in the previous paragraph is based on Dimitrova, Gospels of Tsar Ivan Alexander, and Fine, Late Medieval Balkans, pp. 449-50. Dimitrova (p. 20) states: “It was as a result of Theodora urging the accession to the throne in 1371 of her own eldest son, Ivan Shishman, that the country was divided and subsequently fell to the Turks during his reign, marking the end of the ascendancy of the medieval Bulgarian monarchy.”

17. Translated in Dimitrova, Gospels of Tsar Ivan Alexander, p. 9.

18. The discussion in the two previous paragraphs is based on I. Spatharakis, The Portrait in Byzantine Illuminated Manuscripts (E. J. Brill, Leiden, 1976), pp. 129-136; Alice-Mary Talbot, “John VI Kantakouzenos,” in The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium (Oxford University Press, New York, 1991), p. 1050; and J. Durand et al., Byzance: L’art byzantin dans les collections publiques françaises (Réunion des Musées Nationaux, Paris, 1992), p. 461.

19. The discussion in the three previous paragraphs, including that of the function of these icons in fifteenth-century Novgorod, is partly based on: T. B. Polekhovskaia, “O tolkovanii novgorodskikh ikon XV veka ‘Bitva novgorodtsev s suzdal’tsami,” Trudy Gosudarstvennogo Ermitazha XV (1974), pp. 30-35; Viktor Lazarev, Russian Icon: From Its Origin to the Beginning of the Sixteenth Century (Liturgical Press, Collegeville, 1997).

20. The discussion of the saints Boris and Gleb is based upon Gail Lenhoff, The Martyred Princes Boris and Gleb: A Socio-Cultural Study of the Cult and the Texts (Slavica Publishers, Columbus, 1989).

21. See The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, s.v. “Ivan III,” p. 1024.

Elena N. Boeck’s doctoral dissertation at Yale University examined the power, patronage, and politics of the Madrid Skylitzes Manuscript that was created at the court of Roger II of Sicily. She is currently assistant professor of art history at DePaul University.
Page 1 of 1 pages