Icons (Case 1)
Sister Pansemni of Akritohori Convent, Icon of Saint John the Baptist
Saint John the Baptist, also known as the Forerunner (Prodromos in Greek), is depicted in this icon as he would be in most Orthodox icons. He has unkempt hair and a long beard. He is wearing a hairshirt made of hair under his green robe. He is known through scripture to preach in the desert, which is why he appears less polished than the other saints and has attributes to nature.
The name John the Forerunner is derived from his role as the prophet who announced the coming of the Messiah, Jesus Christ. We see John here pointing to a bust-length image of Christ, held in a bowl. The inscription on the scroll behind Christ reads, “Behold the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).
Among the earliest surviving Byzantine icons of John the Baptist, a 6th-century example originally from Mount Sinai, now in Kiev, shows him pointing to an image of Christ in a medallion over his right shoulder. The scroll in his left hand has the same inscription as Sister Pansemni’s icon. The text provides the audience with context of the role St John the Baptist played in Christ’s life. He is the witness of Christ and he points to the one who will redeem human kind by sacrificing himself. Although in early Christian depictions God is represented as a lamb, he appears here in human form. This symbolizing how John is witness to God’s divinity and his humanity.1
This particular icon aligns with the common stylistic characteristics of Greek Orthodox Icons. The body and attributes of John are elongated and thin, showing that he is not like other human beings, but rather a holy martyr. This is typical iconography for ascetic saints and hermits in Byzantine tradition. They appear immaterial because they do not over indulge in the humanly delights and they do not eat meat.2 The use of gold, in particular in the halo around his head, also points to the fact that he is a holy saint. The small image of Christ appears with a gold halo around his head as well.
What is unusual about this icon is the representation of John the Baptist holding the bust of Christ in a bowl-like object. This seems to conflate two distinct iconographic traditions. Most icons in the monasteries of Mount Athos depict the John the Baptist holding or pointing to his own head in a chalice or bowl-like receptacle, thus illustrating his prophetic knowledge of his own future decapitation on the order of King Herod. Another tradition common in Russian icons, however, depicts John the Baptist holding the infant Christ in a chalice or bowl as an allusion to the amnos or sacrificial body of Christ in the eucharist. Perhaps the closest comparison for Sister Pansemni’s icon is found on a double sided icon in the Pantokrator Monastery, dated to the late 14th century: it depicts John the Baptist in a half-length frontal portrait painting with his right hand to a bust of Christ set within a medallion attached to a cross staff; the opposite side of the icon depicts the Forerunner facing the Mother of God with the Christ-child, and shows John pointing to his own decaptiated head in a bowl like object at his feet.3
The image of Saint John the Baptist is fitting for the artist, Sister Pansemni, since he is the patron saint of the Akritohori Convent to which she belongs. This icon was made for the convent, rather than an Athonite monastery. It is included in the exhibition because the convent on the Greek mainland is affiliated with the Xenophontos monastery. The monks often travel to the convent to celebrate the liturgy there.
Kathleen Corrigan, “The Witness of John the Baptist on an Early Byzantine Icon in Kiev,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 42 (1988):1-11.
Karakatsanis, Athanasias, ed. Treasures of Mount Athos, exhibition catalogue, Thessaloniki: Museum of Byzantine Culture, 1997.
Henry Maguire, The Icons of Their Bodies. Saints and Their Images in Byzantium Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996.
Kurt Weitzmann, The Icon: Holy Images, Sixth to Fourteenth Century New York: George Braziller, 1978.
1Corrigan, “The Witness of John the Baptist on an Early Byzantine Icon in Kiev.”
2William J. Diebold, “Review of The Icons of their Bodies: Saints and their Images in Byzantium by Henry Maguire,” (1999), http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.library.wisc.edu/stable/pdf/23923563.pdf.
3E. N. Tsigaridis, “Portable Icons,” in Karakatsanis, ed. Treasures of Mount Athos, no. 2.19, 84-86.
Father Tryphon, Mother of God Hagia Gerontissa
Mary is highly revered in Orthodox Christianity as the Mother of God, or Theotokos,1 and her role on Athos reflects a continuing dedicated tradition of celebration, prayer, and iconography. In this icon, Mary faces to the right in the pose of the “Hagiosorotissa” a celebrated icon type from Constantinople’s Shrine of the Soros (Virgin’s Belt) that depicts the Virgin with hands lifted in prayer; this is also the gesture she deploys in depictions of the Deesis, interceding before Jesus with John the Baptist. Her posture and downturned countenance with elements of chiaroscuro, or dramatic shadowing, suggest a dramatic situation occurring outside the frame. However, her rosy cheeks and delicate hands reinforce her femininity and beauty as the Mother of God, indicated by two pairs of letters to the left and right of her head.the title inscribed in the Greek abbreviations at her head. The Virgin is pictured without the other members of the Deesis, so the object of her attention is unclear, but it is possibly Jesus’ crucifixion, due to her sorrowful appearance, or perhaps she simply reveres Jesus in solemn prayer.
The Virgin Mary holds high esteem on Athos – according to tradition, Mary’s ship due to Cyprus blew off course to Athos and they were forced to stop near where the Iveron monastery is today. Mary loved the land so much that Jesus bequeathed the land to her, and she blessed the peninsula and its people upon her departure. The monks cherish Mary’s special protection of her Garden, the reason why she holds high esteem on Athos.2 Among the more celebrated examples of the Gerontissa icon on Athos is the example in the Pantokrator Monastery.3
The small size of Father Tryphon’s icon indicates that it could have been meant for personal devotion. The smooth, golden background and Mary’s profound emotion realized by Tryphon evoke emotion and stimulate the senses in the viewer. This method of communication characterizes the icon’s Middle Byzantine style.4
Gerontissa, the name of this icon, can be translated as ‘elder.’ It derives from the legendary account of the icon of the same type at Pantokrator Monastery. The Abbot of the monastery, realizing that he was approaching death, asked the celebrant of the Eucharist to proceed more quickly so that he could receive commuion before dying. The priest refused the request, but Mary miraculously spoke through her icon, which was in the sanctuary adjacent the altar, and commanded the priest to do as the abbot had requested.5
Paschalidis, Symeon. The Holy Monastery of Pantokrator. A Pilgrim’s Guide, trans. by E. Tamiolakis, Mount Athos: Holy Monastery of Pantokrator, 2005, 67-73.
Pentcheva, Bissera. “The Performative Icon,” Art Bulletin 88, no. 4 (2006): 631-56.
Speake, Graham. Mount Athos: Renewal in Paradise, 2nd edition, Limni, Evia, Greece: Denise Harvey, 2014; originally published by Yale University Press, 2002.
1Speake, Mount Athos. 21, 231.
2Speake, Mount Athos. 27.
3Fr. George Frangos, “The Holy Icon of Panagia Gerontissa, Holy Monastery of Pantocratoros Mount Athos” Agion Oros—Mount Athos, posted July 9, 2013 at http://holymountain-agionoros.blogspot.com/2013/07/0063-holy-icon-of-panagia-gerontissa.html; and Symeon Paschalidis, The Holy Monastery of Pantokrator, 67-73. The text of the legend was originally published in “Narration of the miracle-working icon of the Mother of God named Gerontissa” in Anotera Episkiasi epi tou Atho [Athos: In the Shadow of Heaven], Istanbul, 1861.
4Pentcheva. “The Performative Icon,” 636.
5The text of the legend was originally published in Anotera Episkiasi epi tou Atho [Athos: In the Shadow of Heaven], Istanbul, 1861; cited in Paschalidis, Holy Monastery of Pantokrator, 70.