By Elisabeta Negrău | G. Oprescu Art History Institute, Romanian Academy
The Pietà iconography, with roots in the devotional images known as Vesperbild (Vesper images) which visually illustrated a type of meditation to the Passion inspired by readings of the Vespers, appeared in the German milieu around 1300. By the next century, this spread to Italy and other areas of Europe, under the name Pietà. By the 1450s, it also entered the repertoire of Cretan icon painters active in Venice, Crete, and the Ionian Islands.
An icon originating from the Ostrov Monastery in the former Principality of Wallachia, an object found today in the National Museum of Arts of Romania in Bucharest (inv. 11345/i 2), displays an unusual interpretation of the theme. Unlike all the other existing Greek examples, the Ostrov icon contains also a representation of its donor, Milița Despina (1487‒1554), a Serbian lady daughter of Despot Jovan Branković (hence the title of despina) and wife of Voivode Neagoe Basarab, the ruler of the principality of Wallachia (r. 1512‒21). She holds in her arms her dead son and heir to the throne, Theodosie, in a manner that consciously mirrors the Pietà scene. Her husband died on 15 September 1521 and was succeeded to the throne by their eldest son, Theodosie (r. September 1521‒January 1522), who was then a minor. Lady Milița held the regency for her son. Theodosie died soon after, while on a trip to Constantinople, on 22 January 1522. In the icon, Despina is dressed in mourning noblewoman clothes, in a fur-trimmed coat, and her head is covered by a cap wrapped in a black veil. The mourning mother must have ordered the icon shortly after the death of Theodosie, arguably in the spring of 1522, during the Great Lent (hence its theme). Following the death of her husband and son, Lady Despina became a nun. The icon was brought by her to the Ostrov hermitage, the place to where she chose to retreat as a nun.
The dimensions of the icon are 67.5 x 44.5 cm. Its frame was carved and attached to the panel separately. The icon was repainted in 1801. The original hilly landscape in the background was then painted with flowers and plants, a representation of Mary Magdalene holding the feet of Christ was added, and the contour of Mary’s feet and of the left part of the body of St. John were retouched.
The closest source for the Ostrov icon seems to be a composition used by the Cretan painter Nikolaos Tzafouris in a triptych from the 1490s, today found in the National Museum in Warsaw. The triptych’s central panel displays the same compositional structure like the Ostrov icon, with John the Apostle mourning beside the Virgin holding Christ, set against the same transparent blue background. The painter of the Ostrov icon chose not to reiterate the common iconography of the Greek Pietàs, with the Mother of God sitting on a throne-like rock against a deserted background, which was chosen to reflect her inner state of sadness caused by the death of her Son. Instead, the artist sets the scene against a celestial blue background and a smooth, calm, and serene hilly landscape. Moreover, unlike other Greek 15th and early 16th-century Pietàs, the scene has a title written above, Ἡ Ἀποκαθήλωσις (Descent from the Cross). Its composition is a reinterpretation of the usual iconography used for the Descent from the Cross scenes in the Byzantine tradition, through a hybridization with the Western iconographic theme of the Pietà. The Cross is flanked by the instruments of the Passion, a detail that appears in Italian Pietà paintings and, less often, in Cretan ones. In the Cretan icons, the Mother of God usually sits in a throne-like manner on a rock, and holds the head of Christ lying horizontally in her arms, as in the German Vesperbild sculptures. In the Ostrov icon, however, the Mother of God stands on her feet and obliquely holds the body of Christ descended from the cross, resting it on her knees. Nevertheless, a strong reminiscence of the Vesperbild is still present: the body of Christ is thin and emaciated, with visible ribs and wounds, exhibiting the reality of death. It does not display any more the classical Byzantine body features. He wears the crown of thorns on His head, and the Mother of God has her hair disheveled, illustrating her pain. Both details are absent from the Cretan Pietàs.
The Mother of God’s dress follows the post-Byzantine Italo-Cretan iconography with her ruby-red maphorion, but she does not wear the white veil that covers her head and neck, in the Western fashion, a detail commonly used in the Greek Pietàs. In the Ostrov icon, an even more humanizing theme accompanies the meditation to the Passion: the pain of the Mother of God for the dead Christ creates the occasion for representing in the mirror the human suffering of a mother for her dead son. We read in this emotional tendency a taste for sensibility that has been constantly manifesting in Eastern Christian art from the Middle to Late Byzantium and beyond. In the church of St. Nicholas Magaleiou in Kastoria (northwestern Greece), the mural painting completed in 1504‒05 displays the donor, Vladislava, mourning her dead son while being blessed by Christ. The mother made the donation for the paintings of the church for the soul of her dead son. The picture combines a votive theme with a funeral one. The female figure makes the gesture of pulling her hair out in pain in front of the portrait of her dead son shown in prayer. The same ethos and sensibility seem to run through both this representation and the Pietà icon from Ostrov.
Although the subject of the Ostrov icon may have been dictated by the Serbian-Wallachian Lady Milița herself, most likely the author of the icon was a local painter from Wallachia. He probably had connections with the center at Curtea de Argeș, which fostered many valuable artists. In the icon from Ostrov, beyond the expression of pain, we are surprised by the tranquility emanating from the atmosphere of the scene. We glimpse, beyond the pain, the hope in the resurrection. One can distinguish in this calm and serene atmosphere the hesychastic tradition that the Wallachian painting had incorporated in the previous centuries from Byzantine Palaiologan art. The local artist of the Ostrov icon adapted the Cretan Pietà model in an original way, filtering its theme through the layers of the local Wallachian tradition imbued with hesychasm. The icon is a devotional image of Western origin reimagined in the Balkan context and designed as an image of private devotion and particular meditation for the donor Milița Despina.
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The study analyses the adoption and evolution of the Pietà theme in Italian art, in relation to the evolution of private devotion and paraliturgical practices and to the social, psychological and visual transformations during the Late Gothic to Early Renaissance period.
Efremov, Alexandru. “Portrete de donatori în pictura de icoane din Ţara Românească.” Buletinul Monumentelor Istorice 40, no. 1 (1971): 41‒48.
The author analyses 16th- and 17th-century Wallachian icons with portraits of donors, arguing that donor portraits in icons were a common phenomenon in Wallachia in the 16th century, and particularly characteristic of the reign of Neagoe Basarab.
Efremov, Alexandru. Icoane românești. Bucharest: Meridiane, 2002.
The volume offers a documented and richly illustrated insight into the art of icon painting from the three Romanian Principalities, Wallachia, Moldavia and Transylvania, from the 14th to the 18th century.
Negrău, Elisabeta. “The Origins and Afterlife of a Wallachian Icon: the Pietà from Ostrov Monastery (1522).” In Icons in the Making/Icônes - la fabrique matérielle du visuel, edited by Claire Bosc-Tiessé, Sigrid Mirabaud, Paris: Institut National d'Histoire de l'Art, 2021, forthcoming.
The study analyses the evolution of the Greek Pietàs as icons for private devotion with a hybrid spirituality, being commissioned by clients with a Catholic or mixed confessional background. The Ostrov icon is a case study of absorption of this theme into a typical Orthodox environment.
Vocotopoulos, Panayotis. “Τέσσερις Ιταλοκρητικές εικόνες.” ΔXAE 19 (1996-1997): 81‒96.
The author discusses four iconographic types of post-Byzantine Cretan icons characterized by hybridization of Western and Byzantine iconography. One of them is the Pietà type.
This contribution was sponsored by the International Center of Medieval Art through the 2021 Advocacy Seed Grant.