Ionian Islands, 18th centuryIcon with St Spyridon
H. 14.5cm; W. 13.9cm
Given by Ella Wentworth Dyne Steel in 1998.
Reg. no. BEP 1998,1105.10
The icon is painted in egg tempera with gold leaf on wood primed with gesso over cloth. The back is unpainted. Against a gold ground, St Spyridon is depicted frontally, seated on a backless throne on a bulky cushion. He is dressed in the vestments of an Orthodox bishop apart from a woven cap: a russet-red sticharion (translation?) decorated with two vertical bands in blue and red with white dots imitating pearls and a gold epitrachelion (stole) discernible between his legs. Over these are the greenish-blue phelonion (chasuble?) with red lining and the white omophorion (long stole) with red crosses, which falls over his left arm. The garments are completed with the epigonation in the shape of a rhombus decorated with a bust image of Christ. He has a Gospel book in his left hand and raises his right in a gesture of blessing. The lower part of the icon has at some time been cut off, probably on account of fire damage, and this has resulted in the loss of the saint’s legs and most of the throne. A continuous red band frames the panel, while an inscription in Greek found on either side of the saint’s halo identifies him: Ο ΑΓΙΟC CΠΥΡΙΔΟΝ (an omicron is used incorrectly rather than an omega). An incised preliminary design has been used by the painter.
This very small icon was most likely used for private devotions. The cult of St Spyridon (feast day 12 December), a 4th-century Bishop of Trimythous, Cyprus, became widespread in the Orthodox world after the translation of his relics to Constantinople in the 7th century during the Arab invasions (Mouriki 1993; Bakalova and Lazarova 2006, 434–5). Following the fall of Constantinople in 1453, his relics were moved again and taken to Corfu, where he then became the patron saint of the island (Metallenos et al. 2007; Bakalova and Lazarova 2006, 437–54). His representation as an elderly man with a long beard divided into two points fits with the description in the 18th-century Painter’s Manual of Mount Athos compiled by the monk Dionysios of Fourna (Papadopoulos-Kerameus 1909; Hetherington 1974). In contrast to his luxurious garments is the pointed woven straw cap, a standard motif in his iconography, evoking his work as a shepherd, which he continued to practice even after his appointment to the higher ranks of the Church (Weigert 1976).
St Spyridon’s frontal posture, raising his right hand while holding a Gospel book with his left, continues the widely spread Cretan iconography of the enthroned bishop, such as St Nicholas (Chatzidakis 1998). Further influences from Cretan painting are observed in the decoration of his lavish seat, which gives the impression of being wood carved and painted in gold. It was possibly decorated with male figures whose lower bodies morphed into acanthus leaves, as one can discern small parts of the heads of two youthful figures in the lower corners of the icon. This kind of throne decoration is found on a number of icons produced by Cretan painters such as that with the Apostle Andrew dating from 1658 and signed by Emmanuel Tzanes, in the collection of the Hellenic Institute in Venice (Chatzidakis 1962; Bandera Viani 1988). The iconography of the BM icon was also reproduced on the Ionian Islands, particularly from the 17th century when Cretan painters moved there following the fall of the island to the Ottoman Turks in 1669.
The style of the icon is close to folk art of the 18th century. The colours are few and bright. The flesh is modeled in soft brown with pinkish and cream highlights. The advanced age of the saint is rendered with two non-symmetrical carved lines on his forehead, while his hands, particularly the one holding the Gospel book, are painted in a non-naturalistic, awkward way. What is more, his halo is differentiated from the gold background only by a simple white painted circle. The icon is clearly the work of a painter with very basic skills who follows an iconography established on Crete in the centuries after 1453 and continued on the Ionian Islands. These details, combined with the fact that the icon portrays St Spyridon, the patron saint of Corfu (often invoked there as a saviour from the plague), suggest the panel may have been made for a client from this island.
Literature: A. Papadopoulos-Kerameus (ed.), Dionysios of Fourna, Έρμηνειά τῆς ζωγραφικῆς τέχνης, St Petersburg, 1909, 154; M. Chatzidakis, Icônes de Saint-Georges des Grecs et de la collection de l’Institut, Venice, 1962, no. 108, 120; P. Hetherington, The ‘Painter’s Manual’ of Dionysius of Fourna, London, 1974, 54; C. Weigert, ‘Spyridon (Spiridon) von Trimithon’, Lexikon der christlichen Ikonographie, vol. 8 (1976), 387–9; M.C. Bandera Viani, Venezia: Museo delle icone bizantine e post bizantine e chiesa di San Giorgio dei Greci (Musei d’Italia, Meraviglie d’Italia), Bologna, 1988, 36–7, 52–3, nos 45, 73; D. Mouriki, ‘The Cult of Cypriot Saints in Medieval Cyprus as attested by Church Decorations and Icon Painting’, in A.A M. Bryer and G. S. Georghallides (eds), The Sweet Land of Cyprus. Papers Given at the Twenty-Fifth Jubilee Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, Birmingham, March 1991, Nicosia, 1993, 237–77, at 241; N. Chatzidakis, Icons. The Velimezis Collection, Athens, 1998, 96–8; E. Bakalova and A. Lazarova, ‘The Relics of St Spyridon and the Making of Sacred Space on Corfu: between Constantinople and Venice’, in A. Lidov (ed.), Hierotopy. The Creation of Sacred Spaces in Byzantium and Medieval Russia, Moscow, 2006, 434–54; Fr G. Metallenos et al, Άγιος Σπυρίδων. Ο ναός και η λατρεία του στην Κέρκυρα, Corfu, 2007; R. Cormack, Icons, London, 2007 (repr. 2014), 135, no. 89.