Icon with the Nativity of Christ
- Icon with the Nativity of Christ
Icon painted in egg tempera on gold on wood over gesso and linenegg tempera on wood with linen and gesso. The scene is identified by a red inscription: HXV ΓΕΝΝ. A rocky back- ground occupies the greatest part of the composition with the cave placed in the centre of it. The Virgin is depicted in front of the cave to the left and is kneeling towards the right, where the manger is placed. Inside the manger Christ is lying naked on a white sheet and is looking upwards towards his mother while two animals (an ox and an ass) are standing above the manger and bringing their heads close to Christ. In the middle of the foreground lower than the cave Joseph is seated and converses with an old shepherd standing in front of him. Behind the old shepherd, a young one is seated and plays the flute while flocking his numerous sheep. Above the cave to the left an angel is conversing with a young shepherd, who is standing opposite him. A group of seven flying angels appear from a white cloud to the right of the cave on the golden background. The three Magi on horses are approaching from the right side of the composition and are heading to the cave. . In the bottom left corner is the Greek inscription: XEIP KWNCTANTINOY TZANE (‘the hand of Konstantinos Tzanes’).
- Painted in: Venice (proably)
- (Europe,Italy,Veneto,Venice (province),Venice)
- Height: 440 millimetres
- Width: 330 millimetres
- Thickness: 20 millimetres
Inscription PositionUpper left
Inscription ContentΗ ΧΥ ΓΕΝΝ[ησις]
Inscription TranslationBirth of Christ
Inscription Positionabove Christ's head
Inscription ContentIC XC
Inscription TranslationJesus Christ
Inscription Positionbottom left
Inscription ContentΧΕΙΡ ΚѠΝCTANTINOY TZANE
Inscription TranslationHand of Constantine Tzanes
Most of the iconographic features in this composition of the Nativity are the standard ones in the representation of the theme. What is uncommon is the absence of the bathing of Christ by the midwife, usually placed on the foreground. The feature of the kneeling Virgin in front of the manger instead of the reclining one is a western element that makes its appearance in Cretan icons of the Nativity from the second half of the 15th century. See, for example, a composite icon in the Musée d’art et d’histoire in Geneva attributed to Nikolaos Tzafouris (Frigerio-Zeniou and Lazović 2006), a triptych in the Hermitage painted by Nikolaos Tzafouris (Piatnitsky et al 2000), and an icon in a private collection in Athens (Chatzidakis 1983) all dating in the second half of the 15th century. The feature of the kneeling Virgin was further established by the Cretan painter Theophanes in his icons and fresco decorations on Mt Athos, such as the fresco (Chatzidakis 1986) and an icon in the Stavronikita monastery dated 1545/46 (Chatzidakis and Drakopoulou 1997).
The British Museum icon bears the signature of Konstantinos Tzanes Bounialis who was of Cretan origin but spent most of his life in Venice, where he is documented from the year 1655 till his death. Konstantinos, born in Rethymnon, Crete, must have left his native town after its capture by the Ottoman Turks in 1645. He was brother of the famous Cretan painter Emmanuel Tzanes and of the poet Marinos Tzanes Bounialis (Chatzidakis and Drakopoulou 1997; Constantoudaki-Kitromilides 2003). Konstantinos died in Venice between 1682 and 1685.
Literature: N. Chatzidakis, Icons of the Cretan School (15th – 16th century) (exh. cat., The Benaki Museum), Athens, 1983, no. 24; M. Chatzidakis, The Cretan Painter Theophanes: the Final Period of his Art in the Frescoes in Stavronikita Monastery, Mount Athos, 1986, fig. 83; Christie's, Icons, South Kensington, Wednesday 4 December 1991, lot 36, 7, ill. on 6; M. Chatzidakis and E. Drakopoulou, Έλληνες ζωγράφοι μετά την Άλωση (1450-1830), Athens, 1997, 424–6, fig. 280; Υ. Piatnitsky, O. Baddeley, E. Brunner and M. Mundell Mango (eds), Sinai, Byzantium, Russia. Orthodox Art from the Sixth to the Twentieth Century, London, 2000, no. B155; M. Constantoudaki-Kitromilides, ‘Από το Ρέθυμνο στη Βενετία: ο ζωγράφος Κωνσταντίνος Τζάνε Μπουνιαλής και η εξέλιξη της τέχνης του’, in C. Maltezou and A. Papadaki (eds), Rethymno veneziano. Atti del Simposio, Rethymno, 1-2 novembre 2002, Venice, 2003, 415–34; S. Frigerio-Zeniou and M. Lazović, Icônes de la collection du Musée d’art et d’histoire Genève, Geneva, 2006, no. 3; R. Cormack, Icons, London, 2014 (2nd ed.), 140, no. 112.
Not on display
- Named in Inscription: Nativity of Christ
The icon was bequeathed to the British Museum by the painter John Craxton RA (1922-2009), to whom it was bequeathed by Lady Norton, wife of Sir Clifford Norton, British ambassador in Athens (1946-1951). She died in 1972, and Sir Clifford Norton died in 1990. According to John Craxton, Lady Norton had bought the icon in Athens. Any exhibition label should say “Bequeathed by John Craxton RA in memory of Lady Norton”.
Britain, Europe and Prehistory
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Object reference number: MCB35060
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