16. Icon of the Virgin of the Unfading Rose

by Dr Georgy Kantor – 5 November 2020
Dr Georgy Kantor details the symbolism in a Greek icon, one of the latest additions to our picture collection
Icon of the Virgin of the Unfading Rose.jpg Icon of the Virgin of the Unfading Rose, 18th century, tempera on board, 55 x 30 cm

This Greek icon of the Virgin of the Unfading Rose with Old Testament Prophets, which can be seen in our Chapel since 2018, is one of the latest additions to our picture collection. It was an exceptionally generous gift to the college from Professor Cyril Mango FBA, Bywater and Sotheby Professor Emeritus, and a world authority on Byzantine art and culture. Expertly restored for us by the conservator Ruth Bubb, it was welcomed to the college in a ceremony conducted by Archpriest Stephen Platt of St Nicholas Orthodox Church at the invitation of our Chaplain, and joins a long tradition of religious art at St John’s, going back to its foundation.

The icon, an anonymous eighteenth-century Greek work and a remarkable example of Greek religious art from the Ottoman period, brings to our chapel a connection to the religious and artistic world of Eastern Christianity and of the extraordinary melting pot of cultures that the Balkans were and indeed are. There could be no better example of that incredibly vibrant and culturally fertile environment than the fascinating story of Professor Mango’s own family in Istanbul, with its Greek, Russian, and English connections, and it is a particular delight to have in our collection an item with such a rich human history. The icon belonged to Professor Mango’s grandmother, ‘a country beauty from West Greece’, who moved to Istanbul upon her marriage (d. 1934). In a letter accompanying his donation, Professor Mango writes: ‘It is not recorded how and when [my grandmother] acquired the icon whose iconography would have been beyond her understanding, but she had a great devotion to it and regarded it as being miraculous. I do not expect the icon to work any miracles while hoping that it will fit into the collection of religious paintings in St John’s’.

The symbolism of the icon is complex and a testimony to learning and sophistication that have gone into icon production. At Professor Mango’s request, Dr Georgi Parpulov, a brilliant expert on Byzantine art himself, provided us with a detailed description, which I abbreviate and slightly paraphrase below, no doubt missing some theologically and artistically significant points. The Mother of God and her Son are shown wearing crowns and dressed in red, a colour traditionally associated with royalty. Christ, enthroned upon a cloud and upon an altar table with a Gospel book, wears the garments of a Byzantine emperor. Greek letters placed within a cross in his halo spell ‘The One Who Is’, identifying him as eternal God. Above are the Holy Spirit in the shape of a dove and God the Father, who blesses with his right hand and holds a globe in his left. The triangle inside the Father's halo refers to the Holy Trinity. Two flying angels hold the instruments of Christ's Passion: the cross, spear, and vinegar-soaked sponge on a reed. The images in the upper corners of the panel are metaphorical representations of the Virgin as a locked garden with seraphim guarding its gates, a star, a tabernacle, and a red temple curtain (veil). The apple-branch held by Mary is a symbol of Christ, as it is explained by the inscription on a long scroll above her crown, which comes from a kanon (a type of religious hymn) composed in honour of the Mother of God by the ninth-century Greek monk Joseph, known as ‘Joseph the Hymnographer’. The kanon's full text contains a number of other metaphors that match details in this icon: Mary is an ‘unsetting star which leads the great Sun into the world’, an ‘animate book of Christ’, and a ‘living table which has held the bread of life’; Jesus ‘the king of all’ arrives ‘on a swift cloud’, and so on. Mary and Christ are flanked by bust-length figures of Old Testament prophets and kings, each holding a scroll inscribed with verses that refer to the Incarnation. Going clockwise, on the left-hand side we have Gedeon, Moses, Ezekiel, Aaron, Zechariah, and Isaiah, and on the right-hand side, Jacob (holding a ladder), Jeremiah, Solomon, David, Habbakuk, and Daniel.

The interest of the icon, whether artistic or religious, is not of course limited to the intricacies of scriptural quotations, the careful allusions to the early Byzantine hymnography, or the exploration of relationship between divinity and royalty. The mysteries of the universe are contemplated, ultimately, through a very intimate story of a mother holding a child in her arms. While the prophet faces are conventional, and Jesus is already a grown man in his face and gestures, we can hardly miss the motherly emotion in the face of Mary herself, painted by the artist with loving care. We hope that for viewers, of all faiths and none, this work of an anonymous master in rural Greece more than two centuries ago will provide a moment for their own quiet reflection. 

Dr Georgy KantorDr Georgy Kantor, Tutorial Fellow in Ancient History and Keeper of the Pictures