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Two panels depicting the Annunciation that once functioned as the upper section of a pair of Royal Doors, the central panels of an iconostasis, which the priest opens to move from the sanctuary to the nave during the Eucharist.
On the left, the Archangel Gabriel stands holding a sceptre and points ahead at the Virgin, who is shown opposite in the right panel. Mary stands facing the Archangel Gabriel with a gesture of acceptance, echoing the scriptural verse that has become known as Mary's fiat (Latin: 'let it be done'): 'Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.' In her left hand she holds a spindle of purple wool, a reference to the apocryphal Protoevengelium of James, which relates how Mary was one of the seven Virgins chosen to weave a new veil for the Temple in Jerusalem.Below her on our right we see Mary's midwife Salome, another reference to the Protoevangelium of James.
There is a wonderful simplicity to this Annunciation that creates a contemplative feeling of 'stasis' (from Greek στάσις "a standing still") and divine silence. The scene has been reduced to the most essential details, which are nonetheless executed with the finest precision. As a result, this 'minimalist' approach imparts a monastic atmosphere, bringing to mind the simplicity of a monk's private cell. While the positioning of the small, dark windows and other architectural features are arranged in specific patterns that evoke the dynamic rhythm of musical keys in a chamber piece.
Such a unique quality is somewhat rare in Cretan icons. But there are some similar works that indicate that our example was created by a Cretan artist associated with the famous 15th century painter Andreas Ritzos, and working on Patmos - the Greek island famous for being the location where John the Apostle wrote the Book of Revelation in exile; and an important location for Cretan art after the fall of Byzantium in 1453. For example, a late 15th century Royal Doors that has been attributed to Ritzos evokes a similar atmosphere (fig. a). For while this version contains more details it still retains a comparable composition - in terms of simplicity of design and coordinated geometric patterns. It also uses, predominantly, the rectangular and arch shape of the windows to create a dynamic rhythm of form.
Another Annunciation icon that has been attributed to Ritzos also uses a similar iconographic type (see fig. b).
This particular way of structuring the Annunciation iconography appears to have been formulated by Ritzos in the late 15th century. Ritzos is considered by scholars to be one of the greatest Cretan painters of that time, second only to Angelos, who was his artistic mentor. He is known for being able to work in both Byzantine and Italian styles: 'Ritzos possessed... the dual ability to paint in both Cretan and in Italian modes, depending on the demand of the clientele.' Often his work draws from the Paleologan tradition, and the simplicity of the works in question can be related to the Paleologan style. A detail from a Ritzos icon of the Holy Trinity (fig. c) clearly illustrates a Byzantine influence as it directly draws upon a 14th century icon in the Benaki Museum in Athens (see fig. d).
Icons like the Benaki Museum Trinity that can be seen as the 'stylistic' prototype of our Annunciation, especially the loose composition and the simple, yet effective use of architecture, which some commentators compare to theatrical 'stage settings'; but such an observation may detract from the deeper meaning behind this use of architectural forms, which is, perhaps, to create a symbolic labyrinth of passages between the inner and outer worlds.
A later icon created on Patmos (fig. e) is very close to our example. This icon uses exactly the same composition as our painting. The strong similarities between the two works indicates that our icon was also created on the island of Patmos in the same period, perhaps by the same painter.