One could be forgiven for thinking that this seventeenth-century painted panel looks like an intricate board game. Daniel’s Four Empires—four tiny enthroned figures in the bottom left corner—could be the characters players have to adopt at the start. Following the roll of the dice, their pieces would progress along the concentric circles with little scenes in the upper part of the panel, to reach the Virgin and Child enthroned in heaven in the centre; the menacing Last Judgement in the lower half of the work would be the ultimate pitfall to avoid.
In reality, this is a Greek Orthodox icon, probably painted for a monastery on Corfu. Its maker, Theodoros Poulakis (1622–92), was a refugee from the Ottoman conquest of Crete (1645–69). Trained among the famous icon painters of Crete, then a Venetian dominion, he left his hometown Chania when the Ottomans landed there in 1645 and spent the rest of his life in Venice and on the then-Venetian island of Corfu.
The scenes around the Virgin illustrate a hymn to the Virgin by John Damascene (c.675–749), which opens with the words ‘In Thee rejoiceth all creation…’; the top left quadrant of the outer circle shows the seven days of creation according to the book of Genesis. And as we have noted, the painter has also added the biblical vision of the end of all creation, the Last Judgement. In keeping with an Orthodox tradition that had emerged during the sixteenth century, this includes the four kingdoms that Daniel 7 predicted would precede the appearance of the Son of Man.
The fourth kingdom in Poulakis’s series—the Roman Empire—is represented by Constantine the Great, the founder of Constantinople, who had made Christianity the state religion. The implication is that the fourth empire had ended with the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453 and the time of the Kingdom of God was now. Venetian propaganda of the era projected the notion of the Kingdom of God defending itself against the onslaught of the Ottomans, and it is likely that Poulakis, too, intended his icon to be read in this vein.
Chatzedakes, M. and E. Drakopoulou. 1987–97. Hellēnes zōgraphoi meta tēn halōsē: 1450–1830, me eisagōgē stēn historia tēs zōgraphikēs tēs epochēs, 2 vols (Athens: Kentro Neoellenikon Ereunon); on Poulakis: vol. 1, 94 and vol. 2, 304–17; on the icon: vol. 2, 308–09.
Debby, Nirit Ben-Aryeh. 2014. ‘Crusade Propaganda in Word and Image in Early Modern Italy: Niccolò Guidalotto’s Panorama of Constantinople’, Renaissance Quarterly, 67.2: 503–43, esp. 522–24
7In the first year of Belshazʹzar king of Babylon, Daniel had a dream and visions of his head as he lay in his bed. Then he wrote down the dream, and told the sum of the matter. 2Daniel said, “I saw in my vision by night, and behold, the four winds of heaven were stirring up the great sea. 3And four great beasts came up out of the sea, different from one another. 4The first was like a lion and had eagles’ wings. Then as I looked its wings were plucked off, and it was lifted up from the ground and made to stand upon two feet like a man; and the mind of a man was given to it. 5And behold, another beast, a second one, like a bear. It was raised up on one side; it had three ribs in its mouth between its teeth; and it was told, ‘Arise, devour much flesh.’ 6After this I looked, and lo, another, like a leopard, with four wings of a bird on its back; and the beast had four heads; and dominion was given to it. 7After this I saw in the night visions, and behold, a fourth beast, terrible and dreadful and exceedingly strong; and it had great iron teeth; it devoured and broke in pieces, and stamped the residue with its feet. It was different from all the beasts that were before it; and it had ten horns. 8I considered the horns, and behold, there came up among them another horn, a little one, before which three of the first horns were plucked up by the roots; and behold, in this horn were eyes like the eyes of a man, and a mouth speaking great things.
15 “As for me, Daniel, my spirit within me was anxious and the visions of my head alarmed me. 16I approached one of those who stood there and asked him the truth concerning all this. So he told me, and made known to me the interpretation of the things. 17‘These four great beasts are four kings who shall arise out of the earth. 18But the saints of the Most High shall receive the kingdom, and possess the kingdom for ever, for ever and ever.’
19 “Then I desired to know the truth concerning the fourth beast, which was different from all the rest, exceedingly terrible, with its teeth of iron and claws of bronze; and which devoured and broke in pieces, and stamped the residue with its feet; 20and concerning the ten horns that were on its head, and the other horn which came up and before which three of them fell, the horn which had eyes and a mouth that spoke great things, and which seemed greater than its fellows. 21As I looked, this horn made war with the saints, and prevailed over them, 22until the Ancient of Days came, and judgment was given for the saints of the Most High, and the time came when the saints received the kingdom.
23 “Thus he said: ‘As for the fourth beast,
there shall be a fourth kingdom on earth,
which shall be different from all the kingdoms,
and it shall devour the whole earth,
and trample it down, and break it to pieces.
24As for the ten horns,
out of this kingdom
ten kings shall arise,
and another shall arise after them;
he shall be different from the former ones,
and shall put down three kings.
25He shall speak words against the Most High,
and shall wear out the saints of the Most High,
and shall think to change the times and the law;
and they shall be given into his hand
for a time, two times, and half a time.
26But the court shall sit in judgment,
and his dominion shall be taken away,
to be consumed and destroyed to the end.
27And the kingdom and the dominion
and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven
shall be given to the people of the saints of the Most High;
their kingdom shall be an everlasting kingdom,
and all dominions shall serve and obey them.’
28 “Here is the end of the matter. As for me, Daniel, my thoughts greatly alarmed me, and my color changed; but I kept the matter in my mind.”