17. The Nativity of Christ
Greek, late Byzantine
Tempera, gold leaf and gesso on wood
Panel: 28.8 x 28.8 cm
1. Segrédakis collection
2. Averof collection [Click here for notes on the Averof Collection]
Exhibited: Lyon, (circa 1920) La Peinture Religieuse Grèque (No. 5) as ‘Byzantine, XVe siecle’.
The icon has a narrative character as the actual scene of the Nativity is complemented by a number of episodes which are connected with it. The composition is circularly arranged, with the elongated figure of the Virgin, reclining on a couch atop the flat summit of a rock in the centre. The swaddled, minute figure of Christ lies in the sarcophagus-shaped crib placed in the cave, thus pre-figuring his forthcoming burial. Clockwise from above, an angel announces the Nativity to a shepherd, Salome and a maid prepare the Child’s first bath, another shepherd takes the news to Joseph, and the Magi recognize the star that guides their way. At the left top corner four angels glorify the Nativity by gazing at the star and the inscription that identifies the scene, Ή ΓΕΝΝΗCΙC (the Nativity), as if drawing the spectator’s attention to the reality of the event. A ray with the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove emanates from the segment of sky above; it traverses the high, double-peaked rock and is directed towards Christ. Several other details, for example, the trees and the plants, as well as the bucolic elements of the animals at the right side which are rendered in drawing, rather than painting, the sticks of the shepherds which retain the crude shape of the tree-branch, and the boy who plays the panpipe, add to the story-telling nature of the image.
The iconography of this Nativity has its roots in the multi-figured murals of the same subject in the Churches of Peribleptos (ca. 1370-80) and Pantanassa (ca.1430), both at Mystras.[See footnote 1] These compositions include a large number of details taken from the contemporary milieu (for example the architectural constructions) and from pastoral life. They can be seen as precedents for the two icons which were produced in the period between the decoration of the churches and the painting of the icon of the Temple Gallery. The first is the celebrated icon of the Andreadis collection in Athens, dated to the early 15th century, and the second is the one that belongs to the Byzantine Museum in Athens, ascribed to the middle of the same century.[See footnote 2] Studying the five images as a group, we can see the evolution of the iconography. The wall paintings and the Andreadis icon include many people and are rich in events of everyday life, but they display little vegetation in relation to the panel of the Byzantine Museum. In fact, one encounters in the latter icon the culmination of the iconography, because it includes all the elements that are present in the previous compositions, and additionally it shows an abundance of trees and plants, as well as a real monastery in Crete.
The Nativity of the Temple Gallery, more accurately, seems to have derived from the tradition of the latter panel, as it shows a similar flat, rocky plateau on which the Virgin reclines, and it displays an abundance of plants and trees. It includes fewer figures and it reinstates the traditional Byzantine gold background, thus proposing an abbreviated and more conservative version of the subject. These features are typical of the end of the 15th century, when Cretan painting sought its prototypes in the early Palaiologan painting.[See footnote 3] An icon from the Monastery of St. John the Theologian on Patmos, dated to the first half of the 16th century, which also derived from the same tradition, displays an even more reduced composition.[See footnote 4] This suggests that the icon of the Temple Gallery was painted at an earlier time than the former panel. Furthermore, details such as the gold embroidery on the Virgin’s couch and the maid’s himation, the chrysography on the angels’ wings, and the soft modelling of the flesh indicate that the icon was executed under strong Byzantine influences. The icon can confidently be dated to circa 1500 and Crete would have been the appropriate place for its production.
Images of the wall paintings from the churches of Peribleptos and
Pantanassa are published in M. Chatzidakis, Mystras. The Medieval
City and the Castle, (Athens, 1992).
2 For the icon of the Andreadis collection, see H. Evans (Ed.), Byzantium Faith and Power (New York, 2004), catalogue number: 100, p.180; for the icon of the Byzantine Museum, see: C. Baltoyanni (Ed.), Conversation with God (Athens, 1998), catalogue number: 21, pp.128-29, image on p.130.
For a discussion on stylistic issues at the end of the fifteenth
century, see M. Chatzidakis, Icons of Patmos (in Greek),
(Athens, 1977), p.77.
4 M. Acheimastou-Potamianou, Th. Liva-Xanthaki et al, Byzantine and Post-Byzantine Art (Athens, 1985), catalogue entry: 136, p.133.