AP®︎/College Art History
- Introduction to the middle ages
- Christianity, an introduction for the study of art history
- Architecture and liturgy
- The life of Christ in medieval and Renaissance art
- A New Pictorial Language: The Image in Early Medieval Art
- Catacomb of Priscilla, Rome
- Basilica of Santa Sabina, Rome
- Santa Sabina
- Jacob wrestling the angel, Vienna Genesis
- Rebecca and Eliezer at the Well, Vienna Genesis
- A beginner's guide to Byzantine Art
- San Vitale, Ravenna
- Justinian Mosaic, San Vitale
- Hagia Sophia, Istanbul
- Hagia Sophia, Istanbul
- Theotokos mosaic, apse, Hagia Sophia, Istanbul
- Hagia Sophia as a mosque
- Deësis mosaic, Hagia Sophia, Istanbul
- Virgin (Theotokos) and Child between Saints Theodore and George
- The Lindisfarne Gospels
- The Lindisfarne Gospels
- The Bayeux Tapestry
- The Bayeux Tapestry - Seven Ages of Britain - BBC One
- Church and Reliquary of Sainte‐Foy, France
- Chartres Cathedral
- Bible moralisée (moralized bibles)
- Saint Louis Bible (moralized bible)
- The Golden Haggadah
- Röttgen Pietà
- Röttgen Pietà
- Giotto, Arena (Scrovegni) Chapel (part 1)
- Giotto, Arena (Scrovegni) Chapel (part 2)
- Giotto, Arena (Scrovegni) Chapel (part 3)
- Giotto, Arena (Scrovegni) Chapel (part 4)
By Dr. William Allen
Virgin (Theotokos) and Child between Saints Theodore and George, sixth or early seventh century, encaustic on wood, 2' 3" x 1' 7 3/8" (St. Catherine's Monastery, Sinai, Egypt; photo: NBS, public domain)
At Mount Sinai Monastery
One of thousands of important Byzantine images, books, and documents preserved at St. Catherine’s Monastery, Mount Sinai (Egypt) is the remarkable encaustic icon painting of the Virgin (Theotokos) and Child between Saints Theodore and George (“Icon” is Greek for “image” or “painting” and encaustic is a painting technique that uses wax as a medium to carry the color).
The icon shows the Virgin and Child flanked by two soldier saints, St. Theodore to the left and St. George at the right. Above these are two angels who gaze upward to the hand of God, from which light emanates, falling on the Virgin.
The painter selectively used the classicizing style inherited from Rome. The faces are modeled; we see the same convincing modeling in the heads of the angels (note the muscles of the necks) and the ease with which the heads turn almost three-quarters.
The space appears compressed, almost flat, at our first encounter. Yet we find spatial recession, first in the throne of the Virgin where we glimpse part of the right side and a shadow cast by the throne; we also see a receding armrest as well as a projecting footrest. The Virgin, with a slight twist of her body, sits comfortably on the throne, leaning her body left toward the edge of the throne. The child sits on her ample lap as the mother supports him with both hands. We see the left knee of the Virgin beneath convincing drapery whose folds fall between her legs.
At the top of the painting an architectural member turns and recedes at the heads of the angels. The architecture helps to create and close off the space around the holy scene.
Byzantine panel with archangel, Ivory leaf from diptych, ca. 525–50, 16.8 x 5.6 x 0.35 in./42.8 x 14.3 x 0.9 cm, probably from Constantinople (modern Istanbul, Turkey) (British Museum, London)
The composition displays a spatial ambiguity that places the scene in a world that operates differently from our world, reminiscent of the spatial ambiguity of the earlier Ivory panel with Archangel. The ambiguity allows the scene to partake of the viewer’s world but also separates the scene from the normal world.
New in our icon is what we might call a “hierarchy of bodies.” Theodore and George stand erect, feet on the ground, and gaze directly at the viewer with large, passive eyes. While looking at us they show no recognition of the viewer and appear ready to receive something from us. The saints are slightly animated by the lifting of a heel by each as though they slowly step toward us.
The Virgin averts her gaze and does not make eye contact with the viewer. The ethereal angels concentrate on the hand above. The light tones of the angels and especially the slightly transparent rendering of their halos give the two an otherworldly appearance.
Detail, Virgin (Theotokos) and Child between Saints Theodore and George, sixth or early seventh century, encaustic on wood, 2' 3" x 1' 7 3/8" (St. Catherine's Monastery, Sinai, Egypt; photo: NBS, public domain)
Visual movement upward, toward the hand of God
This supremely composed picture gives us an unmistakable sense of visual movement inward and upward, from the saints to the Virgin and from the Virgin upward past the angels to the hand of God. The passive saints seem to stand ready to receive the veneration of the viewer and pass it inward and upward until it reaches the most sacred realm depicted in the picture.
We can describe the differing appearances as saints who seem to inhabit a world close to our own (they alone have a ground line), the Virgin and Child who are elevated and look beyond us, and the angels who reside near the hand of God transcend our space. As the eye moves upward we pass through zones: the saints, standing on ground and therefore closest to us, and then upward and more ethereal until we reach the holiest zone, that of the hand of God. These zones of holiness suggest a cosmos of the world, earth and real people, through the Virgin, heavenly angels, and finally the hand of God. The viewer who stands before the scene make this cosmos complete, from “our earth” to heaven.
Essay by Dr. William Allen
Want to join the conversation?
- Could you go deeper in the hierarchy of bodies? How does this concept appears in the church ?(12 votes)
- Hierarchy of bodies just means how the bodies look like they are layered with the closest ones at the bottom and the further away in the painting, the higher they are.(6 votes)
- If I'm not wrong, the features of angels appear more naturalistic as compared to the saints and Mary. Why is it so ?(4 votes)
- is this something public eye can see or is it very private and only for certain people to see?(2 votes)
- Icons are one of the centers of Eastern Orthodox worship. Usually they are meant for public use.
However, this icon was kept in the monastery of Mt. Sinai, Egypt; it is possible that only the monks and monastery visitors would get a chance to see this.(4 votes)
- Was this painting used for political gain and if so, for who.(3 votes)
- From my understanding of it, not really. The main focus of this image is the Virgin and Child and the hand of God. There isn't much room for any political influence; the only political advantage that Justinian might've gotten from this is possibly gaining a reputation of a "pious" emperor, as he commissioned so many Christian buildings and works of art.(2 votes)
- what is the purpose of studying this specific painting and what is the function of the painting. Like what was it intended to do. Was it supposed to sit on a wall in a church or what?(0 votes)
- This is an icon. It would have been in the church, yes, but it would not just sit there. The services of the Orthodox Church are highly involved and the icons are an integral part of the process. Depending on the location of the icon, either candles would be placed before it or incense would be offered before it, perhaps even both. This centers on the belief of the Orthodox Church that the saints carry up prayers to God, or intercede, on behalf of the living. As a result, these would have been highly prized.(4 votes)
- What is the context of this?(0 votes)
- It's physical context is the monastery of St. Catherine in Egypt.
You can read more here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Catherine%27s_Monastery(4 votes)
- who would the audience be(1 vote)
- Can someone explain how this piece functioned as a devotional object?(1 vote)
- One looked at the Theotokos and her child and meditated on the goodness of God. One looked at the Saints and prayed to them. That's devotion.(2 votes)
- Why are the eyes overly large?(1 vote)
- From the author:There may be several reasons but one is that large eyes helped make the face readable from a distance.(2 votes)