Where did it come from? On developments in icon painting

The source of a major change in icon painting may have been discovered


Among the most complex problems in medieval painting is the nearly simultaneous emergence of the so-called maniera greca in 13th-century Tuscany and Umbria, and similar styles in the Crusader states and the Byzantine Empire and its client states, including Armenian Cilicia—a field which has come to maturity in the current generation of scholars. Jaroslav Folda has spent much of his scholarly life working at this intersection of Mediterranean visual cultures. In Byzantine Art and Italian Panel Painting: the Virgin and Child Hodegetria and the Art of Chrysography he has taken a new approach to the problem of cultural sharing by focusing on the development of chrysography, often described as golden highlighting. Noting subtle shifts in its use in the Crusader era, he identifies nuanced distinctions in formal development and meaning among well-known images of the Virgin and Child in both East and West.

The virtues of this study are many. Not least is the collegial spirit in which the volume is written. Collaborating with Lucy Wrapson who provides the technical chapter on chrysography, Folda maintains a collaborative tone throughout his text, giving generous credit to other scholars. Yet the achievement and approach here are entirely his. Although others have worked on the images he discusses, no other scholar has looked as closely at 13th-century chrysography. He addresses images as texts, carrying out close formal readings of the individual paintings and each discussion offers avenues for future study.

Briefly tracing the use of chrysography from early Byzantine art, he focuses next on a series of panels, many now at Saint Catherine’s Monastery on Sinai, for which he establishes Crusader contexts. He moves from there to the much debated Kahn and Mellon Madonnas in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, and then to images from Duecento Siena, Florence, and Perugia. At the heart of the volume are the Kahn and Mellon Madonnas. Known only since they first appeared in the art market in 1912, they have been attributed variously to Italian, Crusader and Byzantine painters and their production has been localised to centres from Constantinople to Siena. The discussion concerning them continues, but here Folda may have got as close as is possible to the right answer. His attribution of their production to Constantinople at the behest of a Crusader client in the last years of the Latin Empire around 1260 makes sense for these enthroned Virgins, a type generally not known in Byzantine icons. Although I am not entirely convinced by his argument that these painters were Italian in origin, his theory resolves a number of problems: their absence from the historical record before 1912, their Byzantine elegance, the technique of their chrysography, their relationship to Sienese painting, and the blue maphorion and lavender chiton of the Kahn Madonna, the reverse of Byzantine practice.

In closing, Folda points to other questions to address. He argues that Orthodox painters did not use chrysography for the robes of the Virgin, and that this is a Crusader innovation. But it does occur in Byzantine art after 1300, for example at Thessaloniki, and so we need to ask about the impact of Italian art on Orthodox images in the later Byzantine period. Similarly, limiting this study to works on panel, icons and altarpieces, and to images of the Virgin and Child, specifically the Hodegetria, provides a clear argument. But we should consider chrysography in 13th-century frescoes, including for example those at Bojana, Mileseva, and Asinou, and the frescoes beneath the Duomo in Siena. In addition, Folda marshals analyses of the chrysography used by the Sienese master Duccio to characterise the relationship between his work and Byzantine and Crusader art.

Folda’s apparent acceptance of Marco Ciatti’s early dating of the image of the Virgin and Child at Santa Maria Maggiore in Florence and Bissera Pentcheva’s identification of the Sinai mosaic icon as Crusader will be subjects of discussion. Yet even for those scholars who might debate his methodology and conclusions, this volume is a rich trove of material for future research.

• Rebecca Corrie is the Phillips professor of art and visual culture at Bates College, Lewiston, Maine. She is a PhD of Harvard University, where she presented her dissertation on the Conradin Bible in the context of the relationship between Byzantine and Italian art. She has published widely on the problems of 13th- and 14th-century Italian illuminated manuscripts and images of the Virgin in Italy and the East

Byzantine Art and Italian Panel Painting: the Virgin and Child Hodegetria and the Art of Chrysography

Jaroslav Folda with Lucy J. Wrapson

Cambridge University Press, 492pp, £84.99, $135 (hb)