Greek icon | Triptych with Christ as High Priest and the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V

Icon: Triptych with Christ as High Priest and the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V C-5

Veneto-Cretan, second half 16th century
Tempera on panel, Open: 17 x 20.5 cm; Closed: 17 x 11.8 cm

Private Collection, United Kingdom
ALR Ref. No: S00135376

The small size of the triptych indicates that it was probably used for private devotion or as a travel piece.(1) In Byzantine and Cretan triptychs, the side panels were often made in the same size as the central panel.(2) The division of the present triptych in one central panel with two wings that together cover the central composition was less common. The triptych’s simple shape attests to a continuation of Cretan fifteenth century workshop tradition. Since the middle of the sixteenth century, the framing with Italianate decoration received almost as much attention as the paintwork.(3)

When opened, the outer wings show two elongated angels in different poses, dressed as deacons in long white tunics and turning towards Christ in the central panel. They carry incense and candles and consecrate the central image of Christ Enthroned on clouds and seraphs. The four evangelical symbols of the lion, angel, eagle and ox surround the throne. Each symbolic creature holds an open book. Christ wears the robes and crown of an orthodox High Priest and carries a staff and an open book while gazing directly towards the viewer. His feet rest on a blue, half globe. Just below his red slippers, an imperial crown with a banderole reading “Carolus V Imperator” identifies the kneeling figure right next to the crown as Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor. The Emperor wears an ochre-coloured mantle, highlighted with gold and trimmed with ermine fur that repeats in the mantle’s collar. The chain resting on the Emperor’s shoulders represents the chain of the Golden Fleece, reserved for the highest classes of nobility.(4) The Emperor, depicted in profile, looks up towards Christ and holds the same long staff as the Saviour. The flag fluttering from the staff shows the Habsburg coat of arms: the black double-headed eagle. The composition where the two figures hold the same flag relates the two and simultaneously shows how Charles is lower in rank than Christ. Both leaders rule the world: Christ as the spiritual leader with Charles as his earthly ruler acting in his name. The resemblance of the Emperor in profile with contemporary portraits is striking. The Emperor’s Charles’ short grey hair and beard resemble his portrait from 1548.(5) The triptych probably does not pre-date this portrait much for obvious reasons of age and likeness.

Closed, this triptych shows the Annunciation with a full-figured Gabriel in a blessing gesture and the kneeling Virgin in prayer. The painter depicted the Angel in movement, coming from the left where bright light casts his shadow on the ground. Above Gabriel, the figure of God, appearing from a cloud, sends the Holy Spirit in the shape of a dove to the Virgin by way of conception. The latter humbly looks in the direction of the open book with Greek writing in front of her. Right behind the Virgin, an architectural canopy covers part of the golden background. The worn surface on the Virgin’s robes, where the gesso ground and paint completely disappeared, showing the wooden underground, might indicate that the owner of the triptych rubbed the panel many times in an act of devotion.

The triptych masterly combines Byzantine and Renaissance elements and compositional traditions, for example in the representation of Christ as High Priest with a depiction of the catholic Emperor Charles V. Furthermore, Gabriel, the Virgin, Christ, the Evangelists and the angels are identifiable by their abbreviated names in Greek lettering, but Charles’ name on the banderole is in Latin. Both Byzantine and Italianate influences are clearly discernable in the outer wings Annunciation as well. Gabriel’s pose characterizes as traditionally Byzantine, similarly to the manner in which the artist rendered the angel’s garments. A significant difference with Eastern tradition is the lily held by Gabriel in our Amsterdam triptych. Furthermore, the Virgin in the Amsterdam triptych resembles an Italian Madonna instead of a traditional Byzantine Mother of God. The heavy blue mantle covering only her right shoulder reveals her pink Renaissance dress with naturalistic drapery that greatly contrasts the Byzantine Gabriel.(6) 

The iconography and style of painting of this fascinating triptych poses many questions. The representation of Christ as High Priest in combination with Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor is truly unique. The influences of Cretan, orthodox art and of the Italianate, catholic world are wonderfully intertwined in the painting. This somehow reminds us of the triptych’s contemporary artist El Greco, who was trained as an icon painter on Crete and after his stay in Italy, developed his artistic potential at the Habsburg court in Spain. Our panel should be considered in the context of the same époque. Further research hopefully will bring more clarity to the triptych’s specific origin, it’s precise dating and authorship.

Lara Fernández Piqueras

1 Simon Morsink, “Triptychon: Das Entschlafen der Muttergottes, die Verkündigung an Maria und Heilige,” in: Die Farben des Himmels: 15 Kretenzische Ikonen Aus Einer Europäischen Privatsammlung, eds. Eva Haustein-Bartsch and Simon Morsink, Recklinghausen 2018, pp. 72, cat. no. 9.
2 See for example Bilder in Gold: Sakrale Kunst aus Griechenland, eds. Hanna Egger and Ruth Wenckheim, Graz 1993, pp. 216, cat. no. 9; pp. 221, cat. no. 18; pp. 224, cat. no. 24; pp. 247, cat. no. 61. There are exceptions, see for example the Greek triptychs in idem pp. 244, cat. no. 54 and pp. 233, cat. no. 41.
3 Phaidra, Kalafatis, “Triptych with Scenes from the Life of Christ the Burning Bush and Saints,” in: The Power of Icons: Russian and Greek Icons 15th-19th Century, ed. Simon Morsink, Gent 2006, pp. 54, cat. no. 3.
4 Compare the chain of the Golden Fleece to for example the engraving of Charles en profil by Daniel Hopfer from circa 1517 in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna (Yvonne Hackenbroch, “Some Portraits of Charles V,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 27, no. 6 (1969): pp. 323, fig. 3).
5 Harold E. Wethey, The Paintings of Titian: Complete Edition, vol. II, The Portraits, New York and London 1971, pp. 193, cat. L-5, plate 240; Juan Pantoja de la Cruz copied Titian’s now lost portrait of Charles V and shows the Emperor with very short, grey hair; Perhaps the artist used an example of his image from for instance a medal or print, which were relatively easy to disperse.
6 The Orgins of El Greco: Icon Painting in Venetian Crete, ed. Anastasia Drandaki, New York 2009, pp. 76-77, cat. no. 24; one should note that more Italienate compositions of the Annunciation already appeared in a fifteenth century Cretan icon. See Nano Chatzidakis, ed., Da Candia a Venezia: Icone Greche in Italia, XV-XVI secolo, Athens 1993, pp. 57, cat. no. 11.