Greek icon | Saint Spyridon with Vita

Icon: Saint Spyridon with Vita C-6

Crete, second half 16th century
Tempera on panel, 34.5 x 27 cm

Private Collection, Germany
ALR Ref. No: S00134165

The icon, an exquisite work of Cretan art, depicts Saint Spyridon in the centre, surrounded by ten scenes from his life, painted in great detail against a gold ground. Spyridon is shown full-length as a tall man, with a long, white forked beard, and with a woven, straw shepherd's hat covering his head. Standing on a green ground, the saint wears liturgical bishop’s robes of the Orthodox Church: a white tunic (sticharion), a rose coloured mantle (phelonion) and a white stole (omophorion) adorned with large brown and gilded crosses carefully draped over his shoulders. Underneath the phelonion the saint wears a gold embroidered epitrachelion and an epigonation both abundantly set with pearls and precious stones. Spyridon raises both arms, making a blessing gesture with his right hand and holding a closed Book of Gospels set with pearls and stones, in his other hand.  

Saint Spyridon lived in the fourth century on Cyprus and attended the First Council of Nicaea in the year 325. After the fall of the Constantinople  in 1453, the saint’s relics were transferred to Corfu and Spyridon became patron saint of the island. The ten scenes, from left to right and from top to bottom show several events from Saint Spyridon’s life and his miracles. The finely executed inscriptions in Greek, written in white along the lower border of each separate scene, identify the depicted events. 

1. Saint Spyridon prays for rain during time of droughts.
2. Saint Spyridon attends the first Council at Nicea which condemns the heresy of Arius. 
3. During a famine Saint Spyridon changes a snake into gold so a poor man can purchase wheat from a greedy merchant.
4. A woman entrusts some valuable jewellery to Saint Spyridon’s daughter Irene.
5. Saint Spyridon takes the woman to Irene’s grave. After having talked to Irene as if she were still alive, she informs her father about the whereabouts of the jewellery and promptly returns to her ‘sleep’.
6. Saint Spyridon points towards heaven after he performed the miracle of the brick to demonstrate the Holy Trinity to a philosopher.
7. A thieve plans to steal the sheep of  Saint Spyridon but the saint gives him one sheep and sends him away.
8. After a year, the poor man (from the third scene) returns the gold to Saint Spyridon. The snake returns to its original living state as it was created by God.  
9. Dormition of Saint Spyridon.
10. After the Arians decapitated both horses who were to pull Saint Spyridon’s carriage on his way to the Council at Nicea, the saint tells a servant to put the horses’ heads back on their bodies. Although the servant places the head of the white horse on the body of the black horse and vice versa, the horses come to life and rise to their feet immediately in order to continue their journey. 

Scenes from the saint’s life occur on the border of Saint Spyridon icons from the sixteenth century onwards. One of the earliest examples is the icon by Emmanuel Tzanfournis dated 1595 in the Greek institute in Venice.(1) This icon served as the model for the Spyridon Vita icon by the hand of Theodoros Poulakis in the Benaki Museum in Athens.(2) On another seventeenth century icon, signed by Emmanuel Tzanes and now in the Museo Correr in Venice, the scenes from his life are arranged vertically down each side, flanking the saint in the middle.(3) Another example of later date is a Spyridon Vita icon by Nikolaos Kallergis from the Velimezis collection.(4) 

The iconography of our icon differs significantly from the mentioned examples and the choice of scenes coincides only partly with known icons of Saint Spyridon. The narrative is rendered in a lively composition and the scenes are set against an elaborate architectural or mountainous background. The fine, delicate colours and the full modelling of the figures, some of which are static and solemn while others are full of movement, point towards the hand of an accomplished miniaturist. The impressive elongated figure of Spyridon in the centre stands out by the skilful rendering of his expressive face and the masterfully modelled tunic and mantle. These stylistic features in all probability point towards a dating of our icon in the second half of the sixteenth century, which makes the icon one of the oldest known vita-icons of Saint Spyridon. 

Drs Simon Morsink

1 Maria Cristina Bandera Viani, Icone Bizantine e Post Byzantine, Bologna 1988, pp. 18-19, cat.  no. 22.
2 Andreas Xyngopoulis, Catalogue of Icons (in Greek) 1936, no. 38, 57-59, plate 29.
3 Giovanni Mariacher, Il Museo Correr di Venezia, Dipinti dal XIV al XVI Secolo, Venezia 1957, pp.239-241.
4 Nano Chatzidakis, Icons. The Velimezis Collection. Catalogue raisonné, Thessaloniki 1997,  pp 346-353, cat. no. 46.