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Athos Holy Mount

Portable Icons
2.30 Double-sided icon: (a) The Virgin Hodegetria - (b) The Crucifixion
late 14th c.
Monastery of St Paul
Wood, egg tempera, 110 x 80 cm



The Original New Testament

This is a double-sided processional icon with the Virgin Hodegetria on the main face and the Crucifixion on the rear. Double-sided processional icons are a visual expression of the doctrine of the divine incarnation and the symbolism of the divine Passion, which is why the subject on the rear is usually the Crucifixion, the Deposition, or the Man of Sorrows (Pallas 1965, pp. 91ff., 118ff., 308ff. Belting 1980-1, pp. 3, 9ff.).

On the main face, the Virgin is depicted from the waist up turning slightly towards Christ, her head tilted slightly in his direction. She holds the Child in her left arm, while her right hand is not raised before her breast in the usual way, but rests on Christ's knees. She wears a fringed aubergine mantle with an orange border decorated with gold striation. Christ sits erect in his mother's embrace, holding a closed scroll in his left hand, his right raised in blessing. He wears an orange himation liberally adorned with gold lineation. The ground of the icon is gold and bears two inscriptions: 'Mother of God the Hodegetria' and 'Jesus Christ'.

On the basis of the Virgin's pose and gesture, this icon of the Virgin and Child may be regarded as a variant of the iconographical type of the Virgin Hodegetria, among the oldest examples of which are an icon in Vatopedi Monastery (13th c., 2nd half) and another in the Byzantine Museum in Athens (early 14th c.), the latter from the Church of St Nicholas in Thessaloniki (Tsigaridas 1996 (1), fig. 308. Vassilaki-Karakatsani 1966-9, pl. 83).

In its iconography, physiognomy, and technique, this icon closely resembles the Vatopedi Hodegetria, dated to the last quarter of the fourteenth century. In fact, a number of features - the Virgin's broad body culminating in a small head (Tsigaridas 1996 (1), fig. 308), the slenderness of the figures, the gracious faces with their fine, well-drawn features, the soft, gentle chiaroscuro of the faces shading to pinkish on the cheeks, and the localised linear highlights that impart a luminous sheen - are seen not only in the Vatopedi icon but also in other works of the same period, such as the Virgin Peribleptos at Zagorsk outside Moscow (late 14th c.), which is believed to have come from Constantinople (Ikoni 1991, no. 56).

The Crucifixion on the rear face is dominated by the central figure of the crucified Christ. His body, clad in a loincloth, is bent in a reverse S, his hands and feet nailed and still bleeding, and his head drooping onto his right shoulder.

On the left, the Virgin has swooned at the sight of her son dead on the cross and is held up by her companion. On the right are John and the centurion. John is introverted, exhausted, and bowed with grief, resting his head on his right hand, while his left, positioned horizontally across his breast, holds up the edge of his himation. The centurion behind him holds a shield, turns towards Christ, and lifts his right hand to confess that 'Truly this man was the Son of God' (Mark 15:39).

In the background are the walls of Jerusalem. There is one inscription on the horizontal arms of the cross: 'The Crucifixion'; and two more on the gold ground: 'Mother of God' and 'St John the Theologian'.

From an iconographical point of view, what sets this icon of the Crucifixion apart from the traditional iconography of the subject is the Virgin's swoon. Though known in the iconography of the Crucifixion since the eleventh century, this particular motif is not very common in Byzantine art; but it is seen in two groups of monumental painting on Mount Athos: the frescoes in the katholikon of Vatopedi Monastery (1312) and in Chelandari Monastery (1318-19) (Tsigaridas 1996 (3), fig. 194. Millet 1927, pl. 69.2). Both in the general iconographical format, poses, and gestures and in the depiction of the swooning Virgin, the anonymous painter of the St Paul's Crucifixion seems to have used the Vatopedi Crucifixion as his model, for he has copied it closely, omitting only a few minor details. However, in some iconographical details, such as the sigmoid curve of Christ's body and the protruding, almost tympanitic, belly, the painter adopts trends which appeared in icons of the Crucifixion in the second half of the fourteenth century (Vocotopoulos 1995, nos. 83, 108, 143).

From an artistic point of view, the figures in the Crucifixion are lean and slender, with drapery highlighted by bright luminous patches and stiff white lines defining the edges of the folds.

In the rendering of the faces, the painter uses dark green underpainting and brownish to olive-green flesh with faint red patches on the cheeks. At the same time, a lattice of supple linear highlights covers the sides of the face, encircles the eyes, and illuminates the ridge of the nose, the forehead over the eyebrows, and the neck. This painterly technique of soft chiaroscuro, which gives the volumes and the facial features substance without sharp outlines or isolated areas, and with highlights that lend the face a translucent quality, is seen in Palaeologan artistic trends that appeared in the second half of the fourteenth century and continued into the first half of the fifteenth.

In this respect, the St Paul's Crucifixion is chiefly linked with works of the last quarter of the fourteenth century, such as the double-sided icon in Sofia (1371), the wall paintings of the Anargyroi saints (Cosmas and Damian) in Vatopedi Monastery (1371?), the wall paintings in Sklaverochori on Crete (late 14th c.), and the icon of the Crucifixion on Patmos (early 15th c.) (Vocotopoulos 1995, nos. 125-6. Tsigaridas 1996 (3), figs. 238-41. Borboudakis 1991, pls. ΚΒ΄-ΚΓ΄. Vocotopoulos 1995, fig. 143).

In fact, the strikingly close facial and stylistic resemblance between the Virgin in the St Paul's Crucifixion and the Virgin in the Ascension in the Church of the Eisodia in Sklaverochori on Crete (Borboudakis 1991, pl. ΚΓ΄) makes it possible to date this icon more precisely to the end of the fourteenth century.

In conclusion, from an iconographical point of view, the representation of the Crucifixion with the swooning Virgin adopts iconographical formats from the early Palaeologan period, such as that of the fresco Crucifixion in Vatopedi Monastery (1312). Stylistically, with its slender figures, the sigmoid curve of Christ's body, and the delicate rendering of the faces, this Crucifixion reflects the artistic techniques of workshops in Constantinople or Thessaloniki at the end of the fourteenth century.

Bibliography: Unpublished.

Index of exhibits of Monastery of St. Paul's
14th century

The Authentic Greek New Testament Bilingual New Testament I

Icon of the Mother of God and New Testament Reader Promote Greek Learning
Three Millennia of Greek Literature

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