Medieval golden bulls from Wallachia and Moldavia

P 20056a; P 20057; P 20060; P 20059
Medieval history
Late 16th century
Gilded silver
Minting, “au repoussé” hammering, engraving, gilding.
Between 76 - 99 mm
Between 101 - 180 gr.

    Medieval golden bulls from Wallachia and Moldavia

    Text: dr. Cristiana Tătaru; photo: Marius Amarie

    Throughout the Middle Ages, the importance of the acts issued by the chancelleries of European monarchs was often emphasized through the attachment of golden bullae (Greek: chrysoboule; Latin: bulla aurea) to the body of the documents, which occasionally replaced the wax seal impressions. The main purpose of the seals was that of authenticating the documents and hence of bestowing credibility to documents issued by both sovereigns and private persons, because seals started to be used by all the social classes. Seals are defined as extremely rich historical sources due to the iconographic representations on the one hand and to the texts they always accompanied on the other. Most of the seals that were attached to official papers were wax imprints, resulting from the impression of a rigid object, called a matrix, on which the images and letters of the text referring to the name and status of the owner of the piece were engraved. Within this context, the use of golden bullae instead of the classic wax impressions is truly remarkable, as it indicates the exceptional value of the documents accompanied by such precious objects. 

    The earliest reported employment of golden bulls, also known as chrysobulls, is signaled within the Byzantine sigillography tradition. They were used by Byzantine emperors to emphasize the importance of the documents used in their communication with other sovereigns. This fact is also illustrated by a passage from Cartea ceremoniilor (The Ceremonial Book), compiled under Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus, which indicates the metrological standards of the bullae attached to the documents, according to the importance given to their recipients: in accordance, the bulls attached to the correspondence of the Western rulers were smaller than those of the caliphs of the Near East. As a result of their very small dimensions, alongside their iconography and captions, Byzantine golden bullae were often confused with the Byzantine gold currency issuance. As time passed, the dimensions of these objects increased when they started to be attached to edicts and privileges issued by Western sovereigns, who quickly acquired this habit. Starting with the 11th century, when Alexios I Komnenos signed the pact granting numerous economic and commercial privileges to Venice, such treaties and edicts bearing distinct seals made of precious metal received the name of golden bullae. The golden bullae issued by monarchs in the Middle Ages and early modern times cannot be analyzed without mentioning some of the most remarkable golden bulls that survived the passage of time. The most important of these are: the golden bulla attached to the decree issued by Frederick II in 1212 which confirms Ottokar I the title of King of Bohemia, the golden bulla attached to the decree also issued by Frederick II which established a series of privileges for the city of Bern, the golden bulla attached to the document issued by Emperor Charles IV in 1356, which regulated important constitutional aspects of the Holy Roman German Empire etc. 

    Nine golden bulls which were issued by Romanian rulers are currently known, and four of them are preserved in the collection of seals of the National Museum of Romanian History. Alongside the iconographic approaches, the practice of attaching such sigillographic pieces to old documents is representative for the post Byzantine culture, which was preserved in the areas of Wallachia and Moldavia following the disappearance of the Byzantine Empire. It should be pointed out that all the nine golden bulls preserved have been attached to benefaction documents issued for monastic settlements located in regions encompassed within the borders of the Ottoman Empire. Most benefactions are directed to the Saint Catherine Church in the monastery of Sinai, as well as to the monasteries on the Holy Mount Athos and in the Balkan Peninsula. 

    This practice is reported starting with the second half of the 16th century. Based on the nine golden bullae preserved so far – out of which six are issued by Wallachian rulers and three by Moldavian ones – it was determined that the practice of attaching golden bullae to benefaction acts issued for religious edifices spanned over the entire century, from Alexandru II (1568-1577) to Grigore Ghika (1660-1664/1672-1673). Taking into account that the bullae were attached to a specific type of document, namely that of benefaction acts for Orthodox settlements, their iconography is quite uniform. Consequently, the obverse bears themes which allude to the authority of the person issuing the bulla (portrait, heraldic elements), while the reverse displays a religious scene directly tied to the patron saint of the monastic churches receiving the benefactions. 

    Particular attention should be paid to the metal of which the bullae are manufactured, as these pieces retain their golden bullae denomination in literature, despite the fact that Wallachian and Moldavian golden bulls were manufactured of gilded silver.


    The golden bull of the Wallachian Prince Alexandru II (1568-1577)

    The obverse of the bulla depicts two crowned characters wearing princely attires, both facing towards a tree placed between them and raising their arms towards it in adoration. Drawing a parallel to previous depictions, it was ascertained that the character on the right side (sinistra in heraldic sense) is feminine. This iconographic representation is known in literature under the name nova plantatio and is considered to be a depiction of Wallachia of secondary heraldic value, used in parallel with the traditional coat of arms which is embodied by the golden eagle (aquila valachica). In the absence of written sources to interpret the symbolism behind this representation, the nova platantio theme has been assigned several interpretations. Some historians identify the depicted characters as Emperor Constantine the Great and his mother Helena, while another assumption considers this image to be a symbol for the founding of Wallachia by its first ruler. Moreover, according to a third hypothesis, this image would reflect the commitment of Wallachian rulers to the Byzantine imperial continuity. 

    The earliest representation which can be associated with this image lies on one of the wax sealing impressions attached to a charter issued by Mircea cel Bătrân in 1403 towards the Polish king Władysław. This type of iconographic theme was also approached by the following rulers of Wallachia in the 15th century. The fact that the sealing impressions attached to 16th century documents only depict two crowned heads/busts facing each other, separated by the stalk of a plant or a sapling, led some historians to believe that they were dealing with a different subject. This argument was the premise for the proposition that one can only truly talk about nova plantatio starting with the second half of the 15th century, during the reign of Radu cel Frumos, when the central vegetal element is evidently a tree. The clear representation of this iconographic element, associated with the disappearance of the Byzantine Empire, allowed for emphasizing the idea that the nova plantatio theme must be understood as an identity symbol, through which the rulers of Wallachia assumed one of the prerogatives of the Byzantine emperors, namely that of defenders of the Orthodox religion. This mission is revealed by the numerous benefactions and aids offered by the Wallachian rulers to the monastic settlements within the borders of the Ottoman Empire. 

    On the subject of the representation on the obverse of the golden bull of Alexandru II, it should be emphasized that special attention has been granted to the iconographic elements, as well as to the characters of the legend, which indicate the style of an artist strongly influenced by the manufacturing technique and iconography rigors particular to the Orthodox Balkan area. The characters are not rendered very realistically, as their garments are decorated by stamping with a round graver with the dots being arranged in a triangle on the costume of the male character and in the shape of a rosette on that of the female character. It should be noticed that the background on either side differs through its dotted field. The tree resembles a cypress and has a trunk with five branches which appear to be severed. Two stalks emerge from the lower part of the trunk, covering the empty area between the tree and the bodies of the characters. This fear of the empty space (horror vacui) is also suggested by the positioning of vegetal elements, arabesques of leaves and flowers, behind the characters as well as within the area designated for the texts which are too short and fail to cover their assigned space. The crown of the tree is rendered by a conical shape on whose surface the leaves are rendered through engraving. It is worth highlighting the presence of the sun, illustrated as a six-pointed star, and that of the crescent, depicted as a new moon – heraldic elements also found on the coat of arms of Wallachia. 

    The Slavonic legend is encompassed within two linear circles which are engraved with lines on both sides of the golden bull, resembling a fake cord. The name of the ruler who used this bulla to authenticate the charter is indicated in the text on the obverse – “this golden seal of Voivode Ion Alexandru Ruler of Wallachia” – while the reverse mentions the patronage of the church receiving the benefaction granted through the document – “Transfiguration of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ”. According to a study conducted by Constantin Moisil in the middle of the 20th century, this bulla was attached to a benefaction deed that was issued for the Holy Trinity Church of Sinai, Egypt and which was later lost. It should be mentioned that there is only one church dedicated to the Transfiguration within the Saint Catherine monastery in Sinai, founded by the Byzantine emperor Justinian. Therefore, as evidenced by the inscription on the reverse of the bulla and its iconography, the benefaction was issued for the Transfiguration Church, and not for the Holy Trinity Church. 

    The iconography depicting the patronage of the church, the Transfiguration of Our Lord, adheres to the Byzantine representational canons. Consequently, the center depicts Jesus Christ surrounded by a halo with six triangular rays, holding a rolled rotulus in his left hand. On either side, He is accompanied by Moses and Elijah, the Old Testament prophets who appeared during the miraculous transfiguration of Jesus Christ, according to the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 17, 3). The representation of the arid and stony relief that alludes to Mount Tabor, the place where this crucial Christian event took place, is also characteristic to the iconography of this religious theme. 

    The edge of the piece bears no decorations, but there are three visible holes (6.15 mm x 6.75 in diameter), one located on the upper part and two on the lower one, which were used for attaching the golden bull to the documents through a pretty thick cord. The interior of the piece is hollow.


    The golden bull of the Wallachian PRINCE Mihnea II (1574-1577 / 1585-1591)

    The piece is manufactured in a very similar style to that of the previously described piece, as the legend on the obverse refers to the ruler Mihnea II, also known as Mihnea the Turned-Turk, and his mother, Lady Ecaterina Salvaresso, who acted as a regent during Mihnea’s first reign between 1574 and 1577. 

    At first sight, this representation seems to be very similar to the previous one (nova plantatio), but the hypostasis in which the two characters are depicted allows for another possible interpretation of this iconography. Consequently, the two facing characters, Mihnea (on the left side or the heraldic dextra) and Lady Ecaterina (on the right side or the heraldic sinistra) are depicted on their knees, while their hands, also illustrated in a pose of adoration, are touching the tree trunk. This time, its roots are rendered, while the crown, small in size compared to the tree trunk, bears the same conical shape. This gesture was interpreted as alluding to the two characters of royal origin planting the tree, a symbol associated with transmitting royal authority from father to son. The presence of Mihnea II’s mother, instead of his father, Alexandru II, can be explained by the fact that Ecaterina was the true ruler of Wallachia during the first reign of her son, and as a result she was often mentioned in benefaction documents, alongside him. Nevertheless, the differences between these two types of images – the nova plantatio theme, present on the previous bulla and the representation of the planting of the tree on this bulla – are very subtle, which calls for restraint in assigning an interpretation to the iconography of the obverse of this piece. It should be noted that the left side of the crown of the tree trunk exhibits the Cyrillic character “a”. It seems that this golden bull was manufactured by the same artist-craftsman who made the cover for Alexandru II’s Tetraevangelion, as a number of style similarities have been identified on the faces of the ruling family depicted on its cover. In this context, it is possible that the artist had combined the theme present on the bulla issued by Alexandru II, nova plantatio, with the representations of the two characters depicted as benefactors on the cover of the Tetraevangelion, without understanding the true symbol of the images. The lack of experience of the artist who crafted this bulla is also suggested by the awkwardness with which the drawings were carried out and the misspellings present in the inscriptions on the piece. 

    The same approach can be observed on the background of the piece, as the central area assigned to the iconography as well as the peripheral area assigned to the text are decorated with engraved circles made with a relatively worn-out round graver. A two-leafed flower is depicted behind either of the characters.

    The circular inscriptions on the two facets of the bulla are encompassed by two circles engraved with simple lines, which resemble a fake cord. The legend on the reverse of the bulla mentions the name of the Deropoli (Dryinupoleos) monastery, dedicated to Saint Elijah, the monastic settlement located in Epirus which received this benefaction. 

    The image of Saint Elijah is depicted on the obverse of the piece, as unequivocally identified by the inscription circumscribing it – Saint Elijah the Prophet. The head of the saint is surrounded by a carelessly rendered halo while his garments display small shallow engraved dots on the lower part, which suggest a correlation with the manner in which the garments were approached for the characters depicted on the bulla issued by Alexandru II. Once again, the empty spaces are filled with vegetal elements.

    The piece displays a mechanical deformation on the right side of the obverse. The edge is smooth and it also exhibits three holes for fastening the cord (4.85 mm × 4.45 mm in diameter): one on the upper part and two on the lower one. The interior of the bulla is hollow.


    The golden bull of the Wallachian Prince Petru Cercel (1583-1585)

    The particularity of the bulla bearing the name of the Wallachian ruler Petru Cercel resides in the depiction of his image on the obverse. Petru Cercel is represented in princely garments, wearing a long caftan fastened around the waist and a coat lined with ermine, which is suggested by the small elongated engravings but also by his portrait from the church of the Căluiu monastery (Argeș County), where he is depicted in the same fashion. He is wearing an open crown with three fleurons on his head, he is holding a three-pointed cross in his left hand and his right hand is slightly raised. 

    Similarly to the previous piece, the background is decorated through stamping while the empty spaces are adorned with arabesques made of flowers and leaves. The lower part of the iconography area is approached in a different way, marked by the intersection of oblique lines. 

    The legends on the obverse and reverse of the bulla are separated by a simple linear circle from the central area. The obverse displays the name of the donor “This bulla was made by Voivode and Ruler of Wallachia Ioan Petru”, while the reverse mentions the name of the Transfiguration Church within the Saint Catherine monastery in Sinai, the beneficiary of the benefaction.

    The iconography of the reverse resumes the already classicized Transfiguration theme, as it is known to us from the Byzantine mosaic of the Transfiguration Church in Sinai, dating back to the 6th century. The direct link with the iconic image of the mosaic from Sinai is marked by the presence of the Apostles Jacob, Peter and John, who are fallen to the ground (Matthew 17). Christ is depicted in the upper part of the image, in a mandorla with rays and surrounded by prophets Moses and Elijah. The stony character is rendered once more by broken lines, which confer a geometric aspect to the intention of depicting the relief of the mountain. Moreover, all the remaining empty spaces which were too large to be left as such in the vision of the artist-craftsman were filled with flowers (six randomly arranged flowers).

    The edge of the bulla is smooth and it exhibits two holes (10.65 mm x 10.70 mm in diameter) for fastening the cord it was attached to, with one being located in the upper part of the piece and the second on the lower one. Unlike the other golden bulls in the collection, this one has its interior filled with a material that appears to be hardened reddish clay, which underwent a burning process.


    The Golden bull of Moldavian PRiNCE Petru Șchiopul (Peter the Lame) (1574-1577 / 1578-1579 / 1583-1591)

    Unlike the bullae of the Wallachian rulers, the bulla bearing the name of the Moldavian ruler Petru Șchiopul (Peter the Lame) is characterized by a completely different style of approaching the surfaces of the piece, but also by a particular iconographic technique, despite the fact that Petru Șchiopul was a descendent of the Wallachian ruling family and brother to Alexandru II. The novelty resides in the approach of the obverse of the piece, which exhibits a very elaborate heraldic representation. Its lower part depicts a quartered shield towered by a helmet with ample lambrequins rendered in the shape of vegetable stalks, while the crest of the helmet is adorned with the long-necked bull head, flanked by two crescents. The shield displays three fasces in the first field, a two-pointed cross in the second, three roses arranged in line in the third and a double lily in the fourth. The central area stands out from the circular inscription on the edge due to its protruding surface. Furthermore, it is encompassed by a circle resembling a cord, which has been minutely rendered, unlike the ones on the Wallachian bullae, where it was simply engraved. Moreover, the surfaces of the iconography elements are opaque and do not exhibit any further intervention from the artist, thus differing from the field of the inscription on both facets, where the space between the Cyrillic characters has been decorated with rhombuses resulting from the intersection of a considerable number of fine engraved lines. However, the surfaces without iconographic elements in the central area of the reverse where the Transfiguration is once again depicted, are decorated through engraving with a round graver

    As indicated in both the inscription and the iconography on the reverse, the bulla was attached to a benefaction act issued by the ruler towards the Transfiguration Church within the monastery of Saint Catherine in Sinai. The iconography approaches the same pattern as the Byzantine mosaic in the church of Saint Catherine monastery, in which, as already mentioned for the bulla of Petru Cercel, the apostles Jacob, Peter and John are rendered in a prostrating state. The upper part depicts Christ in a mandorla, a symbol for the light that surrounded Him during the moment of Transfiguration, and he is surrounded by the prophets Moses and Elijah.

    The edge of the bulla is opaque and a surface of approximately 70 mm bears an engraved inscription which allowed for the dating of the piece in 1575 (The year 7083 month February in 8 days). It also exhibits an engraved Slavonic “M” in a distinct area from that of the dating inscription. The piece features three holes for fastening the cord: one in the upper part and two in the lower part of the piece, which is hollow on the inside.