Here is an icon type you will recognize if you have been a long-time reader here (and are still of sound mind, if anyone who has read this site thoroughly can be). The 19th century example is from the Guslitsa settlement of Old Believers who were largely popovtsui — “Priested” Old Believers. Guslitsa / Гуслица (in the Moscow area) was a village well known for its massive production of cast metal icons, but it was — along with other settlements like Vetka and Nevyansk — a center of Old Believer icon painting — the “Guslitsa School.”
One of the characteristics of many Old Believer icons is the use of a lot of text on and in the borders of an icon, and you can easily see that is the case here with the extensive writing on this image.
I will not dwell on the meaning of the iconography, which is self-explanatory if you have read my previous posting on the “Ladder” type:
It is worth noting, however, that this example gives numbers to the rungs of the ladder (the “steps to heaven”) in accordance with those in the book by John Klimakos/Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent. The Cyrillic number letters are just to the left of the ladder, and their descriptions to the right:
Moving from the rather stiff and primitive-looking traditional Russian examples of the “Ladder” type to those of the Cretan School can be a bit of a jolt. Look at this Italo-Cretan example from 1663:
You will recognize this as also an icon of the “Ladder of John Klimakos/Climacus” type.
Let’s take a look at the inscriptions, first the one identifying the main figure seated at lower right:
The first two words at the top are abbreviations for:
Ὁ ἉΓΙΟC ΙѠΆΝΝΗC — HO HAGIOS IOANNES — “HOLY JOHN”
And the next four words are:
Ὁ CΥΓΡΑΦῈΥC ΤΗC ΚΛΊΜΑΚΟC — HO SYGRAPHEUS TES KLIMAKOS — “THE WRITER/AUTHOR OF THE LADDER“
Αnd indeed that is what John is doing; he is sitting there writing his book The Ladder of Divine Ascent.
But who painted this icon? If we look just to the left of John’s feet, we can see a signature inscription:
ἹEΡΕΥC Ὁ ΤΖΑΗΕC
EMMANUEL HIEREUS HO TSANES EPOIEI
“EMMANUEL PRIEST THE TZANES WAS MAKING (IT)
Or in normal English, “Emmanuel Tzanes the Priest made it.”
Note the date in Greek number letters below the words. It gives us this:
α χ ξ Γ
It is dated by the Western calendar, not the old system from the creation of the world, and you can easily read it if you look at this table of Greek letter numbers. Just remember that γ is the small form of the letter Γ (gamma):
So this is an icon of the noted painter Emmanuel Tzanes (1610 – 1690), who was born in Rethymno[n], Crete, but left Crete about 1646 when it was captured by the Ottoman Turks (muslims). He lived eight years on Corfu, and then moved on to Venice, where in 1666 he was made priest of the Greek Orthodox church San Georgio dei Greci (St. George of the Greeks). He spent the rest of his life in Venice, and that is why — though he is a Cretan School painter, he is also referred to as an Italo-Cretan painter. As was common with Cretan School artists, he painted icons both for Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic customers.
Cretan School painters were influenced by Italian Renaissance art they were exposed to on the island of Crete, which at that time was under the control of Venice, and of course those who lived in Venice had access to Italian works there. We see that softening influence in this icon.
The little church on the hill looks like an Italian village church, quite unlike the impossible perspective we see in buildings in Russian icons:
His angels have a gentle, loving look, instead of the usual severity of angels in Byzantine and Russian traditional iconography:
And of course the lines and folds of their garments are loose and flowing, unlike the sharp angularity so often seen in traditional Greek and Russian icons.
Even the demons harassing the monks climbing the ladder to heaven look more western than eastern:
Though the hills in the foreground on the right still have a strong “stepped” look, they are softened a bit, and if we look at those in the background, they approach a realism quite unlike those in traditional Eastern Orthodox art:
At the top, we see the monks who have avoided all the pitfalls and temptations of life being welcomed to heaven by a gentle-faced Jesus:
And note the angel beside Jesus is holding a “Latin” style cross, not the eight-pointed cross found in traditional Russian iconography.
At bottom left we see a monk who has fallen from the ladder dropping head-first into the smoky, open Jaws of Hades. This depiction of the entrance to Hades as the mouth of a giant monster — the so-called “Hellmouth” — was adopted into Russian icons of the “Terrible Judgment” (the “Last Judgment) from the West, and is common in Old Believer depictions of that type. It is an image that seems to have first appeared in British and other western European medieval art.
So as you can see, Tzanes developed an interesting look to icons by his addition of a little “Italian seasoning.”
Now that you have read through this, you may go make yourself a big, steaming plate of spaghetti.