Art/Museums logo


Faith and Power (1261-1557)

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

March 23 to July 4, 2004


By Carter B. Horsley

This exhibition, the third in a series organized by Helen C. Evans at the Metropolitan Museum on Byzantium, is gigantic. The sumptuous catalogue runs almost 650 pages and contains about 800 good color reproductions, not only of the 350 objects in the show from 129 collectors and institutions in thirty countries, but also of other treasures that could not be included in the show as well important Byzantine architectural sites.

In a statement in the catalogue, Bartholomew by the Mercy of God Archbishop of Constantinople, New Rome, and Ecumenical Patriarch wrote that "The period of 1261 to 1557 is characterized by the territorial shrinkage of the Byzantine Empire and the fall of the Queen of Cities, Constantinople, as well as Thessalonike." "During those difficult and trying hours," he continued, "the fervor of faith in Christ escalated to new heights, and the pious people of the Empire, more than ever before, placed their hope in God's assistance and in the protection of the Most-Holy Theotokos, the Mother of God, the Directress and their All-Blessed Champion General. In order to draw strength they looked upon their Crucified Lord and reflected upon the anticipated Resurrection that follows the Cross. Inevitably, therefore, the art of those days was characterized by sorrow and yet by hope. In ecclesiastical terminology, we use the term 'bright-sadness.' This refers to a mixed emotion of joy, over the anticipated help from God and salvation, and sorrow, for the suffering of life and sin. This bright-sadness accurately characterizes the later period of Byzantine ecclesiastical art, iconography, music and architecture. Likewise, it influenced the art during the Ottoman Empire and especially during its first century. The Soldier Saints George, Demetrios, the Theodores, and others were the most beloved Saints of the Byzantines during those difficult years. They inspired optimism and comfort by the mere thought that they were present, supporters of the faithful who were undergoing danger and tribulation. Almost every city and town has a church dedicated to a Soldier Saint, and especially to Saint George, as well as to the Theotokos, for she was the Champion General of the faithful."

Philippe de Montebello, the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, provides the following commentary in his foreword to the catalogue:

"When the city of Constantinople fell in 1204 to the Fourth Crusade, nearly nine hundred years of Byzantinium's artistic and cultural traditions were abruptly terminated. The long-established power and patronage of the imperial center were dispersed to regional outposts, including Nicea (Iznik), Trebizond (Trabzon), Thessalonike, Epiros, and Mistra. As the triumphant Byzantine general Michael VIII Palaiologos entered a re-claimed Constantinople on August 12, 1261, carrying aloft the famed icon of the Virgin Hodegetria, the city's eternal protector, he initiated an artistic and intellectual flowering in the `Empire of the Romans' the basileia ton Rhomaion and among its East Christian rivals that would endure for nearly 300 years."

Describing the show as the "the first major museum exhibition to concentrate solely on the great resurgence of the Palaiologan period and the subsequent appropriation of this culture by rival claimants to power," Mr. de Montebello maintained that "These extraordinary works, some seen only rarely and others never shown outside the churches and monasteries that have preserved them through succeeding centuries, are among these nations' most cherished artistic treasures. Splendid frescos, textiles, gilded metalwork, mosaics, elaborately decorated manuscripts, and rich liturgical objects from throughout the world of Byzantinium, as well as major works from European and Islamic traditions that reflect their influence, demonstrate the unique cross-cultural fertilization that occurred during the Late Byzantine era. In addition, forty magnificent icons from the Holy Monastery of Saint Catherine in the Sinai join others from leading institutions across the world in a remarkable display of these compelling religious images. 'Byzantium: Faith and Power (1261-1557)' unfolds at the Metropolitan as the third wing of a `triptych' of exhibitions dedicated to a fuller understanding of the art of the Byzantine Empire, whose cultural and political influence spanned more than a millennium. In the late 1970s the Museum explored the early centuries of Byzantium's history in `Age of Spirituality.' In 1997 the landmark presentation `The Glory of Byzantium' focused on the art and culture of the Middle Byzantine era (843-1261).We are particularly honored by the exceptional support offered by Greece. Mistra, in the Peloponnese, was the last outpost of the basileia ton Rhomaion to fall to the Ottomans. Like many other Greek monasteries and cultural centers, such as Thessalonike, it produced profoundly moving religious art and at the same time encouraged a revival of classical learning that inspired the Renaissance in Italy."

Indeed, one of the biggest surprises of the exhibition is its last gallery, which is filled with many great Renaissance devotional paintings from Europe, and this gallery alone is worth a visit to the museum even if its connection to Byzantium is not very obvious.

In her catalogue essay, Ms. Evans notes that "In 1557 the name of the empire, basileia ton Rhomaion, was replaced with the term Byzantium, by which the state is still known today." "The German scholar Hieronymus Wolf (1516-1580), librarian and secretary for the Fugger Family in Augsburg, created the Latin neuter word Byzantium from Byzantion, the name of the ancient Greek town near whose site Constantinople was founded. In doing so, he recognized the many centuries that the culture of Constantinople had been closely allied with its Hellenistic, or Greek, originsIn the early sixteenth century, that authority was vividly evoked by Filofei, abbot of the Eleazer Monastery in Pskov, when he wrote to the Russian czar Vasily III (r. 1509-33) that with the fall of Constantinople, Moscow was the new, and final, Rome. Far beyond the borders of the Orthodox world, other political entities also sought to be the New Rome. The Ottomans identified themselves as its heir by virtue of their conquest of Constantinople and wished to reunite the imperium by capturing the Old Rome in Italy. Western rulers, by embracing the learning of the scholars of the Byzantine Empire, their texts, and the images of its church, facilitated the development of the Renaissance while ensuring that they too could claim to be the inheritors of the empire's past. The revived patronage of the arts under the Palaiologoi led to the increasing popularity of relatively new media, such as miniature mosaic and large steatite icons, and to the development of new styles. Most exceptional among these styles is a figure type in which voluminous folds of fabric envelop often apparently weightless bodies. In the thirteenth century, several Orthodox centers sought to achieve for themselves the imperial and ecclesiastical authority of Constantinople, as did a number of small Latin-ruled states. Each encouraged the arts, to ensure that its capital appropriately reflected its ruler's ambitions. Nicaea, in Asia Minor, where the first Ecumenical Council of the Christian Church was called by the emperor Constantine the Great in 325, succeeding in becoming the capital in exile after 1204. Nicaea fell to Osman, the founder of the Ottoman Turkish State, in 1331, but Trebizond, an important port on the Black Sea, remained under the rule of a branch of an earlier imperial dynasty, the Komnenoi, until 1461. After Constantinople, the second city of the empire was Thessalonike, in Greece, a major trading center critical to the ambitions of all who wished to control the Balkans. Thessalonike sought to remain loyal to Constantinople and to the great Orthodox monastic center of Mount Athos but was dominated at various times both directly and indirectly by the Serbian state, the Venetians, and the Catalans; yet it would be 1430 before it was overtaken by the emerging Ottoman Empire. The despotate of Epiros in central Greece flourished briefly as an independent Orthodox rival to Constantinople before falling to a succession of conquerors, including Serbs, Italians, and ultimately the Ottoman Turks in the mid-fifteenth century. As Byzantine rule from Constantinople increasingly disintegrated into intense competition for the mantle of its power among its various constituencies, one of the most important unifying factors for the Orthodox world was Mount Athos, the Holy Mountain, west of Constantinople in the north of Greece. Anchorite monks, who pursued lives of individual asceticism, began assembling there about 800. Cenobitic monasticism (a type of communal monastic life followed by Orthodox monks) arrived there by the mid-tenth century.Emperor Nikephoros II Phokas (r. 963-69) established the Great Lavra, the penisula's preeminent monastery, in 963. The Holy Mountain remained under imperial control until 1312, when it was made subordinate to the ecumenical patriarch in Constantinople, the most stable element in the empire.The concluding centuries of Orthodox rule in Constantinople were marked by the loss of more and more Christian territory to the Islamic rule of the Seljuks, Mongols, and Turks of the East. When Constantinople ultimately fell on May 29, 1453, to the Ottoman rule Mehmed II (r. 1451-81), it was said the skies wept. With the defeat, the basileia ton Rhomaion as a Christian state ended. The great Church of Hagia Sophia became a mosque. Earlier, the Seljuks had recognized the importance of their conquest of territories of the basileia ton Rhomaion by naming their new state carved from those lands the Sultanate of Rum (the Romans). Into the reign of Suleyman the Magnificent (r. 1520-66), there would still be discussion of reestablishing one rule over the Mediterranean basin by reunited the two Romes.The new Ottoman rules did not destroy the Orthodox Church but increasingly isolated it as they sought to pacify those they had conquered. As a result of the conquest of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade and the rule of the city by the Latin Kingdom until 1261, many of the city's greatest relics were taken to the West. The relic of the Holy Blood treasured in Bruges, in Flanders, is thought to have been sent by the first Latin emperor of Constantinople, Baldwin of Flanders, to his daughter Jeanne, countess of Flanders. The most precious Byzantine relics, kept in the Holy Chapel of the imperial palace, were acquired by King Louis IX of France (r. 1226-70); canonized 1297) from his cousin Baldwin II of Courtenay (r. 1228-61), the last of the Latin rulers. When the relics of Christ's Passion the Crown of Thorns, the holy sponge and the lance, and portions of the True Cross arrived in Paris in 1241, Louis built the luminous Sainte-Chapelle (Holy Chapel) to provide them with a setting surpassing that in which they had been housed in Constantinople.Emperor John VIII Palaiologos journeyed to Ferrara and Florence with an immense retinue in 1438-39 to sign papers of union in the hope of military aid against the Ottoman. In the end, this union, too, was a failure. John's citizens and other Orthodox peoples, including the Russians, intensely rejected it, and the desired military support form the West was not forthcoming.In the same period, Italian mercantile city-states, including Venice, Pisa, and Genoa, came to dominate the commercial life of the eastern MediterraneanIn 1204 Venice acquired Crete, where a cosmopolitan Byzantine-Italian culture developed. Icon painters worked in both the Byzantine and Western Iconographic traditions and styles.In the late fourteenth century, there was a revival of classical learning in Mistra. One of its leading figures, George Gemistos Plethon (1360-1452), encouraged a new interest in the classical philosophers, especially Plato, and formulated a revival of worship of ancient Hellenistic gods. Plethon accompanied Emperor John VIII Palaiologos to the Council of Ferrara-Florence, where his lectures on Plato are thought to have inspired Cosimo de' Medici's founding of the Platonic Academy. In the arts, Italian and other European sources were most interested in Byzantine works that could be considered connected to the earliest history of the Church. Depictions of the Virgin and Child were especially prized for their presumed association with the images of the Holy Family believed to have been painted from life by Saint Luke. One image associated with the legend was Constantinople's icon of the Virgin Hodegetria, which represents an early iconographic tradition."

Reveted icon with the Virgin Hodegetria
Reveted Icon With the Virgin Hodegetria, cover (thringion) Constantinople, late 13th-early 14th Century, painting by Dionysius (?), Moscow, last quarter of 15th Century, 15 ¼ by 12 5/8 inches, State Tret'iakov Gallery, Moscow

The donors depicted in this very fine work are believed to be Constantine Akropolites and hisspouse, Maria Komnene Tornikina Akropolitissa who was called Palaiologina. The Hodgetria pose, the catalogue notes, "is based on the most sacred icon, one that was formerly preserved at the Hodegon Monastery in Constantinople and first venerated in Russia during the pre-Mongol period. According to tradition, a copy of the Hodegon icon was brought to Russia by the Greek princess Anna, daughter of the emperor Constantine IX Monomachos (r. 1042-55), who became the wife of the Chernigov prince Vsevolod Yaroslavich. Their son, Vladimir Monomach, the prince of Smolensk, Kiev, and Pereyaslavl, inherited the icon, which was eventually placed in the Dormition Cathedral there, where it was called the Hodegetria of Smolensk. During the fifteenth century in Moscow, a special devotional cult arose dedicated to the Smolensk Hodegetria. Among the copies created of this holy icon were those by Dionysius and the painters in his circle.This icon, with its Byzantine thringion/riza, can be compared to Greek icons of the fourteenth to fifteenth centuries in its iconography (the frontality of the figures and the presence of archangels in the upper corners). At the same time, it also possess traits of those copies of the Smolensk Hodegetria revered in Russia. It is probable that its original icon either was greatly damaged or simply disintegrated. The new icon was painted specifically to fit the old thringion. The icon was given to the Trinity-Saint Sergius Monastery, the most important one in Moscow, which was under the special patronage of the city's grand princes. According to the monastery inventory of 1641, this icon was one of the most venerated images. In light of the hypothesis that the House of the Great Princes of Moscow was involved in the commissioning of the new icon, it seems reasonable to assume that the painter would be Dionysius, the most famous icon painter of the last quarter of the fifteenth century."

Icon with the Virgin Hodegetria

Icon with the Virgin Hodegetria, Thessalonike, 1360-70, tempera and gold on wood, prepared with canvas and gesso, 35 3/8 by 28 inches, The Holy Monastery of Vlatadon, Thessalonike

The Virgin Hodegetria icon was famous for allegedly being miraculous and it was destroyed by the Ottoman Turks during the fall of Constantinople in 1453. This lovely icon is of the same type and the catalogue maintains that "the firm composition, the accurate design, the calm yet magnificent attitude, and other elements, such as the subtle tonal harmonies in the rendering of the faces and the rays of white lights, date the Vlatadon Monastery icon to the 1360s and place it among the most important works of the period, along with the icons of Christ Pantokrator in the Athonite monastery of the same name, in Saint Petersburg, Veroia, and Mytiline. The luxurious details of the garments of the holy persons are impressive. Dense gold rays highlight the dark blue chiton and the deep red himation of Christ. Equally elegant is the wine-red maphorion of the Virgin, the golden details of which include stripes, three stars and tassels, as well as the lines from Psalm 44 (45) on the right shoulder. This last element indicates the influence of mariological poetry on painting, which then goes on to appear in works that were painted in Macedonia, Epiros, and the Balkans. More precisely, the icon from the Vladaton Monastery is the oldest known work on which this inscription from the Psalms appears."

Icon with the Holy Virgin Pelagonitissa

Icon with the Holy Virgin Pelagonitissa, by Makariya Zograf, Late Byzantine, 1421-2, tempera on wood, 53 by 37 by 1 5/8 inches, Museum of Macedonia, Skopje

If the above two icons represent classic poses and aesthetics, this icon is more unusual in the animated poses of the Virgin and Child and is notable for its very sinuous style. The catalogue observes that this icon is "considered a variation of the Virgin of Tenderness (Glykophilousa)," adding that "The infant Christ hugging his mother with his back turned to the viewer characterizes this type, a gesture that boosts the drama of the mother worried for her frightened child who is threatened with martyrdom. This image, conveying the heightened emotions of the mother and the child, is also related to another iconographic type, the Holy Virgin of Sorrows (Passion). It is believed that the image and the topographic epithet were created, following older Slavic traditions, in monasteries in the Pelagonia region of Macedonia, most probably during the time of the mid-ninth-century Slavic missionaries Cyril and Methodios. This iconographic type, regardless of the appellation, appears on fresco icons. Other well-known older icons of the Holy Virgin Pelagonitissa are found at Veroia, Hilandar, Decani, and Priuzren, and one early example of Macedonian origin from the fifteenth century is in the collection of the Monastery of Saint Catherine, Sinai.Other works by Makariya are found in the vicinity of Prilep and in Serbia. In the history of medieval art in Macedonia, the icon of the Holy Virgin Pelagonitissa has been considered one of the last outstanding achievements of icon painting, a representative of the then still-living tradition of Byzantine iconography."

Triptych with Virgin and Child and Saints

Triptych with Virgin and Child and Saints, Nikolaos Tzafouris (act. 1489-93) or Andreas Ritzsos (1422-1492), Crete (Candia?), late 15th century, painting on wood, 9 7/8 by 17 1/8 inches, private collection, London

This charming small triptych depicts the Virgin and Child in the central panel in the manner of Madre della Consolazione that, the catalogue notes, "was painted by Cretan artists during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries," adding that "The type may have been established by Nikolaos Tzafouris, who may also be the artist responsible for this triptych, as his painting is characterized by the same combination of Byzantine and Western iconographic and stylistic elements. The left wing portrays the apostles Peter and Paul embracing, a scene associated with the Union of Churches that was proclaimed in 1439. The portrayal, possibly created by the Cretan artist Angelos Akotantos, is in an austere Byzantine style and may be a copy of an original by Angelos painted by Andrea Ritzos.On the obverse of the right panel two anonymous Western deacons, beardless and with short hair and tonsure, are painted in a Gothic manner. Clothed in red sticharia with gold embroidery, the pair must represent Saints Stephen and Lawrence. According to an account of a posthumous miracle, the healing of exorcism of Eudoxia, the daughter of Emperor Theodosius, the two were buried together in the same tomb in Rome. This pair of Roman saints works well as a pendant to the embrace of Peter and Paul on the other side."

Icon with the Nativity
Icon with the Nativity, Byzantine, first quarter of the 15th Century, tempera and gold on wood, priming on textile, 25 7/8 by 25 inches, Rena Andreadis Collection, Athens

A very fine and charming icon of the Nativity that was once in the Volpi Collection in Venice and is now in the Rena Andreadis Collection in Athens has a complex and circular composition contained within an arched frame. "The apparently fortuitous shape of the central rock is the vehicle used to structure and display the subsidiary scenes. It forms an unobstrusive but well-defined frontier between heaven and earth, with the angels above and mankind below. The newborn Child, lying in the area between, belongs to both worlds, both doctrinally and pictorially. The cave and the sarcophagus-like cradle make a clear allusion to the future burial of Christ. Another hint of Christ's coming Passion is given by the sword-shaped light-blue ray directed from heaven at the heart of the reclining Virgin. The circular structure of the scene is given special emphasis by the semicircle of the sky. The azure band along its edge originally contained an inscription in Greek traces of which are still visible. This was later covered by a Latin inscription in large lettering, part of which is still visible. This Nativity has strong affinities with two all paintings of the same subject in churches in Mistra. Similar stylistic features are also found in Cretan wall paintings dated to the early fifteenth century and in a series of portable icons from the same period. Affiliations with contemporary Italian painting, evident in details such as the naturalistic treatment of the animals at the manger, and especially their mature and harmonious inclusion in a purely Byzantine canvas, are impressive but not surprising"

What is particularly striking about this icon is its highly animated composition with horsemen rushing up the hill on the left and dogs rushing down the hill on the right and the highly stylized treatment of the hill's rocks, particularly on either side of the central waterfall.

Icon with the Nativity, Central Rus'

Icon with the Nativity, Central Rus', 16th Century, tempera and gold on wood, 23 ¼ by 18 ½ inches, State Tret'iakov Gallery, Moscow

A smaller and later Nativity icon also has a rather similar highly stylized treatment of rocks on a hill. It also is extremely charming particularly with its portrayal of an old man in the lower left central section and the bending angels at the top right corner. In this depiction, the magi are represented as equestrians, following a Byzantine archetype seen, for example, the twelfth-century Nativity icon from the Monastery of Saint Catherine, Sinai, and the mosaics dated 1312-15 from the Church of the Holy Apostles in Thessalonike. A distinctive feature of the present icon is its light turquoise background. The color scheme, relatively rare in Russian icon painting, imparts a festive quality to the work."

Icon with Saints Boris and Gleb, Moscow

Icon with Saints Boris and Gleb, Moscow, mid-14th century, primed canvas on two wood boards joined with two insert struts, tempera, 56 1/8 by 37 1/8 inches, State Russian Museum, Saint Petersburg

The holy martyrs represented in this very elegant work, Boris and Gleb, were sons of Prince Vladimir I, known as the Baptizer of Rus', according to the catalogue. "They were treacherously murdered in 1015 by their elder half brother (or cousin) Svjatopolk. The iconography of the two saints took shape soon after their canonization, which probably occurred after 1037. The cult of Boris and Gleb was established in Rus' under the auspices of their brother Iaroslav The Wise, grand prince of Kiev. The growth of their cult in Kiev was furthered by the translation of their relics to Vyshgorod, on the city's outskirts, and their interment at the Church of Saint Basil. Medieval texts praise the two as defenders of the Russian land against the infidels. This icon was formerly part of the most notable icon collection in fin-de-siècle Russia, that of the historian and paleographer Nikolai P. Likhachev (1862-1936)."

Icon with Saints Boris and Gleb, Rus'

Icon with Saints Boris and Gleb, Rus' (Novgorod), circa 1377, egg tempera on lime wood, revetment, early to mid-16th Century, silver-gilt repousse, 45 ¼ by 36 1/8 inches, Novgorod Integrated Museum-Reservation, Russian Federation

Another Boris and Gleb icon is a stunning egg tempera on lime wood with a silver-gilt revetment that is in the collection of the Novgorod Integrated Museum-Reservation. "Images of pairs of mounted military saints," the catalogue observed, "began to appear in the thirteenth centuryand became widely popular in the art of the Byzantine world.The Novgorod icon embodies the highest ideals of late-fourteenth-century Novgorod painting: a heroic and triumphal image, an expressive composition and pictorial order, and a highly decorative presentation. Here one can also see new pictorial features that reflect the influence of late Palaiologan art: harmonious drawing, complex multilayered painting, and an expanded color palette."

Icons from an Iconostasis, John Chrysostom and Gregory the Theologian by Daniil Chernyi and Andrei Rublei, Vladimir, Russia, both tempera and gold on wood, 10 feet 3 ¼ inches by 41 3/8 inches, circa 1408, State Tret'iakov Gallery, Moscow

These large icons come reportedly from the Cathedral of the Dormition (Uspenskii) in Vladimir, Russia and the catalogue observes that it is "likely" they were "painted at the same time as the fresco decoration of the cathedral," adding that "Opinions of scholars differ regarding the attribution of particular icons to either Andrew Rublev or Daniil Chernyi." "At the beginning of the fifteenth century a Deesis tier of the iconostasis with full-length figures was a novelty, and this one, so huge in size, had no parallels. The icon of Gregory the Theologian seen here is the most ancient image in Russia of that saint presented as part of a full-tiered Deesis tier," the catalogue entry noted.

Icon with the Battle of Novgorod and Suzdal'

Icon with the Battle of Novgorod and Suzdal' (also called the Icon with the Miracle of the Virgin Orans), tempera on limewood panel, 65 by 47 ¼ inches, circa 1475, Novgorod Integrated Museum-Reservation, Russia

This extremely fine and interesting icon depicts the battle at Novgorod in 1170. The catalogue notes that Archbishop John (r. 1165-86) had a "revered Novgorod icon of the Virgin Orans (depicted in the top register of this icon) transferred from the Church of the Savior on Elijah Street to the vicinity of Saint Sofia Cathedral and mounted on the wall of the fortress." "One of the arrows of the Suzdal' soldiers hit the image of the Virgin Mary (as seen in the middle register)," the catalogue entry continued, adding that "The icon turned its face to the city, and tears started to run from the eyes of the Virgin. Darkness covered the army of the besiegers. Stunned, the men of Suzdal' panicked and began attacking each other. As a result, they were soon defeated by the men of Novgorod. In the lower register the Novgorodians are shown under the protection of the archangel Michael, the commander of heaven's army, who flies before them, and four haloed saints on horseback the Russian saints Alexander Nevsky, Boris, Gleb, and the military saint George, the bringer of victory lead them into battle."

One of 12 minature mosaics from Diptych with Cycle of Feast Days

One of 12 miniature mosaics from Diptych with Cycle of Feast Days, Byzantine (Constantinople), 1300-1350, miniature mosaic on wood panel, frame of standardized silver-gilt stampings and enamel plates, each of the 12 mosaics measures about 3 ½ inches square, Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence, Italy

The catalogue notes that the 12 mosaics in this impressive diptytch "follow the canonical sequence of the twelve Great Feast daysin the ecclesiastical year," adding that "what particularly distinguishes the panels is that each combines six square miniaturesthat could sand as independent pictures. Down to the smallest detail, all the figures and the landscape and architectural staffage are most carefully composed. The result is a classical balance of the highest order, which by itself is evidence of the extraordinary artistry of the miniatures. Among surviving mosaic icons, the Florentine diptych marks the high point of the so-called Palaiologan renaissance. The only comparable mosaic icons are the London Annunciation, the almost completely destroyed mosaic icon of John the Precursor in Venice, and the somewhat earlier Berlin Crucifixion" (which is also included in the exhibition).

Portable mosaic icon with Saint John Chrysostom

Portable Mosaic Icon with Saint John Chrysostom. Byzantine (Constantinope), circa 1325, miniature mosaic set in wax on wood panel, with gold, gilded copper (?) and multicolored stones, 7 1/8 by 5 1/8 by 7/8 inches, Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, D.C.

An even more dazzling miniature mosaic, albeit a bit larger, is a Portable Mosaic Icon with Saint John Chrysostom, circa 1325, in the collection of Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C.

The catalogue provides the following commentary about this work:

"Saint John was a brilliant preacher whose renowned oratorical skills earned him the epithet chysostomos, 'golden mouthed.' Named bishop of Constantinople in 398, he is shown wearing Episcopal vestments.His large, cross-decorated halo is distinctive because it is rendered in relief a unique instance among surviving miniature mosaics. This highly individualized portrait conforms to the ascetic image of the saint as an emaciated older man that was established as early as the eleventh century. Characteristic are the high, wrinkled forehead, balding head, sunken cheeks, and short, sparse forked beard. White highlights that project higher than the tesserae of the flesh tones emphasize his deeply furrowed brow. Given their technical virtuosity and the use of precious materials, miniature mosaics were most likely made in, and for, a court milieu. Despite the small size of the icon, the saint has a monumental quality."

Mosaic icon with Saint George Slaying the Dragon

Mosaic Icon with Saint George Slaying the Dragon, Byzantine (Constantinople), early 14th Century, miniature mosaic, (gold- and silver-plated rods, marble, and glass chips embedded in wax and mastic) on wood panel, copper frame (modern), 8 5/8 inches in diameter, Musée du Louvre, Paris

Equally engaging is a fine circular miniature mosaic of Saint George Slaying the Dragon that is in the collection of the Musée du Louvre in Paris. "The round form of the medallion was traditionally reserved for frontal half figures, notably images of the Pantokrator and Theotokos as well as depictions of saints and emperor portraits," the catalogue noted, adding that "Only rarely do we find in round formats (including cameos, rings, and seals) either full-figure portraits or scenic depictions like Saint George's battle with the dragon. The outstanding artistry of this mosaic tondo is evident above all in the superb composition and the delicacy of the painterly details.This is the only tondo among surviving mosaic miniatures."

Some of the most spectacular images in this enormous show are illustrated manuscripts. A sparkling tempera on parchment portrait of Saint Mark, circa 1300-1310, that measures 5 1/4 by 4 inches was executed circa 1300 and is in the collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

The catalogue provides the following commentary about this work:

"Most likely removed from a Greek Gospel book, this portrait of Mark shows the saint, author of the second Gospel, pausing to sharpen his pen before he resumes copying the book before him. Inspired by examples of Western illumination, the evangelist's pose appears earlier in Armenian illumination and about 1300 in Byzantine art. The delicately painted figure is framed by a broad border of a deep blue pigment, surely made of lapis lazuli. As is characteristic of Palaiologan illumination, the back of the miniature is blank, perhaps indicating that the miniature was tipped into an already written book."

Textiles are also included in the exhibition and many are very impressive.

One of the most impressive textiles is an Aer' with the Holy Face and Deesis from the Grand Prince's workshops in Moscow, 1389. The 48 3/8-by-87-inch taffeta and dasmk embroidered with colored silk thread and gold and silver thread. It is in the collection of the State HIstorical Museum, Department of Textiles and Costume in Moscow.
This quite delicate aer' is, the catalogue maintained, "marked by great refinement and elegance." "The draped folds of the clothing are outlined with gold and silver thread. The effect of these outlines, set against the brightly colored surface of the rest of the garments, is easily comparable to cloisonné enamel. The figures of the angels are embroidered with equal finesse, and their impeccable design is remarkable for its expressive elegance. Finally, the color palette of the entire composition purple, white, red, green, golden yellow, and violet, set against a warmly colored background and combined with the golden shine of the halos produces a triumphantly solemn effect. This unique piece is one of the earliest dated works of the Moscow school of pictorial embroidery."

Embroidered Liturgical Standard with Saint George Seated on a Throne

Embroidered Liturgical Standard with Saint George Seated on a Throne, Romania, circa 1500, gold and silver thread on silk, 49 ¼ by 38 ¼ inches, Muzei National de Istorie a Romaniei, Bucharest

With his crown with precious stones, St. George is here depicted seated on a throne with his feet resting on his slain three-headed dragon. Holding a large sword in his hands, the saint has a bemused visage, as well he should.

Icon with the Archangel Gabriel

Icon with the Archangel Gabriel, Byzantine (Constantinople or Sinai?), 13th Century, tempera and gold on wood panel with raised borders, 41 3/8 by 29 ½ inches, The Holy Monastery of Saint Catherine, Sinai, Egypt

The cover illustration of the catalogue is a beautiful Icon with the Archangel Gabriel, a large tempera on gold on wood panel in excellent condition that is in the collection of the Holy Monastery of Saint Catherine, Sinai, Egypt.

The catalogue provides the following commentary:

"One of the masterpieces of Byzantine art, this icon shows the archangel Gabriel as a youth of extreme beauty. His graceful posture and harmonious gestures, along with the calmness of his face, are evocative of classical art.According to the eleventh-century writer Michael Psellos, a fillet such as that around the curly hair signified the purity, chastity and incorruptibility of the angels. Gabriel's function as a messenger is indicated by the walking staff he holds in his left hand, while makes a gesture of adoration and supplication with his right hand. This icon is undoubtedly part of larger group, probably forming a Deesis. It was not unusual for angels to part of Deesis ensembles. The Sinai Gabriel would have been paired with an icon of the archangel Michael, which is also located today in the bema of the basilica at the Monastery of Saint Catherine.The dating of the icon is problematic. It is very likely that the icon was painted in Sinai, but this cannot be confirmed. In any case, the high quality of the work indicates a greatly skilled and talented artist, trained in a major artistic center."

Cover for the Staurotheke of Cardinal Bessarion

Cover for the Staurotheke of Cardinal Bessarion, Byzantine, second half of the 14th Century, paint, enamel, silver, precious stones on wood, 16 ½ by 12 5/8 inches, Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice

One of the most spectacular works in the exhibition is the cover for the Staurotheke of Cardinal Bessarion that is in the collection of the Gallerie dell'Academia in Venice. The Byzantine piece is dated to the second half of the 14th Century and consists of paint, enamel, silver and previous stones on wood. It measures 16 ½ by 12 5/8 inches. The work "forms the sliding lid of a reliquary of the True Cross," according to the catalogue, "that was given by Cardinal Bessarion to the Scuola of Santa Maria dei Battuti della Carita, a religious institution in Venice, before his death in 1472. Attributed by some to an Italo-Byzantine school in Venice, the painting shows many affinities with the metropolitan art of Byzantium in the late fourteenth century. The scene of the Crucifixion occurs in an elaborate setting that includes the walls of Jerusalem and the rock of Calvary.Despite its miniature proportions, the quality of the painting is very high and has been related stylistically to the best examples of Byzantine art of the fourteenth century."

Cambrai Madonna

The Cambrai Madonna (Notre-Dame de Grace), Italo-Byzantine, tempera on cedar panel (backed by a modern panel), circa 1340, 14 by 10 3/8 inches, Cathedrale de Cambrai, France

The catalogue provides the following commentary about the "Cambrai Madonna" that is in the collection of the Cathedrale de Cambrai in France.

"In 1440, Canon Fursy de Bruille returned to Rome with a painting of the Virgin and Child that he had received from Jean Allarmet, cardinal of Brogny and legate of the pope to the Council of Constance (1414-18). Believed at the time to have been made by Saint Luke himself, the painting immediately became the object of fervent devotion. After the canon gave the work to the Cathedral of Cambrai, it was installed with great solemnity on the eve of the Feast of the Assumption in 1451 in the Chapel of the Holy Trinity. The cult of Notre-Dame de Grace (Our Lady of Grace) was inaugurated in 1452, a confraternity was established in 1453 for the care and veneration of the icon itself, which in 1455 was carried for the first time in a procession to celebrate the Feast of the Assumption. The Cambrai Madonna attracted thousands of pilgrims, most notably dukes Philip the Good in 1457 and Charles the Bold in 1460, as well as King Louis XI on repeated visits in 1468, 1477 and 1478. Notre-Dame de Grace represents the Eleousa type, the Virgin of Tenderness. The two figures are posed in a loving embrace, their heads turned slightly toward the viewer. The Child appears to squirm, his legs lightly kicking, as he grasps his mother's maphorion with his left hand her chin with his right hand. Although the blue, red and orangy-pink colors of the draperies and the gold decorative effects and background recall earlier Eastern models, the volumetric aspect of the draperies with soft folds, the Latin inscriptions, and the elaborate punchwork of the halos correspond to contemporary fourteenth century Italian aesthetic modes. The border of the Virgin's maphorion shows indecipherable pseudo-Arabic script. In modern times the Cambrai Madonna has been considered an Italian copy after a Byzantine icon, probably Sienese and perhaps from the circle of Ambrogio Lorenzetti. However, certain unusual features of the painting's materials and technique indicate a departure from a strictly traditional Italian approach. While the direct model for the Cambrai Madonna is not known, Gunter Passavant has noted a particular following of the type in Tuscany at the time of the Council of Ferrara-Florence (1438-45), suggesting perhaps the presence of a Byzantine prototype there. A model may also have existed in Rome at one of the churches displaying Byzantine icons, which Fursy de Bruilly could have seen when he was serving as secretary to the French cardinal.A testament to the remarkable aura of the image is found in the number of copies of it that were requested almost immediately upon its installation in the Cathedral of Cambrai. In April 1454, Jean de Bourgogne, the count of Estampes, commissioned three copies from Petrus Christus.In June of 1455 the chapter of the cathedral ordered an additional twelve copies of the icon from Hayne of Brussels."

It is unlikely that the work comes from the circle of Ambrogio Lorenzetti as it is too clumsy.

Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin

Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin by Rogier van der Weyden (1399/1400-1464), oil on panel, circa 1435-40, 54 ¼ by 43 5/8 inches, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

One of the most important European Renaissance paintings in the United States, "Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin" by Rogier van der Weyden in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston is one of the many outstanding highlights of the exhibition's last gallery that contains many European masterworks from the Renaissance that the exhibition and the catalogue maintain were influenced by Byzantine art and the "Cambrai Madonna" in particular.

The catalogue provides the following commentary about this great painting:

"The legend of Saint Luke as the official portraitist of the Virgin originates in Byzantium in the sixth century, although the genesis of the story is somewhat obscure. Hans Belting notes that while Theodorus Lector's church history, in which he tells of three churches dedicated to the Virgin that were founded by Empress Pulcheria in about 450, can be considered reliable, the account of a gift to Pulcheria from her sister-in-law Eudocia in Jerusalem of an image of the Virgin painted by Saint Luke was probably a later addition. Rather, the legend of Saint Luke may have been initiated in one of Pulcheria's three churches that owned a venerated Hodegetria icon, which also served as a relic, as did the Virgin's mantle and girdle that were worshipped in Pulcheria's two other churches. By the eighth century the legend was more firmly established, as is testified by the fact that Greek theologians were able to refer the Iconoclasts to an image in Rome that, verifiably, were painted by Saint Luke. By the end of the eleventh century the saint was connected with the renowned Hodegetria icon in Constantinople. The depiction of Saint Luke in the act of painting the portrait of the Virgin and Child appears to have been codified by the thirteenth century; thereafter, several extant Byzantine miniatures in illuminated books, such as the one from the Monastery of Saint Catherine at Sinai show Luke with paintbrush in hand and pigments and brushes at his side as he adds the final touches to a picture of the Hodegetria Virgin. In fifteenth-century Italy the iconography of Saint Luke as a painter was not developed as it was in the north but remained rather as an anecdotal feature along with other conventional types of the Evangelist. The embrace of Saint Luke and his icons in northern Europe was likely influenced by Jacobus da Voragine's Golden Legend, which relates the tale of an icon of the Virgin and Child painted by a saint and carried in a solemn procession by order of Pope Gregory the Great; this icon was credited with eliminating the plague in Rome. The text notes that this image was still at that time in the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome; this is probably the Byzantine icon known as the `Salus Populi Romani' (Salvation of the Roman People). In the late Byzantine world, the Hodegetria icon from the Hodegetria Monastery was the most revered of those believed to have been painted by Saint Luke, yet other icons increasingly earned that distinction because of their renown as miracle-working images. In a parallel development in the Low Countries that may well have been influenced by the importation of Byzantine icons to the West, in particular from Crete, certain types of the Virgin and Child were newly acknowledged as having been painted by Saint Luke himself. Among these was the Virgin nursing the child. This was above all fostered by Roger van der Weyen's Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin, one of the earliest known depictions of this them in panel painting in the Low Countries. Although the Galaktotrophousa Virgin (also known as the Virgo lactans), is not often seen in Byzantine art, it apparently developed as a type of personal icons in the late twelvth century, and, according to Anthony Cutler, was cultivated in Constantinople. The popularity of the Galaktotrophousa in the West, as in the case of so many Byzantine icons, related specifically to the miracle-working aspect of the image, in particular to legends about seriously ill people to whom the Virgin miraculously appeared and who were then cured with her milk. The cult of the Virgin's milk was among the most widespread in late medieval Europe, fostered perhaps by the relic of the Virgin's milk that joined twenty-one others sent by Baldwin II of Flanders (emperor of Constantinople, 1228-61) to Louis IX of France between 1239 and 1242, which were housed in Sainte-Chapelle in Paris.Rogier's Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin illustrates the phenomenon of a Byzantine image less appreciated in its own time than it was later on, when it achieved cult status in the West. It is a prime example of the West's embrace not only of this icon but also of an established mode of religious propaganda that eventually promoted the Galaktotrophousa as one of the most important and powerful icons of the Low Countries."

Virgin and Child, Master of the Legend of Saint Ursula

Virgin and Child, Master of the Legend of Saint Ursula (Bruges, active late 15th Century), oil on wood, last quarter of the 15th Century, 22 1/8 by 13 ½ inches, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan

The catalogue notes that there are about 30 extant "variations" of Rogier's Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin, some of which are replicas and some that merely focus on the nursing relationship between the Virgin and Child. "Although early Coptic roots have been suggested, the theme of the Galaktotrophousa in Byzantine art developed in the period before Iconoclasm. By the second half of the thirteenth century there was a lively cross-fertilization of this type between East and West, exemplified by the icons from Sinai and those in the Byzantine and Christian Museum, Athens. While Byzantine artists showed a rather restrained expression of the theme, Western painters boldly embraced it. The suckling of Christ was first connected with the Incarnation by Saint John Chrysostom, and early on was associated with Christ's Passion by Saint Clement of Alexandria. Five of the extant half-length versions of Rogier van der Weyden's Virgo lactans correspond so closely in style and figural proportions that they were likely produced from the same shared cartoon. The Metropolitan Museum painting distinguishes itself from all the related copies as it is the only one with a gold background presenting the Virgin in a trompe-l'oeil niche. This seemingly archaic treatment responds to devotional requirements for the authentic image that differ from the criteria of other contemporary representations of the same theme. The painter here returns the image to its status as an icon by linking it with the gold-ground paintings of Byzantine cult images."

The Master of the Legend of Saint Ursula was an extremely competent painter whose technique far surpasses those in most Byzantine icons and the gold background here is rendered with great three-dimensional skill rather than as a flat background in most Byzantine icons. The notion that Byzantine icons influenced some of the greatest works of the Renaissance in Europe may not be preposterous but is a bit far-fetched apart from gold backgrounds and the use of the Virgin as a subject. This is not meant as a major criticism of this wonderful exhibition as the European works included in the last gallery are glorious.

Virgin and Child with Saints Barbara and Elizabeth and Jan Vos by Jan van Eyck

Virgin and Child with Saints Barbara and Elizabeth and Jan Vos, by Jan van Eyck (active by 14223-bruges, d. 1441) and workshop, oil on wood, transferred to canvas, transferred to Masonite press work with oak veneer and cradled, circa 1441-3, 18 5/8 by 24 1/8 inches, The Frick Collection, New York

Indeed, this last gallery contains what is perhaps the finest painting in New York City, Jan van Eyck's Virgin and Child with Saints Barbara and Elizabeth and Jan Vos that is in The Frick Collection in New York.

The catalogue provides the following commentary:

"The aura of Byzantine icons and their assimilation into the mainstream of Flemish painting is exemplified by the Virgin and Child with Saints Barbara and Elizabeth and Jan Vos. Likely begun by Jan van Eyck at the very end of his career and completed by a workshop assistant, this painting shows the assembled holy figures and the donor Jan Vos in a contemporary setting - a loggia of a grand mansion with a view to a meticulously rendered, naturalistic Flemish landscape beyond....What is notable for the context of the current exhibition is that the Virgin and Child assume an adapted pose of the highly revered Hodegetria type, a particularly appropriate choice for Jan Vos's painting. The famed Hodegetria of Constantinople was a palladium, or safeguard, of that city, and the example at Santa Maria Maggiore, known as the 'Salus Populi Romani'...."

"Virgin and Child at the Fountain" by Workshop of Jan van Eyck

"Virgin and Child at the Fountain," by Workshop of Jan van Eyck, oil on panel, circa 1440, Robert Noortman collection, Maastricht

Another beautiful work is "Virgin and Child at the Fountain" that the catalogue attributes to the Workshop of Jan van Eyck. It is in the Robert Noortman collection in Maastricht. The catalogue notes that "the export of icons from Crete to the Netherlands is documented and it is perhaps by this means that such a prototype became known in Flanders," adding that "The Cretan examples in particular appear to share their formal characteristics most closely with Jan van Eyck's Virgin and Child at the Fountain in the Koninklijke Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp..., and with the workshop copy discussed here, including the similar poses of the figures (though in reverse and full - rather than half-length) and the attending angels at the top of the composition. The Antwerp Virgin and Child at the Fountain has been referred to as one of the earliest instances of the adoption by the Netherlandish artist of a Byzantine icon type. It is one of two religious paintings by Jan van Eyck...that carry pseudo-Greek letters in the inscriptions on the frames, thus suggesting an Eastern origin...."

Click here to order the sumptuous hardcover catalogue from


Home Page of The City Review