Theotokos Eleousa Images
thirteenth century, Puglia, Italy
95 cm x 59 cm x 4-4.5 cm
Gift of Cletus and Albert Schneider
This much restored work is the earliest icon in the collection of the Snite Museum. It presents an intimate image of the Mother of God and Christ. The panel has undergone a series of interventions by conservators. (1) These have revealed the icon that we see today and something of its history.
Owing to serious deterioration, the greater part of the original panel has been removed from this icon. This panel was a hardwood, perhaps poplar. It consisted of two major elements that had been worked with hand tools. The left-hand element was between 16 and 16.3 cm wide. A visible crack that runs from the top to the bottom of the icon shows where this joins the right-hand section of the icon. Traces of an earlier paint layer were found on this right-hand panel. These were not found on the left, suggesting that the right-hand panel might have been re-used. The top and right-hand edges of the existing panel are largely reconstructed. The original panel had three horizontal supports across its back. These were attached by hand cut iron nails. These do not survive. The conservators also removed a nineteenth-century intervention that had added a raised and gilded halo around the Virgin's head. The faces of Christ and the Virgin provide the best evidence of the original painting. The remaining areas of original paint are fragmentary. An analysis of paint layers shows that the clothing of the Theotokos and Child, although still painted in egg tempera, is later than the painting of the faces.
The recessed area that frames the image shows that the icon always presented a half-length Mother of God with Child. The iconography is a variation on the Eleousa (compassionate) type, defined primarily by the manner in which Christ's cheek touches that of Mary. (2) The Theotokos gestures towards Christ with her right hand. She is dressed in a maphorion of crimson and gold above an azurite tunic. She holds Christ in her left arm. His left arm stretches across her chest. His right arm was probably originally signalled by his right hand appearing above Mary's right shoulder and gripping her neck. The intimacy of their embrace is perhaps enhanced by the manner in which the cloth in Christ's robe drops between the fingers of the Mary's left hand. Christ's shoulder is marked by a black insignia. (3) Neither figure looks at the other, rather they look directly out of the icon at their audience.
The application of paint in the faces is the most telling guide to the origins of this work. Building from an olive green ground the painter has used broad thin areas of red on the cheeks, nose and lips with sweeping passages of white highlights to achieve a dynamic and rather fluid rendering of the features of Christ and Mary. Given this quality, it is possible to remove the icon from known Byzatine works of the thirteenth century and to place this within the orbit of a body of related icons produced in Puglia in southern Italy.
In this regard, two icons provide suggestive comparisons for the Snite's icon. The first of these is the Madonna and Child located in the Museo Diocesano, Andria in Puglia in southern Italy. (4) This icon has been dated to both the early and the late thirteenth century. The quality of the panel has led to it being identified as a Byzantine work or a work closely dependent upon Byzantine icon painting. It is arguable that a series of thirteenth century icons surviving in southern Italy and the Adriatic area can be traced back to the influence of this work. Our Snite icon can be counted among these. Some points of comparison include the rather painterly highlights, the thin long nose, the elongated eyes and eyebrows of the Virgin, and the use of a red line in the shadows between the eyes and the eyebrow. The firm features of the Christ Child's face also make a compelling comparison.
A second panel should be considered. This is the Madonna and Child from the the church of San Simone in Zadar on the Adriatic coast of Croatia. (5) This is an example of a painting produced under the influence of the Andria Madonna. It shares similar painterly qualities, especially in the use of highlights and in the use of defining red lines around the eyes. The Zara panel offers a more successful relationship between Christ's face and that of Mary when compared with the Snite icon.
Although the Snite's icon is not of the same quality as either the Andria or the Zadar icon, it should be drawn into a relation with them and be understood as an example of pre-Gothic southern Italian painting that has been heavily influenced by the art of Byzantium. We do not know the original audience for the Snite icon. It is possible that it was one of the extensive Greek communities in southern Italy. It is equally possible that this was painted for a Latin audience wishing to possess an icon that evoked the art and iconography of Byzantium. It is notable that both the Andria and Zadar icons trace their provenance to Benedictine monasteries. As an example of such Byzantinizing taste, the Theotokos Eleousa provides the Snite Museum with a fine example of the maniera greca that was so despised by Vasari and that provided a foil for his sixteenth-century history of Tuscan painting.
In the thirteenth century and later the Latin West proved to be receptive anew to the icon. Increased contacts brought about by the Crusades and the influence of Mendicant spirituality encouraged the use of icons. (6) This almost ubiquitous presence of Byzantinizing works in Late Medieval Italy was perhaps most bitingly characterized and dismissed in the sixteenth-century art-historical writings of Giorgio Vasari. For him, this maniera greca represented an alien betrayal of the good Tuscan and Italian values he sought to nurture in his own works. (7) The thirteenth-century icon of the Theotokos and Child in this exhibition exemplifies this pervasive presence of Byzantine influenced art in thirteenth-century Italy, the very style that Vasari argued that Giotto overthrew.
Claire Kovacs has drawn our attention to the provenance of this icon. It was first noticed by Edward Garrison who published a brief note on this icon in his Italian Romanesque Painting (Florence: L. S. Olschki, 1949): 64 no. 118. Garrison noted that the icon was on the Roman art market in 1946. He considered the work to be from the late 13th c. and to be a Sicilian product showing Pisan influence. The work passed through the hands of the Roman collector Eredi Addeo. It was brought to the art market on January 12th, 1955 in a sale at Sotheby Park-Bernet in New York. As item #5 it was catalogued as a Tuscan work of the thirteenth century. The painting is also listed in Burton B. Frederickson and Frederico Zeri, Census of Pre-Nineteenth-Century Italian Paintings in North American Collections (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1972).
1. It was treated at the Conservation Center of the Institute of Fine Arts in New York from 1966-68, by Independent Research, Technology and Structures from 1974-75, and by the Indianapolis Museum of Art from 1984-85. The records of these treatments are on file in the Snite Museum.
2. André Grabar, "Les images de la Vierge de Tendresse," Zograf 6 (1975), 25-30.
3. A similar band can be seen on the late thirteenth-century Madonna and Child found in the Cathedral of Split in Croatia: Romanicko Slikarstvo u Hrvatskoj, ed. Igor Fiskovic (Zagreb: Muzej za umjetnost i obrt, 1987), 84-5.
4. This icon has been extensively published. Key works include: Michele D'Elia, Icone di Puglia (Bari, 1969), no. 2; Michele D'Elia, "Per la pittura del Duecento in Puglia e Basilicata. Ipotesi e proposte," in Antiche civiltà lucane, ed. P. Borraro (Galatina: Congedo, 1975), 156; Valentino Pace, "Icone di Puglia, della Terra Santa e di Ciprio: appunti preliminari per un' indagine sulla ricezione bizantina nell'Italia meridionale duecentesca," in Il Medio Oriente e l'Occidente nell'arte del XIII secolo, ed. Hans Belting (Bologna: CLUEB, 1982), 181-92; Valentino Pace, "Presenze e influenze Cipriote nella pittura duecentesca Italiana," Corso di Cultura sull'Arte Ravennate e Bizantina 32 (1985), 259-98; Pina Belli D' Elia, "La pittura di icone in Puglia e Basilicata," in La legittimità del culto delle icone (Bari: Levante, 1988), 267-95; Icone di Puglia e Basilicata dal Medioevo al Settecento, ed. Pina Belli D'Elia (Milan: Mazzotta, 1988), 105; Valentino Pace, "Circolazione e ricezione delle icone bizantine: i casi di Andria, Matera e Damasco," in Studi in Onore di Michele D'Elia, ed. Clara Gelao (Matera, R & R, 1996), 157-65.
5. Romanicko Slikarstvo u Hrvatskoj, ed. Igor Fiskovic (Zagreb: Muzej za umjetnost i obrt, 1987), 82-4; Pina Belli D'Elia, "La pittura di icone in Puglia e Basilicata," in La legittimità del culto delle icone (Bari: Levante, 1988), 267-95
6. On Crusader contacts see Kurt Weitzmann, "Crusader Icons and Maniera Greca," in Byzanz und der Westen. Studien zur Kunst des Europäischen Mittelalters, ed. Irmgard Hutter (Vienna: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1984), 143-170. On the spiritual life of the icon in the West consult Jeffrey F. Hamburger, The Visual and the Visionary: Art and Female Spirituality in Late Medieval Germany (New York: Zone Books, 1998).
7. Giorgio Vasari, Le vite de' più eccelenti pittori scultori ed architettori, vol. 1, ed. Gaetano Milanesi (Florence: G. C. Sansoni, 1878), 372. Important discussion of the problems of describing the Byzantine presence in Italy can be found in Anthony Cutler, "Misapprehensions and Misgivings: Byzantine Art and the West in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries," Mediaevalia 7 (1981), 41-77; Anthony Cutler, "La 'questione bizantina' nella pittura italiana: una visione alternativa della 'maniera greca'," in La pittura in Italia. L'Altomedioevo, ed. Carlo Bertelli (Milan: Electa, 1994), 335-89; Anthony Cutler, "The Pathos of Distance: Byzantium in the Gaze of Renaissance Europe and Modern Scholarship," in Reframing the Renaissance: Visual Culture in Europe and Latin America 1450-1650, ed. Claire Farago (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), 22-45; Anthony Cutler, "From Loot to Scholarship: Changing Modes in the Italian Response to Byzantine Artifacts, ca. 1200-1750," Dumbarton Oaks Papers 49 (1995), 237-67.