Temple Gallery

Established 1959

Virgin Hodegetria - exhibited at the Temple Gallery, specialists in Russian icons

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XX002. Virgin Hodegetria

Post-Byzantine, Mount Athos, (possibly Xenophontos Monastery, by the Athonite painter Antonios?)
Mid 16th century
22.5 x 16.5 cmClick here to convert metric size to imperial

Condition:  Minimally restored

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The Mother of God is shown in half-length wearing a green headdress with a matching robe covered by a deep red maphorion. With her right hand she directs the viewer towards the Christ-child (the meaning of Hodegetria – ‘she who shows the way’), who is sitting in her left hand. With his right hand, Christ forms the initials of his name: IC XC, an abbreviation for the Greek words Jesus (IHCOYC) Christ (XPICTOC) that uses the first and last letter of each word. He holds a sealed scroll in his left hand. The Virgin gazes at the viewer with a sorrowful expression, while Christ gazes at the gesture he makes with his right hand. In Christ's halo is a cruciform with the initials 'Ὁ ὢ Ν', which translates from the Greek as 'He who is' and derives from God's response to Moses at Mount Sinai (Exod. 3:14).[1] Above Christ's halo in the gold background we see an inscription of Christ's initials, IC XC, echoing the gesture of his right hand. On either side of the Virgin's halo are the Greek letters ΜΡ (left side) and ΘΥ (right side), initials for the Mother of God.

Fig. a. Virgin Hodegetria, post-Byzantine, mid-16th century, Mount Athos, Greece

Fig. a (detail)

The current object was most likely created in the 16th century on Mount Athos. The composition is very similar to another Hodegetria icon from Athos also from the 16th century (fig. a). The bold, simple, and clear brushstrokes suggest the artist was influenced by Theophanes the Cretan whose distinctive style was popular in this period (e.g. cf. our object with an icon of St Luke by Theophanes, fig. b).

Fig. b. Theophanes the Cretan, St Luke, 1546, Stavronikita Monastery, Mount Athos, Greece

The work strongly resembles icons created at the Xenophontos Monastery which had an important icon-painting workshop, especially from the 14th to 17th century. Although the monastery wasn’t as productive artistically in the immediate years following the fall of Byzantium (1453), from the ‘end of the 15th century onwards, for some eight decades, the Xenophontos Monastery experienced a new recovery which was accompanied by significant artistic activity’.[2]

The most important works from this period associated with the monastery are by the hand of an icon-painter known as Antonios. Speaking on Antonios, one writer says that ‘he knew how to adopt and adapt to his own idiom as a painter the new stylistic features employed by Thophanis and the Cretan painters of his time… the work of Antonios as a whole needs to be re-assessed…’[3] It is possible, because of the close similarities between works attributed to him and our object, that Antonios painted our icon, or it was made by an artist associated with him. If we compare works by Antonios (see fig’s c, d, e, and f) we find comparable characteristics. For example, the use of colours: dark olive skin with ochre highlights in the same places on the nose, cheeks, forehead, and neck; the same blue green for the Virgin’s headdress. The contemplative features of Christ’s face and the small dashes of light brown to suggest waves of hair is further echoed in icons from the same Deesis by Antonios (see details below). Also worth mentioning is the way thin dark lines delineate the facial features and emphasise the edges. In particular the eyes of Antonios’ figures have a slight line that leads off into the temple area,[4] and we see this in our icon as well.

Fig. c. Virgin (from an extended deesis), mid-16th c. Xenophontos Monastery, Mount Athos, Greece

Fig. c (detail)

Fig. d. The Virgin, 16th c. fresco, Xenophontos Monastery, Mount Athos, Greece
Fig. e. St Thomas, (from an extended deesis), mid-16th c. Xenophontos Monastery, Mount Athos, Greece

Fig. f. The Apostle Phillip (from an extended deesis), mid-16th c. Xenophontos Monastery, Mount Athos, Greece

1. For an interesting article about the history and meaning of this inscription by Fr. Steven Bigham, 'On The Origin of Ὁ ὬΝ in The Halo of Christ', see: < a href="">
2. Evangelos N. Kyriakoudis, et al, The Holy Xenophontos Monastery: The Icons, (Mount Athos, 1999), p. 95
3. Ibid, p. 107
4. Ibid, p. 106