Icon with the Koimesis
Byzantine, c. 1375-1425
15.4cm; W. 10.7cm
Given by Ella Wentworth Dyne Steel in 1998.
Reg. no. BEP 1998,1105.1
The icon is painted in egg tempera with gold leaf on wood primed with gesso. The subject is the Koimesis (Dormition of the Virgin). Against an architectural background stands the figure of Christ, in a mandorla, holding the soul of the Virgin in both hands. Beneath him the Virgin lies on a bier which has two candlesticks in front of it. Surrounding Christ and the Virgin are ten grieving apostles and a bishop. Above Christ are an angel and a seraph.
This small panel might have been part of a small portable triptych, presumably intended for private devotion, but this is far from certain, due to its present state. It might equally have been a small kissing icon displayed in front of a larger icon. The reverse surface of the icon bears a gesso coating decorated with orange red brushstrokes, though a large part of it is now gone.
The painted surface is in good condition. There is some woodworm damage, particularly clear on the back, which has at some time been painted. It has been significantly cut down and is smaller than in its original state. The semicircular arch at the top has been made by cutting down what was previously probably a rectangular panel. It is also cut down on each side and at the bottom. Consequently its original iconography is truncated and subject to losses. There are cuts at the top indicated that it was at some time hung from the top.
This is a traditionally Byzantine version of the event, ultimately drawing from the 4th or 5th-century apocryphal text ‘The Discourse of St John the Divine Concerning the Falling Asleep of the Holy Mother of God’ (Elliott 1993). The Virgin is shown on a bed draped in a brown textile with gold decorative motifs imitating embroidery. Christ stands in an almond-shaped mandorla over which flies a six-winged seraph. He is holding the soul of his mother portrayed as an infant in swaddling clothes, while an angel approaches from the right with covered hands to take the Virgin’s soul to heaven. The funerary atmosphere is emphasised by a pair of lighted candles on golden candleholders placed in front of the deathbed (Chatzidakis 1995, 54, no. 7). On either side of the central figures are the apostles and a bishop distinguished by his white phelonion (sleeveless mantle) and omophorion (long scarf), both decorated with crosses. Even though no inscriptions accompany the other figures, some of them can be identified on the basis of individual characteristics and their positions in the scene. St Peter is censing in front of the deathbed, while St Paul is bowing close to the feet of the Virgin, extending his left hand over the bed. Next to him the bald figure bending very low and touching the bed with his long grey beard should probably be identified as St John. His position is not the usual one as he is generally depicted closest to the Virgin’s head (Underwood 1966; Chatzidakis 1995, 54). The apostle directly above him with the grey hair and beard, looking up towards Christ, could be Matthew on the basis of portraits of him such as the mosaic from the Holy Apostles in Thessaloniki dated to 1310–14 (Stephen 1986). The figure of the younger disciple behind Matthew with short dark hair and beard may be identified as Mark on the basis of its close similarities with the miniature of this apostle (fol. 117v from the c. 1296–1318 Gospel (MS Barocci 29) kept in the Bodleian Library, Oxford (Weyl Carr 1992; digital image at http://www.bodley.ox.ac.uk/dept/scwmss/wmss/online/medieval/ barocci/images /029.2219.jpg). Between Mark and Matthew, the apostle is probably Andrew. Other disciples are more difficult to identify with certainty.
Because the icon is cut down, the disciples on the outer side have been lost. Only ten apostles, rather than twelve, are depicted. The features of the bishop on the BM icon suggest that he may be Dionysios the Areopagite, the first bishop of Athens, who is generally portrayed bald (Walter 1990).
Certain iconographic and stylistic elements of the panel might point to northern Greece. The posture of Christ, turning his body to the right while keeping his head to the left, is encountered in monuments of northern Greece. Examples are found in the fresco decoration of the Church of St Nicholas Orphanou in Thessaloniki datable c. 1310–20 (Tsitouridou 1986), in the Church of the Anastasis of Christ in Veroia painted by Georgios Kalliergis in 1315 (Pelekanidis 1973, 70–3, pls 12–3) and in the Church of St George tou Vounou, Kastoria, attributed to the second half of the 14th century (Tsigaridas 2008). Moreover, the buildings framing the scene in the Kastoria fresco resemble the elaborate edifice depicted on the left side of the BM panel. Even closer correspondence is observed between the architectural setting of the icon under discussion and a miniature of St Mark (fol. 210v) in the 14th-century Gospel (MS A113) from the Great Lavra Monastery, Mount Athos (Pelekanidis et al. 1979). In both works two buildings are represented opposite each other: one is a complex edifice which includes a raised middle section and a sloping roof, while the other is a simple narrow rectangular structure.
Another element pointing towards the dating of this panel is the decoration of the drapery of the deathbed with golden motifs imitating Arabic script. It is found for instance in the 14th-century polyptych with feast scenes from St Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai (Nelson and Collins 2006). One vexatious question is whether in the BM panel the patterns on the drapery are not the usual meaningless pseudo-Kufic letters but are actual Arabic numerals, which read from left to right: 3-6-7-3-7-3 (Hill 1915). A further reason to attribute this icon to a 14th- or 15th-century painter from northern Greece is the rendering of the flesh with olive green shadows, tints of warm ochre, red on the cheeks and white highlights. Also the soft drapery folds following the movement of the figures and revealing the volume of their bodies are indicative of such chronology. These features are matched in icons such as that of the Crucifixion from the Pantokrator Monastery, Mount Athos, dated to the late 14th century (Papamastorakis 1998), as well as fresco paintings, for instance St Nicholas Orphanou (Xyngopoulos 1964) or the Church of the Resurrection of Christ, Veroia (Pelekanidis 1973, pls 18–19).
Literature: G. F. Hill, The Development of Arabic Numerals in Europe, Oxford, 1915, 28, table 1; A. Xyngopoulos, Οι τοιχογραφίες του Αγίου Νικολάου Ορφανού Θεσσαλονίκης, Athens, 1964, pls 82, 85; P. Underwood, The Kariye Djami, New York, 1966, vol. 1, 165; S. Pelekanidis, Καλλιέργης. Όλης Θετταλίας άριστος ζωγράφος, Athens, 1973; S. Pelekanidis et al., Οι θησαυροί του Αγίου Όρους, Εικονογραφημένα χειρόγραφα: Μ. Μεγίστης Λαύρας, Μ. Παντοκράτορος, Μ. Δοχειαρίου, Μ. Καρακάλου, Μ. Φιλοθέου, Μ. Αγίου Παύλου, Athens, 1979, vol. 3, 237–8, fig. 61; C. Stephen, Ein byzantinisches Bildenensemble: Die Mosaiken und Fresken der Apostelkirche, Worms, 1986, pl. 10; A. Tsitouridou, Ο ζωγραφικός διάκοσμος του Αγίου Νικολάου Ορφανού στη Θεσσαλονίκη, Thessaloniki, 1986, 104–6, pl. 30; C. Walter, ‘Three Notes on the Iconography of Dionysius the Areopagite’, Revue des Études Byzantines 48 (1990), 255–74, esp. 268; A. Weyl Carr, ‘Oxford Barocci 29 and Manuscript Illumination in Epiros’, Πρακτικά διεθνούς συμποσίου για το Δεσποτάτο της Ηπείρου, Arta, 1992, 567–84; J. K. Elliott, The Apocryphal New Testament. A Collection of Apocryphal Christian Literature in an English Translation, Oxford, 1993, 701–8; M. Chatzidakis, Icons of Patmos, Athens, 1995; T. Papamastorakis, ‘Icons 13th–16th Century’, in S. Papadopoulos and C. Kapioldassi-Soteropoulou (eds), Icons of the Holy Monastery of Pantokrator, Mount Athos, 1998, 70–3, figs 30–1; The Temple Gallery, Ancient Icons from Byzantium, Greece, Crete and Russia, May-June 1998, London, 1998, 2–3, no. 1; R. Temple, Icons. Divine Beauty, London, 2004, 75–6; R.S. Nelson and K.M. Collins (eds), Holy Image, Hallowed Ground: Icons from Sinai (exh. cat., The J. Paul Getty Museum), Los Angeles, 2006, 162–5, no. 18; R. Cormack, Icons, London, 2007 (repr. 2104), 132, no. 80; E. Tsigaridas, Τοιχογραφίες της περιόδου των Παλαιολόγων σε ναούς της Μακεδονίας, Thessaloniki, 2008, 221, pl. 124.