The Proto-Myth of Stephen the Great of Moldavia

Thesis author: 
Teodora Artimon
Year of enrollment: 
Duration of thesis project: 
Sep, 2010 - Mar, 2015
Thesis supervisor: 
Gerhard Jaritz
Full description: 

The proto-myth of Stephen the Great (1457-1504) refers to the period of Moldavian history which unfolded immediately after the death of the prince and lasted roughly until the beginning of the seventeenth century when, more or less canonically, it is suggested that the stories about mythical Stephen started to be disseminated.

This dissertation shows that Stephen’s mythical aura started to be perceived during the very lifetime of the ruler. Because of this, the text is comprised of two parts: one section dealing with the fifteenth-century self-fashioning of Stephen the Great and another section focusing on the propagation and creation of Stephen’s image in the sixteenth century. By analysing these two centuries imbibed with the imagery of the prince, the nature of the proto-myth can be outlined.

While alive, Stephen started to pave his way towards “stardom” with the help of two basic means: dynastic construction and personal image construction. These means intertwined each other throughout the 47-year reign of the prince, giving birth to a “great” ruler: he enhanced both the past and the future of his dynasty, by means of tomb restoration of his predecessors at Rădăuţi, by commissioning the first dynastic votive image in the history of medieval Moldavia (also at Rădăuţi), by transferring the Church of Volovăţ (the commission of the first Moldavian prince) into the premises of his main commission at Putna; he named his sons with symbolic names (his successor Bogdan-Vlad bore the names of both the Moldavian and the Wallachian first princes – suggesting his ambition to gain influence over Wallachia); he commissioned a huge number of churches and monasteries, giving birth to the myth that he built one church after each military victory; he used imperial attributes starting with the red shoes with which he was often represented in iconography, his marble tombstone, his marriages to two imperial-descending princesses, his appellative as “tsar” in court chronicles, and the probable staging of imperial entrances to Suceava; furthermore, he had his image commissioned in various media, including church iconography, liturgical cloths, and manuscripts, allowing his image to be transferred in an almost unaltered way into the sixteenth century.

The sixteenth century was the century of the proto-myth, when, on the one hand, Stephen’s character and deeds were raised on a mythical pedestal, and on the other hand, he became a model for his successors. The sixteenth-century heirs to the throne followed in his footsteps by various means: Bogdan III continued Stephen’s dynastic construction by exercising influence over Wallachia; Peter Rareş built replicas of his father’s main monastic commission (Putna), while he also developed Stephen’s iconography resulting in the unique Northern Moldavian exterior iconographic programmes; Alexander Lăpuşneanul used Stephen’s old coat of arms and developed the architecture of his predecessor’s most significant commission from a dynastic point of view, the Rădăuţi Monastery. These examples, complemented by a variety of others, increased the perception of Stephen in the sixteenth century. However, the so-called public perception of Stephen was what ultimately balanced the perception of Stephen towards an ideal one. A significant number of people were indirectly influenced by Stephen and unintentionally contributed to the creation of Stephen’s myth – such as the Moldavians born in the last two decades of the fifteenth century (at the end of Stephen’s life) who were able to recall stories about Stephen from a personal perspective; the Szekler and Polish colonizers brought to Moldavia by Stephen who supported their new prince in return for the privileges they received; or simple passers-by, travelers, and diplomats who saw and documented the physical remains of Stephen’s reign and victories (songs being sang about him, votive portraits or other types of imagery representing the late ruler, physical remains of war such as bones or battle pillars, foundation inscriptions on churches such as the one of  Războieni, and so on).

Apart from the insights of these categories of people, the public perception of Stephen in the sixteenth century should also be measured by three other matters: (1) the appellative “the great,” although it started to be used during Stephen’s lifetime, was conclusively crystallized in the first half of the sixteenth century; (2) Stephen’s mythical propagation can also be grasped from fake documents (roughly 37 extant ones) which all rely on the image of Stephen in order for their creators to receive lands, privileges, or donations; (3) the study of legends circulating at the beginning of the seventeenth century reveal the roots of Stephen’s mythical aura – such as the story of “The Hillock of Purcel” or the legend that Stephen built 44 churches, one after each victory.

Both sections of the dissertation end in two parts which exemplify, on the one hand, the accounts of Stephen’s contemporaries on him and, on the other hand, the way Stephen was recalled in chronicles or official documents of the sixteenth century. This includes direct or indirect characterizations of fifteenth-century contemporaries such as Pope Sixtus IV, Jan Długosz, Bernard Wapowski, Maciej Miechowita, Antonio Bonfini, Jakob Unrest, Matteo Muriano, Aşık Paşazade, Tursun Bei, Mehmed Neşri, or Wallachians; as well as acclamations of Stephen as hero and saint, and recollections of war histories recorded by Martin Cromer, Marcin Bielski, Maciej Stryzgowski, Miklós Istvánffy, Kemal Paşazade, and others.

This dissertation unveils the fifteenth- and especially sixteenth-century layers which stood as foundation for Stephen’s myth. The image of Stephen the Great was built upon these proto-mythical layers creating the Stephen that Romanians know and admire up until this day: the ultimate defender of one’s land and one’s faith.