By Nikolaos Mertzimekis | Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports, Ephorate of Antiquities of Chalcidice and Mount Athos
In accordance with the donation policies of the leaders of the Danubian principalities, the Moldavian voivode Vasile Lupu (r. 1634–53) and his wife Ekaterina donated seven podeai (textile hanging below the icon) to the church of the Ascension, the katholikon of Golia Monastery in Moldavia (modern Romania), in 1651/2. In 1606, Golia became a metochion of Vatopedi Monastery on Mount Athos, and the textile eventually arrived on the Holy Mountain. The seven gold-thread podeai embroideries, together with an epitaphios and an epitrachelion, comprise a group. Today, they are kept in the sacristy of Vatopedi Monastery.
These embroidered ecclesiastical heirlooms, apart from being exceptional artworks with a liturgical function and dogmatic content, constitute important historical sources. They include inscriptions that detail the names of the donors and those of the embroiderers, as well as the time and place of their production. Like the Moldavian examples, many of the gold-thread embroideries of Vatopedi eloquently “speak” to this day through their inscriptions about the piousness and generosity of their donors and creators, as well as of the close spiritual relations that the Athonite monastery had developed with the region of Moldavia through the help of its metochia, including Golia Monastery.
In 1650, Prince Vasile Lupu financed the reconstruction of Golia Monastery, while dedicating to its katholikon icons, liturgical objects, vestments, and manuscripts. These donations include an epitaphios (1651–52), an epitrachelion (1651–52), and a Gospel Book (1648). According to their dedicatory inscriptions, Vasile Lupu donated these objects to the monastery of the Ascension, also called Golia. Together with the podeai embroideries, these examples are currently kept at Vatopedi Monastery. The archive of the monastery also preserves about 120 documents from Vasile Lupu related to the estates of the monastery in the principality of Moldavia.
Three of the Moldavian podeai at Vatopedi, produced under the patronage of Vasile Lupu, display a dedicatory inscription that reads as follows:
✚ ΙΩ(Α)Ν(ΝΗ) ΒΑΣΙΛΕΙΟΥ ΒΩΙΒΩΝΔΑ ΕΛΕΩ Θ(Ε)ΟΥ ΠΑCΗC ΜΟΛΔΟΒΛΑΧΙΑC Κ(ΑΙ) ΔΟΜΝΑC ΑΙΚΑΤΕΡΙΝΗC ΑΝΑΘΗΜΑ ΖΡΞ' (1651/2)
Translation: “This is a gift from Ioannis Vassilios, voievoda of all Moldovlachia, with the help of the god and his wife Aikaterini ΖΡΞ' (1651/2)”
The dedicatory inscriptions, which mention the donors and the date, are embroidered with gold thread. The height of the letters ranges from 1.5 to 2.5 cm.
In analyzing the inscriptions, we must dwell on two points: The first is the title "Dei Gratia", which suggests a Byzantine influence. It is a transfer of the Byzantine imperial idea of the divine origin of power, which the Moldavian leadership adopted by imitating Byzantine models. The title "Dei Gratia" is an expression of the independence of the Moldavian rulers toward the sultan, and aims to declare that the power of the ruler comes from the grace of God and does not depend on the will of the Ottomans.
The compositions consisting mainly of floral decorations are achieved in gold and silver thread on a red velvet ground, while the surrounding frame carries floral motifs embroidered on green velvet. The use of velvet in such embroideries, and the floral motifs, are characteristic of 17th-century Moldavian works. Most of the textiles are embroidered with gold thread, which is tied harmoniously with the silver thread. The embroidery work highlights the varied vegetal motifs that reveal stylized carnations, tulips, lilies, and chrysanthemums, among other forms. In terms of the technique, almost all known stitches are used in these embroideries to lend complexity and visual appeal to the designs.
Out of the seven Moldavian podeai at Vatopedi, three carry dedicatory inscriptions. The three large ones range in length from 145 to 218 cm, and in width from 98 to 105 cm. The four smaller podeai are square in shape, and measure 115 x 115cm.
The seven gold-thread embroidered podeai decorated the lower part of the despotic icons of the iconostasis and the icon stands of the katholikon of Vatopedi Monastery on its official feast days. These were prized possessions, executed in high-quality materials such as fine, well-wound gold-thread and silver-thread, especially for the vegetal decorations and the lettering of the inscriptions. The finely executed gold embroideries and the precious materials illustrate once again that in an economically thriving region with wealthy donors, such as 17th-century Moldavia, there were significant gold embroidery workshops and skilled artisans producing objects for local use and to be gifted to locales outside of the principality.
The handicrafts of the Moldavian workshops, and demonstrated through the embroideries preserved at Vatopedi, attest to the continuation and development of gold embroidery in the centuries after the fall of Constantinople in 1453. Through their donations, the Moldavian rulers and officials emerge as new benefactors of Vatopedi. For more than five centuries they have been the main donors and devotees of this monastery and the Athonite communities in general.
The research and study of the rich, mostly unpublished archive and sacristy of Vatopedi Monastery will reveal the great importance of Vatopedi for the Danubian Principalities, alongside other Athonite monasteries, and will shed more light on the patrons of the monastery during the early Ottoman occupation.
Mertzimekis, Nikolaos. "«…Ποδίαις τρανές διά μαγκάνου επτά…» του ηγεμόνα της Μολδαβίας Vasile Lupu (1634–1653) στη μονή Βατοπεδίου." Δελτίο της Χριστιανικής Αρχαιολογικής Εταιρείας [Bulletin of the Christian Archaeological Society] (2013): 349–360.
This study examines the Moldavian podeai at Vatopedi Monastery, including images of the objects and their display within the katholikon.
This contribution was sponsored by the Mary Jaharis Center for Byzantine Art and Culture at Hellenic College Holy Cross.