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Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Virgin Eleousa

The Cleveland Museum of Art has recently acquired its first Byzantine icon: the Icon of the Mother of God and Infant Christ. It was painted in Crete, c. 1425-50, in tempera and gold on cypress-wood panel; 96 x 70 cm.

This type of icon is known as a Virgin Eleousa or Virgin of Tenderness, characterized by the touching cheeks of Mother and Child, in a composition that combines spiritual majesty with human sympathy. The icon signifies the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation: Christ born of human flesh and destined to die for the sake of humankind. The gaze of Mary, who cradles the Christ child, is filled with a sense of pathos, born of the knowledge of Christ’s future sacrifice.

Of course, for anyone who doesn’t subscribe to the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation, the image can be appreciated as a representation of the human bond between mother and child, and the universal ideal of tender, protective motherly love.

This particular icon is rare in that it can be attributed to a specific icon painter, Angelos Akotantos (died c. 1450), who signed as many as 30 icons and to whom an additional 20 are reliably attributed. Active in the early-to-mid 15th century, Akotantos had a workshop in Candia, the capital of Crete. From here he supplied icons to Greek churches and monasteries on Crete, Patmos, Rhodes and elsewhere.

The large size of this icon may suggest its original placement on a templon in an Orthodox church. A templon (from Greek meaning "temple”) is a feature of Byzantine churches, similar to an alter rail or rood screen; a barrier separating the laity in the nave from the priests preparing the sacraments at the altar. The templon first appeared in Christian churches around the fifth century AD and eventually evolved into the modern iconostasis, (a wall of icons and religious paintings) still found in Orthodox churches today.

Icons of this importance rarely appear on the market, and this painting stands out as one of the most significant icons to enter an American museum collection in recent years.

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