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The History of Romania in One Object: The Banner of Stephen the Great

Updated: Jul 27, 2020

The banner of Stephen the Great (1457-1504 AD) bears witness to the unique culture that developed in Moldavia during the second half of the 15th century, being one of the most original expressions of the Romanian medieval art. Associated with the figure of one of the most powerful medieval princes who ruled in the Romanian Countries during the Middle Ages, the banner is an iconic masterpiece that illustrates the imperial aspirations of Stephen the Great, as well as the reception and assimilation of the Byzantine culture in Moldavian art.

Moldavia, as well as its neighboring state Wallachia, whose population spoke the same Latin originated language, was for centuries a state considered to be a buffering zone between the expanding Ottoman Empire and the rest of the powers from Central and Eastern Europe, like Hungary and Poland. Established quite late in comparison with the other European states, Moldavia became independent only in the second half of the 14th century, Stephen the Great’s ascension to the throne taking place a century later, in 1457, during a terrible time for the entire Europe. Many historical sources preserved from the middle of the 15th century express the horror and the despair of the European monarchs who were still in shock after the disappearance of the Byzantine Empire, that had been entirely conquered in 1453 by the Ottoman Empire.

Photo 1: The Principality of Moldavia in 1483

As an outstanding political figure, Stephen III, known also as the Great due to his magnificent reign, sensed that in order to build a powerful state he must rule by following the Byzantine tradition in politics, according to which the sovereign had absolute executive, legislative, judicial and military power. During his 47 years reign, he was seen as a protector of Christianity and a strong, fearless fighter against the Ottomans. He led in 36 battles, 34 of them being victorious, which ensured the stability of Moldavia and consequently the framework for the development of culture and arts. One of his main pious aims was to show his gratitude for his success by building over 21 churches and monasteries, some of them listed today as UNESCO World Heritage Sites due to their original frescoes and innovative architecture.

Photo 2: Putna Monastery

Photo 3: The church of Voroneț Monastery

Photo 4: Ruins of the Suceava fortress

As in the rest of the medieval Europe, the main centers where the arts thrived were the princely court, which during Stephen the Great was established in Suceava, and the monasteries, which received abundant donations of money and liturgical goods from the Prince. One of the best examples of financially supported monasteries is the case of Putna monastery, located in the northern part of Moldavia, which is also the resting place of Stephen the Great. Even if over the centuries many robbery campaigns impoverished the monastery’s patrimony, Putna still preserves one of the most impressive collections of medieval liturgical gold ware and embroideries dating back to the second half of the 15th century, as the burial shroud of Maria de Mangop, one of the last Byzantine princesses, who was the second wife of Stephen the Great.

Photo 5: Miniature with the representation of Stephen the Great from the Humor Monastery Gospel

Photo 6: The burial shroud of Maria de Mangop, the second wife of Stephen the Great

Photo 7: Portrait of Stephen the Great sewn on a liturgical embroidery at Putna Monastery

The art of embroidery is without any doubt the most remarkable artistic expression of the Stephen the Great epoch, the liturgical embroideries sewn with gilded silver threads on silk supports reflecting the luxurious taste of the time and the attention and the importance given to the liturgical items. Not a lot of information about the artists who worked the embroideries was preserved, but it is known that they were sewn by the hands of the noble ladies living at the princely court or by the nuns and monks living in the monasteries. In the case of the banner of Stephen the Great we don’t have any information about the person who made it or which is the place where it was produced. Unfortunately, the piece is incomplete, the embroidery that was decorating the back of the banner, which most probably was a Byzantine Resurrection scene, being lost today.

Interpreted by some historians as a military flag and by others as a liturgical banner, the Moldavian masterpiece brings in front of our eyes a genuine Byzantine imperial image converted in the shape of an embroidered icon, in which Saint George, who is one of the most cherished figures of Christianity, is depicted as an emperor crowned by angels, sitting on a Byzantine throne. The sword in his hands is a powerful symbol of the imperial power sustained by military success, while the dragon represented at his feet becomes, in this specific context, a metaphor for the contemporary Ottoman danger. This iconography is quite unusual for the Byzantine tradition and the emergence of this unique representation of Saint George in the Moldavian space in the second half of the 15th century, that can be also seen in a fresco from the Voroneț monastery and on a wooden icon from Neamț monastery, indicates that the military saint was extremely important for Stephen the Great and that he was the protector saint under whose shield the Prince placed all his political, military and cultural interventions.

Unfortunately, we do not have any information about the history of the banner between its production moment and the late 19th century when the piece was found in the library of the Bulgarian monastery of Zografu from Mount Athos. The inscription sewn on the edge of the embroidery suggests that it was not originally a donation made by Stephen the Great to the Athonite monastery and that its arrival in Greece probably took place at a later date and in an unfortunate context for Moldavia. The recovery of the banner from the Bulgarian monastery brought together in a common effort many cultural and political personalities of the 19th and 20th centuries, in what seemed to be an example of cultural diplomacy and support during the terrible years of the First World War. Proof of this is the mission that recovered the banner in 1917, an excellent cooperation between France and Romania, as well as the entire history of the retrieval of the embroidery, recorded in documents preserved in the diplomatic archives of both states.

Photo 9: The handing-over ceremony of the banner at Sorbonne University in Paris

Photo 10: Copy of the letter signed by the general Maurice Sarrail concerning the retrieval of the banner March 25 1917

Photo 11: The handing-over ceremony of the banner at Sorbonne University in Paris

Photo 12: The program of the handing over ceremony

THE HISTORY OF ROMANIA IN ONE OBJECT, our new online program that evokes decisive epochs in the Romanian past starting from objects with powerful symbolic and representative value, is developed in partnership with The National History Museum of Romania. Video and text by art historian and numismatist CRISTIANA TĂTARU.



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