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Athos Holy Mount

Byzantine Minor Arts
9.29 Diptych, known as the 'Milutin diptych'
late 13th-early14th c.
Chelandari Monastery
Wood, silver gilt, rock crystal, semiprecious stones, glass, pearls, enamel and parchment
30.5 x 48 x 2 cm



The Original New Testament

Now preserved in the sacristy of the monastery, this exquisite wooden diptych ornamented, from the seventeenth century on, the front of the ciborium surmounting the hegumen's throne; its association with the Serbian monarch Milutin is largely attributable to the costliness of its manufacture.

It is decorated with scenes from the Life of Christ, painted on small parchment squares and circles set into concavities hollowed out of the wooden surface. These twenty-four miniatures, arranged on each wing in three rows of four, are encased in sheaths of rock crystal cut to fit each separate compartment: the effect produced by their polished surfaces over the painted miniatures beneath seems to be intended to imitate enamelwork. Surrounding each wing, and filling the spaces between the concavities, are delicate scrolls of silver-gilt filigree work over a solid band, embellished with pearls and semiprecious stones. This band, similar to one ornamenting an icon and a diptych in the Monastery of St Paul, is a typical example of the Venetian filigree work (opus venetum) of the second half of the thirteenth century (Trιsor de Saint Marc 1984, nos. 34-6, pp. 233ff.) and was in fact made in Venice. Where the original band has been lost (left wing, lower edge), the gap has later been partially filled with a new (?) band of metal ornamented with perforated circles and finished on one side with a zigzag pattern of triangles. In certain other areas (right wing, lower edge) only the filigree has been lost, the underlying gilt band remaining in place.

The miniatures seem to be thirteenth-century work, and depict the following scenes: on the left wing (1st row) the Annunciation, the Nativity, the Adoration of the Magi; (2nd row) the Presentation in the Temple, the Baptism, the Raising of Lazarus; (3rd row) the Transfiguration, the Entry into Jerusalem, the Last Supper; and (4th row) the Washing of the Feet, the Betrayal, The Judgement of Pilate; on the right wing (1st row) the Mockery of Christ, the Flagellation, the Road to Calvary; (2nd row) the Crucifixion, the Descent from the Cross, the Holy Women at the Tomb; (3rd row) the Anastasis, Noli me tangere, the Incredulity of Thomas; and (4th row) the Ascension, the Pentecost and Christ Appears to his Disciples. These scenes are painted on a gold ground and are frequently enhanced by tiny pearls outlining the garments and the haloes. The iconography follows the type of thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Byzantine painting and manuscript illumination, and is characterised by a certain austerity in the rendering of the landscape and the architectural setting.

A similar diptych, which belonged to Andres II, King of Hungary (1290-96), is preserved in the Berne Museum, while another dozen or so similar pieces may be found in museums and churches across Western Europe. The Athonite Monastery of St Paul has three (nos. 9.30, 9.31). These works were in all likelihood produced in Venice sometime between 1280 and 1330, and there must have been a close and active association between the workshops of that city and the illuminators, crystal-polishers and goldsmiths of Byzantium. The fact that similar works exist on Mount Athos only in monasteries associated with the Serbian monarch Milutin, that is, Chelandari and St Paul, is explained by the presence in Dubrovnik of Venetian merchants who maintained relations with the Serb prince and supplied him with the Venetian wares which he in turn bestowed upon the Athonite foundations.

Bibliography: Brockhaus 1891, p. 53 n. 3. Radojcic 1955 (1), pp. 173, 193, fig. 2. Huber 1973, pp. 115-6, 137-44, figs. 1c-15c, 19c-21c, 23c-24c, 27c. Bogdanovic - Djuric - Medakovic 1978, p. 96, figs. 3, 74. Thesauroi 1975, pp. 399-401, figs. 432-43. Kadas 1979, p. 61, fig. 132.

K. L-T.
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