By Gabriel-Dinu Herea | National Museum of Bucovina
Alice Isabella Sullivan | Tufts University
Vladimir Ivanovici | University of Vienna & Università della Svizzera italiana
The Church of the Holy Cross at Pătrăuți Monastery was built in 1487 by Prince Stephen III (r. 1457–1504), ruler of the principality of Moldavia. The small edifice consists of a triconch naos with a rounded eastern apse and two shallower lateral semicircular apses extending to the north and south. A square pronaos with a small window at the center of each of the north and south walls preceded the main liturgical space of the church. The primary entrance occupies the center of the west facade, and another small doorway leads from the pronaos into the naos, guiding the physical progression through the spaces. A shallow dome sits over the space of the pronaos, and a steeple-like dome with windows pointing in the cardinal directions rises over the central space of the naos. This modest edifice—measuring 17.6 m in length and 8.9 m on the lateral apses of the naos—likely served as the main church (katholikon) of a convent.
The partly preserved mural cycles of the katholikon at Pătrăuți are rooted in Byzantine stylistic and iconographic conventions. On the exterior of the building, few images have survived. The Last Judgment takes up the entirety of the west facade, and an icon of Sts. Constantine and Helena occupies the tympanum of the main entrance. The interior murals, executed shortly after the church’s construction in 1487 and partially repainted between 1496 and 1499, represent the earliest extant example of Moldavian monastic church painting. The sanctuary at Pătrăuți displays images of bishops and the scenes of the Last Supper, the Communion of the Apostles, and Christ Washing the Feet of the Apostles. The main image in the apse is now lost but was likely a monumental Theotokos Enthroned with the Christ Child among angels, as found in other local churches. The naos was adorned with scenes from the Passion cycle and images of military saints, as well as a votive image and the icon of Sts. Constantine and Helena. The pronaos displays an image of Christ Pantokrator in the dome above, murals of the Holy Martyrs and Pious Women, a prominent representation of the Marriage at Cana, and an image identified as the Procession of the Soldier Saints—unique in medieval or Byzantine iconography.
As one of Stephen III’s earliest ecclesiastical projects, the church of the Holy Cross at Pătrăuți Monastery, reveals aspects of the innovative initial stages of church architecture in Moldavia in the post-Byzantine period. In fact, the church marks the beginning of an impressive series of religious projects in Moldavia—consisting of monastic and parish churches, as well as chapels—that were designed in a new architectural vocabulary that incorporated aspects of Byzantine and Gothic church building and decorating traditions, alongside local forms. Among the extant monuments, Pătrăuți remains the key representative of Stephen’s early churches.
The church was consecrated on September 14, the Feast of the Holy Cross, and may have even been built around a relic of the True Cross present in Moldavia at the time. Although the evidence to support this hypothesis remains elusive, it is known that Stephen fostered ongoing contacts with the monastic communities on Mount Athos, providing financial assistance, initiating restoration projects, and gifting precious objects to many different monasteries on the Holy Mountain. These interactions certainly led to a growing influence of Byzantine spirituality in Moldavia.
Although the architecture and mural cycles at Pătrăuți are predominantly Byzantine in character, other facets of the liturgical space reveal adaptations of Western church-building traditions. This is markedly evident in the building technique of the church, as well as in the Gothic designs of the portals, the window frames, and the window tracery. Moreover, the sunlight effects observed in the katholikon at Pătrăuți reveal how the church was designed to integrate astronomical knowledge prevalent in the Latin West.
On certain feast days, sunlight has been observed to fall on specific scenes and liturgical furnishings, which it unites in symbolic ways, thus underscoring theological statements. For example, the almost perfect east-west orientation of the axis of the church creates a “light path” around the equinoxes. Twice a year, in September and March/April, for two weeks, the light entering the church in the afternoon passes through the aligned doors of the pronaos and naos to illuminate the altar. This alignment would have corresponded with the celebration of Vespers, which centered on Christ’s coming as Light into the darkness of the world. On the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, the first ray of sunlight that enters the church illuminates the mural of Prophet Isaiah shown standing in the cylindrical drum of the naos dome. He displays an open scroll with an inscription drawn from Psalm 112(113):3 “From the sun’s rising to its setting, praise the name of the Lord!” More complex phenomena involve moving sunlight connect different sections of the building and portions of the mural decoration, underscoring their theological import and the devotional concerns of the patron. Overall, the church at Pătrăuți demonstrates how natural light reunites aspects of architecture, decoration, ritual, and theology.
The architecture and decoration of the katholikon at Pătrăuți attest to a desire to perpetuate Christianity in its Orthodox form, but also to a willingness to rework the Byzantine legacy according to local artistic and architectural principles. The introduction of Gothic elements, as well as the echoing of contemporary political events in the iconography, at times through the invention of novel image types, strongly suggest that Stephen’s churches, beginning with Pătrăuți, were the result of a conscious and proactive policy.
This is also evident in the unique mural of the Procession of the Soldier Saints, painted in a long horizontal register on the west wall of the pronaos, above the main entrance to the church. In this non-biblical scene, Emperor Constantine and the archangel Michael front a cavalcade made up of thirteen mounted soldiers rendered in the guise of military saints. They ride toward a large cross in the sky before them, in the upper right corner of the composition. The inscription in Greek by the cross—“In this sign [the cross] you shall defeat your enemies.”—recalls the account of the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312 in which Constantine the Great defeated Maxentius. This event marked Constantine’s turn to Christianity and subsequent protection of the Christian faith. Fighting under the sign of the cross also resonated in the Moldavian context of the 15th century. The image evokes divine assistance in Constantine’s conflict, and, by extension, in Stephen’s efforts, at a time when his struggles against the Ottomans were well underway.
Although simple in structure and small in scale, the katholikon at Pătrăuți combines religious and political visual discourses, revealing how historical sources were adapted in a local context in order to offer visual commentaries on spiritual and theological matters, as well as local political struggles.
The dedicatory inscription, written in Church Slavonic and situated at the center of the west facade above the main entrance, reads: “† Іѡ(анна) Стефа(н) воевода г(о)(с)п(о)д(а)ръ земли Мо(л)давскои, с(ъі)нь Богдана воево(д)(ъі) начѧ(ѣ) създати храм съ въ имѧ ч(ь)снаго кр(ъ)ста в л(ѣ)то ҂ѕ҃ц҃ч҃е҃ м(ѣ)с(е)ца юн(їа) г҃ї҃.” / “John Stephen voivode, prince of the land of Moldavia, son of Bogdan voivode, started building this edifice dedicated to the Holy Cross in the year 6995 , in the month of June 13.”
See this virtual tour of the church and its surroundings.
Dragnev, Emil. “Programul iconografic al sistemului de boltire al naosului bisericii Înălţarea Cinstitei Cruci din Pătrăuţi.” In Retrospecţii medievale: In honorem Professoris emeriti Ioan Caproșu, edited by Victor Spinei, Laurenţiu Rădvan, and Arcadie M. Bodale, Honoraria 10, 169–204. Iași: Editura Universităţii “Alexandru Ioan Cuza,” 2014.
This study details aspects of the iconographic program and context of the katholikon at Pătrăuți.
Herea, Gabriel-Dinu. Pătrăuți 1487—Monument UNESCO. Pătrăuți: Heruvim, 2015.
This book offers an overview of the history, architecture, and decorations of the church at Pătrăuți.
Herea, Gabriel-Dinu. The Symbolic Presence of the Sun at Pătrăuți, translated by Alice Isabella Sullivan, with a foreword by Marc Frîncu, and an introduction by Vladimir Ivanovici. Timișoara: Editura Universităţii de Vest, 2020.
This nicely illustrated book details the light effects Father Gabriel-Dinu Herea has observed, recorded, and interpreted in the church at Pătrăuți over the course of 15 years.
Sullivan, Alice Isabella, Gabriel-Dinu Herea, and Vladimir Ivanovici. “Space, Image, Light: Toward an Understanding of Moldavian Architecture in the Fifteenth Century.” Gesta 60, no 1 (2021): 81‒100.
This article explores several natural light phenomena in the katholikon at Pătrăuți, demonstrating that the edifice was designed and decorated relative to the direction of sunlight on important dates throughout the liturgical year.
Urcan, Tudor-Cătălin. Biserica “Sfânta Cruce” din Pătrăuţi: Geometrii ziditoare–o analiză geometrică a arhitecturii bisericii. Suceava: Karl A. Romstorfer, 2020.
This is a careful study of the geometries present in the design of the church at Pătrăuți that indicate the connection between the architecture of the church and Gothic architectural and design solutions.
This contribution was sponsored by the Mary Jaharis Center for Byzantine Art and Culture at Hellenic College Holy Cross.