Euphrosenia of Polacak: Patroness of the Arts in the Polacak Principality of Eastern Europe *

By Rusak, Halina R. | Aurora, The Journal of the History of Art, Annual 2003 | Go to article overview

Euphrosenia of Polacak: Patroness of the Arts in the Polacak Principality of Eastern Europe *


Rusak, Halina R., Aurora, The Journal of the History of Art


Saint Euphrosenia of Polacak was the patron saint of today's Belarus. She was a woman of strong will, sound education, and exceptional leadership qualities. She was indisputably sharp of mind and a key figure in the cultural development of medieval Eastern Europe, specifically, the twelfth century Principality of Polacak. Euphrosenia left an imprint on every aspect of Polacak life: the church, education, the arts, government, the political life of the City of Polacak, as well as the Polacak Principality itself. And whatever Euphrosenia did, was never average. As her hagiographer vividly stated, "Euphrosyne [was]--the high-flying eagle that flew from West to East, the light illuminating the land of Polacak." (1) And her influence reaches us today.

St. Euphrosenia and the Polacak Principality. The territory of Eastern Europe in the eleventh and twelfth centuries consisted of feudal principalities typical of medieval times. Each principality vied either for a position of leadership, expansion of its territory, or maintenance of its independence. Kiev was one of the most influential principalities of the time. Polacak was in perpetual rivalry with Kiev, and it was the first principality to question its rival's primacy. The city of Polacak was an important religious, political, and commercial center on the trade route from the Viking north to Kiev, the Black Sea and Byzantium, and had strong ties to the latter. To this milieu Pradslava/Euphrosenia was born in c.1104.

Pradslava was her secular name, and Euphrosenia her monastic name. Princess Pradslava was the daughter of Prince Yuri of Polacak, of the ruling Polacak dynasty of Rahvalod, and she was related to the Byzantine imperial line of Constantinople. (2) She entered the convent at the age of twelve, refusing to marry. As in other parts of Europe, marriage in the ruling families of Polacak was usually arranged for political reasons. Married life for a woman implied leaving one's country, entrusting one's life into the hands of a stranger, seeing one's husband infrequently between his campaigns, and often sharing him with other women. Thus, Euphrosenia rejected such a future and steered her own destiny, as did many women of her class. She persuaded her abbess aunt, Prince Roman's widow (some scholars believe that her monastic name was Feuronia), to consecrate her for the church. The Abbess admonished the newly consecrated Euphrosenia to follow the example of female predecessors, such as virgin saints Feuronia of Mesopotamia and Eupraksia of Egypt. Euphrosenia, a woman endowed with superior intellect and boundless energy, saw religious life as a means to attain independence, engage in creativity, and obtain immortality. Over time she persuaded four of her relatives to join her at the convent: her sister Hardzislava/Eudakija, her cousin Zvienislava/Eupraksija, and her two nieces Kiryana/Ahafija and Volha/Eufimija. (3)

In c. 1120 Euphrosenia obtained the bishop's permission to reside at St. Sophia Cathedral within the castle walls. Her stay there provided access to a well-established library that gave her the opportunity to learn and to teach. At St. Sophia she dedicated much of her time to writing in her cell, transcribing manuscripts, and translating Greek works. At that time female scribes were an oddity in the region as such work was considered too strenuous and time consuming for women. In addition to its religious value, illuminating was also an artistic form considered more appropriate for men, as the manuscripts' initial letters and miniatures within the text were decorative, imaginative, and instructive. This work demonstrates Euphrosenia's stamina, discipline, and independent nature. At St. Sophia, in a short time, Euphrosenia became an important force in the creation and distribution of the written word. She apparently sold her manuscripts and distributed the money to the needy, which speaks, not only of her interests in the dissemination of learning, but also of her charity. …

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