See the book
THE TWENTY-FOUR STANZAS OF THE AKATHISTOS HYMN
41 x 62.5 x 1.5 cm
Early 16th century
The Akathistos Hymn, one of the outstanding and most popular works in Byzantine hymnography, is chanted in full during the service of the Chairetismoi (Salutations to the Virgin) on the fifth Friday of Lent. A poetical composition, classed among the encomiastic hymns known as kontakia, the Akathistos lauds the graces of the Virgin and is most probably attributed to the sixth-century hymnographer Romanos Melodos.1 It comprises twenty-four stanzas (oikoi) forming an acrostic with the twenty-four letters of the Greek alphabet. The first twelve stanzas are narrative in character, referring to events from the Annunciation to the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. The last twelve are glorifications of Christ and the Virgin, with symbolic references to dogma, the Trinity and the mystery of the Incarnation. The hymn’s name (Akathistos means literally ‘not sitting’) is associated with the siege of Constantinople by the Avars in 626, when, according to the literary sources, the citizens stood chanting to the Virgin, beseeching her to intervene and protect the capital of Byzantium from its foes.2
The hymn is developed on the icon’s rectangular surface in four registers of six scenes, painted on a uniform gold ground that forms a fine, narrow, almost square border around each (10.5 x 10.5 cm) (Figs 70-71). Reading begins top left, where the first stanza (A) is illustrated, and continues in horizontal arrangement to the final stanza (Ω) bottom right.
The cycle begins with three scenes of the Annunciation, which illustrate the first
three stanzas. The pose and movement of the Virgin and the Archangel are
different in each, as are the garments.3
In the first stanza (A): ‘Α leading angel was sent from heaven to say to the Virgin: “Hail” …’ (Fig. 72), the archangel approaches in lively movement with torsion of his body, while the Virgin, seated on a low throne, expresses surprise with her two hands raised. This iconographic type appears in the sixteenth century, in the codex illuminated by Georgios Klontzas, in the Biblioteca Marciana, Venice.4
In the second stanza (B): ‘The holy lady, seeing herself to be chaste, spoke boldly to Gabriel …’ and the third (1): ‘The Virgin, yearning to grasp a knowledge unknowable ..” (Figs 72, 73), the classical elegance in the pose of the two standing figures, the Angel and the Virgin Mary, facing one another and conversing in front of a roseate wall, brings to mind their depictions in fifteenth-century Cretan icons, by Nikolaos Ritzos in Sarajevo, from the workshop of Andreas Ritzos with the Virgin and Angels, in the Benaki Museum, in an icon in Recklinghausen and one by the painter Stylianos (Fig. 80).5
The fourth stanza (Δ): ‘Then the power of the All-highest overshadowed her, planning the conception …’, is rendered with the enthroned Virgin before a red curtain drawn back by four angels, as established mainly in the Postbyzantine period.6
The Visitation, with the central group of two slender, dark-clad female figures, the Virgin and Elizabeth, in embrace, is a faithful rendering of stanza V (E): ‘The Virgin, holding God in her womb, hastened to Elizabeth …’, with a theme already known from the cycle of the Dodecaorton.7 The sixth stanza (Z): ‘Joseph, a prudent man, was troubled within himself by a tumult of cares and doubts …’ is illustrated by a scene from the apocryphal cycle of the Virgin’s life. Joseph gesticulates towards the Virgin who stands stationary opposite him.8 The next three scenes also belong to the Christological Cycle, reproducing the iconography of episodes in the Nativity and the Adoration of the Magi, as known in Cretan icons from the fifteenth century onwards.9 The seventh stanza (H): ‘The shepherds heard the angels singing of the incarnate presence of Christ ...’ is represented by the scene of the Nativity (Fig. 74). The Virgin sits on the ground outside the cave beside the manger. Joseph, below, also sitting, converses with two shepherds, while on high right an angel appears behind the cave and announces the Nativity to a shepherd boy sitting atop a rocky mountain. The Journey of the Magi in the next scene accurately conveys the content of stanza VIII (Θ): ‘The Wise Men saw a star moving towards God, and followed its lustre …’ (Figs 74, 75). The three Magi, on galloping steeds, point animatedly to the star leading them to the cave, outside which the Virgin with the Christ-Child in her arms sits awaiting their arrival. Stanza IX (I): ‘The sons of the Chaldaeans saw …’ refers to the Adoration of the Magi (Fig. 76). The Virgin left, on a low throne, and Joseph standing behind her, receive the three kings. The first, an old man, kneels and the two younger ones stand, while the two horses with harness appear behind them right. In the tenth stanza (K): ‘The wise men became heralds, bearing the message of God …’, the Magi are depicted in front of a building with pyramidal roof, preparing to depart.10 The content of the eleventh stanza (Λ): ‘By flashing the light of truth in Egypt you banished the darkness of error…’ is expressed by the scene of the Flight into Egypt from the cycle of the Life of Christ (Fig. 77).11 Joseph, with the infant Christ on his shoulders, walks ahead of the Virgin who rides on a donkey. Stanza XII (M): ‘When Symeon was about to depart from this life of deceit …’ is illustrated by the scene of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple (Fig. 77).12
The composition of the scenes for the second part of the Akathistos displays greater originality. For the thirteenth stanza (N): ‘The Creator revealed a new creation, and showed it to us, his creatures. He made it flourish from a womb without seed …’13 the nucleus of the Ascension is adopted. The brilliant figure of Christ, in a himation with gold striations, appears within a red mandorla upheld by two angels. On the ground below apostles and hierarchs in two symmetrically arranged groups gaze up at him. Stanza XIV (Ξ): ‘And let us, seeing this strange birth, estrange ourselves from the earth… ’14 is illustrated in a manner close to the Assumption (Metastasis) of the Virgin, the difference being that the Virgin within the clouds holds the infant Christ in her arms, while on earth stand two groups of apostles and saints. In the next stanza, XV (O): ‘The unbounded Word was complete among men below … ’15 (Fig. 78) the format of the preceding scene is adapted to the new content by substituting the figure of Christ for that of the Virgin, while groups of apostles and hierarchs stand on the earth. In the sixteenth stanza (P): ‘All the orders of the angels were astounded at the great act of the incarnation … ’16 (Fig. 78), the different orders of angels are inventively presented glorifying Christ who sits resplendent in a gold himation on a throne formed from red-winged seraphim, his feet resting on the winged rorae. Smaller seraphim emerge from behind Christ’s gold halo and all the figures appear in clouds. The representation is crowned by a small seraph with expressive face and six red wings with gold striations, appearing from a fiery, star-spangled sky surrounded by small white clouds. The seventeenth stanza (P): ‘Before you, mother of God, we see wordy orators as voiceless as fish …’17 (Fig, 79) is illustrated with the Virgin and Child standing at the centre under a ciborium, in front of the walls of the city; flanking them left and right are orators distinguished by their peculiar hats. A scene which is a variation of the Resurrection is linked with stanza XVII (Σ): ‘He who set all things in order came to the world of his own will, wishing to save it…’ (Fig. 79).18 Christ, turned sideways, outstretches his hand to one standing and one kneeling figure, which occupy the positions of Adam and Eve in the iconography of the Descent into Hell (Anastasis), Behind Christ stands an angel in red imperial raiment, like the prophet-kings in the border scenes on the icons in the Benaki Museum and by Nikolaos Ritzos in Sarajevo.19 The depiction used for the next stanza, (T): ‘Virgin mother of God, you are the defence of virgins …’20 follows the type of stanza XVII (P), except that the Virgin and Child are surrounded by two groups of young women. In stanza XX (Y): ‘All hymns are defeated …’21 Christ is portrayed within a deep blue mandorla flanked by red seraphim. He turns right to converse with hierarchs and cantors in tall hats. The standing Virgin and Child is repeated at the centre, as the Kyriotissa, in stanza XXI (Φ): ‘We see the holy Virgin as a lamp full of light ….’22 Flanked by two angels holding a red curtain, as in stanza ΙV (Δ), and kneeling figures, the Mother of God stands in front of two mountains with caves.
The text of stanza XXII (X): ‘The Redeemer of all mankind wished to cancel our old debis … and having torn up the parchment he hears from them all’23 is faithfully illustrated with Christ at the centre, standing, frontal and holding a scroll torn in two. The buildings behind him derive from the iconography of the Doubting of Thomas,24 while the male figures on the right sit and those on the left genuflect. In the twenty-third stanza (Ψ): ‘We sing your giving birth …’25 the Virgin with the Christ-Child in her arms stands beneath a ciborium and turns right towards a group of hierarchs in front of a lectern with an open book. Lastly, in stanza XXIV (Ω): ‘O mother hymned by all ...’26 the Virgin appears in bust with Christ at the centre and both hands outstretched (orans), like the Vlachernitissa, within a red mandorla amidst the clouds. On the earth below two groups of hierarchs and monks stand in an attitude of intercession (deesis).
The earliest examples of illustration of the Akathistos Hymn are known only from monuments of the Palaeologan era, in the late thirteenth and the fourteenth century (Olympiotissa at Elassona, the Panagia ton Chalkeon, Hagios Nikolaos Orphanos),27 while the number of churches proliferated from the fifteenth century and during the period after the Fall of Constantinople, particularly in the regions of Macedonia, Central Greece, monasteries on Mount Athos (Lavra, Docheiariou), in the Peloponnese (Mystras), the islands, Crete (Valsamonero), Cyprus and even Serbia and Romania (Voronet, Moldovica, Humor).28 The iconography of the scenes in these monuments displays considerable diversity; it is crystallized in the Painter’s Manual by Dionysios of Fournas, in the late eighteenth century.29
Illuminated manuscripts, which. are only known from the second half of the fourteenth century onwards, must have played a seminal role in the diffusion of the illustrated cycle. Significant among these are the codex in the Historical Museum, Moscow (no. 429),30 produced in a Constantinopolitan scriptorium around 1370, and the codex in the Escorial Library, Madrid (cod. R.1.19),31 most probably from an early fifteenth-century Cretan scriptorium.
The earliest known icon is in Skopelos32 and probably dates from the first half of the fifteenth century, while other known icons date mainly from the sixteenth century and after (icons in the Iviron Monastery, in the chapel of Hagios Eustathios, and in Ioannina).33 The illustration of the stanzas of the Akathistos in these manuscripts and icons usually surrounds a central figure of the Virgin and follows a different model from that of our icon, particularly for the second part of the Hymn. An icon of the Akathistos without the central figure of the Virgin, in which the iconographic rendering of the scenes is similar to ours, exists in the Eleousa Monastery on the Island in the lake of Ioannina.34 Its careful art of miniature character could be assigned to a seventeenth-century Cretan painter. Analogous iconographic types are found in the representations of the stanzas of the Akathistos in an icon by loannis Kastrophylakas, painted in the seventeenth century and overpainted in 1845, in the Hodegetria Monastery, Crete, with the enthroned Virgin and Child at the centre.35 An icon in the Vallianoi Collection in Cephalonia features a similar arrangement of the scenes and iconography of the twenty-four stanzas to the Cretan one.36 Other icons with the stanzas of the Akathistos are known in Cephalonia, but these follow a completely different iconographic model, as in an icon by Stephanos Tzankarolas, 1700,37 while a mixed iconography is encountered in an early eighteenth-century icon by Ioannis Karydis.38
In the Velimezis icon, as in the icons in Ioannina and Cephalonia, which are later, the twenty-four scenes of the Akathistos Hymn constitute an independent composition and do not surround a central representation of the Virgin, The iconography of the first part of the Hymn (I-XIJ) follows established models which the painter borrows from the illustrated cycles of the life of Christ or of the Virgin, from the Annunciation to the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. Greater emphasis is placed on the scenes of the Annunciation (I, II, II) and the Nativity, which includes three episodes with the Annunciation to the Shepherds (VII), the Journey (VII) and the Adoration of the Magi (1X).
The pictorial rendering of the second part of the Hymn displays greater originality in comparison with the established iconography of the scenes of Christ or the Virgin. The poetic allusions to dogma offer scope for creating new compositions which vary from monument to monument. In our icon there is a tendency to enhance Christ or the Virgin as the central figure of the composition, frequently within a mandorla (XIII, XIV, XV, XVI, XX, XXIV).
Of exceptional interest is the combination of iconographic models of different origin in each scene. Some compositions use models of fifteenth-century painting, such as the Annunciation and the Anastasis illustrating the second and the eighteenth stanza respectively (Figs 72, 73, 79).39 In the scenes of the second part of the Hymn the figure of Christ within a mandorla upheld by two angels (XIII) recalls the Metastasis of Saint John the Theologian in late fifteenth-century Cretan icons, such as that in the Monastery of Stavronikita, which can be dated around 1500, and one in the Tretiakov Gallery, Moscow.40 In other scenes the iconography is closer to sixteenth-century works with overt influences from Italian models. In the scene of the Annunciation (I) (Fig. 72) the torsion in the archangel’s movement is of Western origin and is analogous to that used later by Georgios Klontzas in the manuscript in the Biblioteca Marciana, Venice.41
The spirited morements of the galloping horses in the Journey of the Magi (VIII) (Figs 74, 75) are encountered in the illuminated manuscript in the Escorial,42 while the landscape of verdant hills and trees originates from a Western model. The composition of the Adoration of the Magi follows models current in early sixteenth-century Italo-Cretan painting, as seen in icons in the Benaki Museum, the A. Tsatsos Collection and the Ekonomopoulos Collection.43 For stanza IV, with the enthroned Virgin before the red velum held by two angels, an iconography associated with the cult of the Virgin’s mantle in the West is adopted, in the type of
the Mater Misericordiae.44 The Nativity (VII) takes place outside the cave in a landscape of low, gently sloping, brown rocks, exactly as in the icon by the painter Stylianos in the Abou Adal Collection; in this same icon the scene of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple (XII)45 (Figs 77, 81) is also encountered, in an identical iconography, different from that established during the fifteenth century.46 Some scenes from the second part of the cycle display distant kinship with the Cycle of the Akathistos painted by Theophanis in the refectory of the Lavra Monastery. However, the differences far outnumber the possible similarities.47 Nevertheless, worthy of note are the affinities with established iconographic types of the Ascension in stanza XIII, the Anastasis (Descent into Hell) in stanza XVIII and the Doubting of Thomas in stanza XXII.
The excellent technique of the many-figured compositions with their diversity of poses and expressions, particularly in the tiny figures of Christ in the Presentation in the Temple (XI) and the Flight into Egypt (XID), or the figures of the little angels and the fiery seraphim in stanzas XIII, XV, XIX, bespeak an accomplished miniaturist. The pastel colours, purple, rose, pale green-blue, ochre and light brown alternate with vivid red, and as in fifteenth-century Cretan icons the delicate colour combinations on the small folds of the garments are exquisite: purple-red with blue-white and brown-olive green with off-white. The scenes are sometimes enacted in front of an architectural background, a wall with narrow openings (stanzas I, II, TIL, V, VI, XVII, XXII, XXIII), sometimes in front of rocky caves, when the text demands (stanzas VII, XVIII, XXI), and sometimes in a Western-style landscape of rolling hillocks (VIII, XI, XIII, XIV, XV, XXIV). Effacement of the original painting and earlier overpainting and retouching in several scenes in no way diminish the high quality of the miniaturist’s art. His skilful rendering of detail on the expressive faces and the garments is close to the Palaeologan tradition of the Escorial manuscript, while the undulating landscape and the background buildings reveal a painter of Cretan origin receptive to the trends of contemporary Italian art. The rendering of the human figure is reminiscent of analogous figures of miniature character in icons such as the Transfiguration, in the Byzantine Museum, and Christ with the Woman of Samaria, in the Canellopoulos Museum, which are ascribed to Nikolaos Tzafouris, as well as with icons including a series of small scenes, such as that of the Virgin with border scenes, in the Canellopoulos Museum, possibly by Angelos Pitzamanos,49 and the icon of Saint John the Baptist with scenes from his life on the border, in Bologna.50 Moreover the already noted similarities with certain scenes from the triptych by the Cretan painter Stylianos lead to the same period and artistic milieu. Although these icons follow the conservative fifteenth-century tradition, there is a comparable assimilation of Italian models of the fifteenth and the early sixteenth century. In the light of these traits, our icon is assigned to this group of icons dated from around 1500 to the early decades of the sixteenth century.
As ascertained above, the iconographic model of our icon is fundamentally different from that of the earliest known icon of the Akathistos, in Skopelos, whereas it was followed in most scenes by the Cretan painters of the icons in the Hodegetria Monastery, Crete, in Cephalonia and on the Island in the lake of Ioannina. So the Velimezis icon is the earliest and most splendid extant example of an iconography that was crystallized in Crete in the early sixteenth century and diffused through the work of the great Cretan painters, who thus provided the iconographic models for future generations.
CONDITION The icon is damaged in several places and has been overpainted in at least two phases. During recent conservation the later overpaintings were removed and only those which satisfactorily covered completely destroyed sections of the original painting were left.
See Appendix II.
1. For the Akathistos Hymn see Mysliveé 1932, 97-130. Wellesz 1956, 141-174, Trypanis 1968, 17-39, Lafontaine-Dosogne 1984, 648ff. Patzold 1989.
2. See Lafontaine-Dosogne 1984, and relevant bibiliography, as in n. 1.
3. Hermeneia 1909, 147. Lafontaine-Dosogne 1984, 671ff. Aspra-Vardavaki 1992, 42-49.
4. See bibliography in Cat. no. 48, 360ff., n. 1.
5. See Th. Chatzidakis 1982, no. 9 and N. Chatzidakis 1983, no. 18, 47, N. Chatzidakis 1996, 42, fig.46.
6. Hermeneia 1909, 148. Lafontaine-Dosogne 1984, 674-677, fig. 39. Aspra-Vardavaki 1992, 49-54, figs 39, 104, 111, 135, 159, 183. See also Kalokyris, 1972, 195, pls 273-284.
7. Hermeneia 1909, 148, Lafontaine-Dosogne 1984, 677-678. Aspra-Vardavaki 1992, 54-55.
8. Hermeneia 1909, 148. Lafontaine-Dosogne 1984, 678-679. Aspra-Vardavaki 1992, 55-56.
9. Hermeneia 1909, 148. Latontaine-Dosogne 1984, 679-684. Aspra-Vardavaki 1992, 56-59. On the Adoration of the Magi see also below n. 43.
10. Hermeneia 1909, 148. Lafontaine-Dosogne 1984, 684-687. Aspra-Vardavaki 1992, 66-68.
11. Hermeneia 1909, 149, Lafontaine-Dosogne 1984, 687-689. Aspra-Vardavaki 1992, 68-71.
12. Hermeneia 1909, 149. Lafontaine-Dosogne 1984, 689-690. Aspra-Vardavaki 1992, 71.
13. Hermeneia 1909, 149, Aspra-Vardavaki 1992, 72-75.
14. Hermeneia 1909, 149, Aspra-Vardavaki 1992, 75-77.
15. Hermeneia 1909, 149, Aspra-Vardavaki 1992, 77-82.
16. Hermeneia 1909, 149. Aspra-Vardavaki 1992, 82-87.
17. Hermeneia 1909, 149, Aspra-Vardavaki 1992, 87-89.
18. Hermeneia 1909, 149, Aspra-Vardavaki 1992, 90-94.
19. See below n. 48.
20. Hermeneia 1909, 149. Aspra-Vardavaki 1992, 94-95,
21. Hermeneia 1909, 150. Aspra-Vardavaki 1992, 56-100.
22. Hermeneia 1909, 150. Xyngopoulos 1933, 324ff. Aspra-Vardavaki 1992, 100-104.
23. Hermeneia 1909, 150. Aspra-Wardavaki 1992, 104-108.
24. For the iconography see Cat. no, 42, 332.
25. Hermeneia 1909, 150. Aspra-Vardavaki 1992, 108-113.
26. Hermeneia 1909, 150. Aspra-Vardavaki 1992, 113-116.
27. Constantinides 1982, 503ff. Xyngopoulos 1974, 61-77. Tsitouridou 1978, 107-121. See also Lafontaine-Dososgne 1984, 649ff.
28. Lafontaine-Dosogne 1984, 654ff. with bibliography. Aspra-Vardavaki 1992, I5ff. Kalokyris 1972, 194-202.
29. Hermeneia 1909, 147-202.
30. Prochorov 1972, 237-252. Lichaceva 1972, 253-262.
31. Velmans 1972, 131-165. See also Chatzidakis 1974, 169-211.
32. Byzantine and Post-Byzantine Art 1986, no. 99, 99-100 (M. Acheimastou-Potamianou).
33. Lafontaine-Dosogne 1984, pl. 9, fig. 22. Chalkia 1983, 211ff. Byzantine and Post-Byzantine Art 1986, no. 164, 165 (E. Chalkia).
34. Xyngopoulos 1933, 331, 330, fig. 16. Monasteries on the Island in the Lake of loannina 1993, fig. 604.
35. Icons of Cretan Art 1993, no. 120, 478-477 (M. Borboudakis). Icon of the Virgin Galaktotrophousa surrounded by the Akathistos Hymn, painted by Georgios Kastrophylakas in 1748, see Kalokyris 1972, pl. 281.
36. Cephalonia I 1989, 62, fig. 76 the scenes frame a central representation of the Virgin enthroned.
37. Cephalonia I 1989, 33-40, figs 8-33; see also Konomos 1966, 77, fig. 48; on p. 17 an icon of the Akathistos Hymn in the Hagios Gerasimos Monastery is cited. In the Phaneromeni on Zakynthos there was an icon of the Akathistos Hymn by Demetrios Nomikos, 1654, which was burnt in the 1953 earthquake, see Xyngopoulos 1933, fig. 14; Sisilianos 1935, 160-161; Konomos 1988, 86.
38. Cephalonia II 1994, 161, fig. 307.
39. N. Chatzidakis 1983, no. 18, 29-30, See also above 151 and Cat. no. 48, 360ff.
40. Stavronikita 1974, no. 26, 128-129; the icon is dated to the late 16th century (A. Karakatsani). The same iconography on a contemporary triptych in the Tretiakov Gallery, Moscow, see Vassilaki 1994, 330ff., pls 190.10, 191.13, 192.15-16; M. Vassilaki notes the relationship between the Assumption of the Virgin and the Ascension of Christ, op. cit., 332ff. See also Icons of Cretan Art 1993, no, 69, 420-421 (G. Sidorenko).
41. Panselinou 1992, pl. 247, with other examples, pl. A’ and pl. 247. See also here Cat. no. 48, n. 1.
42. Velmans 1972, fig. 10.
43. See N. Chatzidakis 1992, 717-720, and Baltoyanni 1986, no. 24, pls 28-29.
44. N. Chatzidakis 1983, no. 41, 48.
45. N. Chatzidakis 1996, 50-51, no. 9.
46. See below Cat. no, 33, 290.
47. Aspra-Vardavaki 1992, figs 108-131; see also Docheiariou Monastery, op. cit., figs 132-155. Chatzidakis 1974, 186, 203, pls IH”, AA’. N. Chatzidakis 1983, no. 48, p. 55.
48. Affreschi e Icone 1986, 122-124 (M. Acheimastou-Potamianou). N. Chatzidakis 1993, 90, 104, 106, 107, fig. 11.
49. N. Chatzidakis 1993, no. 18, 88-91.