Greek icon | Two Panels of a Triptych - Nativity and Anastasis

Icon: Two Panels of a Triptych - Nativity and Anastasis D-4

Crete, late 15th century or early 16th century
Tempera on wood, 21.5 x 18 cm and 21.5 x 16 cm

Private Collection, Turin, Italy
Morsink Icon Gallery, Amsterdam
ALR Ref. No.: S00156945

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Ill. 1
The Volpi Nativity, early 15th century  
( Rena Andreadis collection, Athens)

Ill. 2
Triptych, collection Huntington Library ( Los Angeles)
15th century

Ill. 3
Wing with the Anastasis from the
Huntington Library Triptych, 15th century

Ill. 4
Wing with the Ascension, late 15th century
(formerly Temple Gallery, London)

The Nativity scene on the central panel of a triptych is in excellent condition. The wood to the protruding arch, to the left and to the right sides and to the base of the panel, has been carefully cut away, in all probability in order to put the panel in a frame. The top part of the painting of the right wing representing the Anastasis is lost. The wood of the backside has been diminished, in all probability in order to frame this wing too.  


In the Nativity scene, the Virgin is lying on a bright red cushion, turning to the left, in the centre of a rocky landscape . Next to her, the Christ Child lies swaddled in a manger in a dark cave. Behind are an ox and a white horse to keep Him warm. A star descends in a ray of blue light to the new-born Christ.  To the left side, the Three Wise Men ascend the mountain on horseback, while three angels above raise their hands in prayer. To the upper right, an angel brings the good news to a young shepherd with a hat who holds a staff. A bit lower, a young boy is sitting while playing a flute. In the  lower left corner, Joseph is sitting lost in reflection. His head rests on his left hand. The shepherd who faces him, dressed in a blue sheepskin, is holding a staff. To the right, the naked Christ Child sits on the lap of the midwife Salomé who, together with a servant prepares the infant’s bath, while checking the temperature of the bath water.

The iconography of the Nativity is based in the Palaiologan art of the 14th century, as can be seen in the mosaics in the Apostoloi church in Thessaloniki and in the Chora monastery in Constantinopel (Drandaki 2002, pp. 27-29). An important group of Cretan Nativity icons from the 15th century has adopted this iconography, such as the Nativity icon in the Hermitage, St Petersburg (Klimakov 1993, cat. no. 273, pp. 104-105) and the Nativity icon in the Hellenic Institute in Venice (Kazanaki-Lappa 2009, cat. no. 7, pp. 34, 35)). The most famous icon from this group is the Nativity, formerly in the Volpi collection and currently in the Rena Andreadis collection, Athens (ill. 1; Drandaki 2002, cat. no. 4, pp. 24-35.

In Byzantine and Cretan triptychs, the Nativity was a popular subject as well, as is testified by the beautifully preserved 15th century triptych in the collection of the Huntington Library in Los Angeles, USA (ill.2) and a central panel from a triptych in a private collection (Temple 2004).


The Anastasis panel depicts Christ in three-quarter profile, standing in the centre against a gold ground and turning to the right. The Saviour has descended into the underworld from a rocky landscape. Beneath lies a dark pit with an empty tomb and the broken gates of Hell. The two black figures represent the defeated Hades and Death. Christ wears an ochre tunic and a green mantle, both finely decorated with an intricate pattern of gold lines. In his left hand He holds a closed scroll and with his right hand He raises the kneeling Adam by the wrist from the grave. Eve is standing behind Adam, dressed in a bright-red robe. Her hands, raised in prayer, are veiled as a sign of respect. To the left are King David and King Solomon wearing crowns. They incline their heads towards each other, as if discussing the miraculous event.

Although the upper part of the scene unfortunately has been lost, the remaining painting of this panel is of high quality. The energetic white highlights on the royal dress of King Solomon and the fine pattern of gold lines on the garments of Christ testifies of a skilled hand. The traditional iconography chosen for this Anastasis representation can also be found on the  right wing of the triptych from the Huntington Library in Los Angeles, already mentioned before (ill. 2 and ill.3). In this representation Christ is not surrounded by a mandorla, just like in our panel, which is unusual. Another icon showing this iconographic variant is the Anastasis icon by Andreas Ritzos from the mid-15th century (Piatnitsky 2000, cat. no. B146, p. 173).

An interesting stylistic parallel with the two panels from a triptych can be drawn with a wing from a triptych dated to the late 15th century and representing the Ascension of Christ, currently part of a private collection (ill.4). Although this wing has not been cleaned, the handling of the faces  and the garments of the figures as well as their nimbs are very similar to our two panels. It is tempting to assume that this panel is the left wing of the same triptych, as the size would fit as well. To come to a final conclusion in this matter however, more research would be necessary. Our newly discovered two panels can be dated to the same period: towards the end of the 15th century or shortly after 1500.

Drandaki 2002
Anastasia Drandaki , Greek Icons, 14th-18th Century, The Rena Andreadis Collection, Skira Editore Milan, 2002.
Temple 2004
Richard Temple, Icons Divine Beauty, Saqi Books, London, 2004.
Kazanaki-Lappa 2009
Maria Kazanaki-Lappa, Arte Bizantina e Postbizantina a Venezia,  Museo di Icone dell’Instituto Ellenico di Studi Bizantini e Postbizantini di Venezia, 2009.
Klimakov 1993
L. G. Klimanov (ed.), Iz kollektsii akademika N. P. Likhacheva: Katalog vystavki, Saint Petersburg 1993
Piatnitsky 2000
Yuri Piatnitsky (ed. e.a.), Sinai, Byzantium, Russia, Orthodox art from the sixth to the twentieth century , Saint Catherine Foundation, London, 2000.
Vassilaki 2000
Maria Vassilaki (ed.), Mother of God, Representations of the Virgin in Byzantine Art, (exhib. cat. Benaki Museum, Athens), Skira Editore, Milano, 2000.