Icon with the Virgin and a military saint2018-12-21T13:24:03+00:00

Icon with the Virgin and a military saint

Greece, 17th century

  1. 20.5cm; W. 17cm

Bequeathed by Dr John Nepomuk Pachmayr in 2011. Purchased by him from the New Grecian Gallery, Brook Street, London W1, in March 1973.

Reg. no. BEP 2011,8033.7

(Cormack 107)

The icon is painted in egg tempera with gold leaf on wood primed with gesso. This rectangular panel is oddly shaped: it is narrower towards the top and crowned with a pointed protrusion. It has a raised integral border with red and gold. The icon has hinge marks on its left side, and was probably originally the right wing of a diptych. The haloes are outlined by double concentric circles, incised on the gold background. Incisions are also visible around the figures. A clear case is where an incision can be seen to outline the left boot of the saint.

The reverse side of the panel has been treated with care; it is covered with gesso and reddish brown colour and then decorated with a cross on a stepped base and the instruments of Christ’s passion (lance, sponge, nails). In the four fields formed by the cross is the christogram IC XC NHKA (‘Jesus Christ Conquers’); a rinceau border follows the irregular shape of the icon.

The original diptych must have represented the Annunciation, with Gabriel on the left side and the Virgin on the right. Presumably a saint would have flanked Gabriel on the left side, mirroring the saint on the right of the Virgin. The BM icon represents the Virgin of the Annunciation sitting on a backless throne and turning to the left towards the opposite panel where the figure of the Archangel Gabriel would have been. She is raising her right hand in response to the angel, while holding with her left the spindle used for making the yarn for the veil of the Temple (Protoevangelion of James 10:1). The Holy Spirit in the form of a dove descends within a ray of light that reaches the halo of the Virgin. The house where the event is taking place is shown as a narrow basilica in front of which is an arcaded structure and a bell tower reminiscent of western architecture. The Virgin is identified by the abbreviation MP ΘΥ (Mother of God) found on the left side of her halo. Remnants of the red Greek inscription identifying the scene as the Annunciation are discernible above the basilica. The standing saint on the right is holding a spear and a shield, but is not now identified.

The iconography of the Virgin is traditional, and this rendering is similar to the fresco of the Annunciation in the sanctuary of St Athanasios tou Mouzaki in Kastoria dating to 1384/5 (Pelekanidis and Chatzidakis 1985). What is unusual in the BM icon is the absence of the cushion on the wooden throne and the lack of a footstool, both of which are standard features of the Annunciation. Possible explanations for the western-style bell tower include the influence of Cretan painting, but also the commercial and cultural relations of northern Greece, and particularly the wealthy city of Kastoria, with Venice from the 12th century. These links strengthened in the 16th century through contact with the Ionian Islands, Epiros and Adriatic cities (Drakopoulou 1997).

The iconographic type of the youthful military saint with short brown hair wearing the crown of martyrdom might be read as either St George or St Demetrios. Unfortunately, there are only a few traces of the red inscription accompanying the figure, making the identification uncertain. The saint is standing frontally and, unlike the Virgin, engages directly with the viewer. He wears a short, bright-red military tunic and a soft reddish-brown cuirass giving the impression of either fabric or leather, a common feature in works from c. 1261 onwards (Grotowski 2010). The cuirass has scalloped edges decorated with an intricate gold motif, but this is difficult to see due to wear of the paint on this part of the icon.

The small panel was probably produced in northern Greece. The clues to suggest this are several. In particular, the shape of the panel is similar to an icon with a half-length Christ in the Rena Andreadis collection, dated to the late 17th or early 18th century and associated with works from western Macedonia (Drandaki 2002, 242, no. 60). They are both of similar dimensions, have a narrow integral frame coloured half red and half gold and they both have the triangular motif extending from the middle of their upper border, although it is less visible on the Andreadis icon as it has been worn away. The two-coloured raised border is a common feature in icons from northern Greece dating between the 15th and the 19th centuries though they can vary in width. For instance, a border of this kind can be found on a number of works from the Monastery of St Paul on Mount Athos, such as the mid-15th-century icon of Our Lady Panymnetos or the icon of the Koimesis of the Virgin dated 1795 (Vassilaki, Tavlakis and Tsigaridas 1999).

The military saint also has iconographic affinities with works found in northern Greece. His round shield with its characteristic decorative border and the straps, which appear to have been placed on the wrong side (the outer side!) can be found in various monuments of the region such as the c. 1430 frescoes of St Andrew tou Rassoule in Kastoria (Tsigaridas 2008) or an icon of St Demetrios dated to the first half of the sixteenth century from the Church of St Nicholas in Kato Perivoli, Kastoria, now in the Byzantine Museum of that city (Kakavas 2004). Additionally, the shape of the saint’s head with its pointed chin and wide forehead is found in works attributed to the region of Macedonia, such as the icon with Four Saints in the Andreadis collection (Drandaki 2002, 164–5, no. 36).

A further indication of the date and provenance is given by the style. The representation of the flesh parts with dark brown underpaint and large areas of ochre, as well as the prominent dark contours of the figures and the lack of elegance in the face of the military saint, points to a painter of limited abilities working in northern Greece in the 17th century.

Literature: New Grecian Gallery, Greek Icons 15th-18th Century (London, June-August 1973), London, 1973, no. 38; S. Pelekanidis and M. Chatzidakis, Kastoria, Athens, 1985, 106, 110, fig. 3; E. Drakopoulou, Η πόλη της Καστοριάς τη βυζαντινή και μεταβυζαντινή εποχή (12ος – 16ος αι), Athens, 1997, 151–8; M. Vassilaki, I. Tavlakis and E. Tsigaridas, The Holy Monastery of Aghiou Pavlou. The Icons, Mount Athos, 1999, 48–9, 224–5, fig. 16, 130; A. Drandaki, Greek Icons. 14th–18th century. The Rena Andreadis Collection, Athens, 2002; G. Kakavas, Βυζαντινό  Μουσεὶο Καστοριὰς, Athens, 2004, 330, pl. 115 a, b; E. Tsigaridas, Τοιχογραφίες της περιόδου των Παλαιολόγων σε ναούς της Μακεδονίας, Thessaloniki, 2008, 303–11, figs 174, 178; P. Grotowski, Arms and Armour of the Warrior Saints, Leyden/Boston, 2010, 154; R. Cormack, Icons, London, 2014 (2nd ed.), 139, no. 107.

Eleni Dimitriadou