The imposing figure of Christ sits on a grey marble throne, his right hand raised in blessing and his left holds a gilded and jewelled gospel book balanced on his thigh. He is dressed in the tradition of antiquity in a maroon coloured chiton with a golden clavus on the right shoulder. A voluminous dark green himation, boldly patterned with golden light reflexes, covers the rest of his body except for his chest and right arm. To his right stands the Theotokos entirely covered in a maphorion of the same maroon. She gestures towards Christ with her right hand while the left is held towards her chest. On Christ’s left, gesturing with both hands, stands John the Baptist attired as a desert ascetic wearing an olive-green shawl over a tawny ochre chiton.
The icon is not the conventional image of the Deesis (Fig. 1) as at first appears; there are several unusual features that invite investigation. For example the two intercessors display an unusual elongation, exceeding the traditional Byzantine canon. Dionysius of Fourna tells us “In the whole figure of a man there are nine faces, that is to say nine measures.1 Here the ratio of the face to the height of the body is one to eleven.
Fig. 1. Two 16th century Greek icons of the Deesis, both formerly in the Temple Gallery and now in private collections, done according to Byzantine convention. The throne on the left has no back; the icon on the right has a low back and is understated.
A much more unconventional feature is what first appears as a disproportionally large curved back of the throne. But this can also be seen as a mandorla (or aureole or ‘glory’). We normally only see this feature in icons of the Dormition, the Transfiguration and in the Harrowing of Hell (Anastasis) but it is otherwise unknown in the iconography of the Deesis (see Figs. 1, 5).
The artist reveals himself as a somewhat original thinker by ‘borrowing’ this majestic attribute in order to serve his artistic and spiritual vision. The aureole indicates Christ’s cosmic status as the Logos of the Universe. Its use here is contrary to iconographic tradition and suggests an individuality not usually found in conventional Orthodox theology which tends to be conservative. The innovation has been introduced here in a work by a highly accomplished painter. Its acceptance suggests a level of authority and a sympathy for mystical practice such as was followed in some monasteries on Mount Athos.
The mandorla (It. ‘almond’) is a geometrical form found in Euclid’s Elements but known in Pythagorean times if not earlier. It shows the overlap of two equal-radius circles known to geometers as ‘Vesica Piscis’ (Fig. 3).2
Fig. 3. The compass point of the left circle, transferred to its edge, creates a second circle. The almond-shaped vesica piscis appears where they overlap. It was widely used in traditional sacred art to denote the common area between two cosmoses, or the simultaneous divine and human natures of Christ.
Students of sacred geometry point out how beauty, harmony of form and proportion derive from the symmetry of the vesica piscis. Forms such as triangle, square, pentagon and hexagon can be constructed from it as well as the proportions of the Golden Section (Figs. 4, 5).
In Byzantine art images showing Christ within the aureole, or glory as it is also called, are restricted to the Dormition, the Transfiguration and the Harrowing of Hell. Its visual function is to isolate Christ within the space where he acts while emphasising the fact that although he manifests in our world his higher existence is in the divine world. (Fig. 6).3
‘Glorification’ is a divine attribute whose theology relates it to theosis (‘deification in the image and likeness of God’, ‘participation in God by grace.’4) The concept belongs perhaps not so much to the rational mind and more to the ecstatic vision of prophets, mystics and artists. Such people, sometimes in conflict with authority, are by their nature free; they seek to renew and revivify conventional form which is why the aureole is sometimes egg-shaped or circular.
Our painter employs the form in a broad context. The scale of the elliptical form changes the visual perspective and sets the event beyond the space of our terrestrial world adding a sense of timelessness and higher dimensions. Using the aureole in this way is astonishingly bold and yet the drama is without agitation; the icon’s grandeur and calm are not disturbed. The image has a pervading atmosphere of the ‘sacred stillness’ (hesychia) practised by the Hesychasts.
Fig. 6. Dormition, Transfiguration and Harrowing of Hell are the three images traditionally showing Christ within the mandorla. (All icons from the Temple Gallery archive).
I have found only two other examples, both fifteenth century Novgorod icons in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, which are capable of the same interpretation. They are of the Dormition, and in both icons we observe the Russian painters using similarly startling aureoles to create ‘abstract’ or ‘dream-like’ spaces whose non-naturalistic forms free the mind from conventional thinking and so serve as vehicles for communicating subtle ideas (Fig. 7). It is interesting to note that the Russian Constructivists of the early twentieth century for whom ‘art was essentially a spiritual activity’ were influenced by newly discovered medieval icons.5
The Deesis is an immense spiritual concept, as testified by the fame of the great thirteenth century mosaic in Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. In churches it has a central place on the iconostasis confronting all who enter an Orthodox church. The oldest Deesis we know, preserved in Saint Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai, dates from the tenth century but a literary reference takes us back to the seventh.6
Another unusual feature is the artist’s use of a chrysography technique long out of date for his period. Strong geometric gold reflexes, denoting divine light, commonly used in the thirteenth century (See Fig. 8) had, by the sixteenth century, been largely superseded by white highlights to indicate folds in the drapery though still in a schematised manner (Fig. 1). (The later Cretan painters would eventually employ naturalistic drapery as for example in No. 5, an icon attributed to the workshop of Constantine Tzanes.)
The painter shows himself to be an archaising academic, an intellectual and a historian with knowledge of the history of techniques. His icon is unique and original, though it is still very much an icon rather than just art.