Seal of Athanasius, Patriarch of Constantinople from Pereslavl-Zalessky

Pereslavl-Zalessky, whose history described in chronicles dates back to the middle of the 12th century, remains to be the least studied cities of North East Rus in archaeological terms. The first excavations were launched in the city in 1853 by P.S. Savelyev who made trenches inside the city rampart around the Savior Transfiguration Cathedral, one of the ancient white-stone churches of the Rostov-Suzdal principality, built during ruling of Yuri Dolgoruky. However, in the second half of the 20th century, which is the period of the most comprehensive and productive archaeological studies of Rus cities, Pereslavl almost disappeared from the screen of researchers’ interests. New materials have not been collected until recently, the renewed interest is explained by a higher level of rescue excavations within the boundaries of the medieval city. The most spectacular find is a lead pendant seal (also called ‘hanging’ seal) featuring Our Lady and a Greek inscription discovered in the Savior Transfiguration Cathedral in 2014.

The 2014 archaeological excavations were intended to prepare a project for cathedral restoration and included a number of boreholes drilled to study the stratigraphy of deposits and conditions of the cathedral foundation pit. One of boreholes was made inside the cathedral in the diaconicon. The borehole revealed construction deposits including a layer dating to the period of the construction startup. Bases and several walls of a white-stoned rectangular sarcophagus with a practically intact head part were discovered along the south wall in the borehole. The seal was lying in a redeposited layer of grey sand mixed with lime and pebbles at the depth of around 40 cm from the contemporary floor beneath the sarcophagus head; apparently, it fell into this place in the course of earlier earthworks.

The molivdovul (hanging lead seal) stands apart from similar ancient artifacts for its sheer size. The impression of the bullotirium matrices is made on a round lead plate of 43 by 47 mm in size,  4–5 mm in thickness, its weight is 63.3 g. The plate substantially exceeds the size of the matrices.

On the obverse of the seal Our Lady enthroned (a variant of the Mother of God of the Nikopea type) is depicted holding the infant Jesus in front of her, the figure of Our Lady is surrounded by a circle of globetti (beads in relief). Our Lady holds the infant Jesus on her lap while the infant Jesus is portrayed almost standing, with his feet practically hidden by maphorion folds. The folds of the garments are rather finely worked in detail. Our Lady sits solemnly on a pillow placed on a wide throne with a tall latticed back. There is an inscription ΜΡ–ΘV on the right and on the left of Our Lady’s head above the throne back under the titles.

The reverse of the seal contains eight lines of a Greek inscription surrounded by a circle of beads in relief (?). When making a mirror-image of the inscription, the craftsman miscalculated the space inside the circle and three last letters of line eight ran into the circle.

The inscription is easily readable. This is how it starts:

+ Αθανά-

σιος ελέω Θ(εο)υ


Translation. Athanasius, by Act of God Archbishop of Constantinople, New Rome and Ecumenical Patriarch.

The type of the seals depicting Our Lady and an inscription composed of several lines is well known in Byzantine and Russian medieval sphragistics. It was typical for bullae owned by highest hierarchs of the church such as patriarchs, metropolitans, archbishops and bishops. Thanks to the well preserved inscription the seal may be attributed to its owner with much confidence. It is associated with activities of Athanasius I, who was invited to the Patriarchal throne of the Church twice, in 1289–1293 and 1303–1309.

Seals owned by Constantinople patriarchs come from sphragistic collections of many countries, but only five molivduvols of this type were recorded for Rus before, out of which only the seal of Eustratius Garidas (1081–1084) found in the Kiev St. Sophia Cathedral during excavations has a reliably documented archaeological context.

Among published molivdovuls so far only two are attributed to Patriarch Athanasius. One seal is in the Berlin museum collection, while the other put on display in Vienna in 1997 comes from a private collection. Judging by the published photographs, the impressions were made by the same matrices as those used to make the seal from Pereslavl-Zalessky. In terms of the iconography of Our Lady depicted, Athanasius seal is a further development of the Constantinople patriarchs’ seals of the earlier period; differences are noted only in the turns of the figures and details. A wide throne with a latticed back, not typical for middle Byzantine patriarchal seals, is an important detail. This throne is also present on the seal of Patriarch Germanus II of Constantinople (1222–1240), which may be regarded as one of the samples for the seal of Patriarch Athanasius. It is quite possible that in the 13th century a well-known icon from Constantinople depicting Our Lady-Nikopea was used as a prototype for patriarchal seals.

Athanasius I, in the world Alexius, was born around 1235 in Adrianople and died in the Monastery of Xerolophus in Constantinople in 1315. He is one of the most striking personalities in the history of the Palaeologus Byzantium. The monk who had spent many years of ascetic labors in monasteries in Athos and Thrace and was noted for his ascetic life in solitude was invited to the Patriarchal throne of the Church at the suggestion of Emperor Andronicus II Palaeologus (1282–1328) and made a huge influence on the basileus and policy pursued by the empire. It is known that Athanasius stood firmly against closer relations between Byzantine and Latin West; he was a vehement supporter of stronger emperor power referring to its divine origin, an ideologue of refinement of moral and ethical standards in Byzantine society, often interfering into secular affairs. The patriarch was forced to resign the throne of the Constantinople Church twice under pressure from his opponents. Veneration of Athanasius as a saint began soon after his death.

Patriarch Athanasius was an important figure in the history of the Russian Church. In 1308 he appointed Peter, abbot of the St. Savior Transfiguration Monastery on the Rata River, which is a Bug tributary, to the vacant see of Kiev. Peter had arrived in Constantinople on initiative of Yuri Lvovich, Prince of Galicia and Volynia, as a candidate for the post of the metropolitan of Galicia. By consecrating Peter as a metropolitan, the patriarch rejected Herontius, hegumen of Tver, dispatched to Constantinople with the holy symbols he had received after the death of Metropolitan Maximus. Colorful accounts of these events are recorded in the ‘Life of Metropolitan Peter’.

This is not the end of the story about Patriarch Athanasius’ participation in affairs of the Russian Church and the destiny of Metropolitan Peter. After receiving a complaint against the metropolitan from bishop Andrei, Athanasius sent one of his clerics, ‘a clever, wise and cunning man’, with a proposal to hold a church council to hear accusations against the holy hierarch. The council took place in Pereslavl-
Zalessky in 1309 or early 1310. The confrontation was so severe that Peter was on the point of resigning the metropolitan throne. The detailed version of the Life says that appearance of the cleric sent by Athanasius who defended the metropolitan and read off the letter of the Constantinople patriarch was of immense significance to ensure Peter’s acquittal.

The church council of 1309/1310 is one of the most dramatic events of the Moscow-Tver confrontation and an important milestone in the history of the Russian Metropolitan see. The selection of Pereslavl as a venue for the council was in the interests of Moscow princes, as this city, which had been in the center of the struggle between the princes in the 1290s, was brought under the rule of the Moscow Principality in 1302. The ruling of the church council strengthened Peter’s position in the Russian Metropolitan See as well as the positions of the Moscow princes who supported him.

It is logical to assume that the seal of Patriarch Athanasius authenticated the patriarch’s letter sent to Peter and the participants of the 1309/1310 church council. Subsequently the document was, probably, kept in the diaconicon of the city stone cathedral, i.e. the Savior Transfiguration Cathedral of Pereslavl. Therefore, the molivdovul of Ecumenical Patriarch Athanasius I is not only a vivid reflection of the links between the Byzantine and Russian churches early in the 14th century but also an archaeological evidence of one of the dramatic events in church history and struggle between princes that we know about only from ‘Life of Metropolitan Peter’ and accounts left by V.N. Tatishchev.

N.A. Makarov, P.G. Gaidukov, Vl.V. Sedov

Digital Version of the Booklet