Greek icon | Mother of God Dexiokratousa

Icon: Mother of God Dexiokratousa D-1

Byzantine painter, ca. 1380-1400
Tempera on wood, 46 x 32.3 cm

Private collection, Germany, since 1970s
Morsink Icon Gallery, Amsterdam
ALR Ref. No.: S00156943

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Ill. 1
Dexiokratousa, mosaic icon, early 13th century   
St Catherine Monastery, Sinai

Ill. 2
Dexiokratousa, wall mosaic, mid-14th century  
Chora Monastery, Constantinopel

Ill. 3
Dexiokratousa, fresco, dated 1324
St Nicetas Church in current North Macedonia
built by the Serbian king Milutin

Ill. 4
St Luke painting the Madonna
Miniature from manuscript
Late 14th-early 15th century
St Catherine Monastery, Sinai

In this representation of the Dexiokratousa Mother of God, the Virgin is depicted half-length and in three-quarter profile against a gold ground. She turns to the left and inclines her head towards the Christ Child. Her blue tunic is decorated at the hems with fine gold lines and her purplish brown maphorion (mantle) is embellished with the same gold lines and some fringes. Three  gold stars adorn her forehead and shoulders, symbolising her virginity before, during and after the birth of Christ. The beautifully drawn face of the Virgin has an expression of deep solemnity. The colour red applied to the left side of her face and neck, seems to reflect Christ’s bright red dress. The same red is used to highlight Mary’s cheeks, nose and lips. Christ is depicted full length and in three quarter profile, sitting straight up on his Mother’s right arm. He turns towards his Mother and looks attentively up to her. His legs and feet are placed in parallel position. The bright red chiton and his orange coloured robe are both covered with a pattern of fine gold lines. While holding a closed white scroll with his left hand, He makes a sign of blessing towards the Virgin with his right hand. In the upper left and in the upper right corner of the icon, a roundel can be seen with traces of the Nomina Sacra of the Mother of God.

The iconography presents a mirror-image of the type known as the Hodegetria. The Virgin supports her Child with her right arm, which accounts for the Greek title ‘Dexiokratousa’ (Right-Handed). A small Byzantine mosaic icon, dating from the early 13th century from the St Catherine monastery at Sinai (ill. 1; see Evans 2004, cat. no. 207; p. 248) is one of the earliest examples known of the Dexiokratousa Mother of God.  This icon still reflects the severe Komnenian linear style.  An impressive example from the mid-fourteenth century, is a wall mosaic of the standing Virgin Dexiokratousa in the Chora monastery in Constantinople (ill. 3; see Vassilaki 2000, p. 104). In the Chora mosaic the Virgin is looking down at her Child who is answering her gaze just as in our icon. A fresco dated 1324 in the St Nicetas church in current North Macedonia, built by the Serbian king Milutin (ill. 3), depicts a standing Virgin with the Christ Child sitting in almost identical position as in our icon, with parallel legs. Another representation worth mentioning is the miniature of  St Luke painting the Madonna in a manuscript in the St Catherine monastery at Sinai (ill. 4). The miniature shows  the evangelist finishing an icon of the Dexiokratousa type very similar in composition to our icon. The manuscript miniature is dated 13th century by B. Pentcheva (in Vassilaki 2000, Cat. no. 55, P. 390, 391), and late 14th/early 15th century by V. Foskolou (in Evans 2004, cat. no. 203, p. 344). Foskolou  suggests an origin from the island of Crete (Candia) for this miniature painting. It is interesting to note that the relatively unusual colour combination of the tunic and the mantle of Christ, orange and bright red, is the same in our icon, although applied the other way around.  

The icon betrays a well-trained and confidant hand. The silhouette of the figures effectively stands out against the gold ground. The face of the Virgin, with her large, expressive eyes, immediately attracts the attention.  Her gaze directs the viewer towards the Christ Child. His bright coloured and gilt garments contrast effectively with the simple, dark coloured dress of the Virgin, of which the folds have been accentuated by just a few sketchy drawn highlights of slightly lighter brown. The faces and hands of the figures have been modelled by the painter with parallel applied short highlights in pure white. The Virgin’s face, with the long, bowed nose and piercing eyes with large black pupils, has a severe and detached expression, while the intimate gesture of the Virgin’s left hand, gently touching the knees of her Son, refers to their emotional bond. The treatment of the Child’s face recalls the style of the Palaiologan painters in his high forehead, the short ‘round’ nose, short red lips and slightly receding chin.
The gold halo of the Christ Child shows traces of the usual cross, painted in fine lines in cinnabar red. An important distinctive element is the decoration of the halo of the Virgin, which is punched with a pattern of incised and grained zigzag motifs. According to Bacci, this decoration is indebted to working practices that became commonplace in Venetian workshops in the second half of the 14th century (Bacci 2020). He argues that there are interesting links with the art of the island of Crete, where icons were produced by artists who were either Greek or strongly acquainted with Palaiologan pictorial practice. Some of the works were made by Thessalonian or Constantinopolitan artists who became acquainted with works by Paolo and Lorenzo Veneziano in either Venice or Candia, whereas other associated panels were close replicas made in a more linear style by indigenous Cretan artists (Bacci 2020).

The traditional iconography and the ‘severe’ Byzantine character of the present icon, leave no doubt that this panel was painted for an orthodox believer. Influences from the East and from the West have been absorbed into the painting.  The majestic posture of the Virgin and her intense expression recalls the Byzantine world, whereas the punched decoration of the Virgin’s halo testifies of Venetian influence. The icon might have been painted in Candia on Crete, which was at the time under Venetian rule and already an important centre for orthodox art. The commissioner could have been  a wealthy patron who lived along the Adriatic coast, which was part of the Venetian occupied territories too.

In the 14th century the Byzantine Empire had lost most of its territory, but the impact of its arts and culture reached far beyond its shrunken boundaries. The present, newly discovered icon of the Dexiokratousa Mother of God bears witness to this in a powerful way.

Bacci 2020
Michele Bacci, "On the Prehistory of Cretan Icon Painting", Frankokratia 1, 2020, forthcoming.
Evans 2004
Helen C. Evans (ed.), Byzantium. Faith and Power (1261-1557), (exhib. cat. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), New Haven and London 2004.
Vassilaki 2000
Maria Vassilaki (ed.), Mother of God, Representations of the Virgin in Byzantine Art, (exhib. cat. Benaki Museum, Athens), Skira Editore, Milano, 2000.