Icon with St Demetrios2018-12-21T13:10:53+00:00

Icon with St Demetrios

Syria, 17th century
H. 51.6cm; W. 40.8cm

Bequeathed by Guy Holford Dixon in 1994.

Reg. no. BEP 1994,0102.4

(Cormack 22)

The icon is painted in egg tempera with gold leaf on a wood panel primed with gesso over cloth. The back is unpainted and has two horizontal battens. This relatively large icon depicts St Demetrios on horseback killing an enemy. His halo is distinguished from the gold background by two concentric incised circles. The saint is identified by inscriptions in the top corners in Greek majuscule letters in red: Ο ΑΓΙΟC ΔΗΜΗΤΡΙΟC. A damaged dedicatory inscription is found to the left of the horse in Arabic: …اوقف هذه الايقونة … القس يعقوب; (‘I donate this icon…the priest Jacob…’). This inscription lies under a square patch of old varnish left uncleaned during the conservation process. The icon is framed by an elaborate painted border. The wood used for this icon has not yet been determined, but walnut is the preferred medium for icons made in the Middle East (Lahlil and Martin 2012).

The saint is depicted killing an historical personage, the Bulgarian king Kaloyan. A sense of dramatic motion is given by the rearing horse and the fluttering mantle of the saint, who holds the reins with his left hand while plunging his long spear into the back of the neck of the fallen man and spilling his blood on the shield. Kaloyan was in fact killed by one of his commanders, Manastras, during the siege of Thessaloniki in 1207, but the agency was popularly attributed to St Demetrios, the patron saint of Thessaloniki. The theme of St Demetrios killing Kaloyan continues a Byzantine tradition that started as early as 1286 and became extremely popular in the Orthodox world.

The mixture of Byzantine and western features is typical of Cretan icons, for example, the detail of the cuirass imitating Renaissance gilded metal breastplates decorated with figural and foliate motifs. Similar armour decoration is found in 17th-century icons made by Cretan painters such as that of St Menas signed by Emmanuel Lambardos in the collection of the Hellenic Institute in Venice (Chatzidakis 1962), and of the Archangel Michael by Elias Moskos in the Byzantine and Christian Museum, Athens (Staikos 2008). Similarly the red horse with the knotted tail, the high raised back of the saddle and the flowing mantle of the saint are regular motifs in Cretan icons such as that of St Demetrios dated to the late 16th–early 17th century from the Antivouniotissa Museum in Corfu (Vokotopoulos 1990). The flesh is modelled with ochre and pink over olive green following the practice of many Cretan icons.

Yet there are certain features in this icon that point to a different provenance. Firstly, the dedicatory inscription, written in Arabic, indicates a connection with Melkite icons. These served the needs of the Arab or Arab-speaking Orthodox communities of the three Middle Eastern Patriarchates as well as the communities that joined the Catholic Church in the 18th century but which followed, at least to begin with, the Byzantine artistic tradition (Cândea 1993, 32–3). Secondly, the intricate border of the icon decorated with gold rinceau motifs on alternating blocks of red and dark green is very common among Melkite icons such as that of the Archangel Michael as Psychopompos (conductor of souls) and of St James the Persian, now kept at the Greek Catholic Archbishopric in Beirut. Both panels are attributed to the 18th-century painter Girgis Hanania from Aleppo (De la Croix and Zabbal 2003, A50-A51, nos 19–20). Thirdly, the long hair of St Demetrios and the plump figure of Kaloyan with his wide moustache are not found in Cretan painting.

This specific iconography with St Demetrios on horseback killing Kaloyan, who is on his hands and knees and pinned down by the spear in his neck, was copied by later painters of the so-called School of Aleppo, as for example in an icon of similar dimensions (48 × 40 cm) of the 18th century that formerly belonged to the Henri Pharaon collection (Cândea and Agemain 1969, 167, no. 26). The location of this icon is currently unknown as it was not part of the collection when Robert Mouawad bought it along with Henri Pharaon’s residence in Beirut, now the Robert Mouawad Private Museum. This icon reproduces faithfully the iconography of the BM panel. The only differences between the two are the inclusion in the later icon of the blessing Christ in the top left corner and the miniature figure of the Bishop Cyprian seated behind the saddle (technically, on the leather crupper).

The style of the icon from the Henri Pharaon collection is typical of the School of Aleppo, particularly in its dry modelling of the face of St Demetrios and the sumptuous punched decoration of the background with foliage motifs (Cândea and Agemain 1969, 167, no. 26). The BM panel is very different in this regard; the simple gilding of the background and the softer modelling of the flesh—though without white highlights—are reminiscent of Cretan icons. These features point to a 17th-century chronology as painters of this period active in the regions of the Middle Eastern Patriarchates followed trends of painting in the Byzantine tradition as developed in other parts of the Orthodox world. One such example is Yusuf al-Musawwir from Aleppo, whose icons share many common features with the works of Greek painters and bear inscriptions in Greek (De la Croix 2006). The influence exercised by Cretan painting, in particular, is documented in the 1726 icon of the Archangel Michael from the Greek Orthodox Church of St Nicholas in Tripoli, Lebanon, a work of the painter Hanna al-Qudsi who was active in Syria and Lebanon. A long inscription written in Arabic mentions that he ‘was inspired by an old Cretan icon dating from the year 7022 (=1514) after [the creation of] Adam’ (Cândea and Agemain 1969, 182–3, no. 44).

The existence of inscriptions in both Greek and Arabic is in line with panels of the 17th century, whereas in later periods Arabic alone is used (Garidis 1993–4, 364–6). Additionally, the intricate border of the icon is found in works of the 17th century, such as the icons of the Virgin Hodegetria and of Christ the High Priest from the Monastery of the Virgin of Balamand, Lebanon, both works of the painter Nehmet al-Musawwir from Aleppo (Zibawi 1996). The borders of these two works are notably similar to that of the BM panel with gold foliate motifs on alternating blocks of red and green, separated by a bracket-shaped divider. This type of border decoration is also found in later works linked with Aleppo, for instance, the early 18th-century icon of St Nicholas attributed to this region (Cândea 1993, 240–1, no. 75). The BM icon with its Cretan features, but with inscriptions in both Greek and Arabic and a border typical of the School of Aleppo can be attributed to a painter of the 17th century active in the regions of influence of the Middle Eastern Patriarchates and possibly at Aleppo.

The reference in the inscription to a dedication by a priest and the inclusion of the word وقف (waqf—endowment), which, in a Christian context refers to a donation to a church or a monastery (De la Croix and Zabbal 2003, B59), indicate that the BM icon was venerated within a liturgical setting.

The Arabic text was translated by Charles Burnett and Christopher Braun, Warburg Institute and Boris Liebrenz, Universität Leipzig.

Literature: M. Chatzidakis, Icônes de Saint-Georges des Grecs et de la collection de l’Institute, Venice, 1962, 83, no. 54, pl. 43; The Temple Gallery, An Exhibition of Icons. 6 December14 January 1966, London, 1965, no. 7, pl. 2; V. Cândea and S. Agemain, Icônes Melkites. Exposition organisée par le Musée Nicolas Sursock du 16 Mai au 15 Juin 1969, Beirut, 1969; P.L. Vokotopoulos, Εικόνες της Κερκύρας, Athens, 1990, 99–100, no. 69, pl. 49; V. Cândea, Icônes grecques, melkites, russes: collection Abou Adal, Paris, 1993; M. Zibawi, Monastère Notre Dame de Balamand. Collection des icônes de l’école d’Alep, Balamand, 1996; A.M. de la Croix and F. Zabbal (eds), Icônes arabes. Art chrétien du Levant: Exposition présentée à l’Institut du Monde Arabe du 6 mai au 17 août 2003, Méolans-Revel, 2003; C. Walter, The Warrior Saints in Byzantine Art and Tradition, Aldershot, 2003; A.M. de la Croix, Icônes arabes. Mystères d’Orient, Méolans-Revel, 2006, 30; R. Cormack, Icons, London, 2007 (repr. 2014), 118, no. 22; K.S. Staikos (ed.), From the Incarnation of Logos to the Theosis of Man. Byzantine and Post-Byzantine Icons from Greece (exh. cat., Byzantine and Christian Museum), Athens, 2008, 108–9, no. 48; S. Lahlil and E. Martin, ‘Characterisation of 18 Melkite Icons Dating from the 17th to the 19th c. AD’, Journal of Cultural Heritage 13 (2012), 332–8.

Eleni Dimitriadou