Crete, second half of the 15th century
Attributed to Nikolaos Tzafouris
H. 37cm; W. 27.5cm
Bequeathed by Guy Holford Dixon in 1994; purchased by him from The Temple Gallery in 1962.
Reg. no. BEP 1994,0102.6
The icon is painted in egg tempera on wood. The icon shows the Virgin in bust format holding the Christ Child. She is slightly turned to the left, holding the child with her right hand and bringing her left to touch his left knee. She is wearing a dark green chiton and a deep purple maphorion (mantle) with a kekryphalos (head cover) and a diaphanous white kerchief underneath, which is visible around her face and upper chest. The mantle is knotted at her chest with a large brooch and has golden pseudo-Kufic decoration around its edges. Christ is wearing a diaphanous undergarment, visible on his right arm alone, a deep green chiton and an orange-red mantle with gold striations. He blesses with his right hand and is grasping with his left an open scroll with a passage from the Gospel of St Luke 4:18 in black capital letters: ΠΝΕΥΜΑ ΚΥΡΙΟΥ ΕΠ ΕΜΕ ΟΥ ΕΙΝΕΚΕΝ ΕΧΡΙCΕ ΜΕ (‘the spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me’).
This representation of the Virgin in bust format and holding the Christ child follows the iconographic type of the Madre della Consolazione, which is of Italian origin and was introduced into Cretan icon-painting during the second half of the 15th century, most probably by Nikolaos Tzafouris (documented 1487–1501), a well-known Cretan painter living and working in Candia (modern Herakleion), then the capital city of Venetian Crete. Three icons of the Madre della Consolazione bear this painter’s signature, the first in the Kanellopoulos Museum in Athens (Baltoyanni 1994, 282–3, no. 68, pls 135–6; Chatzidakis and Scampavias 2007), the second in a private collection in Trieste (Bianco Fiorin 1983), and the third in a private collection in the Netherlands (Haustein-Bartsch 2001), while many more are attributed to him on iconographic and stylistic grounds and are located in museums and collections in Greece and elsewhere, such as the one in the Byzantine Museum in Athens (Acheimastou-Potamianou 1998) and another in the Ca d’Oro in Venice (Chatzidakis 1993).
On the Cretan icons of the Madre della Consolazione (Baltoyanni 1994, 273–303, nos 68-84), Christ is more often depicted holding in his left hand the sphere of the world. The variation with Christ holding an open scroll with an inscription, as in the British Museum icon, is not very common, but does appear as early as the second half of the 15th century on icons, such as one in the Benaki Museum in Athens (Vassilaki 2009, fig. 14.1), a second in the Museum of Recklinghausen (Skrobucha 1961; Recklinghausen 1991), and finally, a third in the Catholic chaplaincy of Queen’s University at Belfast (Vassilaki 1994, fig. 2 on 22).
Stylistically the British Museum icon fits well with those either signed by Nikolaos Tzafouris or securely attributed to him and therefore dates in the second half of the 15th century. Its painted surface is worn, but still allows us to detect many stylistic features characteristic of Tzafouris’ work, such as the very dark primer on the faces of both the Virgin and Christ, the thin, arched eyebrows, the narrow almond eyes, the elongated nose and the taut skin of the Virgin’s face.
There is no doubt that the iconographic type of the Madre della Consolazione relies on a western, most probably an Italian prototype, which has not yet been located and identified. Furthermore, there is no consensus among scholars where such a prototype might have been located. One suggestion is that it was invented in Venice (Wulff and Alpatov 1925), a view repeated a few years later (Schweinfurth 1930). Manolis Chatzidakis suggested that the prototype of the Cretan Madre della Consolazione was an icon in the homonymous church in Rome (Chatzidakis 1974), but he did not give the specific example. Angeliki Lymberopoulou suggested that the prototype was not an icon but a fresco in the Church of Sta Maria della Consolazione in Rome (Lymberopoulou 2003), which was executed by Antoniazzo Romano c. 1470 (Dejonge 1969; Fernando da Riese 1968). A closer look at this fresco, however, shows that it has nothing to do with the iconographic type of the Madre della Consolazione as it shows an enthroned Virgin holding a standing Christ Child. Chryssanthi Baltoyanni has offered a completely different hypothesis by suggesting that this iconographic type has its roots in Byzantine hymnography and depicts the Virgin ΠΟΝΟΛΥΤΡΙΑ, ‘she who delivers from pain’ (Baltoyanni 1994, 275-8). She further emphasized some of the composition’s iconographic features, such as Christ’s bare feet and the Virgin’s gesture of touching Christ’s knee, as being of a purely Byzantine origin. Such a hypothesis, however, that overturns the prevailing view, needs much more supporting evidence than so far offered.
Icons of the Madre della Consolazione are characteristic products of Venetian Crete and of the conditions prevailing in it at the time. Icons could equally address an Orthodox or a Catholic clientele (Chatzidakis 1977), as well as functioning in monasteries and churches of both rites not only in Crete but also outside. In contracts surviving in the State Archives of Venice, there are many commissions for icons of the Virgin and Christ, which were by far the most popular among subject matters. In these contracts, it is specified that they are to be painted either in forma greca and alla greca or in forma latina and alla latina (Vassilaki 2009). The first term signifies that these icons were to be executed in the Byzantine iconography and style, while the second means that they were to be painted in the western iconography and style. Cretan painters were able to work successfully in both manners, as the surviving icons clearly show.
Literature: O. Wulff and M. Alpatov, Denkmäler der Ikonenmalerei in Kunst-geschichtliche Forme, Hellerau bei Dresden, 1925, 226; P. Schweinfurth, Geschichte der russischen Malerei, The Hague, 1930, 414; H. Skrobucha, Meisterwerke der Ikonenmalerei, Recklinghausen, 1961, 143, pl. XXIV; P. Fernando da Riese Pio X, S. Maria Della Consolazione, Rome, 1968, 82–5, fig. 25; M. Dejonghe, Roma Santuario Mariano, Bologna, 1969, fig. 62; M. Chatzidakis, ‘Les débuts de l’école crétoise et la question de l’ école dite italo-grecque’, Mnemosynon Sophias Antoniadi, Venice, 1974, 169–211, esp. 200, n. 106; M. Chatzidakis, ‘La peinture des ‘Madonneri’ ou ‘Veneto-Cretoise’ et sa destination’, in H.G. Beck, M. Manoussakas and A. Pertusi, Venezia centro di mediazione tra Oriente e Occidente (secoli XV–XVI). Aspetti e problemi, vol. 2, Firenze, 1977, 673–90; M. Bianco Fiorin, ‘Nicola Zafuri, Cretese del Quattrocento e una sua inedita ‘Madonna’’, Arte Veneta 37 (1983), 164–9, figs 1, 6, 8, 9; M. Chatzidakis, Icons of Patmos: Questions of Byzantine and Post-Byzantine Painting, Athens, 1985; Recklinghausen Museum, Ikonenmuseum Recklinghausen, Reckling-hausen, 1991, 50; N. Chatzidakis, From Candia to Venice. Greek Icons in Italy 15th- 16th century (exh. cat., Museo Correr), Venice, 1993, fig. 12, on 113; C. Baltoyanni, The Mother of God in the Incarnation and the Passion, Athens, 1994. M. Vassilaki, ‘Cretan Icons’, in D. Buckton (ed.), Byzantium: Treasures of Byzantine Art and Culture from British Collections (exh. cat., The British Museum), London, 1994, 21–5. N. Chatzidakis, Icons. The Velimezis Collection, Athens, 1998; M. Acheimastou-Potamianou, Icons of the Byzantine Museum of Athens, Athens, 1998, 144–5, no. 40; E. Haustein-Bartsch, ‘Eine neuentdeckte Ikone der ‘Madre della Consolazione’von Nikolaos Tzafoures’, Δελτιον της Χριστιανικής Αρχαιολογικὴς Εταιρείας 22 (2001), 135–40; A. Lymberopoulou, ‘The Madre della Consolazione icon in the British Museum: Post-Byzantine Painting, Painters and Society on Crete’, Jahrbuch der Österreichischen Byzantinistik 53 (2003), 239–55, at 240; R. Cormack, Icons, London, 2007 (repr. 2014), 91, fig. 54, and 118, no. 24; N. Chatzidakis and C. Scampavias (eds), The Paul and Alexandra Kanellopoulos Museum. Byzantine and Post-Byzantine Art, Athens, 2007, 186–7, no. 129; M. Vassilaki, ‘The Icon-Trade in Fifteenth-Century Venetian Crete’, in M. Vassilaki, The Painter Angelos and Icon-Painting in Venetian Crete, Farnham, 2009, chap. 14, 307–15.