Russian icon | Triptych with the Mother of God Glykophilousa and Saints

Icon: Triptych with the Mother of God Glykophilousa and Saints D-6

Crete, early 16th century
Tempera on wood, 16.2 x 35.5 cm (open)

Private Collection, Netherlands
Morsink Icon Gallery, Amsterdam
ALR Ref. No.: S00156950

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Drs Simon Morsink

In Crete during the 15th and 16th century, exquisite small-format triptychs were painted to be used for private devotion. These triptychs were trusted to protect their owners, especially during their journeys. Highly skilled masters from Candia (present day Heraklion) painted the triptychs mostly in a ‘hybrid' style combining orthodox Byzantine van catholic Italian elements. None of the known Cretan triptychs are identical in terms of the combination of scenes and saints. Nevertheless one can observe some favourite subjects 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. Not only the representations on the wings of the Cretan triptychs vary, but their shapes as well.

The present triptych shows an unusual combination of saints. The central panel, which is of rectangular shape with a simple protruding base and a likewise protruding round arch, depicts the Mother of God Glykophilousa, painted in fine detail against a gold ground. On her left arm, the Virgin holds the Christ Child, while gracefully turning her head towards Him so that their cheeks touch. She wears a blue tunic and a dark purple maphorion. Christ, who has put his left hand in his mother’s hand to seek comfort, is wearing a white chiton with a red band wrapped around his waist. His ochre coloured mantle, covering him from the waist downwards, is decorated with a pattern of fine gold lines. The Mother of God is looking at the viewer, while the Christ Child tries to catch his mother’s eye.

The arched side wings are made without recess and can be folded over the entire width of the central image. The left wing depicts St Nicholas standing in frontal position on a green ground. Traditionally dressed as a bishop, he makes a gesture of blessing with his raised right hand and holds a book of gospels with his left hand. The beardless doctor saint Panteleimon is represented on the right wing in the same frontal position. He is dressed in a bright red mantle over a long blue and short green tunic. In his left hand he holds an open medicine casket and in his right hand a spatula.  The reverse of the left wing depicts a female saint dressed as a hermit in a simple, long fur or hair mantle. Unfortunately the inscription to the saint has been lost, but the beautiful, youthful face of figure point towards Mary Magdalene. She stands in frontal position on a green ground, her hands raised in prayer before her chest. After having witnessed Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, Mary Magdalene went to live an ascetic solitary life in the desert, praying and fasting. Following legend, her bodily hair miraculously grew in abundance to protect her modesty. When closed, the triptych shows the Man of Sorrow on the front side against a blue background (reverse of the right wing). In front of a wooden cross, the deceased Christ stands upright in a pink sarcophagus, which covers his slender body to the hips. His head with closed eyelids is slightly inclined to the right, his hands with the stigmata are crossed over his abdomen. To the left and right are the attributes of passion: the lance and to the stick with the sponge. 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.

The triptych catches the eye through its refined miniature technique, its radiant colours and sensitive modelling. The interesting combination of the Byzantine style of painting and elements from western iconography such as the representation of the Man of Sorrow and Mary Magdalene as a hermit, is a characteristic feature of Cretan icon painting from the 15th and 16th century. This newly discovered finely painted travelling triptych is an excellent example of the flowering of icon painting at that period of time.