The Odyssey of Isidore of Kyiv
Isidore, the Metropolite of Kyiv and All Ruthenia is one of the most prominent figures in the European history of the 15th century. The influence of his ideas and activities is still felt today, even though his name and the legacy the Muscovites have been trying to erase from the annals for centuries. Why did he irritate them so much? Why is he so important for Ukraine and the world? Who was he and what is his heritage?
Europe remembers and respects Isidore of Kyiv (Ἰσίδωρος τοῦ Κιέβου) as an outstanding leader of the Renaissance, and one of the major contributors of the Florentine Union of 1439. This union, concluded between the Eastern and Western churches, was aimed at overcoming the consequences of the Great Schism of 1054. A brilliant theologian, scholar, humanist, scholar of languages and scriptures, orator, and diplomat, Isidore was also a very brave man.
In 1453, when he was already a bit under 70 - a very old man by the standards of that time. But, together with his disciple Gregory, he defended Constantinople. Isidore commanded a detachment of two hundred Italian archers, and Gregory commanded a detachment of monks. Both of them cheated death. They were imprisoned but lucky enough to escape to Rome. Isidore remained in Rome, and Gregory returned to Ruthenia and became the new Metropolite, known as Gregory the Bulgarian.
Pletho, Isidore's teacher
Isidore studied at the academy in Mystras (Morea, Peloponnese), where his teacher was Georgius Gemistus Pletho (Γεώργιος Γεμιστός Πλήθων,1355-1454).
Pletho's Academy in Mystras is a unique educational institution, a small Renaissance proto-university that has absorbed the ancient Greek tradition. The experience accumulated there has been used in the further development of university education in Europe. Pletho enjoyed enormous authority in East and West, considered the last prominent Greek philosopher, theologian, connoisseur of astronomy, history, geography, politics, music, and classical writings. Pletho was called "the second Plato", and his influence on the development of Renaissance ideas can not be overestimated.
Pletho trained a brilliant cohort of Renaissance thinkers who left a noticeable mark on history. Among his students are the patriarchs of Constantinople, metropolites, prominent theologians, and historic figures - Bessarion of Nicaea, Mark of Ephesus, Georgios Kourtesios (Gennadius Scholarius), Gregory Mammas - and, of course, Isidore of Kyiv.
At the end of his life, Pletho wrote an amazing theological treatise, which has come down to us only in fragments (The Book of Laws", or Nómoi (Νόμοι)). The treatise was considered heretical. According to one of the versions, the manuscript of Plertho was burned by his disciple, Patriarch of Constantinople Gennadius Scholarius, but this is another story ...
The Odysseus of Isidore
Isidore was born in Thessaloniki around 1385. By origin, he was Greek, or perhaps Bulgarian. After studying in Mystras, he was the abbot of the monastery of St.Demetrios of Thessalonica in Constantinople. This saint is considered the patron saint of the Slavic people. The abbots appointed usually were of Slavic descent - which says for Isidore being a Bulgarian and not a Greek.
The Eastern Roman, or Byzantine, empire lived out its last years. The emperors controlled only Constantinople and some small areas - in particular, Morea and the coast near Trabzon. And although Sultan Murad's last attempt to seize Constantinople was repulsed in 1422, it was clear that the Ottoman Turks would eventually achieve their goal if other Christian rulers would not offer any help to the desperate East Roman capital.
But there was a significant obstacle: since the schism of 1054, Eastern and Western Christians have considered each other heretics rather than brothers in Christ, and this situation had to be corrected urgently. The emperor, the pope, and the patriarch of Constantinople agreed to hold an Ecumenical Council to overcome the effects of the schism and force European rulers to rescue the city.
The Ferraro-Florentine Oecumenical Council and the Florentine Union of 1439 - the Union which, at least technically, can still be considered valid - is a very interesting and surprisingly relevant topic, which we will write about in more detail separately. For now, we should note that the Union was preceded by a colossal preparatory work that lasted for decades. The ice between East and West had to be broken, and Isidore was the icebreaker. He met with the patriarch and the pope, Greek and Latin primates, addressed the Latin Bishops' Council in Basel, and corresponded with many European households. And the ice finally broke.
The Metropolite of Kyiv at that time was Gerasym, the Union's supporter. He is the first and last metropolie burned alive. The stake execution took place in Vitebsk in 1435 as ordered by the arbitrary duke Svydrygailo who fought with duke Sigismund for the throne of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Ruthenia, and Samogitia. The metropolite's chair became vacant. Patriarch Joseph II of Constantinople appoints Isidore a new metropolite of Ruthenia. Isidore takes his student, Gregory the Bulgarian, with them, and they arrive in Kyiv.
Isidore received the world's largest Orthodox metropoly - in addition to Kyiv and all Ruthenia, it also included the Golden Horde's lands (Moscow, Sarai, Suzdal, Ryazan, etc.). But he had little time to put the church affairs in order. His main mission was to gather a delegation of the Kyiv metropoly to work at the Oecumenical Council, which was supposed to adopt the East-West Union.
For this reason, he and Gregory went to Moscow, where his chair was physically located. Despite the lack of time, he and Gregory managed to put in order the metropolite's library which had been abandoned and partially robbed after the death of Metropolite Photius in 1431. Then, with the support of the duke of Muscovy Vasyli The Dark, Isidore gathered a large delegation, and went to Novgorod, where he met Euthymius, the Bishop of Novgorod. Euthymius, who was appointed by Isidore's predecessor, Gerasym, supported Isidore in every way and helped to organize the further journey of the metropolite's embassy - through Pskov and Yuriev (Dorpt) further to Riga, and then by the sea - to Lubeck.
The Isidore's embassy was huge - about a hundred people, priests, and laity. Carts and two hundred horses, sent by land from Riga to Lubeck, pick up the delegates in Lubeck and took them to Italy - via Augsburg, Nuremberg, Innsbruck, and then on to Ferrara, where Latin and Greek delegates were already waiting. Among the latter was Pletho - the teacher of many Eastern delegates.
Isidore of Kyiv was one of the main authors of the text of the Union resolution. And this resolution itself later formed the basis of the Brest Union, and, in fact, represents the principles on which the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC) carries out its ministry today.
Simeon, the hieromonk of Suzdal, participated in the Council, which lasted more than a year, but did not sit it through. He was among those delegates from Muscovy who understood neither Greek nor Latin and to whom the Renaissance Europe was deeply alien. They could not comprehend the subject matter discussed by the best theological minds of East and West. Simeon of Suzdal was looking for options and weighing the variance. And he fled to Novgorod. He did not dare to go to the bad-tempered Duke of Muscovy, Vasily The Dark.
Euthymius, The Bishop of Novgorod, faced a dilemma. He was playing a difficult and uncertain game against Muscovy, and Simeon, the Latin-hater who just appeared in Novgorod, had threatened to ruin the game even more. Especially noting the fact that Simeon immediately got involved in some intrigues of local dukes near the borders of the Golden Horde - not a good thing to do at that Game of Thrones. Therefore, Euthymius simply shackled Simeon and sent him to Smolensk, where, as Euthymius knew, Isidore was to arrive after the end of the Council - the idea was to make Simeon the pain in the neck for Isidore.
Isidore with his embassy from Florence was coming back to Ruthenia taking another long journey. His purpose was to bring the good news about the East-West Union and to convince the rulers of Eastern Europe of the need to send military help to their Greek brothers in Christ. Through Venice, Isidore traveled to Zagreb, where he met Serbian despot Yuri Brankovic who lived there in exile, and Hungarian King Albrecht, who was preparing a military campaign against the Turks. Then Isidore went to Krakow, to meet the dowager queen Sophia the daughter of the duke of Kyiv and mother of two heirs of the Polish throne - Wladyslaw and Kazimir. After that, Isidore came to Smolensk where he found Simeon in irons. What to do next?
Isidore decided not to unchain Simeon and took him to Moscow. It was a risky step. Isidore could not help but know that the only thing Vasyli The Dark had in mind was his power, and therefore Isidore's position in Muscovy was very shaky. Vasyli only wanted to use the church affairs to his advantage - not a good standpoint to seek a partnership from him. Perhaps Isidore decided to take a risk and persuade the duke to accept the Union and to help the Greeks. Or maybe Isidore had some other plans, but we are unlikely to know more.
Vasily engineered a plan to separate Muscovy from the Kyiv metropoly. He wanted to establish his own puppet "Moscow church". He thought he could bribe Isidore offering him the position of "Metropolite of Muscovy." Isidore rejected this offer and together with his disciple Gregory spent more than six months in the duke's prison (in the basement of the Kremlin Chudiv Monastery). Interesting to mention that Vasyli did not unchain Simeon either, casting him into jail. The duke had plans for Simeon of Suzdal...
Vasily did not dare to burn the metropolite, as Svydrygailo did. Most likely, the duke just allowed Isidore and Gregory to escape. They returned to Ruthenia and continued their ministry, never entering the lands of the Golden Horde again. From the documents of that time, it is known that the Union met no opposition in the territories of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Ruthenia, and Samogitia. Both Latin and Greek Christians lived side by side in Ruthenia for several centuries, and permission to receive sacraments and marry without "changing the faith" was received positively. In Moscow, the situation was completely different.
Simeon of Suzdal got his freedom in exchange for betrayal and lies. The whole biased and frankly untalented narrative, which the "Russian Orthodox Church" (ROC) still repeats today about Metropolite Isidore and the union affairs was written by Simeon of Suzdal according to the instructions of Vasily the Dark (who, by modern standards, was just an unprincipled neurotic and psychopathic megalomaniac, but it is another story). Simeon became the ideamonger of the "Moscow metropoly". This pseudo-church was founded at the behest of duke Vasily as he summoned the "council" of several bishops he controlled. Then anti-Western and anti-Latin rhetoric was established as the main Moscow ideological paradigm and it was Simeon of Suzdal who had set up this trend.
The European Unity and the fate of Constantinople
Isidore and Gregory traveled extensively in the vast lands of Ruthenia visiting Kyiv, Smolensk, Novogrudok - but never returned to the Horde, as we mentioned. And while the union affairs in Ruthenia were going well, the Grand Duke of Lithuania Kazimir never provided military assistance to Constantinople, although he hesitated for a long time. Probably one of the reasons was the fact that Kazimir's brother, King Wladyslaw of Poland, died near Varna in 1444 in the battle against Sultan Murad, and Kazimir desperately wanted to avoid the next war against the Turks. As it turned out, the Polish-Lithuanian state, the largest power in Europe, was too big to spend energy on anything but self-preservation.
One way or another, no one in Europe wanted to help Constantinople. Milan was at war with Venice, and even King Alfonso of Aragon got involved in this conflict. Skanderbeg's Albanians and Janos Hunyadi's Hungarians could only act locally. The Serbs, Wallachians, and Bulgarians have already been virtually taken out of the anti-Osman game, and Serbian despot Yuri Brankovic, the same one Isidore met in Zagreb, was even helping the Turks. Therefore, Isidore and Gregory went to Rome with the last hope for the Pope.
Pope Nicholas, a participant of the Council of Florence and a friend of Isidore, had just founded the library we know today as the Vatican Library (Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana). Isidore and Gregory joined the great work of describing and systematizing the collection. Isidore's church service book is still kept in the library, like many other documents of the metropolite. But the Pope was in trouble. A split in the Western Church occurred. The cardinals who elected the antipope, Felix, entrenched in Basel. There was almost no money in the papal treasury. But the Pope understood well that a critical moment had come. He gave the last money he had at the moment, asked Isidore to hire two hundred archers in Naples and Crete, and to lead them to Constantinople. In December 1452, Isidore and Gregory arrived in Constantinople at the head of this detachment. It was half a year before the fall of the city.
Isidore of Kyiv became one of the leaders of the city's defense. Gregory the Bulgarian was appointed abbot of the monastery of St. Demetrios - the position once held by Isidore himself. Later, pope Nicholas sent another detachment - four battle galleys, which managed to break into the city during the siege. These galleys were the last help Constantinople had seen.
The circumstances of the imprisonment of Isidore and Gregory after the fall of the city, as well as their escape from the most terrible prison in Constantinople, Anemas, remain unknown. They were lucky to get to Rome. Isidore received several positions and titles, including the Latin Patriarch of Constantinople and Bishop of Sabina - when his predecessor in Sabina's office died, the same remorseful antipope Felix.
Until his death, Isidore corresponded actively with European households in an attempt to persuade Christian rulers to recapture Constantinople. But no one wanted to fight the Turks.
Isidore lived a long, meaningful, and pretty stressful life. He died in Rome in 1463 or even in 1472, buried in the Vatican Basilica.
Gregory the Bulgarian returned to Ruthenia and became the next Metropolite of Kyiv.
The self-proclaimed "Moscow metropoly", now known as the ROC, had not been recognized by anyone in the Christian world for more than two hundred years.
According to the UGCC press center, on September 15, 2019, the Episcopal Divine Liturgy was held in the Cathedral of Florence Santa Maria del Fiore, presided over by Patriarch Sviatoslav in collaboration with the bishops of the Synod of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. Ukrainian pilgrims from different parts of Italy arrived in the capital of Tuscany to honor the relics of St. John Chrysostom and to mark two important anniversaries for Ukraine: the 580th anniversary of the Cathedral of Florence and the 55th anniversary of the visit to Florence of Patriarch Joseph the Blind.
"We serve the Divine Liturgy on the same throne where the acts of Florentine Union were signed; on the same throne on which my predecessor, Metropolite Isidore of Kyiv, stood, and therefore on behalf of the delegation of the whole Church of Kyiv and all Ruthenia signed as that vine-grower, under that Act, handing over to God the fruit of work, prayer, and the testimony of the Kyivan Church, which remembers the Church not yet divided in the time of Volodymyr the Great," - said His Beatitude Sviatoslav in his sermon, explaining the historical significance of the UGCC pilgrimage to Florence.
Find out more about our Parateichion film project featuring the most important events of the 15th century. In this movie, Isidore of Kyiv is one of the main characters.