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Temple Gallery

Established 1959

Crucifixion - exhibited at the Temple Gallery, specialists in Russian icons

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E005. Crucifixion

Byzantine, Palaeologan period, Thessaloniki (?)
Early 15th century
Tempera on silver leaf and gesso on wood
Panel: 35.5 x 26.8 cmClick here to convert metric size to imperial

Provenance:  Bought by an English diplomat in Dubrovnik, 1920; thereafter in a private collection, London.

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In the first three centuries of Early Christian art, the Crucifixion was rarely depicted, the subject does not appear in the art of the Roman Catacombs. Constantine I forbade crucifixion as a method of execution, and early church leaders regarded crucifixion with horror, and thus, as an unfit subject for artistic portrayal. The purported discovery of the True Cross by Constantine's mother, Helena, in the fourth century and the development of Golgotha as a site for pilgrimage, together with the dispersal of fragments of the relic across the Christian world, led to a change of attitude. It was probably in Palestine that the image developed, and many of the earliest depictions are on the Monza ampullae, small metal flasks for holy oil from the 5th to 7th centuries, that were pilgrim's souvenirs from the Holy Land, as well as 5th century ivory reliefs from Italy. Prior to the Middle Ages, early Christians preferred to focus on the "triumphant" Christ, rather than a dying one, because the concept of the risen Christ was so central to their faith.

Fig. a The earliest crucifixion in an illuminated manuscript, from the Syriac Rabbula Gospels, 586 AD

Starting in the 4th century, crucifixion imagery began to appear in art. Early depictions showed a living Christ, and tended to minimize the appearance of suffering. The first depictions of crucifixion displaying suffering are believed to have arisen in Byzantine art, where the "S"-shaped slumped body type was developed. As a broad generalisation, the earliest depictions, before about 900, tended to show all three crosses (those of Jesus, the Good Thief and the Bad Thief).

Icons of the Crusader period, such as the 13th century Crucifixion at Saint Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai (fig. b), had established the iconography widely known both in the East and in the West, that illustrates the central figure of Christ on the Cross with two angels above and the mourning figures of Mary and Saint John on either side. The history of the typology was first laid out by Gabriel Millet, Recherches sur l’iconographie de l’evangile, Paris, 1916. pp. 396 – 412. (A summary is in Lossky and Ouspensky, The Meaning of Icons, SVS Press, New York, 1989, pp. 181-184.)

fig. b icon, 13th century, Saint Catherine’s, Mount Sinai fig. c Miniature mosaic, 14th century, Bode Museum, Berlin fig. d icon, 14th century, Byzantine Museum, Athens

Our icon, like those of the 14th century (examples can be seen in the Bode Museum, Berlin and the Byzantine Museum, Athens, figs. c and d) follow the classic arrangement. We see the wall of the city of Jerusalem in the background, the crucified Christ attended by the two standing figures and angels above. There are variations in the gestures of both standing figures; for example, in the Temple Gallery image Saint John’s hand is on his chest rather than his cheek. The composition is entirely conventional.

One prominent aspect is the use of silver leaf instead of gold laid on the red clay (Armenian bole) over the gesso ground. This is rare – though by no means unknown – and points towards a northern origin for No. 5. It is most commonly found in the north-western parts of the Balkan peninsula that were still under Byzantine influence in the 15th century. ‘It is a feature local to icons of Veria, Kastoria [and] Ohrid, from the 12th century onwards’ (See Myrtali Acheimastou-Potamianou ed., Holy Image Holy Space, Icons and Frescoes from Greece, Greek Ministry of Culture, Athens, Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, 1988, p.194.) The Archaeological Collection in Kastoria preserves six festival icons, originally in the church of the Ayioi Treis, dated to ‘c. 1400’ with silver grounds (op. cit.) (fig. d). These icons are painted in an ‘anti-classical’ style that derives from the late Comnenian period (op. cit. p. 198); whereas our icon displays Palaeologan characteristics that are closer to the ‘soft, painterly chiaroscuro – between the broad olive green shadows of the flesh, which has a pinkish tinge and which gives the impression of light flickering on the face – the discreet use of linear highlights, and the limited role of the line – only in the eyes . . . are features which link this icon with the painting of the late 14th and early 15th century.’ (E. N. Tsigaridas in The Holy Great Monastery of Vatopedi, Tradition-History-Art, Vol. Two, Mount Athos, 1998 p. 394.)

No. 5, detail

Details of the faces in our Crucifixion display the assurance and mastery of a metropolitan trained artist very different from the provincialism of the local Kastoria painter (fig. e)

No. 5, detail No. 5, detail

Fig. e, icon with sliver ground from Kastoria, circa 1400

The Republic of Ragusa or Republic of Dubrovnik was a maritime republic whose centre was the city of Dubrovnik in Dalmatia (today Croatia). The republic had close trading and cultural links with the Byzantine Empire, and later the Venetian State. Its independence dates from 1358 and it achieved great commercial status in the 15th and the 16th centuries. Its Christianity, both Orthodox and Latin, was threatened under Ottoman influences after the fall of Constantinople in 1453. Nevertheless, supported by its wealth and skilled diplomacy, the city achieved a high level of development and was regarded a great centre of Renaissance learning. No less a Western scholar than Erasmus himself used manuscripts preserved in Dubrovnik in his edition of the New Testament published in the early 16th Century. (http://gracchii.blogspot.com/2008/12/dubrovnik-renaissance.html)

Our icon of the Crucifixion was found in Dubrovnik in 1920. It is not possible to say how long it had been there before that date but the silver ground suggests that the icon originated in a northern milieu. Its high quality perhaps suggests a painter trained in Thessaloniki and undertaking commissions in Dubrovnik.

Detail Images