The Imperial Deësis Mural at the Church of St. Elijah, Suceava
The Imperial Deësis Mural at the Church of St. Elijah, Suceava

By Andrei Dumitrescu | New Europe College and the National University of Arts, Bucharest


The former monastery of the Prophet Elijah (Sfântul Ilie) near Suceava, Romania, was founded in 1488 by the Moldavian voivode Stephen III (r. 1457–1504), and embellished with frescoes during the following decade. Located on the northern wall of the naos, the scene commonly known as the “Imperial Deësis” depicts Christ as “Emperor of emperors,” “Lord of lords,” and “Great High Priest,” alongside the figures of the Virgin as Basilissa and St. John the Baptist. Both Christ and his Mother are represented in Byzantine imperial attire, wearing purple garments, loroi, and crowns. Additionally, the figure of Christ is shown with a sakkos and an omophorion that symbolize his eternal priesthood.

At St. Elijah, the entire composition is surmounted by an Old Church Slavonic inscription taken from the Psalm 44/45: “The Queen stood at your right in gold-woven clothing” (9/11). Other textual insertions associated with the sacred figures enhance the rhetorical dimension of the image. For instance, the Basileus holds an open codex with a frequently quoted fragment from the Gospel of John: “I am the light of the world…” (John 8:12). Standing before the divine throne, the two intercessors present their petitions inscribed on open scrolls. Unfortunately, the prayer of the Theotokos is almost entirely worn out. Nevertheless, the inscription on the rotulus of St. John is well enough preserved in order to be deciphered: “Listen to your Mother praying to you, o Creator.” Considering its similarities with several Moldavian and Balkan versions of the Deësis, one may assume that St. John’s petition was originally integrated in a dialogic structure, as a complement to the Marian intercession. Thus, for a literate viewer from the late 15th century, the image would have acquired a performative character, enacting the heavenly pleas for the salvation of humanity.


During the final decades of the 15th century, the “Imperial Deësis” was a relatively common theme in monumental decoration in Moldavian churches associated with the patronage of Stephen III, such as St. Prokopios in Bădeuți-Milișăuți (post 1487), St. Elijah near Suceava (post 1488), St. George in Voroneț (ca. 1496), and St. Nicholas in Rădăuți (ca. 1490–1500). Examined through the lens of an Eastern European artistic geography, the local articulations of the theme illustrate the assimilation of an earlier iconographic type developed on the borders of the late Byzantine world.

Scholars have placed the emergence of the iconography in the mid-14th-century churches of the Balkan territories under the jurisdiction of the Archbishopric of Ohrid, currently in the Republic of North Macedonia. Initially, the image emphasized almost exclusively the royal dignity of Christ and of the Virgin. For example, in the church of Hagios Athanasios tou Mouzake in Kastoria (ca. 1370–80), both figures were portrayed only with the imperial insignia. Given its location in the immediate vicinity of the chancel barrier, the “Imperial Deësis” was interpreted as an iconic reference to the Eucharistic sacrifice, ritually activated in conjunction with the intonation of the Cherubic hymn during the Great Saturday celebration: “(…) the King of kings and Lord of lords cometh forth to be immolated and given as food to the believers.” The liturgical meaning of the image was further developed in subsequent decades. Therefore, on a late 14th-century icon from Veliky Novgorod, nowadays in the Assumption Cathedral in Moscow, as well as in the frescoes at Kovaljevo Monastery (ca. 1370–80), Christ is depicted not solely as Emperor, but also as Patriarch. Russian historians argue that the iconography of the “Imperial Deësis” was disseminated in the Novgorodian milieu through the activity of an itinerant Balkan workshop. Plausibly, the occurrence of the theme in late 15th-century Moldavia was the result of a similar transfer of Balkan imagery towards the northern regions of the Orthodox East.

Reshaping an earlier iconographic tradition, the “Imperial Deësis” from the church of the Prophet Elijah represented a visual exegesis of the Psalm 44/45 (“The Queen stood at your right…”), through the polysemantic motifs of Christ as Basileus and of the Virgin as Empress. The typological connotations of the scene are accentuated by the nearby depiction of King David, introduced as an allusion to the royal genealogy of the Savior. In Byzantine sermons and liturgical poetry, David was portrayed as the Messianic prophet who foretold the Incarnation of the Logos from Mary, a female offspring of his kingly descent. Moreover, in the mural program of the church near Suceava, the notion of sacred monarchy is extended through the images of the Holy Emperors Constantine and Helena, located on the western wall of the naos. This sequence of royal figures is completed by the votive portraits of Stephen III, his third wife, Maria Voichița, and his heirs, located on the west wall of the naos. According to local pictorial formulas, the donor is offering an architectural model of the church to the enthroned figure of Christ through the mediation of the patron saint, namely the Prophet Elijah. This particular iconographic configuration generated a visual discourse of legitimacy focused on the heavenly lineage of power, descending from the “Emperor of emperors” to the earthly prince who was symbolically acclaimed as a “New David” and a “New Constantine.”

The association of the “Imperial Deësis” with iconic representations of monarchic authority was a current visual strategy in late 15th-century Moldavia. Almost at the same time with the decoration of the church near Suceava, the Deësis was used once again, in the katholikon of Voroneț Monastery, as a pendant to the portrait of Stephen III who was simultaneously correlated with the crowned figure of the Martyr John, the emperor of the Persians. Thus, the Moldavian articulations of the Deësis testify not only to the transmission of earlier Balkan models, but also to the local appropriation of several elements from the Byzantine imperial rhetoric, which were instrumentalized in a pictorial discourse of political legitimacy.

Further Reading

Adashinskaya, Anna. “Moldavian Votive Portraits with Scrolls: Toward Rhetorical Techniques Applied in Art of the Late 15th–early 17th centuries.” Revue Roumaine d’Histoire de l’Art, Série Beaux-Arts 54-55 (2017-2018): 3–45.

Considering an ample repertoire of Old Church Slavonic inscriptions, the article investigates the interaction of votive compositions with intercessional texts in late medieval and early modern Moldavia.

Dagron, Gilbert. Empereur et prêtre: étude sur le “césaropapisme” byzantine. Paris: Gallimard, 1996.

As one of the major studies dedicated to Byzantine political thought, Dagron’s book analyzes the rhetorical strategies employed in the process of negotiating power between the Eastern emperors and the Constantinopolitan Church.

Djordjević, Ivan M., and Miodrag Marković. “On the Dialogue Relationship Between the Virgin and Christ in East Christian Art, apropos of the Discovery of the Figures of the Virgin Mediatrix in the Naos of Lesnovo.” Zograf 28 (2000-2001): 13–48.

The authors examine different variants of the Greek and Old Church Slavonic inscriptions inserted on the scroll of the Virgin, and on the open codex of Christ, in the late medieval Balkans.

Kriza, Àgnes. “The Royal Deësis—An Anti-Latin Image of Late Byzantine Art.” In Cross-Cultural Interaction Between Byzantium and the West, 1204–1669: Whose Mediterranean Is It Anyway?, edited by Angeliki Lymberopoulou, 272–290. New York: Routledge, 2016.

The study re-evaluates the iconography of the “Imperial Deësis” as a polemical response to Western images of the Virgin’s Coronation, in the broader context of theological disputes during the 14th and 15th centuries.

Vapheiades, Konstantinos. “Sacerdotium and Imperium in Late Byzantine Art.” Niš i Vizantija 18 (2020): 55–87.

Vapheiades’ article correlates the 14th-century depictions of Christ as “Emperor of emperors” with the progressive transfer of imperial attributes to the late Byzantine clerical elite.


Andrei Dumitrescu, "The Imperial Deësis Mural at the Church of St. Elijah, Suceava," Mapping Eastern Europe, eds. M. A. Rossi and A. I. Sullivan, accessed June 3, 2023,