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Athos Holy Mount

Portable Icons
2.6 The Virgin (bema door)
ca. 1200
Vatopedi Monastery
Wood, egg tempera, 107 x 35 cm


The Original New Testament

The Virgin stands before a backless throne, her left leg straight, her right leg flexed, and her body turning to the right in harmonious contrapposto. Her head bends to the right and she raises her right hand to her chin in a gesture of submission to God's will, in accordance with the accompanying inscription. She wears a dark green tunic and an aubergine mantle edged with gold and, as specified in the Protoevangelion of James (Tischendorff 1853, XI, p. 21), she is spinning, holding the distaff in her left hand and the spindle in her right.

The ground of her halo is light brown, ornamented with an undulating tendril done in gold. Instead of gold, the ground of the icon is light green with a painted red border. At the top of the upper curve there survive three of the eleven knobs that originally crowned the door. An inscription in the upper right gives the subject of the icon: 'Annunciation', and the relevant Gospel text: 'Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word' (Luke 1:38).

In the iconography of the middle Byzantine period, the Virgin is frequently portrayed standing, though there was a greater tendency to show her seated in the twelfth century. However, the fact that she is spinning in our icon is one of the basic features of the iconography of the Annunciation in the Comnenian period (Hadermann-Misguich 1975, pp. 99-100).

Her face is triangular, the inner cheek sharply outlined, her nose narrow with wide nostrils, her mouth pursed, her eyebrows dark, and her eyes, the right one slightly exophthalmic, wide open. The volumes of her face are rendered in a painterly manner, with the pink flesh tones covering large uniform areas, and the highlights either defining the wings of the nose and the cheekbones with close striations, or illuminating the chin, brow, and fingers with broad thick brushstrokes. This painterly technique of rendering the face, which has abandoned the network of fine red lines on the cheeks - a fundamental feature of Comnenian painting -, is seen in monuments of the second half of the twelfth century (Tsigaridas 1986 (1), pp. 98-103).

The drapery of both the tunic and the mantle is rendered in broad folds that hang straight, heavy, and monumental, without creases or ripples, as was the tendency at the end of the twelfth century, in marked contrast to the mannerism of the late Comnenian aesthetic that predominated in this period (Tsigaridas 1986 (1), p. 125, pl. 96, 105β).

So, in terms of the typology, the technical rendering of the face and clothing, and the tight form and contrapposto, this icon reflects predominant trends of the late Comnenian painting (Tsigaridas 1986 (1), pp. 112-16, pl. 33, 93α-β, 101β, 130α-β. Tsigaridas 1988, pp. 315-16, fig. 30), and it may therefore be dated to around 1200.

Bibliography: Tsigaridas 1996 (1), pp. 361-3, fig. 307.

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