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Athos Holy Mount

Byzantine Minor Arts
9.36 Book cover (Phoenix Press, Venice 1863)
Simonopetra Monastery
Silver gilt and niello, 21.8 x 13.8 cm
Thomas Isidorou Pentos of Krusovo


The Original New Testament

Worked in relief on the front panel are the Synaxis of the Archangels, who in this composition, rather than holding a medallion with the bust of Christ - according to the iconography of the subject - flank an appliquι medallion with the Anastasis engraved in miniature and highlighted in niello, while holding above it a scroll with the identifying inscription. In the corners are similar, smaller medallions, with the figures of the Evangelists accompanied by their symbols. The two in the lower corners are not turned towards the centre as one would expect, but are facing outward, and may have been wrongly placed when the cover, which dates from 1849, was re-used for this 1863 copy of the Four Gospels. Dominating the whole from its position high in the centre is the Eye of the All-seeing Lord. The scene of the Crucifixion, displayed within a rococo border, occupies the entire surface of the back cover. In the four corners are full-length portraits of prophets holding open scrolls: David and Solomon above, Jeremiah and Daniel below. On the spine a rococo ribbon and a tendril twine to frame floral sprays. The book closes with two clasps in the form of medallions with the Apostles Peter and Paul, again highlighted with niello. Engraved just inside the cover is the inscription 'by the hand of Thomas Isidorou Pentos of Krusovo 1849'.

All the characteristics of Athonite iconography and decoration typically seen in the silverwork and engravings of the mid-nineteenth century are found in this Simonopetra cover. The minimalist representation of the Synaxis of the Archangels, the types of the Crucifixion and the Anastasis, the appliquι medallions with their engraved miniature scenes, and the floral sprays are just some of these characteristic features (Papastratou 1986, I, nos. 190-3 pp. 190-1, no. 35 p. 73, no. 46 p. 83. Ikonomaki-Papadopoulos 1988, p. 238, fig. 45).

Appliquι medallions of painted enamel, combined with a variety of other techniques, had been used in Central Europe for secular and ecclesiastical articles since the seventeenth century (Deutsche Goldschmiedekunst 1987, no. 161, pp. 272-4. Toranovα 1982, p. 118, fig. 73). The art of enamel miniatures, like that of niello work, reached its acme in Russia in the second half of the eighteenth century and, used for appliquι medallions, either together or separately, was frequently employed to ornament book covers, chalices and many other objects (Kaljazina et al. 1987, fig. 101. Morsakova 1989, no. 65. Ballian 1996, p. 532, fig. 479. Sakota 1984, p. 238, figs. 39-40).

Niello work did not demand the same skills as enamel painting, which may explain its tremendous popularity in the Southern Balkans, where in the nineteenth century it was used for ecclesiastical vessels, furnishings and jewellery. Thomas Isidorou (or Sideri, or Sidri) Pentos, known particularly as an engraver, came from the traditional metal-working Wallachian centre of Krusovo, one of the many craftsmen who, as we know from inscriptions and archival evidence, perpetuated this craft on Mount Athos (Papastratou 1986, I, p. 44). The Simonopetra book cover is one of the finest examples of its kind. The carefully studied gradations of the relief and the pictorial, calligraphic, almost sophisticated rendering of the figures recall the work of the Kalarrhytan artist Tzimouris, and are in many ways similar to the work of the staurotheke in the Monastery of Xeropotamou. A book cover and a casket in the Monastery of Docheiariou are also known to be the work of Thomas Pentos (Ktenas 1930, pp. 125-7).

Bibliography: Ikonomaki-Papadopoulos 1991, pp. 185-6, fig. 102.

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