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Athos Holy Mount

Portable Icons
2.80 Painted doors
16th c., last quarter
Iviron Monastery
Wood, egg tempera, 2.33 x 0.80 cm (each door)



The Original New Testament

Each of these painted doors, which now flank the refectory conch in Iviron Monastery, is divided horizontally into two equal rectangular sections. In the upper section of the left door is the Virgin from the waist up, turning three-quarters to the right, holding in her left hand an open inscribed scroll, and putting out her right in a gesture of supplication for the salvation of humankind towards Christ, who is portrayed in the upper section of the right door. Christ is depicted from the waist up in a frontal pose, holding a closed Gospel and lifting his right hand in blessing. He wears an aubergine tunic with a clavus and a dark green himation. On the gold ground is the inscription: 'Jesus Christ the Philanthrope'. The Virgin wears an aubergine mantle bordered and fringed with gold. On the gold ground is the inscription: 'Mother of God the Hope of Christians'. The inscription on her scroll is an appeal to Christ for the salvation of humankind (Millet - Pargoire - Petit 1904, no. 285, p. 91).

In the lower sections of the doors, within painted arches supported on columns, are two members of the secular aristocracy. On the left door is a young man from the knees up, turning three-quarters to the right, his head lifted, and his right hand stretched forth in a gesture of supplication. On the right, a middle-aged man with a short thick rounded beard and long hair curling at the edges faces left in an supplicatory manner. Both men are dressed in luxurious court attire, the younger one in particular wearing a red garment with sleeves, belted at the waist, decorated with gold-woven two-headed eagles.

According to Smyrnakis, the doors are from the katholikon, date to 1680, and depict the monastery's founder, Thornik the Iberian (Georgian), on the right and Emperor Basil II 'the Bulgar-slayer' on the left (Smyrnakis 1903, p. 471). Millet, Pargoire, and Petit suggest that the figures represent the Georgian ruler Asotan and his son Jesse; they also propose that the doors are from the Chapel of the Panagia Portaοtissa, which was founded by Asotan (Smyrnakis 1903, p. 470), and therefore date to 1683, the year the chapel was built (Millet - Pargoire - Petit 1904, no. 285, p. 91).

Xyngopoulos identifies the figures as Michnea II, Voivode of Wallachia (1577-83 and 1585-91) and his son Radu (1611-23), on the basis of the information that Radu's mother sent him to Iviron Monastery to learn Greek, the monks subsequently despatching him to complete his studies in Venice (Xyngopoulos 1975, pp. 647-9). Xyngopoulos's view is strengthened by the fact that Michnea and Radu are represented as sponsors of the decoration of the katholikon in a separate panel on the south wall of the nave, accompanied by the Hegumen of Iviron Gabriel and the Iberian painter Markos (Millet - Pargoire - Petit 1904, no. 232, p. 71). It is therefore very likely that the same sponsors of the katholikon are represented on the painted doors in the Iviron refectory, and that the doors themselves are the work of Markos.

This theory is further supported by the dating of the doors, which artistic criteria place in the late sixteenth century. The whole group of figures is the work of a painter who applies artistic manners of the Cretan School to his own personal style. From a technical point of view, the faces of Christ and the Virgin are rendered with narrow areas of olive-green shading and broad areas of warm wheaten flesh, on which the linear highlights are rendered in a dry, though accomplished, calligraphic style. The rendering of the clothing too, particularly that of the Virgin, with the broad schematic folds which are not a feature of the painting of the Cretan School, shows that the painter is adapting artistic manners from Byzantine and western art to his own personal style.

The same technique is recognisable in the faces of the princes, which are obviously portraits. One is struck by the realistic portrayal of the older man's face and the freshness of the younger man's ripe flesh, his noble face rendered with exceptional finesse and skill. It should be noted that the facial type of the younger figure, with his long wavy hair, suggests that the painter is imitating figures from the western aristocracy; and this strengthens the view that it is indeed Michnea's son Radu, who, as we know, studied in Venice, and whose appearance would naturally have been influenced by the Venetian environment.

Bibliography: Xyngopoulos 1975, pp. 647-9, fig. 1.

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16th century

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