Why Orthodox Art in Eastern Europe Matters
The Orthodox art of the predominantly Eastern Christian regions of Eastern Europe has much to offer, yet it has been relegated to the margins of inquiry. Outside of local communities and circles of academic specialists, relatively little is known about the countries, peoples, cultures, and histories of Eastern Europe. This is especially true of the Middle Ages and the early modern periods, whose studies have been divided between the Western traditions and those of the Byzantine Empire, including the centuries after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, with few moments of contact and interchange explored in scholarship or in the classroom. The history, art, and culture of Eastern Europe and the rich Orthodox artistic production of these lands have been excluded from the geographical, thematic, cultural, and temporal purviews of art history. In essence, Orthodox art poses problems to the artificial periodizations and geographical boundaries of art history, but its study has the potential to enhance the picture and bring into the conversation voices that have long been silent (or silenced).
Inconsistencies and disagreements in the geographical definitions of Eastern Europe have contributed to the marginalization of the Orthodox cultural spheres within it. What constitutes Eastern Europe, or Southeastern Europe, or Central Europe, or East-Central Europe at any given moment has shifted over time. The regions of the Balkan Peninsula, the Carpathian Mountains, and further north into Russia have been included in specific periods in select conversations; on other occasions, they have been excluded and ignored altogether. For much of the late Middle Ages and the early modern period, Eastern European territories—like the principalities of Wallachia, Moldavia, and Transylvania around the Carpathian Mountains (which later formed the country of modern Romania), the powers of Kievan Rus’, Muscovy, Serbia, and Bulgaria—experienced shifting political borders that complicate the picture. Today, these lands are located in many different countries, each with its own language and customs. The history is complex but enriching as well and could offer much to our understanding of the interconnectedness of the medieval world and the different traditions that contributed to the development of local customs and visual vocabularies.
In fact, Eastern Europe has long stood at the crossroads of competing traditions and worldviews—among them Latin, Greek, and Slavic—which informed local political, military, economic, religious, cultural, and artistic developments. However, the specificities of each region, and, in modern times, politics and nationalistic approaches, have reinforced the tendencies to treat them separately, preventing scholars from questioning whether aspects of local developments could be considered as expressions of shared histories. For much of the twentieth century, ideological agendas, prejudices in historical writing, and difficulties in gaining physical and intellectual access to Eastern Europe have contributed to this issue. The Iron Curtain also created actual and ideological barriers, separating especially the Eastern Christian cultural spheres from much of the rest of the continent. Access to people, sites, and knowledge was limited.
But now, the global efforts within Medieval and Byzantine Studies are encouraging explorations of the margins of the medieval world, allowing a more prismatic picture of the lands of Eastern Europe to emerge. For these territories, the spiritual power of Byzantium and Eastern Orthodoxy had a profound impact, especially evident in the artistic sphere. This was the case in the centuries leading up to the fall of Constantinople, and especially in the decades that followed. The lands of Eastern Europe took on prominent roles in the continuation and refashioning of Byzantine art and culture after the empire’s collapse.
A more nuanced understanding of Byzantium in Eastern Europe sits at the core of the recent volume Byzantium in Eastern European Visual Culture in the Late Middle Ages (Brill, 2020), co-edited by Maria Alessia Rossi and Alice Isabella Sullivan. The volume engages with issues of cultural contact and patronage, as well as the transformation and appropriation of Byzantine artistic, cultural, theological, and political models alongside local traditions as evident in architecture, monumental painting cycles, icons, sculpture, textiles, written texts, and ceremonies in Eastern Europe. Specifically, in discussing regions of Eastern Europe such as Croatia, the Republic of North Macedonia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, and Russia between the 14th and 16th centuries in their own right and in relation to developments in the Byzantine cultural sphere, this volume challenges earlier assumptions about the artistic production of these territories, while putting Orthodox art on the map of art history.
Above all, what takes center stage in this publication, is the indebtedness of local developments in Orthodox art, architecture, and visual culture to artistic forms adopted from elsewhere, and especially from Byzantium. Although historians have tackled the issue of the “influence” of Byzantium in shaping the cultural, religious, and political life of regions of Eastern Europe, the picture that initially emerged placed emphasis on center-periphery dynamics with Constantinople as the ideologically superior power casting its “influence” across the Eastern Orthodox cultural sphere. However, the textual, material, and visual evidence considered together reveals the creativity and ingenuity at play in the negotiations between competing traditions in local contexts.
Although the art, architecture, and visual culture of the so-called post-Byzantine period has long been dismissed as derivative and unoriginal, it is in fact rich, dynamic, and akin to the artistic production of the Byzantine Empire during the peaks of its glory. Byzantium’s collapse did not put an end to creativity and cultural developments. On the contrary, it contributed to the movements of people, objects, and ideas across established borders, which facilitated cross-cultural contacts and informed local production and ways of life. The material evidence examined together with the written historical record can enhance the picture of local uniqueness and the interconnectedness of the Eastern European cultural landscapes, as well as the multifaceted dimensions of Orthodox art.
The regions of Eastern Europe, as this new book reveals, are not just places of “influence” from elsewhere. Instead, these territories offer dynamic networks of contact and interchange that allow scholars to paint richer pictures of the development of local artistic and cultural forms and shared traditions. The book presents examples of how we may begin to unravel the prismatic dimensions of Orthodox art, architecture, and visual culture in Eastern Europe, continue to expand the temporal and geographical parameters of the study of medieval, Byzantine, and post-Byzantine art, as well as chart the multitude of connections that extended across the late Middle Ages and the early modern period.
This volume is the first of a series of publications meant to bring attention to the value of Orthodox art and the artistic and cultural traditions of Eastern Europe. These efforts are part of North of Byzantium, an initiative that probes the medieval artistic production of the northern frontiers of the Byzantine Empire in Eastern Europe.
Alice Isabella Sullivan (Tufts University) and Maria Alessia Rossi (Princeton University) are co-founders of North of Byzantium. Twitter: @NorthofByzance