Greek icon | Nativity

Icon: Nativity A-5

Veneto-Cretan, first third 16th century
Signed on the reverse: [Angelus] Bitzamanus (1467 – 1532)
[BI]TZAMANVS G[RECUS] [PI]NXIT, 24.5 x 18 cm (excl. frame)

Provenance:
Private collection, Switzerland
Galerie Koller, Zürich, 15 May 1981, lot 5040
Private collection, Switzerland
Morsink Icon Gallery, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
ALR Ref. No.: S00150708

Bibliography:
Unpublished

Simon Morsink

In the foreground of this attractive and finely painted panel, the naked Christ Child lies on a grey stone slab, his head resting on a blue cushion. The Child, surrounded by fine gold rays, turns towards his mother who kneels behind Him. She looks at her Child, inclining her head to the right with praying hands. In the lower right corner, Josef is depicted holding a staff, his head resting on his right hand. To the left side of the scene, two shepherds are represented. The standing shepherd in the lower-left corner looks at the Christ Child. He is dressed in a blue sheepskin over a red vest and holds a staff with both hands. A shawm is dangling on his side. Above, the other shepherd sits with crossed legs amidst his sheep and a black dog, directing his gaze towards the viewer. He wears a brown sheepskin and a large hat covered with leaves. A white bagpipe of which he is holding the lower pipe with both hands hangs around his neck. A simple wooden barn with a donkey and an ox is depicted to the right of the scene. Directly behind is a ruin of a large Roman arch, a typical Italian Renaissance architectural element. The bucolic landscape which serves as the background for the peaceful Nativity scene is sparsely covered with bushes and grass. It's colour scheme varies from green in the foreground, shades of ochre for the rocky central part of the painting, to blueish tones for the lakes, mountains and small villages which are visible in the far distance. In the upper part golden rays of light appear from a segment of heaven, with the star of Bethlehem shining above the praying Mother of God.  
 
Angelos Bitzamanos
 
According to documents from the archives of Venice, Bizamano Angelino di Nicola was born in Candia on the island of Crete in 1467. On 24 April 1482, the well-known icon painter Andreas Pavias agreed to teach the art of icon painting to the 15-year-old Angelino, son of Nikolaos Bitzamanos, for a period of five years. The next surviving document dates from 1518 and relates to a commission for the execution of an altarpiece of which only the predella has survived in the Monastery of the Franciscans in Dubrovnic, Dalmatia. After his stay in Dalmatia, the painter moved to Italy together with his brother Donato Bitzamanos to start a workshop in Otranto, Italy.
 
A signed Nativity icon by Angelos Bitzamanos in the collection of the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg is of particular interest for our Nativity panel. The Hermitage Nativity was painted after an engraving by the Italian engraver Marcantonio Raimondi (1480-1517/34), as has been pointed out by Yuri Pyatnitsky in his article discussing the three signed Bitzamanos panels in the Hermitage Museum collection. Without a doubt, our Nativity is based on the same model. However, the painter made a significant alternation to the group of shepherds to the left. The two shepherds on our panel are still based on 15th-century Byzantine examples, while the inspiration for the three shepherds on the Hermitage icon was drawn from classical sculptures, as in Raimondi's engraving.
 
Although the first name of the signature on the reverse of our panel is lost, it seems highly likely that Angelos Bitzamanos was the painter of our Nativity icon and not his brother Donato with whom he shared a workshop in Otranto. The signed Nativity painted by Donato Bitzamanos, now in the Pinacoteca of Bari, Italy, follows a different iconographic model and seems to be painted in a slightly different style.      
 
The activity of Angelos Bitzamanos is indicative of the conditions existing on Crete during the period of Venetian occupation when the travel and even the emigration of Cretan icon painters to Italy were facilitated. Many icon painters at that time were able to paint in two different styles, a la greca and a la latina, depending on the client's wish. While our Nativity is an interesting example of a work by Bitzamanos in the Latin style, a St George icon in the Vatican Museum in Rome is proof of Bitzamanos' ability to work in the Byzantine style as well.
 
The life and artistic vocabulary of Angelos Bitzamanos foreshadow the activity of great Cretan icon painters such as Michael Damaskenos (c. 1535 – 1592/93) and Domenikos Theotokopoulos, better known as El Greco (c. 1541-1614). Damaskenos stayed in Venice between 1574 and 1584 to decorate the orthodox San Giorgio di Greci church. The icon painter Theotokopoulos at first enriched his artistic vocabulary in Venice and Rome, before he left for Spain.   
 
Signed icons by Angelos Bitzamanos are in the collections of the Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, the Vatican Museum, Rome, the Ikonenmuseum, Frankfurt (from the collection of the Bode-Museum, Berlin) and the Monastery of the Franciscans, Dubrovnic.

Literature:

Cecilia 2008
Carla Cecilia (ed.), La Pinacoteca Vaticana (Catalogo dell’Esposizione - Musei Vaticani), Rome 2008
Drandaki 2009
Anastasia Drandaki (ed.), The Origins of El Greco. Icon Painting in Venetian Crete (Exhibition Catalogue - Onassis Cultural Center), New York 2009
Klimakov 1993
L. G. Klimanov (ed.), Iz kollektsii akademika N. P. Likhacheva: Katalog vystavki, Saint Petersburg 1993
Pyatnitsky 2009
Yuri Pyatnitsky, Подписные иконы Ангело и Донато Битзамани в собрании Государственного Эрмитажа (The Signed Icons by Angelos and Donatos Bitzamani in the Collection of the State Hermitage Museum in ‘Труды Государственного Эрмитажа’), St Petersburg 2010  

Maria Vassilaki, The Painter Angelos and Icon-painting in Venetian Crete, Farnham 2009
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