The Icon of the Virgin and Child, Ohrid
The Icon of the Virgin and Child, Ohrid

By Snežana Filipova | University of Sts. Cyril and Methodius, Skopje


The icon of the Virgin Mary and Christ Child from the Holy Virgin Peribleptos Church is now preserved in the Ohrid Gallery of Icons (inv. no. 81). Measuring 92 x 53 cm, and executed in tempera on plaster ground on canvas overlaid on board, it displays revetments made of gilded silver. It is among the three examples of a mixed Byzantine-Western style of icons preserved in the Ohrid collection. The second icon is that of St. Nicholas from St. Nikolas Gerakomia Church, and the third example is the Virgin Psychosostria, originally part of the Peribleptos Church iconostasis. The latter dates to the early 14th century, and displays two small angels flanking the Virgin’s head, painted in the same technique (tempera, plaster ground on canvas overlaid on board). Since the style of the angels is slightly different, and their colors lighter, Jelena Macan has proposed that the angels are either painted later by the same or another artist. It has been proposed that the painting could have come from Crete.

The silver gilded revetment is decorated with many repetitive casted curvilinear branches enclosing smaller leaves, large flowers, and circles enclosing a star or eight-sided geometric flowers. In the Mother of God's aureole, there are three symbols of the evangelists: Matthew (angel) and John (eagle), while instead of the symbols of Luke (calf) and Mark (lion), there is a two-headed eagle with the names of these two evangelists. On the left and right of the Virgin Mary’s head, the inscription reads: M(ΗΤΗ)Ρ Θ(ΕΟ)Υ, carried out in two medallions while Christ's inscription: Ι(ΕϹΟΥ)Ϲ Χ(ΡΙϹΤΟ)Ϲ is in his aureole. Besides the floral and geometric decorations on the frame of the icon, there are five standing figures of prophets, turned toward the central duo. On the revetment, the inscription reveals that the donor (possibly of the revetment?) was Archbishop Nicholas (r. 1342 or 1346–56). He attended the coronation of Tsar Dušan in Skopje and may have ordered the revetment.

I argue that the icon should be dated to 1343–44. The painting style is realistic and the colors used are fresh. The skin is modeled in ochre with greenish and yellowish shades, red on the cheeks, white on the prominent parts. The modeling of the faces is gradual, imitation of natural skin tones. The Virgin Mary is presented as a young woman, half-length, and with the infant Christ on her left arm. She is wearing a red maphorion, hemmed with a yellow stripe, and underneath, a blue kerchief. Christ’s hair is reddish-brown, he wears a western-inspired shirt, a grayish-white chiton with a red belt, and an orange cloak. He holds a scroll in his left hand and extends a blessing gesture with his right hand. There are no stars on the Virgin’s veil that drapes on her head, shoulders, and sleeves, nor golden lines throughout the cloths. The most unusual detail is Christ’s side glance, beyond the picture plane. The position of the Virgin Mary’s hands is typical of the work of Italian painters of the late 13th and 14th centuries. The Virgin’s right hand is half bent while holding Christ’s left foot. This is a very rare feature, found in only two other occurrences: in the fresco icon on the iconostasis of St. George at Staro Nagoričino (1313), and in the apse of the church of the Holy Mother of God in Zaum (1361). The position and form of the Virgin Mary’s left hand and the lower part of Christ’s body with the golden himation resemble closely the fresco icon from Nagoričino.


The oldest photo of the icon once standing on the iconostasis of the Peribleptos Church in Ohrid dates to 1909, and was taken by N. P. Kondakov. This is an exceptional work since there are no other icons that display Gothic elements and Italian painting techniques in the whole collection of medieval icons in Macedonia. Kondakov names it the Virgin of the Passion and compares it to a famous Moscovite monastic icon. Yet, there are no angels with the symbols of Christ's suffering flanking the Virgin and Child, so it is not an appropriate identification. Moreover, the analogies are not so striking, especially the colors and the drawing, apart from the technique.

By looking at comparative and contemporary paintings, it would be possible to hypothesize and put forth analogies between the holy duo and the young King Uroš (1355–71) and his mother Helena of Bulgaria, Empress of Serbia (c. 1315–74). This would not be a unique case, since it happened before in the Church of St. George at Kurbinovo, where we find Emperor Manuil Komenos and his wife portrayed in the guise of Sts. Constantine and Helena, while in the Church of St. Panteleimon at Nerezi and the Church of the Virgin Mary in Ferre, members of the Komnenian dynasty could be read in the holy warriors. The Christ Child from the Ohrid icon no. 81 and young king Uroš from the narthex at Dečani Monastery resemble each other, and may have been painted by the same artist or from similar models. Both figures display similar shadows under the eyes, lips, eyebrows, same angle of view, with the top of the nose rendered differently. The paintings in the narthex at Dečani were completed when Uroš was about 11 or 12 years old (1347/48).

The Ohrid icon of the Virgin and Child, I believe, was painted around 1343/44. There is no iconographical analogy and typology in Byzantine art to this type of Virgin with Christ child. There is only one black and white photo of the icon without the revetments, which shows only the Virgin’s head with a golden halo. The dossier of the icon has a helpful drawing made in 1999/2000 by Kavkaleski. It reveals that quite a lot of the Virgin Mary’s face, her upper part of the maphorion, Christ’s hair, and his left shoulder were repainted. Given visual analogies, it could be possible that the icon was gifted to Peribleptos Church to commemorate Dušan becoming a tsar, while his son became a king.

In Serbia, during the second quarter of the 14th century, appeared the so-called “pictores graeci” who were mostly Byzantine artists working along the Adriatic coast. An opinion has been expressed that the icon painter was a Byzantine artist working in the Adriatic region, either in Dubrovnik, Kotor, or Venice. But the artist could have also hailed from Italy, more precisely from Siena, as I suggest, due to the similarities between Duccio’s triptych (1280), today at the London National Gallery, and the Ohrid icon. The details of the Virgin with child, in their garments and in the Virgin's hold of Christ's foot, are also evident in other paintings by Duccio and Cimabue. The himation is represented fallen around the child waist, which is typical for the playing Christ Child in contemporary Italian icons. When comparing some of Duccio’s Madonnas with the Ohrid icon, there are similarities in the treatment of the eyes and the space between the eyebrows, as well as the cheeks. The cloak is usually geometrically modeled, but not as much of it as evident in the Ohrid icon. The garments of Christ display the most resemblance with Duccios’ Crevole Madonna now in the Museo dell’Opera Metropolitana del Duomo in Siena. The arch of Christ's eyebrows is similar in both icons.

There are also examples of icons and frescoes of the Virgin with Child with Christ looking to the side, but the neck is not as twisted. Usually, this appears in icons of the Virgin of Sorrow iconographic type, in which Christ turns to the angels. Several examples come from Crete, created between the 13th and 15th centuries. Yet, the Ohrid icon no. 81 has nothing in common with the Cretan examples. It finds more immediate visual parallels in Italian icons. The artist of the Ohrid icon was certainly familiar with Italian art of the late 13th and early 14th centuries. If this object was produced in the atelier of Dečani, it could mark an initial step in the stylistic formulation of the iconography that continued at the monastery. 

Further Reading

Filipova, Snežana. "Examples of Icons with Western Influences in Iconography in the Art of Macedonia: Case Study of the Icon Virgin with Child (inv. no. 81) from the Ohrid Gallery of Icons." ICON 9: Ikone i ikonologija 9 (2016):187-196.

This is the first scholarly article on the icon, including many color photographs, and detailing its iconography, style, and offering suggestions about the painter and analogies to other works.

Georgievski, Milcho. Icon Gallery – Ohrid. Ohrid: Ohrid Institute for Protection of Monuments and Museum, 1999.

This volume contains a detailed description of the icon, but excludes specific details or analogies, and makes no attempt to define the iconographic type, the different styles of the object, nor identify aspects of the painter’s origin.

Kondakov, N. P. Македония: Археологическое путешествие. Moscow: Indrik, 2019 (1909).

This study is important because it includes the first photo of the icon prior to restoration and conservation alongside a short description.


Snežana Filipova, "The Icon of the Virgin and Child, Ohrid," Mapping Eastern Europe, eds. M. A. Rossi and A. I. Sullivan, accessed June 3, 2023,