Father Loukas of Xenophontos, Deësis (Mary, Christ, and John the Baptist)
The three icon panels are arranged to form a Deësis (prayer, supplication). The standard iconography of the Deësis shows Virgin Mary (Theotokos– Mother of God, as she is often called in Orthodox Christianity) and John the Baptist turned toward Christ Pantokrator with their hands raised as they are praying on behalf of humanity. Prayers of the monks in memory of the holy persons and flickering lights from candles bring the fixed figures to life, just as the prayers and rituals of the Divine Liturgy commemorate and make the Biblical events present in current time and space.
Most of the surviving icons at Mount Athos are painted in the Byzantine Palaeologan style (during the Palaeologan Dynasty in the Byzantine Empire between 13th-15th centuries), presumably imported into the peninsula from such significant centers of Byzantine art as Constantinople, Thessaloniki, or from the Monastery of St. Catherine on Mount Sinai in Egypt, thus the new icons painted today generally follow the Palaeologan tradition. The figures in the Deësis icons above are rendered in half size with golden background. The gem-crusted Bible that Christ holds suggests imperial Byzantine origins of the style. The small size of the icons suggests that they are portable and intended for private contemplation. Hence, the subject matter of these icons generally addresses the individual devotional needs, like repentance, asking for salvation; rather than epic or monumental themes, such as Crucifixion or Transfiguration. Larger sized icons panels with bust-length figures forming the Deesis group also are commonly found on the iconostasis of Athonite Churches.1
The best-known model for the icons from the Palaeologan era is the Deësis mosaic at the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, ca. 1261.
The lack of a topographical context and shimmering gold background allows the viewer to focus on the core of the message of Deësis, that is, reaching the Divine through the intermediation of prayers. The Deësis group is often painted on iconostases in Orthodox churches and has a significant role during the Divine Liturgy (the service in the churches of the Byzantine Rite). Prayers directed by Theotokos and John the Baptist to Christ in these icons on behalf of humanity coincide with the actual liturgy that takes place inside the church. During the Anaphora (prayers during the offering of the bread and wine for the Eucharist), prayers of intercession to Holy Mother of God and St. John the Baptist are recited. Deësis icon is the depiction of these prayers during the Divine Liturgy. The prayers and the Scripture readings during the ceremony commemorate the holy events and people, and the beholders actively participate in the mystery of receiving the Holy Eucharist.
Similar iconography of is found in many of the Mount Sinai icons: Among the numerous examples, Figure 1 shows a half-length Christ Pantokrator holding a closed book, which is visually comparable to the Mount Athos icons above, however the faces of the Theotokos and John the Baptist appear to be further turned toward the viewer. Figure 2 displays a greater similarity in the garments, poses and the physical appearance of the saints, except for the open book.
The term “Deësis” has gained this restricted meaning by art historians in the 19th century to refer to the specific image type with Theotokos, Christ Pantokrator and St. John the Baptist. However, research by the scholars of Byzantine icons, e.g. Anthony Cutler, has revealed that, the representation of the particular three holy people was not obligatory in the so-called Deësis compositions. Byzantine art has variants of Deësis images with two saints or with different saints, which supports the view that the intercessory meaning of these images is dependent on their context and the research should be expanded to allow a greater framework for the actual use of Deësis images in the Byzantine period.
Cutler, Anthony, “Under the Sign of the Deësis: On the Question of Representativeness in Medieval Art and Literature,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 41, (1987) [Studies on Art and Archeology in Honor of Ernst Kitzinger on His Seventy-Fifth Birthday]: 145-154.
Karakatsanis, Athanasias, ed. Treasures of Mount Athos, exhibition catalogue, Thessaloniki: Museum of Byzantine Culture, 1997.
Mouriki, Doula, “A Deësis Icon in the Art Museum,” Record of the Art Museum, Princeton University, 27, No. 1 (1968): 13-28.
1E.g. Great Deesis icons from Protaton and from Dionysiou, dated 1542; see E. N. Tsigaridis, “Portable Icons,” in Karakatsanis, ed. Treasures of Mount Athos, nos. 2.44-2.46. 116-119, nos. 2.47-49, 120-122.