Icon with the Koimesis2018-12-21T13:17:59+00:00

Icon with the Koimesis

Corfu, 17th century
H. 44.5cm; W. 70.7cm

Bequeathed to the National Gallery, London, by Sir Claude Phillips (1846-1924). Inventoried as NG 4030. Transferred to the British Museum in 1994.

Reg. no. BEP 1994,0501.4

(Cormack 29)

The icon is painted in egg tempera with gold leaf on wood, primed with gesso over cloth. The Virgin Mary is being laid in a tomb by three angels. Her hands are crossed. At each end of the sarcophagus, two of the angels, dressed as deacons, hold candles in their hands and lower the Virgin on a shroud into her tomb. The third angel in the centre holds an inscribed scroll. The three angels have elaborate foliate nimbi. Above are eleven apostles depicted in clouds. Above them is the title inscription, in red Greek majuscule letters on a gold ground:  Η ΚΟΙΜΗCΙC ΤΗC ΘΕΟΤΟΚΟV. The composition is symmetrical and relatively large and is framed by a continuous orange-red band. An incised preliminary drawing has been predominantly used for the outlines and individual details of the scene, while the haloes are decorated in the pointillé (punch) technique forming a volute floral design. The icon consists of two pieces of wood and has a painted red cross in the middle of the reverse side.

This is not the normal form of the Dormition, in which Christ usually stands behind a bier and receives her soul in the form of an infant. Instead it shows the Entombment of the Virgin Mary. The Koimesis of the Virgin was a popular subject for icons, yet the composition in this icon is quite different from traditional Byzantine multi-figured representations, and might be more correctly titled the Entombment. On this panel the main figures participating in the event are three angels, dressed in the liturgical vestments of deacons. The angel at the centre behind the tomb holds an open scroll with a (misspelled) inscription: Παύσατε θρήνων καιρόc τέρψεωc οὐχ ἦγε πένθουc εἰ γάρ καὶ γῆc ἤρθη / μ(ήτ)ηρ νυνί θεῖον υἱὸν δ’ ὅμως πρεσβεύειν ἡμῶν ἥκει (‘Stop lamenting, time brought joy not pain, for even though [she] was lifted from the earth, now the Mother has reached her divine Son to intercede for us’. This text is from the hymns of praise sung on 15 August.

The inclusion of the apostles is a feature commonly found on icons of the Koimesis, such as one by Andreas Ritzos, dating from the second half of the 15th century in the Galleria Sabauda (Vassilaki 2010), and derives from apocryphal texts, according to which the apostles, both living and dead, came on clouds to the Virgin’s house to attend her funeral (Panagopoulos 2012). Some sources mention that Thomas did not arrive in time for the Virgin’s funeral, which explains the depiction of eleven rather than twelve apostles in the clouds of the BM icon. Even though the apocryphal tradition ascribes the actual burial of the Virgin to the Apostles and the transfer of her body to heaven to the angels, on this icon it is the angels who are shown performing the entombment, while the Apostles are simply attending from the clouds.

This unusual composition is similar to icons of the Epitaphios (Burial) with the Threnos (Lamentation) of Christ, particularly versions with a limited number of figures. For instance, an icon dated 1607 from the Chapel of the Virgin in the Monastery of St John the Theologian in Patmos portrays the Virgin Mary and St John on either side of the body of Christ (Chatzidakis 1995, 131, no. 88, pl. 14). Another icon of the Lamentation dated to the 18th century from the Skete of St Anne, Great Lavra Monastery, Mount Athos is closer to the iconography of the BM icon. There the Virgin and St John have been replaced by the Archangels Michael and Gabriel, following the iconography of the burial of St John the Baptist or St Catherine of Alexandria (Karakatsanis 1997; Nelson and Collins (2006), 270-3, no. 58). Very similar to the BM icon in composition is a 16th-century drawing also in the British Museum (SL,5223.47), possibly copying a work of Pompeo dell’Aquila. In both works two angels hold a shroud carrying a saintly figure, while a third stands behind the sarcophagus with open arms. These similarities suggest that the ultimate model for such iconography might have been a western work of art, though this is far from sure. It may have been a creative adaptation from Byzantine icons of the Lamentation. But the icon displays further possible influences from western European painting; these include the flower ornaments on the garments of the angels and the Virgin’s arms crossed at her wrists. However, other features such as the gold background, the garments of the Virgin, the unrealistic rendering of the wings of the angels and their stylised hair, are more typical of Byzantine traditions.

The eclectic nature of the work, the decoration of the haloes, the moulding of the flesh areas using brown with lighter planes of pastel pink and a network of fine white highlights, as well as the heavy eyelids of the figures, are found in works of Cretan painters like Theodoros Poulakis (ca 1620–92), who worked in Venice and died in Corfu (Chatzidakis and Drakopoulou 1997). Particularly close to the decoration of the haloes and the general style of our icon is the signed work of Poulakis portraying St George from the Theotokos Monastery in Palaiokastritsa, Corfu, dated to the second half of the 17th century (Vokotopoulos 1990, 133, no. 91, pls 247–8). Also, the innovative iconography of the Dormition would be in line with the work of Poulakis who not only reproduced iconographic themes of the past but also created new types (Vokotopoulos 1990, 126).

Judging by the number of surviving icons that reproduce it, this new iconographic type of the Koimesis of the Virgin gained some popularity. A parallel to the BM icon is an 18th-century panel of similar dimensions (41.8 × 72.5 × 2.2 cm), also bearing a painted red cross on the reverse, from the Holy Apostles Chapel of the Old Cemetery in Livorno, now in the Museo Civico Giovanni Fattori (Passarelli 2001). But the BM icon lacks the pair of buildings seen in the background of the panel from Livorno. An icon from the State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, is also similar to the iconography of the BM panel though it lacks the clouds with images of the Apostles (Piatnitsky et al. 2005).

The closest treatment of the BM icon subject is found in an icon in the D. Loverdos collection in the Byzantine and Christian Museum, Athens, dating to the first half of the 18th century and bearing the signature of the painter Konstantinos Kontaris (Byzantine Museum 2004). This signed icon is however large and square in format, and includes the Assumption of the Virgin in the upper sector. It is perhaps copied, but with variations, in an icon now in the Antivouniotissa Museum at Corfu  (Chondrogiannis 2010), which is also attributed to Konstantinos Kontarinis. It omits the Assumption, and is of the same rectangular format as the BM icon. The garments of the angels are different, and the painter has added two symmetrical buildings in the background. Both these icons are of the early 18th century, and both have a Corfu provenance. The BM icon appears to be a smaller and reduced copy of the Antivouniotissa panel. It substitutes a plain gold background for the two symmetrical buildings found in the model. But the composition and form of the four figures are identical with this model.

The lack of any signature makes attribution of our icon uncertain. It can be argued that the icon was created by a 17th-century painter possibly from Poulakis’ workshop well-versed in Cretan painting and inspired by western art. During this period a number of painters left the island of Crete, particularly after its conquest by the Turks in 1669, and settled in places such as Venice and the Venetian-ruled Ionian Islands. But more likely it is an 18th-century panel, perhaps by Konstantinos Kontarinis, a Cretan artist who worked in Corfu, or more probably by another artist in Corfu copying Kontarinis’ model, perhaps in his workshop.

The size and shape of the BM panel fit within the general dimensions of oblong icons that were placed above the Royal Doors of the iconostasis in Orthodox churches. The themes of the icons in this position generally vary from the Last Supper, which is often encountered in churches of Corfu, to the Allegory of the Holy Communion (Vokotopoulos 1986) and the Epitaphios Threnos, particularly known in iconostasis? screens in Crete and Patmos (Chatzidakis 1995, 35, pl. V).

Literature: P. Vokotopoulos, ‘Ιδιομορφίες στη διακόσμηση κερκυραϊκών τέμπλων’,  Kephalleniaka Chronika 5 (1986), 149–56, esp. 152, figs 6, 7; P.L. Vokotopoulos, Εικόνες της Κέρκυρας, Athens, 1990, 133, no. 91, pls 247–8; M. Chatzidakis, Icons of Patmos. Questions of Byzantine and Post-Byzantine Painting, Athens, 1995; M. Chatzidakis and E. Drakopoulou,  Έλληνες ζωγράφοι μετά την Άλωση, 14501830, Athens, 1997, vol. 2, 304–17; A. Karakatsanis (ed.), Treasures of Mount Athos (exh. cat., Museum of Byzantine Civilisation), Thessaloniki, 1997, 183, no. 2.117; G. Passarelli (ed.), Le iconostasi di Livorno. Patrimonio iconografico post-bizantino, Livorno, 2001, 195, no. 8D; Byzantine Museum, The World of the Byzantine Museum, Athens, 2004, 250, no. 214; Y. Piatnitsky, V. Zalesskaya and V. Boele, Pilgrim Treasures from the Hermitage: Byzantium-Jerusalem (exh. cat., The Hermitage Amsterdam), Amsterdam, 2005, 67–8, no. 135; 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, 270–3, no. 58; R. Cormack, Icons, London, 2007 (repr. 2014), 99, fig. 62, 104, 120, no. 29; S.T. Chondrogiannis, The Antivouniotissa Museum Corfu, Thessaloniki, 2010, 92, A.M. 210; M. Vassilaki (ed.), The Hand of Angelos. An Icon Painter in Venetian Crete (exh. cat., The Benaki Museum), Athens, 2010, 202–04, no. 50; S. Panagopoulos, ‘The Byzantine Traditions of the Virgin Mary’s Dormition and Assumption’, Studia Patristica 54 (2012), 1–8, esp. 4.

Eleni Dimitriadou