Temple Gallery

Established 1959


BZ05. Head of the Virgin
Workshop of Constantine Tzanes, 17th century
Tempera and gold on gesso and wood
Panel: 40.7 x 31 x 1 cm. Frame: 66 x 55 cmClick here to convert metric size to imperial
Condition: minor restoration on the veil
Provenance: private collection, London
[Sold]Click here to convert price to USD or EUR



The Theotokos is depicted on a gold background with slightly inclined head. The halo is engraved with scrolling vine and flowers ornamentation. The ornament fastening the maphorion and the transparent veil around the Virgin's head are taken directly from Venetian art though the icon remains a traditional Byzantine icon. Mary is drawn with almond-shaped eyes with dark under-eye shadows, long arched eyebrows and a thin nose, all typical of later Cretan painting. The modelling is achieved with light and dark areas using the grey-green under-painting with white parallel strokes for highlights. The drapery abandons the strict post-Byzantine linear manner without fully accepting the western materialization of the fabric with tonal gradations. A Serbian scholar describing another version of our icon writes ‘The red lining of the Theotokos’ maphorion is an original detail and gives a sonorous charm to the whole icon’1.

A close parallel to our icon is in the Sekulić collection in Belgrade2 (Fig. 1) and another, referred to above, is in the church of the Holy Archangels in Sarajevo (Fig. 2).3 The three icons are almost identical and must be from the same workshop if not, at least in the case of the Holy Archangels icon, the same hand. Such production methods typically suggest a well-established painter with a ready clientele as we find with the Cretan painters in Venice in the seventeenth century.

Fig. 1. Sekulic collection, Belgrade

Fig. 2. Church of the Holy Archangels, Sarajevo

The most famous of these was Emmanuel Tzanes (1610-1690) whose icon of the same subject hangs in the Metropolitan Museum in New York (Fig. 3). Icons of this type - showing the Virgin with her head slightly inclined - are unknown before the seventeenth century and the New York example may be the prototype. But, following the suggestion of Svetlana Rakić, it is his brother Constantine Tzanes that we can suggest as the possible author of our icon. She writes that our painter ‘was probably acquainted with the works of the famous 17th century Cretan master Constantin Tzanes’4 but the New York icon suggests something closer.

Fig. 3. Emmanuel Tzanes, (1610 -1690).
Metropolitan Museum, New York

Cretan painters were equally at home in both the ‘maniera Greca’ and the ‘maniera latina’ and painted according to the taste of their clients whether Greek Orthodox or Catholic. Emmanuel’s icon is done in the Greek manner, as we see in the treatment of drapery, but this does not indicate distance from the naturalistic drapery we see in our icon which he, or his brother, could just as easily have painted. The inclined head of the Virgin in an icon of the Nativity in the British Museum signed by Constantine Tzanes bears comparison with No. 5 (Fig. 4.)

Fig. 4. Detail, icon of the Nativity signed Konstantinos Tzanes Boulianis. British Museum


  1. Svetlana Rakić’s description of the icon in Belgrade (Fig. 1) See note 3. [return]
  2. Rodojcic et al. La Collection D’Icones Sekulic (Збирка икона Ceкyлић). Institute pour la protection des monuments historiques de la ville de Belgrade, 1967, No. 59, Pl. XVI. [return]
  3. Svetlana Rakić, Icons of Boznia-Herzegovina (16th-19th Century). Institute for the Protection of Cultural Monuments of the Republic of Serbia, Belgrade, 1998. No. 148. [return]
  4. Op. cit. [return]