The icon depicts one of the great intellectual princes of the early church, Saint Athanasius of Alexandria. He is shown half-length as a bishop. His unusually forceful gaze is directed at the onlooker and he seems to see through us. He wears a sky-blue omophorion decorated with gold crosses within frames, which are open-sided so as to make further crosses in the reverse spaces over the underlying blue. Transverse diagonal highlights suggest folds in the drapery despite the overall flatness of the composition. With his left hand, he holds against his chest a large jewelled gospel book with vermilion page ends. The liturgical cuffs (epimanikia) are similarly decorated with pearls and precious stones. His right hand, with the tips of the fourth finger and the thumb touching, is held low in front of his chest in the traditional gesture of Orthodox blessing. The central field of the panel is sunk 6 mm below the panel’s wide border. Much of the gilding has survived and, together with the light blue, pink and orange colours, this gives the icon a remarkable luminosity and radiance. A partially surviving red stripe outlines the outer edges of the borders. Athanasius’ face is illuminated from the front, making his compelling look even more dramatic. The shading on his left arm suggests a light source from his right. The large flowing beard with swirling highlights suggests a restless energy while the forehead seems to pulsate, filled with the brilliant mind of Athanasius.
Athanasius was Archbishop of Alexandria, a theologian, a philosopher, and a saint. He was born in Alexandria c.295 and died there in 373.’1 He was a delegate to the Council of Nicaea, where he strenuously defended Christ against the Arians who denied his total divinity. His role in developing the theology of the Trinity, with the concept of its co-equal Persons, is central to one of the church’s most important dogmas. He came into conflict with several Emperors: Constantine the Great, Julian the Apostate and the Arian, Valens. Such turbulence brought exile on five occasions during Athanasius’ long episcopate. Much of this was political whereas it is in the spiritual world that his outstanding personality is significant. He was close to Pachomius and wrote the Life of Anthony the Great, two saints regarded as the co-founders of Christian monasticism and the contemplative life. Athanasius, therefore, is in the tradition of the Philokalia and the mysticism of the desert fathers.2 He is one of the Four Doctors of the Church and known as ‘The Father of Orthodoxy’. Single images such as this are rare, but he is almost always included in painted groups of church fathers.
The Hermeneia describes Athanasius as ‘an old man, bald with a wide beard’3 a laconic entry that does little to explain the tradition, apparently originating in Kastoria in the 15th century, where the penetrating intensity of the look, together with the luxuriance and generosity of the beard, create a figure who seems like a presence from another world (Fig. 1). Our painter follows these features quite closely, suggesting that he probably knew the icon or versions of it.
Byzantine paintings in Kastoria, as we see in the icon collection of the Byzantine Museum of Kastoria, and the frescoes of local churches, are characterised by spectacular and dramatic imagery. Interior spaces are filled with the looming presences of bishops, monks, and warriors depicted with intense contrasting colours and rhythmic geometric patterns (Fig. 2).4
Anastasia Drandaki’s studies of an icon of Saint Nicholas in the Rena Andreadis Collection which is close to our St Athanasius both in date and location (Fig. 3). She writes of the ‘facial type of St Nicholas, and the features such as the triangular shadows under he eyes, the schematic arrangement of white highlights on the cheek, and the linear, near-geometrical rendering of the lines on the forehead’.5 Drandaki traces these back to prototypes in Aitolia and Kastoria.
Comparison can be made with an icon of St Athanasius from the Economopoulos Collection now in the Museum of Byzantine Culture in Thessaloniki (Fig. 4)6 . That icon, which has some affinities with the Kastoria examples, (Figs. 1, 3) is attributed to the fifteenth century Cretan School and close inspection shows it to be nearer our icon than the Kastoria St Athanasius. The decorated gospel books appear to be identical; both saints have similarly rounded shoulders; the musculature of the faces, in particular the foreheads, is close and, most tellingly I believe, both painters use a much lighter brown olive tone for the under-painting of faces and hands whereas the Macedonian tradition has a darker ground colour.
By the sixteenth century, the Cretan School had immense international prestige and fame. Cretan icons were admired and sought after not only in Italy and even Flanders but beyond Europe in the Orthodox East: Ethiopia, Lebanon, and Egypt. It is not surprising to find characteristics of the Cretan School, if not actual Cretan painters, in a great Macedonian centre such as Kastoria. An article published on the website of the Byzantine Museum of Kastoria tells us that ‘This collection includes five panel icons and one segment of an iconostasis, all products of the Cretan School and thus proof of Kastoria’s contacts with the Venetian-ruled regions of the Ionian islands and the Italian cities on the Adriatic, and indeed Venice itself, beginning in the second half of the 15th century and especially its last two decades’.7
The icons we have discussed so far are of monumental proportions. They are ‘despotic’ icons made to be displayed at the level of the Royal Doors on a templon or iconostasis and represent the saint to whom the church is dedicated. We can now consider a small icon (32 x 27.2 cm) of St Gregory the Theologian made for private devotion and preserved in the Museum of the Hellenic Institute of Byzantine and Post-Byzantine Studies in Venice (next to the Church of San Giorgio de Greci). It is assigned by the great Professor Chatzidakis to the mid-16th century Cretan School. He describes it as ‘rendu avec une modèle linéaire caractéristique de l’école crétoise’.8 Our icon does not have the ‘crisp linearity’ that we see in the Venetian icon but the form of the reddish-brown crosses on the omophorion over white highlights denoting folds is very close to the treatment of the same details in No. 9 and in the Economopoulos icon (Fig. 4). We also note the frontal illumination on the face, and the shading on the saint’s left shoulder. Further, the flesh pigments over a similar light olive brown ground are typical of Cretan technique.