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The icon presents eight saints depicted over three rows. They are all Fathers of the Church and bishops. Top row: St Basil the Great, St John Chrysostom, and St Gregory of Nazianzus (the Three Holy Hierarchs). Middle row: St Athanasius the Great, St Nicholas, St Charalambos. Bottom row: St Hypatius of Gangra and St Andrew of Crete.
Arranged into three tiers with half-length depictions of saints occupying each of the rows, the composition resembles calendrical icons known as a menologion, as well as the iconostasis – the icon-panelled screen that separates the nave from the sanctuary in an Orthodox church. Such compositions of saints in rows can be seen to embody in pictorial form Eusebius of Caesarea’s - the great fourth century historian of the early Church – image of a 'living temple' made of 'living and moving stones' of bright light to describe the Church which is made up of the saints. Slobodan Ćurčić has pointed out that this idea has many 'manifestations in Byzantine art.' The most direct manifestation can be found in the iconostasis which developed in the Paleologan period from the templon screen. But as Ćurčić again suggests, the Menologion icons may be alluding to this concept. Writing about the early examples found at St Catherine's, Mount Sinai (e.g. fig. a), he states: 'Illustrating the Church calendar these icons depict single saints or groups of saints, organised in multiple tiers, illustrating each day of the calendar year. Their rigid frontality and regimented organisation imbue these icons with an undeniable architectonic demeanour that unmistakably echoes the notion of the "living wall" as related to the iconostasis.'
We can thus see how the current icon is connected to these ideas of the saints embodying a living ‘wall’ or ‘temple’. But can we identify a specific concept behind the particular saints chosen here? Although the saints aren’t linked by the usual calendrical connections displayed in the menologion examples, however as mentioned above, not only are they all Fathers of the Church, they are also all bishops and saints connected with Byzantine monasticism. Therefore, there seems to be an ecclesial and ascetic theme going on here – a visual manifestation of ‘episcopal wisdom’. We can also discern some hierarchy in the arrangement. For instance, the ‘three holy hierarchs’ – Basil, John, and Gregory – are all on the top row and this is clearly intended as a symbol of their influence and authority in Byzantine Church history. As the last two saints at the bottom of the icon, Hypatius of Gangra and Andrew of Crete, are less well-known, it is possible that they had some connection with the church or monastery where this icon was created.
The style of the icon indicates that it was painted in Northern Greece in the late 15th century. The faces have a fiery intensity characteristic of ancient works and express the inner discipline and control associated with ascetic, contemplative practices of Byzantine monasticism that often leads the participant into visionary experience. The intense gaze of the saints here can be understood as signifying an inner, trance-like consciousness that is expressed in the finest examples of Orthodox art.
Even though painted at an earlier date in the late 14th or early 15th century, a powerful icon of St Gregory the Theologian from Kastoria in Greece (fig. b) shows one of the roots of this monastic style, as does a 15th century work from Mount Athos (fig. c). The current work continues this tradition but also anticipates works from the 16th century (see fig’s d & e). Consequently, because of the distinctive style (along with the patristic theme) it is likely that it was created in a monastery in Northern Greece in the late 15th century, probably at a major icon-painting centre such as Mount Athos.
Similar comparisons can be made between our icon and other objects from the same period (see fig’s c & d).