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Published Date:

North-West Rus (the lands of Novgorod, Pskov, Smolensk)

Grand Duchy of Lithuania (the lands of Grodno, Kovno, Vilna, Polotsk, Vitebsk and Smolensk)

Baltics (Prussia, Livonia)


From the religious history perspective, the lands of Eastern Europe and the Baltics can be defined as territories where in the Middle Ages different models of Christian missions were realised. Current research suggests studying the phenomenon of Christianisation using a network approach. Christianisation is seen as the incorporation of society and its members into socio-cultural networks regulating rituals, behavioural patterns, social roles, systems of values and incentives, mental and ethical frames. In this case, Christian spiritual, ethical and cultural ideals are the guidelines for setting the standards. These ideals are embodied in the texts and images of the Holy Scripture, edifying and liturgical literature, and also in the images of the saints. (See, for example, the collective monograph by Estonian scholars edited by Anu Mänd and Marek Tamm (Making Livonia: Actors and Networks in the Medieval and Early Modern Baltic Sea Region / Ed. by A. Mänd and M. Tamm. L.; N.Y., 2020).

There are two schools of thought regarding the origins of saints. The first believes that the ‘ideal types’ were primary, while hagiography was constructed on their basis. The image was attributed to real people. Advocates of the second school hold that historical figures really sought to conform to the ideals of holiness, and performed ascetic exploits and most of the deeds ascribed to them in hagiographies. In fact, there seems to have been a combination of both ways, with one or the other prevailing in each particular biography.

We should keep this concept in mind when trying to establish the patterns of Christianisation processes in the region concerned. The first steps of a new faith have always been related to the saints’ export followed by other processes: 1) the holiness ideals adaptation to local realities and needs; 2) copycatting (Bauman’s term), that is, inventing the saints through imitation (or recording the exploits of certain believers who assimilated Christian ideals and conformed their lives to them). Historically, this is manifested in finding national saints, in addition to all-Christian ones, both in the state pantheon and locally venerated. The image of holiness and the mechanisms of its formation serve as indicators of broader and more significant socio-political and cultural processes.


North-West Rus (Novgorod, Pskov, Smolensk) in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Period

The baptism of the north-western lands of Rus (Novgorod and Pskov) was a state-wide act initiated primarily by the central princely power. The conversion was combined with a consolidation of the region’s political loyalty to Kiev and the Rurik dynasty that ruled there. Therefore the religious life in Novgorod and Pskov in the Middle Ages combined two tendencies: one was to communicate the ideals of the Christian universe and consolidate the belonging of the land to the Orthodox world of ‘all-Rus’ through the worship; the second was to seek its own spiritual models, to encourage the worship of local saints (until the late 15th century they were more numerous in the North-West than in all other regions of Rus), its own church-architectural and icon-painting schools.

We analysed the dedications of 838 Novgorod churches, mentioned from the 11th to the 16th centuries in chronicles, deeds, Novgorod and Pskov cadastres, materials on hagiography, church services and iconography. We see 117 variations of church dedications to saints and church holidays. Most distinguished among them are nine all-Russian cults: Theodosius and Anthony Pechersky, Boris and Gleb, Vladimir the Baptist, Sergius of Radonezh, Peter the Metropolitan of Moscow, Alexius the Metropolitan of Moscow, the icon of the Hodegetria of Smolensk; and eight local ones: Zosima and Savvatiy Solovetsky, Mikhail Klopsky, Anthony Dymsky, Varlaam Khutynsky, Nikolai Kachanov, Alexander Svirsky, Timofey-Dovmont Pskovsky.

According to the findings, up until the 15th century the cults of all-Christian saints and holidays dominated, i.e. the task of integrating the region into the Orthodox world came first. The number of dedications to both all-Russian and local saints grew in the 15th and 16th centuries. This was undoubtedly related to the autocephaly of the Russian Orthodox Church obtained in 1448. The 16th-17th centuries was the time when the Russian early modern national identity formed, and the Russian ethno-cultural community began to develop into the Russian nation of the modern type. Those processes were closely linked to the growing interest in self-identity, which was accompanied by the development of local saints’ cults.

The first local cults are associated with princes, and are of ‘bookish’ origin. Those were veneration of Alexander Nevsky (d. 1263; the story of his exploits with hagiographic features appeared in about the 1280s), Mstislav Vladimirovich (d. 1132; the Novgorod origin of this cult is unclear; hagiographic texts are contained in the Serbian Prologue of the late 13th — early 14th centuries and in the Bulgarian Synaxarion of 1340), the Pskov Prince Dovmont / Timofey (d. 1299; veneration can be observed since 1341) and the Pskov Prince Vsevolod / Gavriil (d. 1138; relics transferred in 1368; was addressed at the time of war danger). There are no verifiable examples of other local saints being venerated in Novgorod and Pskov in the 13th-14th centuries.

An extensive system of local cults took shape in the Novgorod bishopric under Archbishop Euthymius. After 1439 he established the cults of the Novgorodian lords — eight bishops and archbishops and three princes of the 11th-14th centuries. This was probably due to the church context of the time, especially the church schism in Eastern Europe. Let us review the timeline: 1408 — Photius enthroned as metropolitan, 1416 — Grigory Tsamblak appointed metropolitan of Western Rus’ dioceses, 1438-1439 — the Council of Florence, 1439 — the Union of Florence, 1448 — the autocephaly of the Russian Orthodox Church.

The Catholic advance and the schism in Eastern Slavic Orthodoxy caused by the confrontation with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania aggravated greatly the problem of Orthodox identity. To appeal to Church universals was ineffective; so, the schism and the Roman Catholic faith were opposed by indigenous, true holiness, embodied in the native saints and ascetics existing in North-East Rus since the adoption of Christianity. The worship included the persons beginning from the 11th century. In the North West, the indigenous holiness was cultivated primarily in the monasteries. The monastery status grew significantly when it found ’its own saint’.

Interestingly, a rapid growth of local cults associated with monasteries was recorded in the 15th and 16th centuries, when dozens of such cults appeared in North-West Rus. That was the time when ‘Russian Thebaid’ — the ‘constellation’ of northern monasteries — emerged due to monastic colonisation of the Russian North. Locally, the spread of Christian holiness was directly linked to the development of new territories and their inclusion in ‘my world’. Now local cults and associated sacred places (trees, mountains, islands, caves, landmarks) were used to secure territories, which was better understood by the local population (through the adaptation of folk beliefs).

The sixteenth century saw the new role of local saints’ worship. At the church councils in 1547 and 1549 several Novgorod and Pskov saints were canonised for all-Russian veneration. Among them were Vsevolod/Gavriil, Alexander Nevsky, Archbishop Euthymius, Savva Vishersky. Local hagiographies were included in the Great Menology — an extensive collection of saints’ hagiographies, compiled in the mid-16th century under Metropolitan Macarius. The relics of a number of saints living in the 12th-15th centuries were found, icons were painted, hagiographies and hymnographies were created. Local cults began to play a centripetal role.

It should be noted that local cults never served as an ideological basis for separatism in the 11th-16th centuries and did not contribute to the formation of a specific ‘Novgorodian identity’ (which our analysis confirms). It is a phenomenon of the 19th century, with its interest in local history, when the Middle Ages were attributed the ideals formed much later.


Northern lands of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (Grodno, Kovno, Vilna, Polotsk, Vitebsk and Smolensk) until 1514

The Grand Duchy of Lithuania was a unique entity, embracing a variety of cultural and religious traditions. When this state was formed in the mid-13th century, it included many Orthodox lands of Old Rus, affected by the Mongol invasion. However, the political elite of the country — the Lithuanian princes — were pagan until 1385-1387. Formally, the GDL remained the largest and the only pagan state in Europe until the late 14th century. When the elite were baptised after the Union of Krewo in 1385, Catholicism came to Lithuania, and rapid integration of the state in Latin Europe began. Combinations of those different religious practices, their dialogue and confrontation, determined the spiritual life of the region until the end of the Middle Ages.

Until the 13th-14th centuries, the processes in the Orthodox lands of the GDL were similar to those in Novgorodian and Pskovian lands: the spread of the images, holidays and saints of the Orthodox Christian universe, along with the all-Russian cults of Old Rus (primarily, Boris and Gleb), and the appearance of rare local cults (e.g., Euphrosyne of Polotsk). The centres for the preservation and development of local cults, like in North-West Rus, were monasteries (e.g. the cult of St Elisha of Lauryshava in the monastery of the same name).

The difference between the northern lands of the GDL and North-West Rus is that after the 14th century the cult of the local Catholic saints had no development there for a long time. It was abnormal for a country adopting Christianity. Poland realised this, but took only late and insufficient measures. In 1517 a campaign was initiated to canonise prince Cazimir Jagiellon, who died in 1484, and make him patron saint of the GDL. He was associated with the GDL because he died in Grodno and was buried in Vilna cathedral. A canonization bull was issued in 1521, but Casimir was not canonized until 1602-1604.

Alongside the spread of Catholicism, Catholic saints, though few in number, were transferred beginning from the late 14th century. This process was linked to the royal power. For example, in the 14th century the main GDL cathedral in Vilna was dedicated in honour of St Stanislaus (the bishop of Krakow died in 1079 and was canonised in 1253 as Poland’s first national saint) and St Ladislaus (Laszlo I, a Polish-born Hungarian and Croatian king of the Arpad dynasty, d. 1095, canonised in 1192). But until the late 16th century, the transfer was insignificant and the universal saints and holidays of the Catholic world predominated. The development of local cults began in the Modern Period, and was related to the growing confrontation between the Orthodox, the Uniates and the Catholics (we even see examples of the ‘struggle for saints’) in the context of the awakening national consciousness.


The Baltics (Livonia, Prussia, Danish and Swedish possessions in the Baltics)

The Baltics, the lands of future Livonia and Courland, were converted into Christianity in the 12th and 13th centuries during the Northern Crusades. They became part of the Germanic world, the easternmost province of the Holy Roman Empire (although membership of the empire was not formalised until the 16th century). Here the policy of universalisation and integration into Latin Christianity prevailed over everything else. We see a transfer of Germanic and Scandinavian saints, but, paradoxically, Livonia had no saints of its own. It was more important for the German Catholic world of Livonia to become integrated with Catholic Europe, with the Holy Roman Empire. As for the christened local population in the Middle Ages, they were spiritually and intellectually too weak to establish local cults, let alone to initiate costly and complex processes of official canonisation. Certain questions arise regarding the absence of cults of local Christian missionaries, the first bishops of Livonia, martyrs for the faith in the war against the pagans, etc. Apparently, this was the negative influence of the Reformation. There were signs of the emergence of such cults in the Middle Ages (at least the veneration of the tombs of the first bishops). Subsequent events put an end to that: the beginning of the Reformation in the 1520s, the demise of the German order in 1560 and the establishment of the Swedish Protestant reign in North Estonia from the 1560s and in all parts of former Livonia from 1610-1620.

In studying the specifics of the cult of saints and heroes in Prussia, we have analysed the dedications of the churches and identified the cases of a particular saint being venerated as a patron. We have considered churches in town parishes, churches belonging to monastic orders but located within towns, and cathedrals. Within the first category, St John and Apostles Peter and Paul prevailed. Many town parish churches within the State of the Teutonic Order in Prussia were dedicated to St Nicholas. As for the second two church categories, dedication to Virgin Mary prevails, which is hardly surprising, since she occupied a very important place in the religious patronage system of the churches in Prussian cities. This was due to both the influence of the Teutonic Order and the possible influence of the Hanseatic cultural environment.