Triptych with the Madre della Consolazione and the Man of Sorrows A-2
- Crete, circle of Nikolaos Tzafouris, late 15th century
- Tempera on wood, 20.8 x 44 cm (open), 20.8 x 15 cm (closed)
Private collection, South of France, since 1970’s
Morsink Icon Gallery, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
ALR Ref. No.: S00150706
Small-format triptychs were very popular in Crete, especially in the 15th and 16th centuries. They served primarily for private devotion and were trusted to protect their owners during their journeys.
Madre della Consolazione
The present triptych depicts the "Madre della Consolazione" (Mother of Consolation) in the central panel. This type of Mother of God, which was established at the end of the 15th century in Cretan icon painting, was very popular with artists and clients until the 17th century. The iconography, as well as the style of painting of the type, is strongly influenced by the Italian art of the Trecento. Western features are the soft modelling of the faces, the globe in the hand of the Christ Child, which is highly unusual in Byzantine art, and the fine white veil under the headscarf of the Virgin, whose robe (Maphorion) is held together at the chest with a golden brooch. The undergarment of the Christ Child adorned with fine golden ornaments, and his transparent white chemise follows Venetian fashion. The ‘invention' of this type of Mother of God is attributed to the Cretan painter Nikolaos Tzafourēs (documented 1489 to 1500), of which several signed icons of the Madre della Consolazione are preserved (Haustein-Bartsch 2001; Haustein-Bartsch 2010). As a central image for Cretan triptychs, the Madre della Consolazione was very popular. The most famous example is a triptych from a London private collection depicting the apostles Peter and Paul in an embrace and the saints Stephanos and Laurentios on the wings (Evans 2004, cat. no. 9-4, pp. 172-174).
Archangel Raphael with Tobias
The left-wing shows a subject which is extremely rare on icons, and which goes back to a description in the apocryphal book Tobit of the Old Testament: Raphael appears as a helpful travel companion, protector, and healer, who advises the young Tobias to catch a giant fish at the river Tigris. Tobias takes out the fish innards, with which he later heals his future fiancée Sara and his blind father (Tob 6, 1ff .). Archangel Raphael is considered the patron saint of travellers, doctors, and pharmacists. His feast days in the Orthodox Church are 8 September and 8 November (Bentchev 1999, pp. 75, 101).
On the wing, the archangel stands between two mountains, sparsely vegetated with two small trees and a few bushes. With his left hand, he holds Tobias, who looks almost like a will-less doll. The boy wears a short red tunic with a wide white band around his waist and red boots. In his left hand, he holds a big fish. Raphael, whose elegant figure fills almost the entire height of the panel, is dressed in a dark blue undergarment and a long, pink mantle. His light green wings stand out against the gold background. His right hand is raised in a gesture of speech, and his beautiful face is turned to the right, towards the centre of the triptych.
The representation of the Archangel Raphael and Tobias may be one of the earliest in icon painting and possibly is the only one on a 15th or 16th century Cretan triptych. At that time, however, the motif of the wandering of the young Tobias with his guardian angel Raphael was widespread in Italy.
St. Jerome as a Hermit
On the right-wing St. Jerome is depicted as a hermit in the desert, kneeling for the crucified Christ which is partly worn. His Latin name S. IERONIMus is written in gold next to his head. The saint wears a simple, girded robe with short sleeves, which falls open at his chest. He firmly grasps the hem with his left hand and holds a stone in his outstretched right hand to beat himself in penitence. Next to him is the lion, from whose paw he has removed a large thorn. The lion subsequently became his faithful companion out of gratitude. In the lower-left corner on the green ground lies the red cardinal's hat. Behind the saint, a large dark cave within a high rock dominates the background. Unfortunately, the painting in the upper part of the scene is partly lost.
St Jerome (347-420), one of the great Fathers of the Church in the Catholic Church, has been frequently depicted in Western art since the fifteenth century. He was admired by humanists for his translation of the Bible. Like several other Catholic saints, he was also depicted on Cretan icons, for example on an impressive icon now in the British Museum, London (Kotoula 2013/14, fig. 10). A chapel dedicated to St Jerome in the Franciscan monastery in Candia is further proof of the popularity of the saint on Crete (Kotoula 2013/14, p. 140, note 61).
The representation of the saint as hermit follows a model widely used in Venetian painting and numerous Veneto-Cretan works, which Albrecht Dürer might have used in 1495 for his painting of the saint which he produced shortly after his first trip to Venice (now in The National Gallery in London). On Cretan triptychs of the late 15th and early 16th centuries, which show a mixture of Western and Byzantine elements in both style of painting and the selection of saints, the scene was extremely popular. Probably the earliest illustration in icon painting can be found on the reverse of the left-wing of a triptych in the Vatican Museum, dated to the beginning of the 15th century (Bianco Fiorin 1995, fig. 4, cat. 15/16). It shows a similar but not identical composition as the Amsterdam triptych. Jerome extends his right arm downwards, and in contrast with later examples, snakes and a skull are added as vanitas symbols.
Two depictions of St Jerome as a Hermit signed by the Cretan icon painter Angelos Pitzamanos (1467-1532) are known (Chatzēdakēs / Drakopoulou 1997, fig. 197, p. 294; Weitzmann 1992, fig. 326; Vassilaki 2008, p. 84, fig. 8; Frigerio-Zeniou / Lazovic / Martiniani-Reber 2006, cat. no. 3, p. 15-20). Before he travelled to Dalmatia and Otranto in the south of Italy, he was a pupil (from 1482 to 1487) of the icon painter Andreas Pavias in Candia. An icon (35.5 x 45 cm) in the Museo Civico in Padua, attributed to Angelos Pitzamanos and dated to the early 16th century, is, however, closer to the image on the Amsterdam triptych. (Banzato / Pellegrini 1989, p. 123,124; Chatzidakis 1993, cat. no. 27, pp. 120-122, ill. p. 121), as is the depiction on a small wing in the Byzantine Museum in Athens (Chatzidakis 1993, cat. no. 27, p 122, Ill. p. 123). In terms of the quality of its execution, the closest parallel is a small panel from the 15th-century in the Museo Nazionale in Ravenna (Angiolini Martinelli 1982, cat. no. 161, p.269; Fiori / D'Amico 2016, fig. 21). In both depictions, the lion is very similar, and the cardinal's hat is lying on the green ground in the lower-left corner of the scene. Only the gothic church on the Ravenna panel, which is present in many other examples too, is lacking on the Amsterdam triptych - possibly for reasons of space. A very high-quality icon (23.5 x 17.5 cm) with this subject, which was sold by Morsink Icon Gallery to a private collector in Australia, is almost identical. Without doubt, the painter used the same model for this icon which could even have been painted in the same workshop (Morsink 2011, pp. 98, 99, 103).
Man of Sorrows
On the reverse of the wing with St Jerome, Christ is depicted in his tomb. This image, which has a purely symbolic character, was already known in Byzantium in the 12th century. It became widespread in Italy during the 14th century and was adopted by icon painters on the island of Crete, where it enjoyed great popularity form the second half of the 15th century onwards (Haustein-Bartsch / Morsink 2017, p. 44-49).
In front of a black cross, the deceased Christ stands upright in a pink sarcophagus, which covers his bare and slender body to the hips. His head with closed eyelids and a green crown of thorns is slightly inclined to the right, his hands with the stigmata are crossed over his abdomen. On top of the vertical arm of the cross is a white scroll with black letters that can no longer be deciphered, but in all probability were once to be read as the Latin INRI or the Greek equivalent. Also striking here are the western elements such as the crown of thorns and the central perspective view of the sarcophagus.
Stylistically, the depiction is reminiscent of icons of Nikolaos Tzafourēs, especially in the monochrome modelling of the body of Christ. A signed work by Nikolaos Tzafourēs in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna shows the Man of Sorrows between the Virgin and St John (Kreidl-Papadopoulos 1981, cat. no. 3, fig. 3). Many other icons of this subject have been attributed to this painter. Stylistically most similar to our depiction, although of larger size, is an icon in the collection of the Petit Palais in Paris, which is attributed to Tzafouris and dated between 1480-1500. (Ziadé 2017, cat. no. 3, ill. p. 60).
Since the triptych was closed with this wing, the painting of the Man of Sorrows is somewhat more worn than the other representations. To the left side of the panel, a hook was attached, with which the Triptychon could be closed.
St John the Baptist and Bishop St Louis of Toulouse
The reverse of the left-wing with the Archangel Raphael depicts St John the Baptist and the bishop St Louis of Toulouse. Both can be identified by a partly worn Latin inscription on the gold background S IOANES and LUDE.IG.S.
The two saints turn to each other. St John to the left wears a blue fur robe and a long grey coat knotted at the neck, with red lining that falls in softly curved folds to his ankles. With his right hand, he points to St. Louis of Toulouse, as if to explain to him the text written in Greek on the long scroll, which he holds in his left hand (Joh. 1,29):
ΙΔΕ Ο ΑΜΝΟC ΤΟΥ ΘΕΟΥ Ο ΑΙΡΩΝ ΤΗΝ ΑΜΑΡΤΙΑΝ ΤΟΥ ΚΟC ΜΟΥ (Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world).
As an iconographic model for the figure of St John may have served the large altarpiece from 1355 from the workshop of Paolo Veneziano, today in the Museo del Palazzo di Venezia (Flores d'Arcais / Gentili 2002, cat.no. 28, pp. 158-160; Muraro 1970, pp. 118-119), or similar representations on panels from his school, now in the Louvre and in Worcester (Mass.) (Muraro 1970, p. 144, fig. 30, p. 157, fig. 33).
On Cretan triptychs, one finds two different versions of St John the Baptist. The Byzantine, winged St John as "Angel of the Desert" is modelled on Angelos (see, eg, Chatzidakis 1983, cat # 39, pp. 46-47, Drandaki 2002 Cat. No. 7, pp. 48-51, fig. 29), while the Venetian type is based on the works of Paolo Veneziano. Examples of the latter type which are more or less similar to our triptych, are the St John on a pentaptych from a European private collection (Haustein-Bartsch / Morsink 2017, cat.no. 8, pp. 66-67, ill. p. 63), the St John on a triptych from the National Gallery in Prague, dated to the mid-15th century (Hlaváčková 1995, Bacci 2019, pp. 288-290, fig. 11.7), and the St John on a single wing in the Museo Nazionale in Ravenna, which front side shows the stigmatization of St. Francis (Pavan 1979, cat. no. 157; Angiolini Martinelli 1982, cat. no. 157, pp. 263-264, dated much too late in the 16th / 7th century.) While the text on the scroll of our icon is in Greek, the texts on the scrolls of the comparative examples are all in Latin.
Next to St John - also in three-quarter profile – is St Louis of Toulouse. Over a brown Franciscan habit, he wears a costly, red lined, dark blue robe embroidered with golden Fleurs-de-Lys. His gloves and gem-studded mitre are bright white. In his right hand, he holds a bishop's staff, and with his left hand, he holds the hem of his episcopal robe. The lily flowers, a symbol of the French monarchy, point to his royal descent from the house of Anjou. St Louis was born in 1274 as the son of the future King Charles II of Naples and Mary of Hungary and was related to St. Louis IX of France. Born near Salerno in France, he died on 19 August 1297 in Brignoles. After he had joined the Franciscan Order in 1296, he was appointed Bishop of Toulouse. The translation of his relics to the Cathedral of Valencia (Spain) took place in 1433.
St Louis is not a saint of the Orthodox Church, but he was well-known by his Venetian name Sant Alvise in Venice. Shortly after his canonization in the 14th century, the noble Vernier family financed the construction of a church for a still inhabited convent in the district Cannaregio. The saint was frequently painted, for example on a polyptych by Paolo da Venezia or one of his followers from around 1340, at present in the Museum of Art of Tbilisi (Muraro 1970, p. 122, fig. 32). On Cretan triptychs, however, St Louis was rarely depicted. The only example – presenting the saint in a slightly different pose - I found on a triptych attributed to the circle of Nikolaos Tzafourēs, currently in a private collection in the Netherlands (Morsink 2004, cat. no. 2, pp. 6,7).
The masterful combination of Western and Byzantine stylistic elements, the Greek and Latin inscriptions, and the presence of Catholic saints, are relatively common on Cretan triptychs painted for private devotion. Following the occupation of Crete in the 13th century by the Venetians, both cultures, the Catholic-Venetian, and the Greek-Orthodox, increasingly mingled, also due to intercultural marriages. Cretan clients with a mixed family background, who knew and appreciated both cultures, may have favoured such icons, but Catholic Venetians appreciated this art as well. They had their Catholic saints painted by icon painters in the Cretan cities, who were able to paint in both styles to meet the needs of their clients. For the Catholic saints, they could not use Byzantine models and instead were inspired by Western, mostly late Gothic representations.
Numerous such ‘hybrid' Cretan triptychs have been preserved, with similar Western features in iconography and style, of which only a few are to be cited: a triptych with the Madre della Consolazione from a London private collection, mentioned already (Lymberopoulou 2007, p. 193, plate 5.19; 2004, cat. No. 9.4, pp. 172-174); a triptych in the London gallery of Sam Fogg presenting a Byzantine Deesis in the center in combination with the Catholic saints Francis and Anthony of Padua (Lymberopoulou 2017); a triptych in the Vatican Museum presenting the Nativity with Western features such as the kneeling Mother of God, and the Catholic saints Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) and Benedict of Nursia (480-547) with Latin inscriptions (Bianco Fiorin 1995, pp. 16,17, cat.no. 3, fig. 6 ; Christoforaki 2017); another triptych in the same collection dated to the early 15th century with the Coronation of the Virgin on the central panel (Bianco Fiorin 1995, pp. 15.16, cat. no. 2, figs. 4 and 5).
It is noteworthy that none of the known Cretan triptychs are identical in terms of the combination of scenes and saints. One can indeed observe some favourites such as the Madre della Consolazione or the Pietà for the central panel, and St. Francis (or his stigmatization) and St Jerome as a Hermit for the wings, but the selection was made by the client per his wishes. In the case of the Amsterdam triptych, the depictions of the Archangel Raphael with Tobias and St. Louis of Toulouse are unique or in any case extremely rare on triptychs. Perhaps the two were the patron saints of family members from a Venetian family, named Raffaele and Alvise, or the Archangel Raphael was chosen for his qualities as a guardian angel for one or more journeys, as mentioned already.
Not only the representations on the wings of 15th/16th-century Cretan triptychs vary, but their shapes as well. The Amsterdam triptych consists of a middle panel with a simple protruding base and a likewise protruding round arch. The side wings are made without recess and can be folded over the entire width of the central image. Most triptychs have a stepped base and a rectangular profiled top above the middle arch. Less common are the examples with wings that can be folded halfway the central panel, as is the case with a triptych attributed to Tzafouris at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford (Mango 2002, pp. 302, 303).
The name of the painter Nikolaos Tzafouris has been mentioned several times in the context of the iconography (Madre della Consolazione / Man of Sorrows) and the style of the triptych. Tzafouris can be traced as a painter working in Candia on Crete from 1487-1501, but almost nothing is known about his life. The small number of only six works, which, except for the Deesis in the Antivouniotissa Museum in Corfu, are all signed in Latin (NICOLA ZAFURI) and painted in an Italian-influenced style, makes it difficult to prove his authorship convincingly for a large number of icons attributed to him. Further research is needed. One should therefore also be cautious with attribution to Nikolaos Tzafouris of the Amsterdam triptych based on the triptychs used as comparative examples above, some of which show great similarities. However, there can be no doubt that the triptych, which is of the highest artistic quality, was painted within Tzafouris‘ artistic circle.