Ionian Islands, 17th century
30.3cm; W 24.8cm
Given by Ella Wentworth Dyne Steel in 1998.
Reg. no. BEP 1998,1105.2
The icon is painted in egg tempera with gold leaf on wood primed with gesso over cloth. A painted red inscription in majuscule Greek identifies the scene: Ο ΕΥΑΓΓΕΛΙCΜΟC (The Annunciation). The archangel Gabriel is to the left, and Mary stands to the right, clasping both hands in front of her. The event takes place in front of two elaborate structures, and there is a vase of flowers on the wall. In the middle of the lower part of the icon is a coat of arms, presumably of the icon’s patron. This is surrounded by four Greek initials: Κ-ΣΤ-Π-ΠΡ.
The Archangel Gabriel sweeps in from the left, raising his right hand in a gesture of speaking. The Gospel text is: ‘Hail, you that are highly favoured, the Lord is with you: blessed are you among women’ (Luke 1: 28). The Virgin is standing on a pedestal in front of a gilded backless throne with her head slightly inclined towards the archangel and arms crossed at the chest, her traditional pose in western European art. On the gold background, at the top, is a blue semicircle denoting the sky, from which emanates a ray that splits into three, carrying the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove. It is directed towards the Virgin, symbolising her divine conception. The event is set in front of two high buildings; that on the right is more elaborate with a gabled red roof and a porch with a gold coffered ceiling supported by Corinthian-style columns. Its pediment is decorated with an angel in grisaille. The edifice on the left has two storeys with a window and a balcony covered by a golden canopy. The two structures are linked by a lower wall with arched niches decorated with a lion’s head in monochrome, reminiscent of Renaissance structures.
The composition was blocked out with an incised preliminary sketch, which was not entirely followed (for example the spiral endings of the canopy on the left building are shorter than the incised design. The icon consists of a single wooden panel strengthened on the reverse by two battens.
This form of the Annunciation is found in Cretan icons of the 15th century, for instance the small-scale scene of the Annunciation on the border of the icon of the Virgin and Child between Angels, Benaki Museum, Athens, and attributed to Andreas Ritzos or his circle (Vassilaki 2010). This type, with alterations only in details, became widespread in the 16th and 17th centuries and was particularly popular with painters who lived on the Ionian Islands. Among the closest parallels to the BM panel are the icon signed by the Corfiote painter Emmanuel Tzanfournaris (c. 1570–1631) in the Benaki Museum, Athens (Xyngopoulos 1936); the late 17th-century icon from the Demetrios Ekonomopoulos collection, Museum of Byzantine Culture, Thessaloniki, attributed to a Cretan painter living in the Ionian Islands (Baltoyanni 1986); and the scene of the Annunciation from the c. 1670–90 In Thee Rejoiceth icon in the Monastery of St John, Patmos, and painted by the Cretan painter Theodoros Poulakis, who is known to have spent part of his life on the island of Corfu (Chatzidakis 1995). The architectural setting of these icons is almost identical to the BM panel, as is the general rendering of the garments of the figures. Some differences occur in the hands of the Virgin, which are not crossed in the Benaki and the Ekonomopoulos icons and in their portrayal of God the Father instead of a simple blue-coloured semicircle at the top of the scene as in the BM icon.
The style of painting has parallels with the works of Cretan painters working on the Ionian Islands. On the flesh areas the shadows are rendered in light brown and the skin in large planes of warm ochre and few white highlights. Characteristic of the painter’s style is the use of a red dot of paint at the inner corners of the eyes. Another distinguishing feature of his work is the application of a thick red line on the eyelids, a clumsy echo of the elegant pair of fine lines forming the eyelids of 15th- and 16th-century Cretan images. This detail is encountered on the 1667 icon of the Synaxis (gathering) of the Incorporeal Beings from the Iakovatios Library in Lixouri, Cephalonia, signed by the Cretan painter Philotheos Skoufos (Moschopoulos 1994). It is also found on the BM Nativity icon bearing the signature of Konstantinos Tzanes. The drapery folds are painted with care to follow the posture of the figures, though they are rendered in a rather geometric and arid manner.
These iconographic and stylistic observations suggest that the icon was produced by a late 17th-century Cretan painter who was possibly working in the Ionian Islands following the conquest of Crete by the Ottomans in 1669. The suggestion of a 17th-century Cretan artistic milieu is further supported by the coat of arms of the icon, the design of which is very similar to that of the Gavalas family on the 17th-century Crucifixion icon painted by the Cretan Konstantinos Palaiokapas, from the Hodegetria Kyra Monastery, Gonia, Crete (Borboudakis 1993). Both consist of an oval escutcheon surrounded by golden mantling and topped with a crest in the shape of a fleur-de-lis, which is repeated upturned beneath the escutcheon. Additionally, the escutcheon of the BM icon depicts a red chili plant, a rather unusual choice, which is likely a reference to the meaning of the name of the family that used it. Visual puns on the owner’s name were frequently employed in coats of arms, known as canting arms (Typaldos-Laskaratos 1979). A possible candidate for the owner of this coat of arms is the Cretan family of Piperis (a name which closely reflects the Greek word for pepper), mentioned in the 17th-century chronicle of the notary Antonios Trivan (Manousakas 1949). This suggestion is further supported by the fact that the letters Π (Pi) and ΠΡ (PR) appear among the four initials surrounding the coat of arms. It is possible to interpret these letters as Konstantinos (K-ΣΤ) Piperis (Π-ΠΡ).
Literature: A. Xyngopoulos, Μουσείον Μπενάκη. Κατάλογος των Εικόνων, Athens, 1936, 35, no. 21, pl. 17A; M. I. Manousakas, ‘Η παρά Trivan απογραφή της Κρήτης (1644) και ο δήθεν κατάλογος των κρητικών οίκων Κέρκυρας’, Kretika Chronika 3 (1949), 50, 54; I. G. Typaldos-Laskaratos, ‘Εισαγωγή εις την εραλδικήν (οικοσημολογία)’, Δελτίον Εραλδικής και Γενεαλογικής Εταιρείας Ελλάδος 1 (1979), 2–23, esp. 201; C. Baltoyanni, Icons. Demetrios Ekonomopoulos Collection, Athens, 1986, 57–8, no. 77, pl. 60; M. Borboudakis (ed.), Εικόνες της κρητικής τέχνης. Από το Χάνδακα ως τη Μόσχα και την Αγία Πετρούπολη (exh. cat., Basilica of St Mark – Church of St Catherine), Herakleion, 1993, 520, no. 166; G. N. Moschopoulos, Cephalonia. Ecclesiastical Art, vol. 2: Pali, Argostoli, 1994, 30, fig. 4; M. Chatzidakis, Icons of Patmos, Athens, 1985, 168–9, no. 149, pl. 71; R. Cormack, Icons, London, 2007 (repr. 2014), 133, no. 81; M. Vassilaki (ed.), The Hand of Angelos. An Icon Painter in Venetian Crete (exh. cat., The Benaki Museum), Athens, 2010, 210–11, no. 53.