Seeing that it’s Maudy Thursday in Greece, I thought of visiting the Byzantine Museum of Athens today, to see a very odd icon there. It is the oldest of the museum’s and one of the most interesting ones I’ve ever seen.
A traditional icon
On a first glance, there is nothing extraordinary in this traditional-looking crucifixion. Jesus Christ is shown on the cross, flanked by his mother, the Virgin Mary, and one of his disciples, St. John. His body is slightly curved, while his head hangs limp, with eyes closed. Above the cross, the archangels Michael and Gabriel stand on bird’s feet holding liturgical textiles. The Virgin looks up with a sorrowful look, while St. John expresses his grief by leaning his head on his hand.
An inscription below the horizontal arm of the cross reads “The King of Glory” and another, a little lower “the Crucifixion”. The background is gold, filled with red stars.
Upon a closer look, one may notice that the faces of the three figures in the picture are painted with greenish hues, while Jesus’ body is a rosier shade.
Another, more peculiar detail is a third, smaller hand that seemingly grows out of St. John’s midsection. A chalice seems to float near the Virgin’s shoulder.
What is the explanation of this? Is it mistake? Was the painter drunk? What is going on?
It seems that what is happening is simply that the icon was painted at least three different times. The first time was in the 9th century, while at least two subsequent reworkings took place in the 10th and 13th centuries.
In early Byzantine art, Jesus was shown on the cross alive. Scholars discovered that on the first layer of the painting, Jesus was shown with his head up and eyes open, wearing a crown of thorns. The forms of the Virgin & St. John were considerably smaller. The chalice, now floating next to the Virgin was there to collect Jesus’ blood flowing from the lance wound on his side.
On the 13th century, the icon was re-painted to conform with the iconographical trends of the time. Jesus’ head was shown hanging with eyes closed, to indicate his death. The Virgin and St. John were made larger and given a different posture.
A revered icon
This icon was so important that it was reworked again and again. In the 16th century it was given to yet another painter who painted an image of the Virgin Mary on the icon’s other side.