Neagoe Basarab of Wallachia and His Family
Neagoe Basarab of Wallachia and His Family

By Alice Isabella Sullivan | University of Michigan


Between 1512 and 1521, Prince Neagoe Basarab was the ruler of Wallachia—the Romanian principality extending to the south of the Carpathian Mountains and north of the Danube River in modern Romania. In 1505, Neagoe married Milica Despina of Serbia—a descendant of the houses of Branković and Lazarević—and together they had six children. There are few extant images of Neagoe Basarab and his family. A less known composition of the group is preserved on the inside lid of a wooden box now in the collection of Saint Catherine Monastery on Mount Sinai. The indentations of where the hardware once attached the lid to the box remain visible on the object, so clearly the image in the central composition once decorated the inside of the lid of a wooden chest.

The painting shows eight kneeling figures in prayer directing their attention toward the central upper portion of the composition where an image of the Virgin Mary with the Christ Child in a heavenly sphere fixates their attention and that of the viewer. The image of the Virgin and Christ is that of the Blachernitissa type with roots in the icon from the Church of the Blachernai in Constantinople (now Istanbul). It generally shows the Virgin half-length and with both her hands raised to either side—in an orans gesture—and with the Christ Child upon her bosom. Christ directs his blessing toward the faithful, and the Virgin, in turn, intercedes on their behalf. In the lower portion of the Sinai panel, the eight kneeling figures are divided into two groups: the men on the left and the women on the right. The distinct features and garments of the figures, as well as the inscriptions in Church Slavonic above their heads, helps identify them. On the left, the image displays Neagoe Basarab (d. 1521) and his three sons: Theodosius, Peter, and John. On the right is his wife, Milica Despina (d. 1554), and their daughters: Stana, Ruxandra, and Angelina. The panel preserves a unique image of this royal family.


The image on the Sinai lid resembles closely the votive mural of Neagoe and his family painted on the interior of the Church of the Dormition of the Virgin at Curtea de Argeș Monastery in Romania. The image shows all eight members of the Basarab family standing and offering a model of the very church in which they are depicted to an image of the Virgin and Child in the heavens above similar to the one found on the Sinai panel. The features and garments of the figures in both family portraits resemble each other, suggesting that the painting on the Sinai lid is contemporaneous with the votive image at Curtea de Argeș.

During his reign, Prince Neagoe Basarab was concerned with the proper education of his heirs. Therefore, he penned the little-known but important text titled The Teachings of Neagoe Basarab to His Son Theodosius. This is an unparalleled speculum principum written in Church Slavonic in the Eastern Orthodox cultural sphere, contemporaneous with, yet divergent in its ideologies from, Machiavelli’s political treatise The Prince (De Principatibus, 1513; published 1532). As the oldest among the sons, Theodosius succeeded his father to the throne on September 15, 1521. Due to his young age at the time, his mother, Milica, acted as his regent. Unfortunately, Theodosius died only a few months after taking the crown, in January 1522. Little is known of Neagoe and Milica’s other two sons, Peter and John. As for the daughters, it is known that Stana married Moldavia’s prince Stephen IV (r. 1517–1527), and Ruxandra married Radu of Afumați, who took control of Wallachia after Theodosius’s death (r. 1522–1529).

As a ruler of an Orthodox land in the decades after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, Neagoe Basarab fostered relations with the monastic communities on Mount Athos—the pan-Orthodox community of Christians that served as an enduring emblem of Eastern Christianity. It is known that Neagoe made monetary donations and gifted precious icons, manuscripts, embroideries, and metalwork to the Athonite monasteries. His efforts renew for those communities the objects needed for the celebration of the liturgy and ensured his remembrance among the local monks. His deeds aligned with the long tradition of patronage of Athos among the rulers of the north-Danubian principalities—a tradition that began during the second half of the fourteenth century and intensified after the fall of the Byzantine Empire. This is especially evident in the Athonite patronage of Moldavia’s ruler Prince Stephen III (r. 1457–1504), for example.

It would not be out of the question that Prince Neagoe Basarab also extended gifts to the Monastery of Saint Catherine on Mount Sinai—a topic worthy of further scholarly investigation. Upon its arrival at Sinai, those who opened the wooden chest would have first encountered the image of the Wallachian prince alongside his immediate family, shown in a gesture of prayer and supplication to the Virgin and Christ. The image displays the faith of the patron, and his hope for eventual salvation for himself, his wife, and their children. But the image was also intended to incite prayer and remembrance for the patron and his family among the monastic community at Sinai receiving his gifts. The box to which the lid in question once belonged could have carried precious icons, manuscripts, and embroideries from Wallachia to Sinai. Some may still be preserved today in the collection of the monastery and in the Sinai digital archives at the University of Michigan and Princeton University.

Further Reading

Cernea, Emanuela, and Lucreția Pătrășcanu. Mărturii: Frescele Mănăstirii Argeșului. Exhibition Catalog. Bucharest: Editura Muzeului Național de Artă al României, 2019.

A beautifully illustrated exhibition catalog of the frescoes from Curtea de Argeș Monastery now preserved in the collection of the National Museum of Art of Romania in Bucharest, including the votive mural of Prince Neagoe Basarab and his family. 

Erdeljan, Jelena. “A Note on the Ktetorship and Contribution of Women from the Branković Dynasty to Cross-Cultural Connections in Late Medieval and Early Modern Balkans.” Zbornik Matice srpske za likovne umetnosti 44 (2016): 61–72.

This study examines the role of women from the Branković family—including Neagoe’s wife Milica Despina—to cross-cultural contacts and the transfer of knowledge across the Balkan Peninsula and the Carpathian Mountain regions. 

Goina, Mariana. “Medieval Political Philosophy in a Sixteenth-Century Wallachian Mirror of Princes: The Teachings of Neagoe Basarab to His Son Theodosie.” The Slavonic and East European Review 92 (2014): 25–43.

This essay aims to situate the literary genre of Neagoe Basarab’s Teachings to His Son Theodosius in the context of other medieval specula principum, or mirrors of princes.

Grigore, Mihai-D. Neagoe Basarab - Princeps Christianus. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2015.

This book examines the text known as the Teachings of Neagoe Basarab to His Son Theodosius, its textual history, and seeks to situate it in a wider pan-European context relative to Byzantium and the West.


Alice Isabella Sullivan, "Neagoe Basarab of Wallachia and His Family," Mapping Eastern Europe, eds. M. A. Rossi and A. I. Sullivan, accessed June 3, 2023,