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Athos Holy Mount

Portable Icons

The Original New Testament

When the Iconoclast Controversy was over, and the Seventh Ecumenical Council had formulated the doctrine concerning icons (787), Orthodoxy had triumphed over the Iconoclasts, and the feast of the Holy Images had been established (843), the portable icon assumed a prominent position in the liturgical life of the Church. The Seventh Ecumenical Council proclaimed that 'we make icons, but we do not deify them, knowing that they are only images and nothing else, for they have only the name of the original and not the essence.' The Council described the veneration of the holy icons, which 'passes to the prototype' (Basil the Great), as 'a sanctioned godly custom and tradition of the Church, a devout demand and need of its flock'. The veneration of the holy icons has been an essential characteristic of the Orthodox Church ever since, because, as Tarasios, Patriarch of Constantinople (789-806), notes, 'it is acceptable and pleasing to God to venerate and kiss pictorial representations of the economy of Our Lord Jesus Christ and the immaculate Mother of God and Ever-Virgin Mary, the holy angels and all the saints.'

The icons displayed in this exhibition, sacred objects of veneration of the Orthodox Church, constitute an outstanding sample from the rich treasure-houses of the Athonite monasteries. At the same time they are an essential expression of the spirituality of Orthodox monasticism and the artistic flowering of Byzantine and post-Byzantine Hellenism.

The surviving portable icons in the monasteries, sketae, and kellia of Mount Athos make up the largest collection of its kind in the world. They number about twenty thousand, only a small proportion of which has been published. Iconographically and artistically speaking, and also in numerical terms, the most important and the largest collections of icons belong to the monasteries of the Great Lavra, Vatopedi, Iviron, Chilandari, and Pantokrator.

Scientific examination has shown that the oldest icons on Mount Athos date to the eleventh century. But according to the unbroken tradition of the monastic republic, which goes back over a thousand years, some of the icons, which have miraculous powers and are especially venerated, are older. These include the Axion estin ('It is very meet and right') in the Protaton, the Virgin Bematarissa (Our Lady the Sacristan) in Vatopedi, and the Virgin Portaitissa (Our Lady the Gatekeeper) in Iviron.

The Athonite icons display a rich and diverse thematic repertory and a variety of iconographical types of saints –Einspired by the Old and New Testaments, the apocryphal Gospels, and the lives of saintsE– which correspond to the Church calendar and the canon of saints and answer various needs, such as veneration, liturgical use, and private monastic prayer. They also reveal the importance which icons gradually acquired in the liturgical life of the Orthodox Church after the Iconoclast period.

The icons offer valuable direct or indirect evidence of the history of the monasteries and of Athonite monasticism in general. They also enable us to draw pertinent conclusions about the development of Byzantine and post-Byzantine painting, artistic activity on Mount Athos, and the monasteries' relations with the areas of Greece and the Orthodox countries in the Balkans and eastern Europe in which they had metochia.

The high artistic standard of many of these icons also enables us to recognise the spiritual and economic relations which the monasteries forged with the major centres of the Byzantine Empire, Constantinople and Thessaloniki, and to appreciate the leading role which Mount Athos played, whether directly or indirectly, in the art of the Orthodox Church, particularly after the fall of Constantinople (1453).

As regards their liturgical use, most of the icons fall into one of two broad categories: icons for veneration and templon icons. The latter are permanently in place on the screen between the sanctuary and the nave of the church; the former are either permanently positioned on icon-stands or else changed daily on the icon-stands in accordance with the Orthodox Church calendar.

Depending on their position, the templon icons are bema doors, despotic icons, epistyle icons, and the crowning cross. The Annunciation is usually on the bema doors, which close the central passage through the templon or iconostasis. One of the oldest icons of this kind on Mount Athos is the bema door depicting the Virgin of the Annunciation from Vatopedi Monastery (no. 2.1). The despotic icons are usually large, are venerated by the faithful, and have fixed subjects, being busts of Christ, the Virgin, St John the Baptist, and the saint to which the church is dedicated. The most important icons of this type include those of Christ and of the Virgin in Chilandari (nos. 2.8, 2.9) and Vatopedi (nos. 2.10, 2.11), which were painted around 1260 and in the last quarter of the thirteenth century respectively.

On the epistyle are the Dodekaorton (icons which relate to the life of Christ) and the Great Deesis icons in one or two rows. One of the oldest surviving epistyles is that of Vatopedi Monastery (no. 2.4), a work of the second half of the twelfth century, which combines the compact form of the Great Deesis with the Dodekaorton and scenes from the life of the Virgin. In the post-Byzantine period, the Dodekaorton on the epistyle of the iconostasis was supplemented with scenes from the Anastasis and Pentecost cycles. This is particularly apparent on the Iviron epistyle (nos. 2.42, 2.43), the work of Theophanis the Cretan, and the Pantokrator epistyle (no. 2.76), which was painted by an anonymous, non-Cretan, artist in the first half of the sixteenth century.

The Great Deesis on the iconostasis comprises the Trimorphon (the Virgin, Christ, and the Baptist) in the centre of the epistyle, flanked by the archangels Michael and Gabriel and the twelve apostles. In the compact form, the apostles are replaced by Sts Peter and Paul and the four Evangelists. Some of the most characteristic groups of this kind are the Great Deesis in Vatopedi and Chilandari, both dated to the third quarter of the fourteenth century, in Dionysiou, the work of the Cretan painter Euphrosynos (1542), and in the Protaton (1542). The height of the iconostasis increased considerably in the post-Byzantine period, and in some cases a third row of icons was added, depicting the prophets.

The surviving crosses that surmount the iconostases in the katholika and chapels of the Athonite monasteries date from no earlier than the fourteenth century. The oldest is in the katholikon of Pantokrator Monastery and dates to the third quarter of the fourteenth century (no. 2.19). A particularly interesting cross of the sixteenth century is the one in Iviron Monastery, which survives in fragmentary condition: according to archival sources, it is the work of a painter, 'the monk Ioasaph from Saravari', and a wood-carver, 'the monk Neophytos from the isle of Crete'. It is dated to 1525 and is believed to have been 3.3Em tall. Two more crosses, in the katholika of the Great Lavra (1535) and Stavronikita (1546), are attributed to the Cretan painter Theophanis (no. 2.54); and another two, in Koutloumousiou and Dionysiou, are ascribed to Cretan painters of the third quarter of the sixteenth century.

There is a particular category of portable icon which is painted both front and back. These are generally processional icons, and the front usually bears a representation of the Virgin and Christ, while the back has a theme connected with Christ's Passion, such as the Crucifixion, the Deposition, or the Man of Sorrows. Representative examples of this genre are the double-sided icon from St Paul's Monastery (no. 2.29), a work of the second half of the fourteenth century, depicting the Virgin Hodegetria on the main face and the Crucifixion on the rear, and two icons from Pantokrator Monastery (nos. 2.18, 2.20).

Also of special interest are the icons in the form of diptychs, triptychs, or polyptychs, which, depending on their iconographical programme, are intended for private veneration or, more rarely, for liturgical use.

In terms of material, special categories of portable icons are mosaic icons and icons with a gemmed gilt or silver cover, which conceals the background of the picture and, usually, the figure depicted in it, apart from the face and other areas of bare flesh. Icons with a metal cover are objects of special veneration, and for this reason they are usually placed either on the iconostasis as despotic icons or on icon-stands. The oldest surviving icons of this kind on Mount Athos are the Virgin Portaitissa in Iviron Monastery and the Virgin Bematarissa in Vatopedi Monastery. Vatopedi boasts the largest collection of icons of this kind on Mount Athos.

Mosaic icons are extremely costly items, made of, usually tiny, tesserae of multicoloured stone or glass attached with mastic to a wooden base. These icons, which are highly demanding works of artistry produced usually by Constantinopolitan workshops, are the gifts of secular or Church officials to the monasteries. Nine of them survive on Mount Athos, dating from the twelfth to the fourteenth century: St George and St Demetrios at Xenophontos (nos. 2.2, 2.3), the Virgin Hodegetria at Chilandari (no. 2.1), St John the Theologian and Christ Pantokrator at the Great Lavra, the Crucifixion at Vatopedi (no. 2.12), St Nicholas at Stavronikita, and Christ Pantokrator at Esphigmenou.

The portable icon is not a completely independent genre in Byzantine art, it is influenced by the thematic repertory, the style, and the techniques of monumental painting and manuscript illumination; and from the Palaeologan period onwards the converse is also true. From this point of view, it is not fortuitous that both unknown and well-known artists (Panselinos, Theophanis the Cretan, Zorzis, Frangos Katelanos, Antonios, Dionysios of Fourna) were equally at ease with wall painting and icon painting. It was only in the middle Byzantine period that the artists of the Cretan school – with the exception of Theophanis and Zorzis, who bequeathed us both wall paintings and icons on Mount Athos – tended to specialise in the painting of portable icons: they include Michael Damaskinos (no. 2.73), Euphrosynos (nos. 2.44, 2.45, 2.46), Ioannis Apakas, and Constantinos Tzanes, among others, and works of theirs still survive on the Holy Mountain.

The Byzantine icons preserved on Mount Athos do not provide any information about their date, their painter, or their donor. In a very few cases, icons of this period carry inscriptions that tell us the name of the donor and the date, but never the name of the painter. In the sixteenth century, however, and more so in the eighteenth, icons increasingly carry inscriptions with the painter's name, the date, and the donor. When the donors are portrayed in icons, they are usually emperors or princes and founders of the monastery (nos. 2.29, 2.77).

The oldest icons on Mount Athos – apart from some devotional icons which tradition dates to the Iconoclast period – are from the Comnenian period. They are few in number, but are represented in this exhibition by twelfth-century works of outstanding artistry, including two mosaic icons from Xenophontos Monastery (nos. 2.2, 2.3) and one from Chilandari (no. 2.1), and two sections of the epistyle of an iconostasis from Vatopedi (no. 2.4), combining the Great Deesis with scenes from the Life of the Virgin and the Life of Christ.

Very few icons survive on Athos from the first half of the thirteenth century. However, the monasteries have preserved many from the Palaeologan period (1261-1453), and these fully represent the Orthodox calendar of feasts and canon of saints, as also the artistic trends of the age. Many of them may be described as outstanding works of the Palaeologan Renaissance and traced to workshops from Constantinople and Thessaloniki.

The early Palaeologan period (1261-1328) is represented in the exhibition by ten icons, one of which, the Crucifixion from Vatopedi (no. 2.12), is a mosaic work. The icons of this period display a limited thematic repertory, because most of them are despotic icons of, for the most part, Christ and the Virgin. Nonetheless, some of them –Eincluding Christ and the Virgin Hodegetria from Chilandari (nos. 2.8, 2.9) and St Demetrios from Vatopedi (no. 2.13: attributed to the painter of the Protaton, Manuel Panselinos)E– are superlative expressions of the art of this period.

The icons from the later Palaeologan period (1329-1453) presented in the exhibition display greater thematic variety, being despotic icons, large Great Deesis icons, processional icons, bema doors, devotional icons, and double-sided icons. Artistically speaking, they are splendid examples of the artistic output and the artistic trends of the time and attest the Athonite monasteries' contacts with those great centres of the Byzantine Empire, Constantinople and Thessaloniki. This period coincided with the rise of Hesychasm, but also with the progressive dwindling of the Empire. Particularly striking for their expressive quality are the icons of the Great Deesis from Vatopedi (nos. 2.21, 2.22, 2.23, 2.24) and Chilandari (nos. 2.25, 2.26, 2.27), which were produced by the same workshop in the third quarter of the fourteenth century, the cross from Pantokrator (no. 2.18), and the double-sided icon from St Paul's Monastery (no. 2.29).

Most of the surviving portable icons on Mount Athos belong to the post-Byzantine period, notably the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries. The icons exhibited from this period have been selected according to certain criteria, the purpose of which is to present as clear a picture as possible of the artistic trends that were developing on Mount Athos at this time. Efforts have also been made, in the general context of this approach, to include the works of known artists and indeed of Athonite workshops.

The early period of post-Byzantine art on Mount Athos, from the start of Ottoman rule to 1535 –Ethe year when the great Cretan painter Theophanis came to live on Mount Athos and inaugurated his artistic career with the decoration of the katholikon of the Great LavraE– saw a falling-off in artistic production on Mount Athos. At the same time artistic activity shifted from the great artistic centres of Constantinople and Thessaloniki to the provinces. The icons on Athos from this period are thus the products of northern Greek or Athonite workshops, with a small number being works of a very high standard produced by anonymous artists of the Cretan school in the fifteenth century and imported to Athos (nos. 2.32, 2.33) from Crete or from parts of Greece under Venetian domination.

The second period, which began in 1535 and ended in 1711, when hieromonk Dionysios, from Fournas in the Agrapha Mountains, decorated the Chapel of St John the Prodrome in Karyes, was marked by the artistic activity on Athos of the Cretan painter Theophanis, whose influence is detectable until the early eighteenth century. Apart from monumental ensembles, this great artist and his atelier, which included his sons Symeon and Neophytos, also bequeathed a very important collection of portable icons: in the Great Lavra (1535), Iviron (1535-45), Pantokrator (1535-45), Stavronikita (1545-6), and Gregoriou (ca. 1546). Of these are displayed in the exhibition the Dodekaorton from Iviron (nos. 2.42, 2.43) and Stavronikita (nos. 2.58-2.72), together with a selection of icons from Iviron (nos. 2.40, 2.41), Pantokrator (no. 2.74), and Stavronikita (nos. 2.54, 2.57).

A contemporary of Theophanis's on Mount Athos was another Cretan painter named Zorzis, who is credited with the frescoes in the katholikon of Dionysiou (1547) and probably those in the katholikon of Docheiariou (1568). This writer believes that he also painted the icons of the Great Deesis in the Protaton (1542), which other scholars attribute to Theophanis.

Athonite monasteries also preserve signed works by sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Cretan artists, such as the priest Euphrosynos (1542) in Dionysiou Monastery (nos. 2.44, 2.45, 2.46), Michael Damaskinos (16thEc., 2nd half) in Stavronikita (no. 2.73), Ioannis Apakas (late 16th?early 17thEc.) in the Great Lavra, Constantinos Palaiokapas (1640) in Karakalou, and Constantinos Tzanes (1677) in Vatopedi. These icons were brought to Mount Athos either from Crete or from other parts of Greece under Venetian rule.

Other icons from this period represent the output of local workshops on Mount Athos Ewhich were chiefly influenced by the iconographical types of the Cretan school, particularly as exemplified by TheophanisE– or else were produced by anonymous or known artists – such as Ioasaph Saravaris (1525) and Constantinos from Linotopi – or workshops from north-western Greece, particularly Macedonia.

The third period of post-Byzantine painting on Mount Athos begins in 1711 and ends in the second half of the nineteenth century, when the atelier of Father Ioasaph was set up (1859) and the western artistic idiom gained the ascendancy, particularly as exemplified by the Nazarenes and their oil-painting technique. In the early part of this period, hieromonk Dionysios and other artists of the first half of the eighteenth century who followed him, such as Kosmas of Limnos (1721) and David of Selenitsa in Albania (1715 and 1727), were exponents of a scholarly artistic movement which sought a return to the iconographical models and artistic techniques represented by Panselinos's paintings in the Protaton. Between 1728 and 1733, Dionysios of Fourna wrote his Painter’s Manual (Hermeneia), which was a theoretical exposition of this same tradition. All these artists set their own clear seal on the artistic output – wall painting and icon painting – of the eighteenth and the early nineteenth century on Mount Athos. Dionysios in particular is known to have worked in both genres.

In the second half of the eighteenth century, known and anonymous artists from Epirus, Macedonia, Thrace, and elsewhere were producing monumental paintings and portable icons on Mount Athos. In the latter part of the eighteenth and the first half of the nineteenth century, the Athonite workshop of hieromonk Makarios from Galatista in Chalkidiki turned the production of icons into something of a light industry.

The nineteenth century has many dated or signed icons to show, most of them the works of known Athonite monks or folk artists. The following are some of the names found on dated or undated icons of the eighteenth and particularly the nineteenth century: hieromonk Theodoritos (1813); Metrophanis Nikephoros (1816); Melhisedek, prior of Vatopedi (1828); Gennadios, monk (1844); Matthaios (1847, 1856); hieromonk Makarios (1842); hieromonk Veniamin (1865); archimandrite Anthimos (1865); Neophytos from Arta (1721); Constantinos from Adrianople (1786); Hadzilambrinos from Smyrna; Michael Ierosolymitis (1871); Theophanis from Nigrita, Serres prefecture (1875).

The most distinctive feature of the artists of this period is that they combine established iconographical types, sometimes enriching the iconography, or else they introduce new iconographical types adapted to the demands of the time, the new martyrs, for instance. From an artistic point of view, they reflect nineteenth-century religious folk art, which allies traditional artistic techniques with elements – in the natural and architectural setting – taken from the western conception of art, the latter elements introduced chiefly by way of engravings. These are subsidiary aspects of the composition of the icon, rendered after the manner of nineteenth-century folk painting, and do not affect the character of the iconography of the Orthodox Church.

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