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There has been some confusion over the subject of this icon. In the 19th century Christie’s labelled it as 'The saviour, with the Virgin and angels appearing to a monk and four saints' by the early Italian School. In 2011 Christie’s re-auctioned the object, attributing it now to the Veneto-Cretan School, but they weren't sure if the figure kneeling was the Virgin or Mary Magdalene being 'received into heaven' by Christ. Here we will illustrate why it is most likely the Virgin and more specifically an icon celebrating the Immaculate Conception in the Veneto-Cretan style, but with an Italian archetype.
The Christie’s catalogue gives this explanation for questioning whether it is the Virgin: 'in strict accordance to the Greek canon, the figure kneeling before Christ cannot be the Mother of God, who is never depicted with her head bare, but possibly Saint Mary Magdalene.'[See footnote 1] Yet in Italian paintings the Virgin is often depicted with her head bare. It is also quite clear that the artist was not concerned with following the rules of the Greek canon. Apart from certain stylistic features (see below) the icon is composed of details that are from the Western tradition, such as Western saints and Latin inscriptions. Even the Annunciation in the spandrels has the Virgin kneeling (rather than sitting or standing, as in Eastern icons), which is an Italian feature. While the Latin inscriptions (from Scripture and the texts by the theologians depicted) refer to the Immaculate Conception.
The Immaculate Conception was a matter of much debate in the medieval west. The main concept being that when the Virgin was conceived she was ‘exempt from all stain of original sin.’[See footnote 2] The cult was initially spread by the Franciscan and Carmelite orders, but was strongly opposed by Scholastic Dominicans such as Thomas Aquinas. Yet in 1483 it was declared valid by the Franciscan Pope Sixtus IV della Rovere. Even though it wasn't dogmatised until 1854 by Pope Pius IX, 1483 was the year in which its cult became widespread.[See footnote 3]
The most common images representing the Immaculate Conception are based on Revelation 12:1: ' And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars' (see Fig. a). There is no traditional Orthodox iconography on the subject because the doctrine has never been recognised by the Orthodox church.
Our version doesn't show John's vision; instead it includes figures that are associated with the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, with the Virgin being received into heaven. St Anselm and St Augustine are even, perhaps, in the act of discussing the doctrine, which is suggested by their gestures. Further, Duns Scotus is known as the Doctor of the Immaculate Conception. What we are seeing here is not merely a painting about this controversial theme, but an image of the saints in the act of defending it, which makes sense in view of its recent controversy.
The iconography most probably derives from an Italian altarpiece of the Immaculate Conception in Lucca by Vincenzo di Antonio Frediani, painted in 1503 (see Fig. b), less than twenty years after Pope Sixtus valediction (see above). Though it is in the High Renaissance style, the subject is almost exactly the same. A comparable work by Piero di Cosimo, which has been attributed to the same period (Fig. c), shows the growing interest in the subject during this era.
Our example is stylistically connected with other Cretan icons of the early 16th century. For example, a Pieta icon by Nicholas Tzafouris is stylistically similar, while its subject is also Italian in origin (Fig. d).
This evidence suggests that our work was painted in the early 16th century. The fact that it derives from an Italian altarpiece with a western subject further suggests that the icon was created for a Catholic Italian client living in Venetian Crete.