Greek icon | Triptych with Deesis and Saints

Icon: Triptych with Deesis and Saints C-7

Crete, late 16th century, Circle of Georgios Klontzas (1530-1608)
Tempera on panel, Open: 27.8 x 31.3 cm; Closed: 27.8 x 16 cm

Private Collection, Italy
ALR Ref. No: S00132529
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This small-scale triptych’s richly carved and gilded frame immediately catches our attention. The symmetrical floral decoration in the base repeats itself in the triptych’s frieze, with the addition of a winged head of a Renaissance putto and two grotesque faces in profile at the edges of the frieze. The top part contains symmetrically arranged rosettes, fleur-de-lis and a leafed pineapple on top. The rosettes and pineapple resemble the gilded carvings of a sixteenth century triptych in Vienna, related to the circle of the Cretan painters Georgios Klontzas and El Greco.(1) The central panel depicts the Deesis with Christ enthroned, flanked by the Mother of God and Saint John the Forerunner. Their arms are folded on their chests while with one hand they point towards Christ. Their faces reveal strong emotional expressions.(2) The significance of Christ becomes clear from his dominant appearance compared to the flanking saints. Christ’s head is framed by a halo and He makes a blessing gesture towards the viewer. His left hand supports a decorated closed Gospel book placed on his lap. The purple fabrics of Christ and the Virgin are subtly highlighted, thereby suggesting velvet cloth. This contrasts the robes worn by John, Christ and the Virgin, rendered in a dense Byzantine highlighting technique. The figures of Mary and John fill the space of the recessed panel up to the raised border: the top of their heads and John’s left foot are painted on the ledge of the raised border, similarly to the tassels of the pillow behind Christ’s feet. 

The apostles Peter and Paul, identified by their abbreviated Greek names in red, are depicted in three quarter profile turning towards Christ on the central panel. On the left panel, Peter holds a scroll and his characteristic key, alluding to his role as gatekeeper of Heaven.(3) Paul, on the right, holds an open book decorated with pearls and gold. Both apostles carry a small edifice, through which the viewer is given a glance at a miniature depiction of a chalice and a bowl of bread that form part of the Divine Liturgy. The domes of the small buildings are very similar to the dome of Andreas Ritzos’ icon of Peter and Paul in the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence.(4) 

On the reverse side of the wings, on a similarly gold and green ground are two Church Hierarchs: Saint Basil the Great on the left wing, and Saint John Chrysostom on the right wing. Both are again identifiable by their names in red Greek writing. The choice for these two Church Fathers relates to the Divine Liturgy, since both Saints John Chrysostom and Basil the Great adapted the Liturgy still used in present times.(5) Therefore they are, together with the third Orthodox Church Father Gregory the Great, considered the Fathers of the Liturgy,(6) visualized in the edifices held by Peter and Paul on the other side of the triptych. Saints John and Basil wear rich bishop’s robes with intricate patterns. The triptych’s fine details and radiant colours are very well discernible in respectively the highlights on the faces and in the rich bishop’s robes. We even see three gold miniature figures that decorate the bearded Basil’s stole. The meticulously applied hairs, for example in the beard of Saint Paul, and the thin white highlights in the figure’s faces attest to a master’s hand. 

The miniaturist painting technique and eye for detail in our Amsterdam triptych is characteristic for the style of the Cretan painter Georgios Klontzas and his workshop. He was renowned for his triptychs. There are fourteen artworks extant today that bear his signature, but only eight of these can be attributed to the master himself with certainty. The other artworks related to Klontzas’ art might originate from his large workshop in Candia where he also taught his sons the art of painting.(7)

Lara Fernández Piqueras

1 The discussed triptych can be found in the Kunsthistorisches Museum; Karoline Czerwenka-Papadopoulos, “Triptychon mit Philoxenia im Mittelteil,” in: Bilder in Gold: Sakrale Kunst aus Griechenland, Graz 1993, pp. 216, cat. no. 9; Compare to the pineapple and rosettes in El Greco’s Modena Triptych in: The Origins of El Greco: Icon Painting in Venetian Crete, ed. Anastasia Drandaki, New York 2009, pp. 32, fig. 3.
2 Compare to The Origins of El Greco: Icon Painting in Venetian Crete, ed. Anastasia Drandaki, New York 2009, pp. 44, cat. no. 3, pp. 60, cat. no. 14.
3 Louis Réau, Iconographie de L’art Chrétien, vol. III, no. 3, Paris 1959, pp. 1083.
4 Nano Chatzidakis, “Saints Peter and Paul Holding the Model of a Church,” in: Maria Vassilaki, ed., The Hand of Angelos: An Icon Painter in Venetian Crete, Farnham and Burlington 2010, pp. 220-221, cat. no. 58. According to Nano Chatzidakis, the building held by the Apostles can also be considered as the Holy Temple of Salomon or as a symbolic representation of Jerusalem.
5 John A. McGuckin, “Divine Liturgy, Orthodox,” in: The Encyclopedia of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, vol. 1, ed. John Anthony McGuckin, Chichester 2011, pp. 194.
6 Idem, pp. 192.
7 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. 55.