By Margarita Voulgaropoulou | Ruhr Universität Bochum
The icon of Our Lady Skopiotissa from Savina Monastery, Montenegro centers on the Virgin Mary in a glory formed of clouds, holding the Christ Child on her lap, and surrounded by angels and cherubs. A bilingual inscription in Latin and Greek identifies her as Skopiotissa, a variant of the Hodegetria created in Zakynthos. At the top of a hill on the left, the Archangel Michael is depicted holding a skull and raising his sword, a theme commonly associated with the plague in the Catholic tradition. Above him, an inscription in Latin alludes to the salvation of Zakynthos from an outbreak of the plague that occurred in July 1647 under the administration of provveditore Girolamo Trevisan (1647–49), whose coats of arms are depicted on the top left corner. A Cyrillic rendition of the inscription can be seen on the Virgin’s right side. Alongside the angel, the donor, a certain Stefan Tomić from Herceg Novi (Castelnuovo), is kneeling in prayer in front of the Virgin, beseeching her protection, according to a Cyrillic inscription below him. The entire lower part of the composition displays a detailed view of the fortified city of Zakynthos identified by a bilingual inscription in Latin and Greek, featuring several topographic elements such as the Minotto bastion, erected in 1646. The mention of the 1647 plague suggests a dating for the icon around the middle or in the second half of the 17th century. The icon can be attributed to a painter active in Zakynthos, possibly associated with the workshop of Elias and Leos Moskos, who migrated to the island after the Ottoman conquest of Rethymno in 1646.
The iconographic type of the Skopiotissa originates from an icon of the Virgin that was venerated at the monastery of Our Lady of Mount Skopos on the island of Zakynthos. Considered miraculous, the icon was invoked in times of epidemic outbreaks and natural disasters, while it was also famed for protecting seamen from accidents at sea. From the mid-17th and especially during the 18th century, the Virgin’s cult grew immensely in popularity and was disseminated from Zakynthos and the Ionian Islands to the maritime societies of the Adriatic region. Icons reproducing the type of the Skopiotissa were venerated in numerous islands and ports of the East Adriatic coast, mainly in Dalmatia and the Bay of Kotor, reflecting the intense cultural and commercial exchanges between the Venetian territories of the Southern Adriatic and Ionian Seas.
The presently discussed icon offers one of the earliest depictions of the Skopiotissa, following the type of the Hodegetria, instead of the later iconographic type that portrayed the Virgin in bust with her hands crossed in her chest. The donor of the icon, Stefan Tomić, was in all probability a merchant or sailor who was saved from the 1647 plague while in Zakynthos and commissioned the painting to protect him “from future calamities and in the Last Judgement.” After returning to his homeland, Tomić donated the icon as a votive offering to Savina monastery, near his native town of Herceg Novi. Traders and seamen like Tomić, who frequented the major port-cities of the Ionian and Adriatic Seas, often brought back souvenirs from holy sites they visited, such as devotional icons and ex-votos. Those images they either carried with them in their travels or they donated them to monasteries and sanctuaries of their homelands, beseeching the divine protection from the dangers of their profession.
The veneration of icons, therefore, brought together the diverse elements that made up the multicultural and multiconfessional societies of the Adriatic. At the meeting point of the Orthodox Balkans, and the Ionian and Adriatic Seas, the Bay of Kotor had become the setting of intense cross-cultural exchanges between populations of diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds as early as the Late Middle Ages. One of the most illustrative examples of the ethno-confessional and cultural pluralism of the region and perhaps the only comparable case to the Savina icon is that of the dual Church of the Virgin or of St. Basil in Mržep (1451), which was decorated in a mixed Byzantine and Late Gothic style and iconography, and bore inscriptions in Latin, Greek and Cyrillic.
This ethno-confessional amalgamation became even more pronounced from the 17th century onwards. Especially during the Cretan war (1645–69), the demographic consistency of the Bay of Kotor underwent a dramatic change, due to the mass migration of Orthodox populations that were pushed towards the Adriatic coast as the Ottomans were advancing into the Montenegrin hinterland. In 1645 the Orthodox Christians of the region rose to around 1,000 in a total population of 5,000, whereas another 2,000 Orthodox refugees arrived in the lands of the bishopric of Kotor in 1662. These mobilities fostered a dynamic of coexistence and acculturation that extended from bilingualism and linguistic assimilation, to mixed marriages, and instances of shared worship (communicatio in sacris). Echoing these developments, devotional images from that time would feature bilingual inscriptions in Greek and Latin, or, from the late 17th century onwards, Cyrillic, to be understood by the different ethnic and linguistic groups. In this context, the icon of the Skopiotissa from Savina Monastery stands out among similar contemporary works as it presents a rare case of a cultural and linguistic trilingualism. Created by a Greek painter for a Slavic-speaking, but possibly Catholic donor, and bearing inscriptions in three different languages, i.e. in Greek, Latin, and Cyrillic, the Savina Virgin uniquely reflects the cultural symbiosis of the Italian, Greek, and Slavic elements of the Bay of Kotor.
LA BEATISIMA [sic] VE(RG)I/NE DI (SCO)PO: The most blessed Virgin of Skopos.
H ΜΑΚΑΡΙΩΤΑΤΗ ΠΑΡΘΕΝΟC / ΕΚ ΤΟΥ CΚΟΠȢ: The most blessed Virgin of Skopos.
LA CITA ET ISOLA DEL ZAN/TE: The city and the island of Zakynthos.
Ἡ ΠΟΛΙC ΚΑΙ ΝΗCOC ΤΗC ΖΑΚΥΝΘȢ: The city and the island of Zakynthos.
LIBERATA FUIT À / PESTI MEN. IULII. / 1647. HIERONYMO / TRIVISANO PROV[VEDITOR]: [The island of Zakynthos] was liberated from the plague in the month of July 1647, when Girolamo Trevisan was provveditore.
Пречиста/ Богороди/ца диева/ де Шкопо̀/ ослобо̀дила/ ѿ кᴕге за/натъ, 1647: The most holy Virgin of Skopos liberated Zakynthos from the plague in 1647.
Рекуперае Стефанъ Томичи изъ Новога да мᴕ бᴕде на помоћъ на всакомъ [sic] страшномᴕ миестᴕ, и на страшномъ с(ᴕ)дᴕ): Save Stefan Tomić from Novi and help him in every terrible situation and in the Last Judgement.
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The work analyzes the multiconfessional background of the Bay of Kotor and its impact on the artistic production of the region as reflected in a single case study.
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The article examines the reception of Byzantine and Post-Byzantine icons in the Adriatic from the Late Middle Ages through the Early Modern Period.