Greek icon | Side Wing of a Triptych – Annunciation and Saints

Icon: Side Wing of a Triptych – Annunciation and Saints D-2

Byzantine painter, second half 14th century
Tempera on wood, 51 x 17.4 cm

D’Atri collection, Paris, before 1970
Private collection, France
Morsink Icon Gallery, Amsterdam
ALR Ref. No.: S00156944

Michele Bacci, “Veneto-Byzantine ‘Hybrids’: Towards a Reassessment”, Studies in Iconography 35 (2014), p. 73-106, here 97-102 and Fig. 15.
Michele Bacci, “Icone trecentesche della ‘Schöne Madonna’”, Arte medievale, 4th ser., 9 (2020), forthcoming.

Ill. 1
Picture from the Fototeca Zeri of Bologna University (inv. no. 26789)

Prof. Michele Bacci

The Annunciation scene is represented on the upper part of the panel. The archangel Gabriel is shown kneeling in front of Mary against an architectural background. He wears a pink himation and a red tunic, decorated at the height of his arm with transversal bands and three-dotted motifs. His right hand is shown in a blessing gesture, whereas the left one holds a three-flowered plant. The Virgin is sitting on a throne decorated with a red textile bearing the same three-dotted motifs seen on the archangel’s garments. On her turn, she wears a deep blue mantle over a red tunic. Below the maphorion, her head is covered with the red coif or kekryphalos used in Byzantine iconography to conceal her hair. Her hands are almost completely hidden below her mantle: one is barely detectable shortly below her bosom, the other one is timidly leaning on her legs. The built scenery on the background is rendered in a greenish-brown colour, with contours marked in white: it consists of two elongated buildings with half-shut windows and comma-shaped decorations. The red colour of the roof of the structure on the right extends to part of the sky: this solution is probably reminiscent of the wide draperies that, in Byzantine painting, are shown hanging from the architectural elements of the compositions.

The lower portion of the panel displays a row of three male saints, Christopher, John the Baptist, and Nicholas against a gold ground. The first is pictured according to Italian iconographic conventions as a holy giant, wearing a pink tunic and a red mantle decorated with three-dotted motifs, carrying the Child Jesus on his shoulders and holding in his left hand the staff that, as the legend runs, has been miraculously turned into a palm-tree. The saint’s face has thoroughly disappeared, whereas only Christ’s right leg can still be discerned. The Baptist and Nicholas are represented according to Byzantine conventions, the former wearing a dark mantle over a camel’s fur, and the latter displaying the insignia of his episcopal dignity (Gospel’s book and Byzantine liturgical vestments, including the omophorion, phelonion, epitrachelion, and epigonation).

As is documented by a black and white picture, the panel, originally belonging to the D’Atri collection, was originally part of a triptych that was already fragmentary when it was sold at an auction in the Hôtel Drouot in Paris in 1970 (ill.1; Bacci 2014). On that occasion, it appeared to the right side of the central panel, displaying the Mother of God: since a position on the right would be somewhat unusual for an Annunciation, it can be wondered whether the arrangement documented in the picture should be regarded as the outcome of a later restoration, even if a similar solution is found in another associated work, also of unknown whereabouts (Bacci 2020). The central panel stood out for its idiosyncratic appearance: the Virgin Mary was displayed within an inscribed arch and a frame partially decorated with verre églomisé ornaments, in much the same way as a mid-14th century icon now in the Benaki Museum in Athens (Vassilaki 2000). She was shown wearing a starred, dark mantle, opening onto her chest and leaving visible the underlying, richly decorated tunic, with a diaphanous veil on her head. She held the suckling Child in her right arm and used the other hand to show a three-flowered plant.

This representation was in keeping with the rather idiosyncratic features, mixing a Byzantine style with several iconographic details stemming from Marian schemes diffused in the painting of Paolo and Lorenzo Veneziano, which are encountered in a cluster of another twelve works (Bacci 2020). On their turn, the latter are strictly associated to a wider group of panels that, in traditional art history, had been misleadingly labelled as belonging to the fluid space of the Adriatic, to the east of Venice. A more systematic analysis of such works has shown that they were at least partly made by Greek or Greek-trained artists who closely imitated Venetian works, while being loyal to Palaiologan artistic practice, especially as regards the modelling technique of faces and other bodily parts.

Even if the panel here discussed may have originally been arranged in another way, its stylistic homogeneity vis-à-vis the lost central panel is evident: analogies can be easily detected in the rendering of Christ’s and Gabriel’s physiognomic details, and also in the repetition of some details, such as the three-flowered plant held by both Mary and the archangel. Furthermore, its compositional and morphological features are in keeping with several analogous works within the larger group of works of mixed character, which widely circulated in the Mediterranean (examples are known from Croatia, Crete, and Cyprus).

The work stands out for its chromatic vividness and an emotionally charged, synthetic rendering of forms. Use is made of a greenish-brown preparatory layer (or proplasmos), highlighted by thick networks of very thin, white and parallel brushstrokes, that create a strong contrast of lights and shades, only partially mixed with red colour. Bodily features are emphasized by fine brownish contours, giving shape to a rather austere and dignified look, with large roundish heads, slightly turned faces, linearly rendered, concentric hair and beards, small and narrow eyes, and V-shaped lower eyelids. Both the technique and the general rendering of the figures, as well as the architectural background in both its inverted perspective and ornaments, is in keeping with solutions found in late 14th and early 15th century Palaiologan painting.

The importance of this panel resides in its being a rare witness to the role played by paintings meant for a devotional or private use as mediators of intercultural exchange. It proves to be the unexpected outcome of a Greek painter’s efforts to produce an icon that could be used as support for prayer by somebody who either belonged to the Latin church or shared some aspects of Western religious sensibility. Even if its precise place of production cannot be safely determined, it is more than likely that it may have be done in Candia, where both Venetian and Constantinopolitan painters were active in the second half of the 14th century.

Prof. Michele Bacci

Bacci 2014
Michele Bacci, “Veneto-Byzantine ‘Hybrids’: Towards a Reassessment”, Studies in Iconography 35 (2014), p. 73-106, here 97-102 and Fig. 15. The picture is preserved in the Fototeca Zeri of Bologna University (inv. no. 26789).
Bacci 2020
Michele Bacci, “On the Prehistory of Cretan Icon Painting”, Frankokratia 1 (2020), forthcoming: cf. Fig. 3 and corresponding text / Fig. 5 and associated text.
Vassilaki 2000
The basic study is M. Vassilaki, “Entry No. 73,” in Mother of God. Representations of the Virgin in Byzantine Art, ed. M. Vassilaki (Milan: Skira, 2000), 448-449.