Given the prevalence in medieval Italy of religious paintings on wooden panels, you may be surprised to know that they were not always so common. In fact the proliferation of panel painting there was the result of a catastrophe in the Byzantine world.
That catastrophe was the sack of Constantinople in April of 1204, and the looting of all kinds of valuable religious objects and other art works by the western Crusaders in the Fourth Crusade. The result was that Byzantine icons began flowing into Italy, along with such objects as the horses that had ornamented the hippodrome in Constantinople and ended up decorating the Venetian facade of the basilica of St. Mark in Italy.
Along with the icons came a number of Greek icon painters.
In addition, the influx of icons and the presence of painted altarpieces gave rise to a growing desire among the wealthy for religious panel paintings that could be placed in the home — making a kind of home chapel for personal religious prayers and devotion.
Out of all this, the painting and use of religious panel paintings became far more common in Italy, both in churches and in homes.
There is not a great deal of difference in the methods of Eastern Orthodox icon painting and the painting of religious images in the West, as it developed in Italy. These methods were described in the book Il libro dell’arte — The Book of the Art — by the artist Cennino Cennini, who learned painting under the Florentine artist Agnolo Gaddi. And Gaddi’s father had learned from his father, Taddeo Gaddi — and Taddeo had learned from the famous Italian painter Giotto. The book describes the painting methods common in quattrocento (the 1400s) Italy.
If you would like to know what those methods were, you may easily find an English translation of the book for free online here:
However, for a quick and pleasant overview of the methods of medieval religious panel painting in Italy, there is this rather fascinating video. For parts of it (those spoken in Italian) you may wish to turn on the closed captions. You will quickly see the many similarities with icon painting.
It is not always easy to distinguish certain types of icons. Sometimes a type is close enough to simply blend into another, and then what do we call it?
You are all very familiar with the extremely common “Lord Almighty” (Gospod’ Vsederzhitel) type of Jesus — the one the Greeks call the Pantokrator:
But how do we classify an icon like the one below? It has the “Lord Almighty” inscription at the sides of the image of Jesus, but there is also another inscription at the base identifying this as a “sub-category” icon — an icon that has become famous under its own name.
Now icons of Jesus as “Lord Almighty,” but depicted to the upper breast, and with the Gospel book crowded in between his shoulder and neck, are generally called the “All-merciful Savior / Спас Всемилостивый / Spas Vsemilostivuiy, but also sometimes called the “‘Boris and Gleb’ Savior / Спас Борисогле́бский / Spas Borisoglebskiy, or the Romanov Savior / Спас Рома́новский / Spas Romanovskiy. That is because the town of Tutaev in Yaroslavl Oblast, where the original icon of this type was kept in the Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ, was formerly known as Romanov-Borisoglebsk.
Here is an old photo of the icon:
There are several conflicting accounts of its origin, with one saying it washed up on the banks of the Volga River (the motif of a miracle-working icon that comes “floating on the water” is common). Another says it was painted by Dionisiy Glushitsky (1363-1437). For our purposes, however, we only need to know how to recognize it and distinguish it as a sub-category of regular “Lord Almighty” icons.
But as we have seen, the example depicted below (I repeat the photo here) is an “All-Merciful Savior” type with its own name:
It is known as the “Moskvoretskiy Savior”/ Спас Москворецкий / Spas Moskvoretskiy, after the place where the icon for which it is named was originally kept by the Moscow River near the Kremlin. Later the icon was kept in the chapel of the “All Merciful Savior” on Moskvoretskaya street in Moscow, seen on the right of the street in this old photo:
Perhaps you noticed that the Moskvoretskiy icon shows Jesus blessing with the “two-fingered” sign characteristic of the Old Believers. But keep in mind that it was the common Russian blessing form prior to the split between the Old Believers and the State Russian Orthodox Church in the middle of the 17th century. So sometimes it is found on icons used by the State Church that are copied after a prototype painted before the schism.
Now to confuse matters even more, there are icons very much in the form of the “Savior of Smolensk” type that are also sometimes called the “All-Merciful Savior,” like this one:
They are not very common, however, so though one should be aware that they exist, it is more important to recognize the “non-standing” type above that looks more like the usual “Lord Almighty” icons but has the Gospel book crowded up between the shoulder of Jesus and his head. And of course always pay attention to title inscriptions.
The inscription at the bottom of this icon is a quote from Luke 8:48:
Вера твоя спасе тя: иди в мире / Vera tvoya space tya: idi v mire “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
Icons called “wonderworking” are not limited to images of Mary.
Here, for example, is the Malo-Chernetchinskiy (Мало-Чернетчинский) icon of Jesus, also called the Спас Кровоточивый / Spas Krovotochivuiy — literally the “Blood-flowing” Savior, but in more normal English, the “Bleeding Savior.” It takes its name from the village of Malaya Chernetchina (Малая Чернетчина), not far from the Russian border. Today it has been combined with the village of Tokari, and both now go under the Tokari name.
Examples are painted in a “Westernized” manner, generally in oil paints, and that is not surprising, given that icons of this type are mostly found in Ukraine. Late Ukrainian icons (except for those of the Old Believers) tend in general to be Westernized in appearance.
The icon depicts Jesus standing in a blood-filled basin, with the wounds of the Passion flowing both into cups held by the angels and into the basin. In some examples he wears the crown of thorns.
The origin story of the supposed “wonderworking” icon is another of those with what I call the “It came to me in a dream” motif. In other words, the tale says that the icon was discovered because of a dream. In this case, it was that of a peasant woman living in Mala Chernetchina named Anisya Panchenko. In the fall of the year 1887 she became very ill. Then she dreamed that an icon in the basement of the Church of All Saints, which formerly had been a part of the Dormition Monastery, would heal her. She heard Jesus speaking these words:
«Приходите сюда, молитесь и веруйте, буду исцелять вас от всякой болезни». “Come here, pray and believe, and you will be healed of all illnesses.”
The basement of the church was a messy place, filled with rubble and debris, snakes and bats, an unlikely place for an icon to be. Nonetheless, the icon was found there, and as these stories go, Anisya was healed.
Of course word of this soon got around, and people began visiting the image — so many that it was locked away for a time, until official Church approval was given for it to be available to the public. Then it became an even bigger draw for pilgrims.
Icons under this name are variable. Some include the angels, some omit them. Some have an inscription near the thorn-crowned head of Jesus:
Аз есмь хлеб животный, иже сшедый с небесе: аще кто снесть от хлеба сего, жив будет во веки ….
“”I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever ….” (John 6:51);
Аще не снесте плоти Сына Человеческаго, ни пиете крове Его, живота не имате в себе»
“Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” (John 6:53).
And there are even examples that resemble the “Mystic Winepress” icons of Jesus (Iisus Hristos – Viţa de vie — “Jesus Christ the Grapevine,”) often found on Romanian glass icons. Images in this form are often called Христос в точиле / Khristos v Tochile — “Christ in the Winepress.”
In any case, as one might guess, the imagery of these icons can be traced back to the influence of Western European Roman Catholicism on the art of Ukrainian icons in the 17th century.
Here is a pleasant and rather folkish Greek triptych icon:
Here is the central image:
It is a Deisis — an icon of Jesus enthroned in heaven, with Mary approaching him from the left, and John the Forerunner (the Baptist) from the right, to ask favors on behalf of humans.
In this example, Jesus is depicted as “Great High Priest,” robed like a bishop, with a bishop’s crown, omophorion (the stole around his neck), and epigonation (the diamond-shaped flat object against his left knee).
He blesses with his right hand, his fingers forming the Greek letters IC XC for Iesous Khristos — “Jesus Christ” in Greek. He holds the Gospels in his left, opened to this text from Matthew 25:34:
Deute hoi eulogemenoi tou patros mou, kleronomesate ten hetoimasme[nen humin basileian apo kataboles kosmou].
“Come, you blessed of my father, inherit the kingdom prepared [for you from the foundation of the world]”
The left wing of the triptych shows Ho Hagios Basileos/“Holy Basil” at the top, And Ho Hagios Georgios/”Holy George” below him.
In the right wing are Ho Hagios Sabbas/”Holy Sabbas” at top, and below him Ho Hagios Demetrios/”Holy Demetrius.” As you know by now, both George and Demetrius are noted warrior saints in Eastern Orthodoxy, and the two are often depicted together.
I have discussed each of the four saints in the wings in previous postings. You will find them in the archives (don’t forget there is a search box on the upper right side of the page).
Hi again, Iconoholics. I am still fighting with the new WordPress formatting system and the new operating system on my computer, so the postings may look a bit odd for a while (or maybe they always did, but look even more odd now).
Anyway — today we will briefly examine an icon type very familiar to old readers — so for them it will just be an exercise in the “repetition is the mother of learning” policy. For new readers — and they seem to keep coming and subscribing here for some inexplicable reason — I should probably add a warning message to the subscription link:
LASCIATE OGNI SPERANZA, VOI CH’ENTRATE
Yes, that is from Dante’s Divine Comedy: “Abandon All Hope, You Who Enter.“
Be aware that once you begin the study of icons, there is no end — unless you can somehow break the addiction. Good luck with that.
Anyway, here is the icon:
(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)
The title inscription — instead of being at the top of the icon where it is usually found — is placed just above the main crossbeam in this example:
The inscription reads:
ОБРАЗ РАСПЯТИЯ ГОСПОДА НАШЕГО IСУСА ХРИСТА OBRAZ RASPYATIYA GOSPODA NASHEGO ISUSA KHRISTA “IMAGE OF THE CRUCIFIXION OF LORD 0F-US JESUS CHRIST
In normal English, “Image of the Crucifixion of Our Lord Jesus Christ”
On the signboard above the head of Jesus is the superscription borrowed from the biblical account: I N TS I — which abbreviates the Church Slavic words for “Jesus (I) of Nazareth (N), King (TS) of the Jews (I) — Isus Nazoryanin’ Tsar Iudeiskiy.
The IC XC abbreviation at the ends of the crossbeam is the Greek Ιησούς Χριστός / Iesous Khristos — “Jesus Christ.”
Now we come to the inscription below the crossbeam. It is the standard
КРЕСТУ ТВОЕМУ ПОКЛАНАЕМСЯ ВЛАДИКО И СВЯАТОЕ ВОСКРЕСЕНИЕ ТВОЕ СЛАВИМЪ” KRESTOU TVOEMOU POKLANAEMSYA VLADIKO I SVYATOE VOSKRESENIE TVOE SLAVIM”
“We Honor [literally “bow before”] Your Cross, Lord/Master, and Praise Your Holy Resurrection.”
You can see there is some abbreviation.
In the halo of Jesus is the standard inscription HO ON — “The One Who Is” — the equivalent of the King James Old Testament title of God, “I Am That I Am.” In Russian icons, however, the order of the letters and the form of at least one of them is changed, thus making different interpretations possible, particularly among the Old Believers.
Then come the “K” and “T” abbreviations for
КОПИЕ — KOPIE, meaning “lance,” “spear,” and ТРОСТЬ — TROST’, meaning the reed/rod, with the sponge at its top.
Below that are the letters НИ КА for NIKA — meaning “He Conquers” in Greek. That is one of the standard Greek inscriptions kept in Russian icons.
Now we come to the final inscriptions on and below the cross:
At the base of the upright we see these letters:
М Л Р Б
МЕСТО ЛОБНОЕ MESTO LOBNOE
РАЙ БЫСТЬ RAI BUIST’
[The] Place [of the] Skull Paradise Became
In normal English, “The Place of the Skull became Paradise.” Lobnoe is often more loosely translated as “Execution” or Judgment,” but Mesto Lobnoe refers to the place commonly called Calvary in English, from the Latin Calvariæ Locus, “Skull Place.”
That leads us to the final two inscriptions.
At the sides of the base of the cross are the letters
ГОРА ГОЛГОФА GORA GOLGOFA “Hill [of] Golgotha”
“Golgotha” ultimately derived from the Aramaic Gagultâ, meaning “skull.” Remember that Church Slavic (like Russian) has no “th” sound, so it is replaced with the “f” sound.
Just below the base of the cross is an opening in which lies a skull. This follows the tradition that the Crucifixion happened at the center of the earth, and that was supposedly where the biblical first man, Adam, was buried. So the skull is that of Adam. And at the sides of the skull are the letters
ГОЛОВА АДАМА GOLOVA ADAMA
“[the] SKULL (literally “head”) [of] ADAM”
Some Crucifixion icons have a little plant at the base, a sprout of new life.
Here are the persons standing at left:
At right are these figures:
They are Svyatuiy Ioann” Bogoslov — “Holy John the Theologian” and Svyatuiy Login”Sotnik — “Holy Longinus the Centurion.”
At upper left is Solntse — “The Sun”:
And at upper right is Luna — “The Moon.”
Traditionally in Crucifixion icons, the sun is darkened, and the moon has become “as blood” — red.
Finally, at top center, is Gospod’ Savaof”— “Lord Sabaoth” — that is, God the Father.
You would not believe how long it took me to get this simple posting done in the new formatting system and on my new computer. But at least you got your “fix” for the day.