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SAINT NICHOLAS ENTHRONED
65 x 49 x 2cm
‘The saint sits on a low gold-ornamented throne, without back, on a cylindrical red cushion with gold braid and tassels. He wears prelatic vestments: a white omophorion patterned with red crosses, a light brown sakkos of gold-embroidered Italian tissue. Beneath the sakkos is the stole with gold representations of saints and the corresponding epigonation. The sticharion is light blue. The saint blesses with his right hand and in his left holds an open gospel book wherein the inscription in fine black capitals: ‘I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture’ (John. 10:9).
In the upper corners, in miniature, Christ left offers a gospel book and the Virgin right an omophorion. Above the saint’s right shoulder, traces of an inscription: [O AΓΙΟC] NIKO[ΛAOC]… The representation of Christ and the Virgin should be associated with the miracle mentioned in the later synaxaria: at the First Ecumenical Council the saint hit Arius, for which Constantine unfrocked him; but during the night Christ and the Virgin appeared to him and presented him with the gospel book and the omophorion, emblems of prelacy. The modelling of the head is exceptionally careful; a few illumined planes are emphasized with extremely fine white flecks on the brownish olive foundation. The lips are red and a red line enlivens the eyelids and the tip of the nose. This detail, which was used in Byzantine painting proper, is encountered in only a few icons, mainly of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, purely Cretan… Saint Nicholas of Myra is represented in the established type described also in the Painter’s Manual: “an old man, bald, with rounded beard”. The forehead is swollen exaggeratedly while in earlier icons, such as the fourteenth-century mosaic icon in the Monastery of Stavronikita, as well as in later ones, the high brow in conjunction with the short white beard, though in more natural proportions, are characteristic of the saint.’ Manolis Chatzidakis, 1945.
The saint’s face (Fig. 35) does not present the familiar features of Saint Nicholas, which are repeated in exactly the same type in fifteenth- century icons, such as that by Angelos in Corfu,1 as well as in other later ones.2 He has a lean bony visage, swollen cheekbones, a triangular chin and a broad high forehead furrowed with wrinkles. This difference is even more surprising because the presence of Christ and the Virgin above leaves no doubt about the saint’s identity, even supposing that the inscription with his name was erroneous. However, although the saint’s face here is at variance with all other known examples its shape and features are close to those of another hierarch, Saint John Chrysostom, the only differences being the colour of the hair, which is brown, and the type of beard, which is short and sparse. Indeed comparison with the face in two more or less contemporary icons of the Three Hierarchs, in the Loverdos Collection in the Byzantine Museum (Fig. 34) and in Zakynthos,3 convinces us of the confusion in the model used. The similarities to the figure of Chrysostom in the icon in the Loverdos Collection extend to the stylistic rendering too: the features are described with deft, steady brushstrokes on the deep brown foundation, in the manner of fifteenth-century Cretan painters. The way in which the saint’s large, wide, almond-shaped eyes are painted is consistent with the art of this period, analogous with those in fifteenth-century Palaeologan icons, such as that of the Hodegetria from Anatoli in Crete,4 and the icons from the circle of Angelos or of Andreas Ritzos, such as Christ Great High Priest and an icon of the Virgin, in Patmos;5 even the well-drawn ears confirm this approach, since they recall figures from icons by the painter Angelos or from his workshop.6
The soft drapery on the garments, in particular the sticharion with the curvaceous folds that bring to mind a comparable rendering in two icons of Saint Nicholas in a private collection in Athens and at Piana degli Albanesi in Sicily,7 should be attributed to the art of fifteenth-century Cretan iconographers who received influences from Italian painting. Similarly the decoration of the pale rose sakkos with a few random gold palmettes is reminiscent of that on the maphorion of Italianate Madre around 1500. 8The other elements of the representation perhaps point to a slightly later date. For example, whereas the type of the low, gold-ornamented throne without back is known from the enthroned Virgin of the type of the Madre della Consolazione, around 1500, in the Historical Museum, Moscow,9 the freely drawn gold monochrome figures of the prophets on the base and even the tassels on the cushion are not known in fifteenth-century icons.
Even so, it should be noted that the figure in gold monochromy was not unknown in early Cretan art, since the painter Angelos used it to decorate the epigonation of Saint Nicholas in the Corfu icon.10 Furthermore, the throne’s semi-hexagonal projecting base as well as its roseate hue allude to representations of marble thrones with corresponding base and footstool, such as that in the icon of Christ Enthroned, in Zakynthos, again by Angelos,11 as well as in most sixteenth-century Western-style icons, such as the Virgin Enthroned, by Ioannis Permeniatis, in the Museo Correr, Venice;12 lastly, this type is more widespread in the seventeenth century, as in the icons of the apostles in the church of the Pantokrator, Corfu13 That the model of our icon was a prestigious work is corroborated by the fact that Michael Damaskenos used it to render John Chrysostom enthroned in the Corfu icon14 (Figs 36, 37). The low throne without back, the seated figure of the hierarch with his hand raised in blessing and the way in which he holds the open gospel book on his left knee reproduce the iconographic traits of our icon exactly. The only differences are in secondary elements, such as the rectangular wooden footstool and the phailonion with multiple crosses (polystavrion), while the richer decoration of the garments is a distinctive trait of Damaskenos’s art. The similarity in the facial features of the two different saints is remarkable, while the type of lettering in the inscription and its arrangement in five lines in the gospel book (the text here comes from the next verse in Saint John’s gospel, 10: 11) are analogous. It seems that in this icon too Damaskenos returns to early, fifteenth-century, models as he was wont to do in his icons with a single figure: Christ Pantocrator, the Virgin Hodegetria, Saint John the Baptist, Prophet Elijah and Saint Anthony.15 The type was widely used for rendering the figure of the enthroned hierarch in the late sixteenth and throughout the seventeenth century. The model of our icon can be seen in an icon in London, work of a conservative late sixteenth-century painter,16 who, like Emmanuel Lambardos, copied a fifteenth-century model. In both icons the pose of Saint Nicholas, with the open gospel book resting on his left knee, the type of low throne without back, the type and coloration of the vestments, as well as details such as the tassels at the ends of the cushion and the projecting semi-hexagonal marble base of the throne are the same. Nevertheless the painter translates the Western traits of the model into the traditional Cretan style: the soft drapery on the sticharion is here formed by angular, geometric folds and the figures in gold monochromy on the throne and the stole have been replaced by simple gold striations. Lastly, the saint’s physiognomy follows the established type.
This type is encountered unchanged, yet in a different style, in two late sixteenth-century icons in a private collection in the Lebanon, of Saint Nicholas and Saint Athanasios.17 Variations of it, often enriched, exist in the icon by Konstantinos Palaiokapas in the Gonia Monastery, Crete (1637)18 and by Theodoros Poulakis in Corfu,19 as well as in several eighteenth-century icons from the Ionian Islands.20 It therefore seems that our icon cannot be later than the beginning of the sixteenth century, while there are many elements that argue for an earlier date, in the second half of the fifteenth century. The extensive damage to the painted surface prevents a more accurate definition of the workshop and the date. To conclude, the icon of Saint Nicholas provides the earliest known example of one iconographic type of an enthroned hierarch, which was later widely diffused in Cretan painting.
CONDITION Manolis Chatzidakis, 1945: ‘The icon is painted on a panel with fine gesso, The outlines are lightly incised. It is in good condition except that the gold ornaments are somewhat effaced and most of the gold ground has flaked off’.
Damage from previous cleaning of the icon, on the flesh, the garments and the gold striations.
1. Vocotopoulos 1990, no. 7, fig. 86.
2. Cf. Byzantine and Post-Byzantine Art 1986, nos 107, 122, 123, 150, 168. N. Chatzidakis, 1983, nos 33, 53. Vassilaki 1994a, 229ff., figs 1-5.
3. Icon in the Loverdos Collection: Affreschi e Icone 1986, no, 78, 129 (N. Chatzidakis); icon in Zakynthos: Byzantine and Post-Byzantine Art 1986, no. 133, 130 (16th century) (P. Vocoto-poulos).
4. Icons of Cretan Art 1993, no. 149 (M. Borboudakis).
5. Chatzidakis (1977) 1985, no. 15, pl. 19, no. 37, pl. 30.
6. See passim Saint Phanourios and the Embrace of Peter and Paul, in Patmos, Chatzidakis (1977) 1985, no. 69, 116-117, pl. 27 and no. 74, 122-123, pl. 45.
7. Cf.N. Chatzidakis 1983, no. 33 and Lindsay-Opie 1991, pl. 144.
8. See examples N, Chatzidakis 1993, no. 24, fig. on p. 113, no. 29.
9. Icons of Cretan Art 1993, no. 39 (I. Kyzlasova).
10. Seen. 1.
11. For other examples see Icone di Ravenna 1979, no. 191, 111 (15th century). From Byzantium to El Greco 1987, no, 33, 101, 168. This feature originates from 14th-century Italian painting, such as works by Paolo Veneziano (Virgin enthroned, see Berenson 1968, I, figs 9, 10, 11).
12. N. Chatzidakis 1993, no. 32, 134-136.
13. Vocotopoulos 1990, figs 271-278.
14. Vocotopoulos 1990, no, 21, 110-113, figs 22, 110-113.
15. E.g. see Chatzidakis (1977) 1985, 79-80, n. 2. Vocotopoulos 1985, 398. Vocotopoulos 1990, figs 20, 21, 24; see also below Cat. nos 10, 13, 18, pp. 120, 147, 231 ff.
16. The Temple Gallery 1992, no no., col. photo. on back page.
17. Icones grecques, melkites, russes 1993, no. 14, 82-83, no. 15, 84-85; see also icon in Bari, Icone di Puglia 1988, no. 70, 176.
18. Icons of Cretan Art 1993, no. 167 (M. Borboudakis).
19. Vocotopoulos 1990, no, 88, fig. 243; see also icon in Sotheby’s 1988.
20. See below Cat. no. 46.