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Athos Holy Mount

Byzantine Minor Arts
9.24 Inner face of a book cover, with scenes from the Life of Christ
13th c.
Dionysiou Monastery
Wood and lazurites
139 x 10 cm


The Original New Testament

Set into the inner face of the front cover of the monastery's Cod. 33, dated in the thirteenth to fourteenth century (Thesauroi 1973, p. 407), is a carved wooden icon. The centre is occupied by a cross ornament formed of five interconnected roundels, one larger circle in the middle with four smaller ones set cross-fashion around it. The perimeter of these rotae sericae is fluted, and a lazurite (?), marks the centre of each. Fluted ribbons twist to form a series of medallions within these roundels, six in each of the smaller ones and, in the larger, an inner ring of five and an outer ring of ten. Between these two rings of medallions is a narrow band inscribed with the words 'The host of saints - The host of apostles). Each medallion frames a facing pair of busts, obviously saints and apostles, according to the inscription. Tendrils spring from the central circle and fill the spaces between the roundels, curling around to frame single portrait heads matching the busts in the medallions.

Inscribed bands with the lettering carved in relief frame both the icon and the eighteen small compartments depicting scenes from the Life of Christ, from the Annunciation to the Pentecost, which occupy its four corners. These, which follow no apparent chronological or narrative order, are as follows, starting in the upper left-hand corner: (1st row) the Ascension, the Annunciation, the Last Judgement, the Crucifixion, the Mockery of Christ; (2nd row) the Pentecost, the Presentation of the Virgin, the Betrayal, the Last Supper; (4th row) the Descent from the Cross, the Anastasis, the Entry into Jerusalem, the Transfiguration; (bottom row) the Lamentation, the Stone (?), the Presentation in the Temple, the Baptism, the Raising of Lazarus. The identifying inscriptions on the horizontal bands above the scenes are not always either complete or legible; sometimes too they are continued or repeated on the vertical bands. This work presents some interesting iconographic features, such as the scene of the Last Judgement, where the two groups of five angels flanking the enthroned Christ create a direct link with the busts of the saints and apostles. A magnificent twelfth-century steatite icon of the Dodekaorton in Toledo has a similar scene on its finial (Kalavrezou-Maxeiner 1985, pp. 143-50, pl. 31).

The omission of the Nativity and the inclusion of the Presentation of the Virgin, together with the apparently random ordering of the other scenes, suggest that the artist did not follow a specific iconographic model.

The figures are rendered in a somewhat folk, almost primitive style, which occurs in other, relevant art expressions, such as Coptic art: characteristic features include the strongly-accented heads, the deep-set eyes, the sketchily rendered hair and the shapelessness of the drapery, which leaves only the silhouettes of the figures clearly defined. This notwithstanding, however, it is obvious that this work must certainly have been inspired by an ivory book-cover, perhaps that embellishing Queen Melisande's Psalter, dating from the period 1131-43. Indeed, the two share a number of iconographic and technical features (Byzantium 1994, no. 181, pp. 165-6), including the use of rotae sericae as representation frames and of fluted ribbons for ornamental motifs, the use of undercut relief, the use of lazurites (turquoise), and also the use of ornaments related to the content of the book they adorn.

The subject of this wooden icon is associated with the first part of the codex, the New Testament, just as scenes from the life of David were chosen to decorate Queen Melisande's Psalter. Of course, the rotae sericae delineated by fluted ribbons of inlaid ivory and framing various themes are also found in other works, such as the central panels on the double door of the katholikon of the Olympiotissa Monastery (11th - early 13th c.; Bouras 1989-90, pp. 27-32), which, given the technical perfection of their execution, must have been made in either Constantinople or Thessaloniki.

The inscription on the upper margin of the frame, also difficult to decipher, gives the titles of the scenes just below: Ascension, Annunciation, illegible, Crucifixion, Mockery of Christ. The rest of the inscription, occupying the vertical margins, reads from the bottom up, starting on the left, and appears to be the text of a Psalm, although it has not yet been completely deciphered.

Bibliography: Huber 1969, pl. 168. Thesauroi 1973, pp. 44, 407. Kadas 1979, p. 66, fig. 115. Kadas 1997, p. 110, fig. on p. 114.

K. L-T.
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