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Paradoxically, the pitiful history of Byzantium under the Palaeologan emperors coincided with an astonishing intellectual, spiritual, and artistic renaissance that influenced the entire Eastern Christian world. The renaissance was not without fierce controversy and polarization. In 1337 Barlaam the Calabrian, one of the representatives of Byzantine Humanism, attacked the spiritual practices of the Hesychast (from the Greek word hesychia, meaning quiet) monks, who claimed that Christian asceticism and spirituality could lead to the vision of the "uncreated light" of God. Barlaam's position was upheld by several other theologians, including Akyndinus and Nicephorus Gregoras. After much debate, the church gave its support to the main spokesman of the monks, Gregory Palamas (1296-1359), who showed himself as one of the foremost theologians of medieval Byzantium. The councils of 1341, 1347, and 1351 adopted the theology of Palamas, and, after 1347, the patriarchal throne was consistently occupied by his disciples. John VI Cantacuzenus, who, as emperor, presided over the council of 1351, gave his full support to the Hesychasts. His close friend, Nicholas Cabasilas, in his spiritual writings on the divine liturgy and the sacraments, defined the universal Christian significance of Palamite theology. The influence of the religious zealots, who triumphed in Constantinople, outlasted the empire itself and contributed to the perpetuation of Orthodox spirituality under the Turkish rule. It also spread to the Slavic countries, especially Bulgaria and Russia. The monastic revival in northern Russia during the last half of the 14th century, which was associated with the name of St. Sergius of Radonezh, as well as the contemporaneous revival of iconography (e.g., the work of the great painter Andrey Rublyov), would have been unthinkable without constant contacts with Mt. Athos, the centre of Hesychasm, and with the spiritual and intellectual life of Byzantium.
Along with the Hesychast revival, a significant "opening to the West" was taking place among some Byzantine ecclesiastics. The brothers Prochorus and Demetrius Cydones, under the sponsorship of Cantacuzenus, for example, were systematically translating the works of Latin theologians into Greek. Thus, major writings of Augustine, Anselm of Canterbury, and Thomas Aquinas were made accessible to the East for the first time. Most of the Latin-minded Greek theologians eventually supported the union policy of the emperors, but there were some—like Gennadios II Scholarios, the first patriarch under the Turkish occupation—who reconciled their love for Western thought with total faithfulness to the Orthodox Church.