The Kivotion of Tismana Monastery
The Kivotion of Tismana Monastery

By Anita Paolicchi | University of Pisa


This silver kivotion (casket) is architectural in form with a rich engraved decoration. Originally made for the Monastery of Tismana – the oldest, still active monastic foundation in Wallachia – connection with the katholikon (main church) of the Monastery of Tismana. Its several inscriptions in Slavonic, Romanian, written with both Latin and the Cyrillic alphabet, offer intriguing information about the kivotion, regarding not only the year of its creation (1671), the names of the master craftsmen (Iacov and Marco from the important goldsmith center of Chiprovtsi in Bulgaria) and the donor (the hegumen of the monastery), but also its price (963 drachmas), as well as the exact identification of the over 30 saints, three scenes from the Life of the Virgin Mary and two Christological scenes depicted in the decoration.

The two inscriptions on the bottom of the kivotion read: «na 1671. mesctri zlatari iacov i marco od chiprovac» / “In 1671. Master goldsmiths Iacov and Marco from Chiprovtsi,” and «Ѡт Рож(дестка) Х(ристо)ва аХоа. Ачест Σфинтɣ ку(в)ѡтъ драмуръе де арчинтɣ ЦЗГ» / “From the birth of Christ 1671. This holy kivotion silver drachmas 963.” The dedicatory inscription running along the lower edge of the kivotion states: « Ачестъ кивотъ аль сфінтеи мънъстири Тисменіи фъкɣтɣ-л-аɣ егɣменɣль Петроніе кɣ тотъ арчинт ши келтɣіала мъньстиріи, ін зилеле домн(ɣл)ъ Іѡ Антоніе воіевод ши а прѣсфинцитɣлɣи Владъки кур Ѳеодосіе; исправнік архідіакон Никодим. В (л)ѣт ЗРОѲ » / “This kivotion of the holy Tismana monastery was made by the hegumen Petronie with all the silver and at the expenses of the monastery, at the time of Sir Io[anna] Antonie voievod and the most holy archbishop kir Theodosie; ispravnic the archdeacon Nicodim. In the year 7179 [1671].

After being presented to the monastery, the kivotion was part of the monastic heritage until World War I, but it bears an adventurous story. First, in 1749, it was given to a certain Milco from Craiova as collateral for an amount of silver borrowed by the monks. After some time, it was redeemed, but was to be hidden in order to be preserved from an uprising burst in 1788. Since then, it remained hidden for a long time, as another monastery nearby was vandalized. By the middle of the 19th century, Tismana Monastery underwent major renovations and a part of the monastic treasury was moved to Hurezy Monastery, where it remained until 1857. Finally, in 1916, the kivotion was sent to Russia as part of the so-called “Romanian Treasure,” and was returned back to Bucharest only in 1956, together with the second group of artworks returned by the Soviet government, eventually entering the collections of the National Museum.


A kivotion is a special receptacle in which the reserved Sacrament (a fragment of the consecrated Eucharistic bread on which a drop of consecrated wine is poured) is kept on the altar table for the communion of the sick outside of the Mass, and during Lent serves the purpose of containing the Presanctified gifts. Still nowadays, many Eucharistic containers used in the Christian Orthodox world have an architectural shape or architectural decorative elements, but not all of them reproduce the shape of the church to which they belonged. When they do, this was usually intended to support and reinforce the connection between the donor and the monastic or ecclesiastical foundation, especially when the donor belonged to the ecclesiastical or political élite and was both the donor of the architectural kivotion and the founder or the protector of the monastery. The need to reinforce that connection seems to have been a priority especially in troubled times, when the religious identity and political equilibrium were under threat, and the lay or religious élite established themselves as protectors of the Orthodox confessional identity.

The significance of this object – definitely not the most precious or magnificent among the kivotia exhibited in the National Museum of Art – lies in its shape and decoration, specially intended to establish a connection between the kivotion and the katholikon of Tismana Monastery. Its shape seems to reproduce the original structure of the monastery’s main church, a triconch with domed towers aligned with the altar, naos, pronaos, and narthex. This structural correspondence between the church and the kivotion was evident and acknowledged at least until the beginning of the 19th century, as testified by the description of this object in a monastic inventory dated 1809 (National Romanian Archives): all this was, of course, lost after the mid-19th century major renovation of the monastery, led by the architect Carol Benesch. To some extent, the kivotion can be considered as a primary source attesting to the appearance of the church in the 17th century: in particular, the kivotion’s narthex with a sloping roof and a tower reproduces quite accurately the church façade before its renovation, as testified by the comparison with other representations of the monastery in votive paintings and in an early 18th-century drawing. Most appropriately, it can be compared with two representations of the monastery on the reliquary of St. Nicodim’s finger – now at the National Museum of Art (Bucharest) – that was probably made by the same two Bulgarian goldsmiths Marco and Iacov. The body of the reliquary displays episodes from the saint’s life, from birth to death, including his miracles and the foundation of the monastery, that is represented in great detail on the short side of the reliquary box, accompanied by the inscription «Σф(ъ)нтул Никодимь фъкоут(-ау) бесѣрик(а) пре Тис(мана) ши нуми Тисмана» / “St. Nicodim made a church at Tismana and called it Tismana.”

In the niches on the kivotion, namely between the naos and the altar, two registers saintly figures shown full-length appear and are identified by Cyrillic inscriptions. On the sides of the pronaos and narthex, three episodes from the Life of the Virgin Mary take up the whole space. Biblical figures, floral elements, and cherubic heads fill the empty spaces above the arches. On the side corresponding to the western facade of the building, the episode of the Dormition of the Virgin Mary (Koimesis) is shown – recalling the dedication of the monastic church – alongside figures of St. Nicodim and a monk, possibly the hegumen Petronie, the purchaser of the kivotion. On the apse, the two rows of saintly figures are interrupted by a representation of Christ Pantokrator on top and a depiction of the Lamb of God on the bottom: the latter, with the infant Christ lying on the diskos (melismos), follows an iconography that, in different areas of the Balkans, is sometimes painted on the interior decoration of churches, on the apse of the altar. In the Carpathian regions, it appears also as part of the exterior decorative program of churches in the direction of the altar. Its representation on the Tismana kivotion undoubtedly emphasizes its function, adding a further connection between the church where the Eucharistic rite is celebrated and its miniaturized representation containing a fragment of the Eucharist. Although a connection between the kivotion’s exterior decoration and the original church interior decoration can be envisaged, it cannot be demonstrated, as unfortunately the original frescoes of the naos and bema were covered in 1732.

The goldsmiths certainly show talent and experience in the design and execution of this object: the figures are depicted with great mastery, and on the whole, the work is extremely harmonious. In the scenes of the Life of the Virgin Mary, the complex architectural perspective and the dynamism of the characters are evident. Goldsmiths from Chiprovtsi were well-known for their skills and were highly appreciated in Wallachia, where they were welcomed to work after the suppression of the anti-Ottoman Uprising in 1688.

Further Reading 

Dumitrescu, Sorin. The Ecumenical Tabernacles of Petru Rareș Voivode and Their Celestial Model: An Artistic Investigation of the Churches-Tabernacles from Northern Moldavia. Edited by M. Dumitrescu. Bucharest: Editura Anastasia, 2004.

Dumitrescu suggests that the interior and exterior decoration of the churches from Northern Moldavia should be intended as an organic whole, and bearer of strong political and theological messages. This perspective can be useful to study the silver kivotia, not only for their artistic qualities but also in their additional meanings.

Giurescu, Dinu. “Maîtres orfèvres de Kiprovać en Valachie au XVII siècle.” Revue des Etudes sud-est européennes 2, no. 3-4 (1964): 467–510.

A general overview on the presence of Bulgarian goldsmiths working in Wallachia and insight on some precious liturgical objects made by masters from Chiprovtsi, including the kivotion for the monastery of Tismana.

Paolicchi, Anita. “Les chivote à l’époque de Constantin Brâncoveanu.” In Microarchitecture et figures du bâti: l'échelle à l'épreuve de la matière, conference proceedings at the Institut National d’Histoire de l’Art, Paris, 8th–10th Dec. 2014, 87–96. Paris: Picard 2018.

A short preliminary essay on the political meaning of the architectural kivotia during the reign of Prince Constantin Brâncoveanu, late 17th century.


Anita Paolicchi, "The Kivotion of Tismana Monastery," Mapping Eastern Europe, eds. M. A. Rossi and A. I. Sullivan, accessed June 3, 2023,