Embroideries and fabrics

The embroidery as an artistic decorative genre goes a long way back in time - having been widely known in all its stylistical diversity even in the ancient world. It hence spread out in all the areas which were under the influence of the Byzantine art and culture, along with all categories of Aulic and Ecclesiastic garments, liturgical and secular veils, which created in their turn a decorative and iconographical collection that gradually gained ground all over the Orthodox world.

Like so many other related artistic genres, such as mural paintings, icons and miniatures, the Byzantine embroideries made for religious purposes developed a style accepted by the church especially after the triumph of iconoclasts over iconodules, that is, in the latter half of the 19th century. As we shall see later on, in the sections dedicated to the various categories of objects, the priestly attire and some liturgical veils adorned with such embroideries represent a renewed synthesis and an adaptation of certain older works to the Christian religion. These older works, be they lay or religious, based on the Old Testament or dating from Ancient Greece are similar in form to the Christian ones, but bearing different meanings and serving different purposes.

At first gradually included in the religious service, the main components of the sacerdotal attire are definitively sanctioned in the 14th century, by the Constitution of Patriarch Filotei of Constantinople, which details the ritual of their wearing. The basic pieces of attire are: the stiharion, the orarium, the stole, the rucavita, the phelonion, the sakkos, the omophorion, the bedernita and the mitre. All of them have symbolic meanings, precise destinations and well-set figurative decorations and shapes and are embroidered with threads of gold, silver, or of coloured silk, being often set in pearls and jewels.

Not in all cases can a clear historical or biblical precedent for the other types of religious embroideries be established. The epitaphs, the aers and the pocrovete, the altar, lectern or grave covers, for instance, have no obvious ‘precedents’ before the Christian era, while the iconostasis veils, the altar door curtains and the zaveste can be traced with a fair amount of certainty to that drapery named iconostasis, used in the temples of the Old Testament as a way of separating the ‘holy’ from the ‘most holy’, that is of the nave from the altar. The iconostasis of that time was made of purple, scarlet and white spun yarn, its only decorations being cherub faces.

The Romanian medieval embroidery evolved for a while under their direct influence as well. One of the greatest historical periods in the history of Romanian art (that reached its peak in the latter half of the 15th century and the former half of the 16th century) incorporated in an eclectic manner the enduring Byzantine and Oriental traditions, some aspects of the late Gothic and Italian Renaissance, all the while preserving its ancient traditions - thus creating surprisingly original works of art, with distinct features, of rare spiritual purity.

The so-called „Moldavian style” is put together during the time of Stephen the Great while he was undergoing a massive lay and religious campaign with cultural and artistic implications, meant to preserve the ancient traditions, but also to adopt the great artistic trends of Europe. The Moldavian style contains Byzantine, Gothic and Renaissance elements in a vision that is unique to Romanian spirituality - not only in as far as the architecture of the time is concerned, but in all its artistic forms. The mural paintings, miniatures, embroideries, the art of the goldsmiths, the sculptures in stone and wood carvings are as many hypostases of the same genius loci, all sharing the same style, resulting from the processing, adaptation and profoundly original reinterpretation of a universal iconographical and ornamental already existing collection.

Once the great religious establishment of Putna, the most important religious foundation of Stephen the Great is built, the artistic and cultural life of Moldavia begins to revolve around this site. Besides housing the monastery’s scriptorium, its trilingual (Greek - Slavonic - Romanian) schools and its workshops where valuable silverware, icons, woodcarvings and stone sculptures took shape, an embroidery workshop was also set up - exceptional works of art were created here, and they were soon to become famous across the world for their originality, craftsmanship, sumptuousness and stylistic unity.

Having evolved, during the ages, alongside the other artistic genres, the embroideries were successively influenced by the distinct features of the great styles and epochs - becoming organically integrated in their development: from the ancient Classicism to Hellenism, and from here to the Byzantine and the Gothic, to the Renaissance and the Baroque, to Neoclassicism and Romanticism, etc. From a technical viewpoint, the experts have established two phases in the evolution of Romanian medieval embroidery: the first between the 14th and the 17th centuries, ‘ when very small dots are being sown with threads of silver and coloured silk’; and the second between the 18th and the 19th centuries, ‘when the threads of metal, and often those of silk as well are no longer sown, but fixed in an invisible manner at various points on the pattern’.

All these works of art, but especially the classic embroideries, together with the splendid manuscripts written by hand and adorned here, brought worldwide fame to the workshops of Putna, revealing it as one of the most important centres of medieval culture and art in South-Eastern Europe.