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Saint Alexander of Constantinople is here shown in full-length sitting on a throne in a frontal position. He is clothed in the classical iconographic vestments of a bishop. His right hand blesses while his left hand holds an open book. Beneath the throne are impressionistic depictions of plants indicating that the scene is set in paradise. Two miniature angels in half-length hover either side of his head. The Greek inscription at the top of the panel identifies the saint.
Alexander of Constantinople (Greek: Ἀλέξανδρος; c. 237/240 – c. 340) was an early Christian bishop and the first Archbishop of Constantinople (the city was renamed during his episcopacy). Yet icons of Alexander are very rare, making the current work an exceptional object.
The fact that the icon is painted on a panel with a ‘double kovcheg’ (meaning the inner section is noticeably more recessed than the outer border) – a method of creating panels normally associated with Russian icon-painting – and yet painted in the Greek style, indicates – along with the style (see below) - that the icon was most likely painted at the Hilandar Monastery on Mount Athos, where this fusion of traditions is a notable feature of many icons.
The Hilandar is a Serbian Orthodox monastery located 2 km inland from the northeastern coast of the peninsula. It was originally a Greek foundation established in the 10th century. But after being deserted it was again restored as a Serbian monastery - a koinobion - by Stefan (later Symeon) Nemanja (d. 1199 CE), and by his well-known son, St Sava - the first Archbishop of the Serbian Orthodox Church.
By the 14th century, Hilandar became a wealthy monastery, owning much of the Athos peninsula. Around this time, it became a significant centre for Orthodox culture and especially icon-painting, what one writer calls a 'treasure house of Serbian art'. The Hilandar Monastery is well-known for its rich icon-painting tradition, which dates back to 12th century, but it is principally it is in the 14th century that a notably distinctive style is formulated.
Stylistically our icon of St Alexander of Constantinople is characteristic of icon-painting from the Hilandar Monastery created in the early 17th century. For example, an icon of St Euthychius painted here in the 16th-17th century (fig. a) has a similar inner intensity formulated through rigid brushstrokes that impart to the face an ascetic, disciplined expression. We can also see here similar impressionistic brushstrokes on the vestments of the saint, especially the black patterns surrounding the crosses on the omophorion.
Another comparable icon from Hilandar is a 17th century panel showing St Nicholas Enthroned (fig. b). Here again we see the disciplined composure of the saint characterise of monastic art, as well as a comparable painterly approach: rigid lines for the face converged with looser, more impressionistic strokes for the garments.