Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 20, 2024
Alice Isabella Sullivan The Eclectic Visual Culture of Medieval Moldavia Visualising the Middle Ages, Volume: 15. Leiden: Brill, 2023. 406 pp. Cloth GPB99.17 (9789004529045)

Standard narratives on medieval art focus on Western Europe and conventional stylistic and geo-chronological categories of early medieval, Romanesque, and Gothic; the latter associated with “later medieval art.” Medieval art in and of Eastern Europe is habitually tied to Christian Orthodoxy, identified with Byzantine art, and considered a separate research arena with its own categories: Early, Middle, and Late Byzantine periods, associated with prominent rulers, so also known as Justinianic, Komnenian, and Palaeologan periods. Medieval art of the Slavs is frequently isolated within the narratives about the arts of current nation-states. Wider narratives customarily examine the art of the Slavs as a derivative of Byzantine paradigms. Set against the linear periodization of art history, framed by the classical period, late antique or early Christian art, and Renaissance art as points of departure and goal, it becomes increasingly clear why, if discussed within a global medieval context, arts of the Slavic domains remain positioned to the periods before and after 1453 when the Ottomans conquered Constantinople, the capital of the former Byzantine Empire. Revealing is the material from the important, recently published volume, Art and Architecture of the Middle Ages, Exploring a Connected World by Jill Caskey, Adam S. Cohen, and Linda Safran. Moreover, because of the notion that the art of the Christian Orthodox was conservative, scholarly discourse extended the category of medieval art of Eastern Europe well into the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. These narratives, including those about “medievalism(s),” have been recurrently revisited in historical and art historical debates.

In her book, The Eclectic Visual Culture of Medieval Moldavia, Alice Isabella Sullivan joins this ongoing debate about the geo-chronological maps of medieval art on multiple fronts. Her substantial, extensively documented, and lavishly illustrated book challenges the granted categorization and reception of medieval art. Sullivan writes a much-needed social history of architecture and visual arts of Moldavia, the former principality in Eastern Europe comprising the territories of present-day northeastern Romania and the Republic of Moldova. Remarkable for brightly painted exterior and interior walls showcasing innumerable religious images, the famous sixteenth-century church at the Moldovița monastery exemplifies general knowledge about Moldavian art. Sullivan does not offer an art historical narrative of a homogenous whole of Moldavia. Rather, she unlocks and presents a vibrant artistic arena. 

Sullivan examines the prolific architectural and artistic production of Moldavia from its inception in the mid-fourteenth century to approximately mid-seventeenth century to argue for the formation of the distinct eclectic visual culture in this part of the world beginning in the fifteenth century. The material is presented in an introduction that delves into historiographical and scholarly debates, seven thematic chapters that detail various artistic accomplishments set against major socio-political events, and a conclusion. The text is supplemented by a bibliography, a biblical index, an index of names, titles, and selected realia, and an index of repositories: archives, libraries, and museums. Without subscribing to any singular style or artistic doctrine, but instead drawing upon various local and far-flung styles and artistic ideas from the Balkans and Euro-Asia, Sullivan demonstrates that the visual culture of medieval Moldavia was truly eclectic and, for example, that recognizable exterior church murals were not an invention of Moldavian artists. Sullivan presents a story of experimentation and re-invigoration of various artistic practices rather than a story of exclusive and exclusionary paradigms. Emphasis is placed on the political and ideological agendas and interests of patrons in promoting their values through the monumental architecture of the military fortifications and religious structures and related visual arts that go beyond painted murals of the churches to include textiles, metalwork, woodwork, illuminated manuscripts, and various other portable objects. Especially valuable is a nuanced analysis of the modalities of patronage (royal, aristocratic, religious, monastic, familial; female and male) and their cross-cultural intersections. Sullivan additionally traces complex networks of various artistic workshops and the mobility of their ideas and practices across the wider region. 

The book removes the previously strongly established scholarly boundaries, framed by boundaries of the modern nation-states, that precluded a better understanding of the dynamics of art and architectural production in Moldavia and by Moldavian patrons. Sullivan demonstrates a mastery of the subject and a solid command of the relevant languages for this notoriously demanding study. The book engages with highly complex and wide-ranging scholarship documented in texts written in numerous modern and ancient languages (English, French, German, Romanian, Old Church Slavonic) and dealing with history, religious studies, and studies of Romanian (Wallachian, Transylvanian, and Moldavian), Byzantine, Slavic (including Russian, Serbian, Polish, Czech), and Western medieval (including Gothic, Germanic, Hungarian) art and architecture.

For the first time in the English language, Sullivan’s book elucidates Moldavian visual arts and architecture as an outcome of complex and shifting dynamics of socioeconomic, political, religious, and aesthetic preferences of their patrons. Other notable publications, such as Revelations of Byzantium: The Monasteries and Painted Churches of Northern Moldavia by Alan Ogden et al. frequently present only architecture. Sullivan offers a more inclusive account of these monasteries, churches, and related art and liturgical objects. She situates these accomplishments within rigorously researched historical contexts, thus allowing a better understanding of how, for example, architecture and arts sponsored by Moldavian Prince Stephan III the Great (r. 1457–1504) differed from those supported by his son Prince Petru Rareș (r. 1527–38; 1541–46), who can be credited for introducing the overwhelming number of mural cycles painted on the exteriors of churches he funded or founded. Among referent texts that present Moldavia is the synthesis Eastern Medieval Architecture: The Building Traditions of Byzantium and Neighboring Lands by Robert Ousterhout. Yet, Ousterhout allocated less than a dozen pages to the architecture from Moldavia. He explained the material within regionalist theories, but his major sources remained within nation-styles and center-periphery discourse. Importantly, Sullivan moves the scholarship with the refreshed scholarly methodology that consults previous publications but opens additional research venues. 

Sullivan analyzes changing agencies in wider networks of arts, including but not limited to the role of Moldavian women in patronage and artistic production, rarely researched Gothic art in Moldavia, Saxon-Moldavian interactions, or Armenian-Moldavian interactions that shift studies from the centrality of Byzantium further north and east. She unveils relations between art, artistic practices, donors, artists of Moldavia, and other Christian entities, predominantly Christian Orthodox domains of medieval Serbia, Bulgaria, Russia, Greece, and Mt. Athos. Highlighted are intersections of Moldavian visual culture with Roman Catholic domains of medieval Poland, Hungary, and Germany. Apart from political and religious tensions, Moldavian-Ottoman connections are not examined within art networks and call for future work.  

Informed by the theories of regionalism, Sullivan emphasizes decisive socio-historical events such as Ottoman conquests, military battles, and Christian Orthodoxy that marked cultural identity and memory. Yet, she also explains how these identity issues and cross-cultural intersections can be related to decisions in art production that allowed for recognizable regionalism in medieval Moldavia and informed the ways Moldavians viewed themselves as defenders of the Orthodox faith, by articulating local and far-flung artistic practices in reimagining a Byzantino-Slavic vision of Christendom long after the historical demise of the Byzantine Empire. Sullivan effectively adjusts the canons of medieval art history and its periodization by providing a transnational, cross-cultural narrative about the arts in and of Moldavia. The major merit of Sullivan’s outstanding work is that The Eclectic Visual Culture of Medieval Moldavia firmly situates Moldavian art and architecture of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries within art historical maps: scholars who are following traditional paradigms (Byzantine, Western European-Medieval, Renaissance-Early Modern or similar categories) can refer to her work either in terms of parallel developments of arts examined chronologically or in terms of visual culture more broadly.

Jelena Bogdanović
Associate Professor, Departments of History of Art and Architecture and Classical and Mediterranean Studies, Vanderbilt University