Visualisation as a Method of Exalting the Prestige of the Ruthenian Uniate Hierarchs in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the 18th Century (Summary)

Dorota Wereda (PDF)

In the 18th century, the believers of the Ruthenian Uniate Church comprised about 40 % (4.5 million) of the population of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Eight dioceses were administered by a bishop who was, in documents, named an eparch or a vladyka. Despite the decisions of the Union of Brest-Litovsk on the equal rights of the Uniate hierarchs with the bishops of the Roman Catholic Church, they have not come into force in practice. However, the hierarchs did not get a seat in the Senate, except for the Metropolitan, who was admitted to the Senate in 1792. The relatively low social status of the hierarchs of the Uniate Church was due to the lower-rated culture of the Eastern Churches that prevailed in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

In the 18th century, bishops of the Uniate Church often used visual means to enhance their prestige and that of the Uniate Church as a whole. In the 18th century, of the 50 Uniate hierarchs, most came from the middle szlachta, some even from the poor szlachta. The hierarchs have sometimes tried to behave like the most influential noblemen, especially during the ceremonies for the ingress in the diocese. The social authority of the hierarchs was also underlined at the funerals, which lasted several days. The interior and exterior of the church where the ceremony took place were decorated with paintings of a sophisticated panegyric iconographic programme. However, these ceremonies had little social impact because only close relatives and local residents participated. The most widely publicised event involving all sectors of society was the coronation of the images of Our Lady. The construction of magnificent cathedrals in Chelm, Lviv and Vitebsk also helped to strengthen the influence of the Uniate bishops.

The visual propaganda of the Uniate hierarchs in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the 18th century was impressive. However, it only partially strengthened their authority. Uniate hierarchs gained the respect of the believers, developed favourable relations with high officials of the Catholic Church and joined the nobility. However, they did not help to strengthen the influence of the Uniate hierarchs at the ducal court and other key political decision-making positions. The propaganda means of the bishops of the Ruthenian Uniate Church brought together the traditions of the East and West.

Keywords: bishops, Catholic Church, visual means, szlachta, iconographic programme