The Hymn to the Virgin Icon; Eπί Σοί Xαίρει…(In Thee Rejoiceth...), an icon depicting a multitude of scenes by Theodoros Poulakis

Theodoros Poulakis

The Hymn to the Virgin Icon; Eπί Σοί Xαίρει…(In Thee Rejoiceth...), an icon depicting a multitude of scenes, Second half of 17th century, Oil on panel (tbc), 92 x 64 cm, Benaki Museum, Athens, 3008, © 2021 Benaki Museum

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Game On!

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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.  

 

References

Chatzedakes, M. and E. Drakopoulou. 1987–97. Hellēnes zōgraphoi meta tēn halōsē: 14501830, 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


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