The Bilateral Icon of Blatadon Monastery
The Bilateral Icon of Blatadon Monastery

By James A. Rodriguez | Independent Scholar


In the 14th century, brothers Dorotheos and Mark Blates, a Thessalonian metropolitan and an Athonite hymnographer, respectively, founded the Holy Monastery of Blatadon. Located near the northern summit of Thessaloniki, the site functions still as a monastery as well as a repository of Byzantine manuscripts and icons. One icon in its collection is bilateral, showing holy figures on its two prominent sides. This bilateral icon, which dates to the late 15th century, measures 3’2” × 2’3”. On one side is the Crucifixion, which depicts Christ on the cross between the Virgin Mary and apostle John. A miniature monk, the bilateral icon’s presumed patron, stands within the left margin, raising his hands in imitation of the witnesses.

On the reverse, a small 14th-century panel, which measures 9 × 8”, is inset within a square-shaped niche carved in its larger counterpart. This panel’s surface has spandrels raised above an arched recession, in which figures are divided among two stacked registers. A blessing Christ and two angels occupy the higher register, and the lower accommodates the Mother of God holding the Christ Child. An angel and scroll-bearing John the Baptist frame the holy family. The surrounding surface has not two but three stacked registers; read from highest to lowest, each includes: a blessing Christ flanked by orb- and staff-bearing archangels; the apostles Peter (at left) and Paul (at right); and, from left to right, Sts. George, Theodore Teron, and Demetrios, all bearing arms.


Images represented on Byzantine icons, particularly icons completed as portable wooden panels, provided visual counterparts for saints commemorated and hymns recited during the Byzantine liturgy (that is, the liturgy of the medieval Orthodox rite). Nancy Ševčenko has demonstrated, however, that the liturgy’s continuous development and the dearth of references to icons in liturgical texts preclude assignment of a singular liturgical function to any icon. Moreover, Ševčenko concludes: “The [Byzantine] image always conveyed something wider than the text that might have inspired it.” Verses inscribed on the inlaid panel attest the liturgy’s influence, but patterns that characterize bilateral icons suggest “something wider”—namely, the possibility that the Blatadon example, particularly its hierarchy of holy figures, serves a calendric function.

Greek inscriptions (now mostly fragmentary) are visible on the small panel. Andreas Xyngopoulos connected these inscriptions to invocations and scriptural verses spoken at regularly performed liturgical services. Disseminated across the higher register are words from the anaphora, a Eucharistic prayer that expresses gratitude to God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit: “Holy, holy, holy Lord of Hosts, heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest.” Written on John the Baptist’s scroll are these words: “Behold, the Lamb of God that takes away [the sin of the world”] (John 1:29). Liturgiologists Miguel Arranz and Robert F. Taft have noted that a variation of the latter verse, found in Psalm 102, was spoken at the weekly monastic agrypnia (all-night vigil): “[Bless the Lord] who forgives all thine iniquities.” The overtones of the anaphora, portions of which a congregation recited at the Eucharistic commemoration of Christ’s sacrificial body, presage an encounter with that body on the bilateral icon’s reverse. If this and additional bilateral icons were placed within a church’s sanctuary screen, as Sharon Gerstel has proposed, one’s movement across the threshold would enact a progression from proleptic language to visual manifestation as the optical goal implied by the Baptist’s imperative (“behold”) materialized in the Crucifixion.

Large-scale bilateral icons appeared in the 12th century, yet the majority of extant examples date to the late 13th and 14th centuries. With few exceptions, narrative scenes represented on bilateral icons are those assigned to Great Feasts that opened with an agrypnia (the Dormition, for example). Saints whose liturgical services began with an agrypnia or a pannychis, a vigil of shorter duration, are those depicted prominently on bilateral icons. Late Byzantium’s liturgical vigil offers one framework in which to study the bilateral icon’s development and the rationale behind those images chosen for inclusion on bilateral icons.

Returning to the Blatadon example, each bust-length individual framing the small panel is clearly separated and can function as an independent icon inviting veneration. At the same time, Sts. Peter and Paul turn toward one another, reciprocally gazing across the inlaid panel. Not only did this image of mutually engaging apostles serve as the icon for the saints’ Feast (29 June), which was preceded by a vigil, but also, Blatadon Monastery has in its collection a 14th-century bilateral icon with Sts. Peter and Paul on one side, represented as they are here, and the Mother of God on the other. Flanking the inlaid panel’s lower register, the two apostles serve additionally as witnesses at Christ’s baptism—a Great Feast (6 January) assigned an agrypnia and whose iconic image includes John the Baptist, angels, and, in some instances, mortal men, all tending to a central Christ. A monastery located near Kaftun (Lebanon) houses a 13th-century bilateral icon with the Mother of God and the Baptism. The trio arranged in the larger panel’s highest register approximates the icon assigned to the Feast honoring the Asomaton, or “incorporeal beings” (8 November), in which archangels hold a central orb enclosing Christ Emmanuel. A vigil opened this Feast’s services, and a 13th-/14th-century bilateral icon with its iconic image resides at the Monastery of St. Paul on Mount Athos. Sts. George and Demetrios, whose individual Feasts (23 April and 26 October) opened with a pannychis, appear prominently on five and two bilateral icons, respectively.

These rows of saints include individual figures and figural groups that represent or recall iconic images assigned to Feasts and Great Feasts whose services opened with vigils and occurred in six of the twelve months of the liturgical year. These same images appear prominently on bilateral icons of the 13th and 14th centuries. Thus, the Blatadon panel’s celestial hierarchy represents a visual inventory of earlier bilateral icons with images assigned to Feast days, thereby functioning as a calendar of Feasts.

Further Reading

Arranz, Miguel, S. J. “N.D. Uspensky: The Office of the All-Night Vigil in the Greek and Russian Church.” St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 24 (1980): 83–113, 169–195.

Building upon Nikolai Dmitrievich Uspensky’s indispensable work on the agrypnia, which he pursued in the mid-19th century, Arranz’s article provides an intensely researched and useful summary of the history of the liturgical vigil (agrypnia and pannychis) in the Greek and Russian Orthodox rites.

Gerstel, Sharon E. J. “An Alternative View of the Late Byzantine Sanctuary Screen.” In Thresholds of the Sacred: Architectural, Art Historical, Liturgical and Theological Perspectives on Religious Screens, East and West, edited by Sharon E.J. Gerstel, 135–161. Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2006.

Based on years of field work conducted at sites distributed throughout the Peloponnesus, Gerstel’s study catalogues preserved masonry sanctuary screens in Byzantine churches, argues for a 13th-century terminus ante quem for the physical and visual concealment of the sanctuary, and connects the sanctuary screen’s development to that of bilateral icons.

Rodriguez, James A. “Images for Personal Devotion in an Age of Liturgical Synthesis: Bilateral Icons in Byzantium, ca. 1100–1453.” PhD Dissertation, Yale University, 2018.

To date, Rodriguez’s dissertation represents the most thorough investigation of the corpus of extant Byzantine bilateral icons. In addition to thematic chapters that investigate the bilateral icon’s origins, functions, and development, the dissertation includes a catalogue of one-hundred and twenty-three bilateral icons, each with an entry dedicated to its physical characteristics, preserved inscriptions, known or possible provenance, and existing bibliography.

Ševčenko, Nancy. “Art and Liturgy.” In The Oxford Handbook of Byzantine Studies, edited by Elizabeth Jeffreys and John Haldon, 731–740. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

In this article, Ševčenko summarizes concisely and lucidly earlier art-historical scholarship addressing the thorny subject of Byzantine art’s relationship to the liturgy, providing readers with methodological caveats and interpretive approaches.

Xyngopoulos, Andreas. “Une icône byzantine à Thessalonique.” Cahiers archéologiques 3 (1948): 114–128.

Xyngopoulos’ publication focuses on the small 14th-century panel, proposing sources for the panel’s iconography, its inscription, and its crowning arched boundary.


James A. Rodriguez, "The Bilateral Icon of Blatadon Monastery," Mapping Eastern Europe, eds. M. A. Rossi and A. I. Sullivan, accessed June 3, 2023,