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The following evidence suggests that this icon of the Annunciation is by the hand of the great 16th century painter Onoufrios of Neokastro (Elbasan), who has been described as 'one of the best icon painters of the whole Balkan region and the best painter that had ever worked in Albanian territory.' Inscriptions on some of his frescos indicate that he was also the protopapas (Archpriest) of Neokastro, and worked in this area between 1547 and 1554.
Though Christies in London previously attributed the object to Northern Greece, careful analysis reveals stylistic similarities with Albanian painting and especially Onoufrios. Characteristics associated with his work - such as unique facial expressions; small, circular heads; long necks; Palaelogan and Italian influences; and intense colouring that often juxtapose cool and warm tones - are the notable features of our example.
Comparing details in our icon with other works attributed to Onoufrios clearly illustrates these similarities. For example, the figure of Gabriel has the same shaped head, similar body posture and folds as depictions of St Joseph and St John the Evangelist by the Albanian master (see details of fig's a & b). While the chiton of Joseph and Gabriel are both painted in a fiery cinnabar that contrasts with icy blues and greens.
If we look closer at the faces we notice analogous expressions, proprtion of eyes, mouths and noses, and manner of execution – especially the technique of applying light tones on a dark brown base for the flesh (see details below). These parrallel features can further be found in Onoufrios' depiction of Christ, another version of Gabriel, and one of the midwives at Christ's Nativity (see details below).
Eugenia Drakopoulou accurately describes these ‘elegant figures...with their small round heads, the finely drawn features, the small mouth, the gently curving eyebrows, the tranquil, rather sugary expression’ as reflecting Late Gothic painting. While the dramatic lighting suggests a Cretan influence.
The Virgin in the current example also shares stylistic and schematic similarities with other images of St Mary by Onoufrios (see details below).
Another compositional mannerism of Onoufrios is how he often repeats the shape and positioning of feet- which Panayotis Vocotopoulos calls 'affected stances' - as we see in our Gabriel and various works by the Albanian (see details below).
This gives the appearance of levitation and derives from Palaelogan art – especially the Chora Monastery in Istanbul (see fig. g) - which was influenced by hesychasm, a mystical form of contemplative prayer. Such details suggest a space that is free from the laws of gravity.
Thus, as others have noted, ‘[Onoufrios] managed to combine the local painting tradition with the best tradition of the eastern (Palaelogan) and western (Italian) schools, resulting in a realistic and natural drawing of strictly Byzantine subjects together with a degree of individuality in facial expression.'
This evidence highlights the connections of this object to 16th century Albania and to the work of its greatest artist, Onoufrios of Neokastro.