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Icon with the Triumph of Orthodoxy



Object Date

c. 1400

Metric Dims

39cm; W. 31cm

Inventory Number

Reg. no. BEP 1988,0411.1

Additional Details

(Cormack 18)


Bought from Axia Art Consultants in 1988. Sold at Sotheby’s, London, in 1984.

The icon is painted in egg tempera with gold leaf on a wood panel primed with gesso over linen. The back is mostly bare wood, with two horizontal battens. The subject of the icon is the Triumph of Orthodoxy (the restoration of images in Byzantium in 843 after decades of an official ban on icons, the so-called period of iconoclasm from c. 730).

In the centre of the upper register is the icon of the Theotokos Hodegetria (kept in the Hodegon Monastery in Constantinople), which iconophiles believed was painted by the Evangelist St Luke, and whose production in the time of Christ was used as a key argument in favour of the legitimacy of icons of Christ, Mary and the saints. The icon is on a stand, with red curtains, and on each side stand two guardians, wearing red hats and with wings. On the left is Empress Theodora, mother and regent of the infant Michael III (three years old in 843). On the right are the Patriarch Methodios and three other iconophiles. In the register below, from left to right: St Theodosia, holding an icon of Christ (1); St Ioannikios (4); St Stephanos the Younger (5); St Theodore the Studite (6), who between them hold an icon of Christ; St Theodore (7) and St Theophanes (8), known as the Graptoi; St Theophylaktos (10); and St Arsakios (11).

The icon is in generally good condition, but the inscriptions in red are abraded, so that only a few letters of the title are discernible, essentially IA on the right hand side. Several of the saints’ names are worn.

This small panel with the Triumph of Orthodoxy is the best-known and most globally exhibited icon in the BM collection. It has no artist’s signature and no date, and so the attribution to the period 1350-1400 depends entirely on stylistic comparisons with other Byzantine paintings, and its precise date and place of production is a matter of debate.

It is the earliest known representation of this subject, and is of the highest quality of craftsmanship, but this does not rule out the possibility that at the time of its production there was already a long tradition of previous representations. However, it is clear from the theme that it was a subject invented in or after the year 843. The subject was later to be represented on both icons and wall paintings in the period after the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, and it is described by Dionysios of Fourna in his Painter’s Manual, an 18th-century book which recorded for other painters his expertise about the practicalities of painting icons and the essential instructions for the representation of all the main subjects of icons and church decoration (also known as the Painter’s Guide of Mount Athos, or the Hermeneia). In the translation of this text (Hetherington 1974), the section in which this subject is included is headed: ‘The seven holy Ecumenical Councils’ and this subject is entitled: ‘The Restoration of the holy images’. It succeeds the ‘seventh Holy Council’ which in 787 officially restored the use of images in the church. The subject is, despite this context, the final restoration of icons in 843. The text reads: ‘A church: outside it St Methodios the Patriarch, in bishop’s robes, holds a crozier; other bishops behind him are holding icons. In front of him are two deacons holding an icon of Christ and two more holding one of the Virgin, called the Hodegetria, with shoes woven of gold. Behind the patriarch are the Empress Theodora and the Emperor Michael her son, a small boy, both of whom hold icons. Behind them are priests with censers and lamps, and the ascetic saints John, Arsakios, and Isaiah with a crowd of other monks. Near them are St Casia and a crowd of female solitaries with her, and many other laity, men, women, and children holding crosses and lamps’. This description shows several major deviations from the BM icon, but is clearly a later version of the same idea.

The BM icon when painted included a number of inscriptions in Greek which recorded the title of the subject and the names of the figures represented. Unfortunately this lettering in red paint on the gold background is now abraded and several of the names are lost. The Greek title is the Triumph of Orthodoxy. The icon celebrates the defeat in 843 of the iconoclasts, those who thought it was heresy to represent Christ and the saints in images. It shows the triumph by recording in two registers the iconophile champions, those who fought on behalf of the holy icons when they were banned in c. 730.

The identification of the figures is made more difficult by the loss over time of their personal inscriptions. However the publication of an icon in Athens (previously in the Velimezis collection but now in the collection of the Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation) which is of the same subject and most likely a direct copy of the BM icon is of some assistance in deciding the names of the figures (Chatzidakis 1998). This copy dates from around 1500. The inscriptions are also considerably abraded in this icon too, however. The title has a few more letters on the right (…ΔΟΞΙΑ…)

In the centre of the upper register is a representation of the famous large icon of the Theotokos Hodegetria, which was believed to have been painted by the Evangelist St Luke and to have survived in Constantinople at the Hodegon Monastery, where it was displayed in regular processions. The miraculous icon of the Hodegetria is represented here on a decorated red draped stand (the podea), with red curtains (the encheirion or peplos) drawn back to reveal it. The large heavy panel is supported by two winged figures with large red hats. The icon encapsulates the key arguments for the Orthodoxy of the use of icons: it purports to show an authentic image of the Virgin and Christ painted from life and believed to date from the beginning of Christianity, and it demonstrates visually the humanity of Christ after the incarnation, which was the theological justification for imaging Christ in human form. The representation of an icon within the icon of the Triumph of Orthodoxy is a highly sophisticated way of arguing that it must be ‘Orthodox doctrine’ to represent the holy in figurative art because of the historical ‘fact’ that St Luke did just this, with the approval of the Virgin and Child.

In the upper register on the left are the Empress Theodora and her infant son the Faithful Emperor Michael III (born 19 January 840) for whom she was the regent in 843. The inscriptions are fuller on the Athens copy, and originally read: ΘΕΟΔΩΡΑ ΑΥΤΟΚΡΑΤΕΙΡΑ and ΜΙΧΑΗΛ ΠΙΣΤΟΣ  ΒΑΣΙΛΕΥΣ. To the right of the Hodegetria icon is firstly a Patriarch of the Orthodox Church wearing the sakkos (bishop’s vestment). He is Methodios (in office 4 March 843 to June 847). He holds a Gospel book in his left hand and a cross in his right hand. On the BM icon the letters ME survive and on the Athens copy ΘΟΔΙΟΣ. To the right of Methodios is a bishop, probably Theodoros, also holding a Gospel book. In the Athens copy, the letters at the beginning of his name are legible: ΘΕΟ. The inscriptions naming the two monks on the right are lost on both icons.

On the lower register, the rank of saints contains mostly monks, and (from left to right) starts with St Theodosia of Constantinople. Her name is clear on the BM icon: ΘΕΟΔΟΣΙΑ. She holds an icon of Christ, as do the two saints in the centre. According to iconophile writings, St Theodosia was a nun who in 729–30 tried to prevent the destruction by imperial guards of the icon of Christ which was displayed on the Chalke Gate of the Great Palace. She was martyred for her opposition. Obviously by the time the icon was painted, this story was regarded as true history. The next three saints are not named, but the fourth saint from the left is probably to be identified as St Ioannikios (of Mount Olympos). This fits his dress (with exposed legs) and the few letters above him, one of which seems to be a K.

From this point onwards, this entry takes issue with some of the previous readings of the names (including this writer’s own). There is a possibility that some of the names attached to the figures are misplaced on this icon, suggesting that it may have had an earlier model, possibly larger, and that the present artist did not have the space to attach the names correctly.

The fifth figure from the left was previously identified as Theophanes the Confessor (the letters …ΦΑΝ… are legible). But renewed examination suggests a few more letters: …ΕΦΑΝΟ. Therefore he can be alternatively identified as the famous iconophile saint—St Stephanos the Younger (c. 713–65). He is paired with another saint. They hold between them a (circular?) icon of Christ, and there are a few letters above the icon—perhaps ΠO. It is not clear if this applies to the icon of Christ or to the saint on the right. The icon is of Christ Emmanuel, an icon which figures in the service of the Feast of Orthodoxy. This saint on the right, paired with Stephanos, is most likely to be St Theodore the Studite (which fits the first letter of the name above him visible in the BM icon Θ.). These two iconophile saints are paired in the mosaics at Nea Moni on Chios and elsewhere. His dates are 759–826.

There are now five further saints to the right to be identified, one of whom stands behind the others with only his face visible. There are, however, only four names written above them. The first two names can be read as Theodoros and Theophanes, which suggests they can be identified as the Graptoi brothers, notorious as the iconophiles on whose flesh the Emperor Theophilos had verses tattooed as a punishment. The problem in the identifications is that Theodoros died during iconoclasm, whereas Theophanes lived after 843 and became the Bishop of Nicaea. This would mean that the artist has made a mistake here, as the names are reversed over the saints: the bishop is named Theodoros and the monk named Theophanes. The counter case is made by Kotoula (2006) that in the Madrid Skylitzes manuscript Theodoros is shown as a bishop, and so there is one possible parallel. Nevertheless this raises the possibility that the artist was working with another icon in front of him, and has misread the identities. It would follow that the BM icon is not the first in the series. This situation would explain another anomaly—that the central icon of Christ between the two figures in the middle of the lower register is supported by the hands of the two saints, while on the right side of the icon is another hand, but it is attached to no figure.

There are two more names, which can be read as: Theophylaktos and Arsakios. Are these perhaps the two full-length saints, and the head in the row behind has not been identified? This might again be an argument for a previous icon of this subject, perhaps one that was larger and wider, and had more space to fit in the chosen saints.

Barber (2007) claims there are other saints represented on this icon. At present there are two unidentified on the top register to the right; and in the lower register the blanks are the second and third from the left and the third from the right, leaving five saints unnamed. His proposed saints are: Patriarch Nikephoros, Theophanes the Confessor, Michael Synkellos, and Isaiah of Nikomedia. It would be hard to fit Patriarch Nikephoros as any of the unidentified saints. The other three are likely candidates for the lost names, but that seems to be all that one can accurately say at this time.

The festival at which this icon would have been displayed was the Sunday of Orthodoxy, celebrated annually on the first Sunday in Lent to commemorate the restoration of icons. The festival was instituted in the 9th century, probably immediately in 843, and then kept in the church calendar thereafter.

The key question is why the earliest known icon of the Triumph of Orthodoxy should date from so late in the Byzantine period. And even allowing for the possibility of previous (lost) examples, why is the imagery so fresh and powerful at this moment? The best answer seems to lie in the historical context. The 14th century was a time of vigorous theological debate, particularly over the ideas and practices of Hesychasm as formulated by Gregory Palamas (and opposed by Barlaam). A series of church councils at Constantinople were convened in 1341, 1347 and 1351 to decide these and other issues. The doctrines of Palamas were accepted as Orthodox. The Synodikon of Orthodoxy, the text that was read out on the festival of the Triumph of Orthodoxy, was significantly updated after these councils, which were seen as tantamount to an additional Ecumenical Council. The Emperor John VI Kantakouzenos, who presided at these councils, was later forced to abdicate. In 1370 he commissioned a manuscript (Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, grec. 1242) which was completed in 1375 with illustrations, including one of the council of 1351 (folio 5v), and with theological writings. The texts included acts of the council of 1351, treatises against a number of topical ‘blasphemies’, writings against church union with the West, several polemics against Islam and Judaism. He also upheld the Orthodox doctrine of the Trinity against the polemics of Islam. Also in this period the hagiographies of several of the iconophile saints that appear in the BM icon were updated and publicised. St Ioannikios and Patriarch Methodios were honoured as ‘true defenders of the Holy Trinity’. In this climate of vigorous debate about Orthodoxy and of nostalgia for the champions against iconoclasm, the production of the BM icon can be understood as a highly theologically resonant image. It acted as a visual argument for the maintenance of the traditions of the Orthodox Church. Neil McGregor (2011) also saw the production of the icon as a response to contemporary events. He argued that the festival of the Triumph of Orthodoxy was first instituted in 1370 to promote the memory of the past in response to the advance of the Ottoman Turks and that the icon was painted as part of this political campaign soon after 1370. However, the festival was well established by this date, and was not an innovation of this period, and so this suggestion rests on a false premise. Its messages are more likely to be theological than political.

The connection with the councils supports an attribution to Constantinople, and there are some possible stylistic connections with Constantinople too. For example, with the illuminated manuscript, now in Moscow, of the Akathistos hymn, Moscow Synodal Gr. 429, painted in the Hodegon Monastery between 1355 and 1364 (Proxorov 1972). An icon in the collection of St Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai (no. 313) showing four Church Fathers and four monastic saints has stylistic connections with the BM icon, but it too has no date or provenance. The suggestion by Nano Chatzidakis (1998) in her study of the Velimezis icon (which she dates to c. 1500) that the BM icon was produced by a Cretan workshop is not cogent.

It may be suggested that the icon was made in Constantinople shortly after the council of 1351, but until further stylistic parallels are studied, this remains only a possibility.

Literature: G.M. Proxorov, ‘A Codicological Analysis of the Illuminated Akathistos to the Virgin (Moscow, State Historical Museum, Synodal gr. 429)’, Dumbarton Oaks Papers 26 (1972), 239–52; P. Hetherington, The ‘Painter’s Manual’ of Dionysius of Fourna, London, 1974 (repr. with revisions 1996), 64, 399 [359]); Sotheby’s. Russian Pictures, Icons and Russian Works of Art. Wednesday 15th February 1984, London, 1984, lot no. 156; V. Nunn, ‘The Encheirion as Adjunct to the Icon in the Middle Byzantine Period’, Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies 10 (1986), 73–102; Y. Petsopoulos, East Christian Art (exh. cat., Bernheimer Fine Arts), London, 1987, no. 43, 49–50; U. Abel, Ikonen – bilden av det heliga, Hedemora, 1988, 32–3; R. Cormack, ‘The Triumph of Orthodoxy’, National Art Collections Fund Review 1989, London, 1989, 93–4; M. Chatzidakis and D. Sofianos, The Great Meteoron. History and Art, Athens, 1990, esp. 52–5; N.P. Sevcenko, ‘Icons in the Liturgy’, Dumbarton Oaks Papers 45 (1991), 45–57; D. Buckton (ed.), Byzantium. Treasures of Byzantine Art and Culture from British Collections (exh. cat., The British Museum), London, 1994, no. 140, 129–30 (Robin Cormack); R. Cormack, ‘Women and Icons, and Women in Icons’, in L. James (ed.), Women, Men and Eunuchs. Gender in Byzantium, London, 1997, 24–51; N. Chatzidakis, Icons of the Velimezis Collection, Athens, 1998, no. 5, 86–91; V. Foundoulaki, The Triumph of Orthodoxy Icon in the British Museum, London PhD thesis, 1999; M. Vassilaki (ed.), Mother of God: Representations of the Virgin in Byzantine Art (exh. cat., The Benaki Museum), Athens and Milan, 2000, no. 32, 340 (Robin Cormack); A. Drandaki, ‘“The Restoration of the Icons”: Tradition and renewal in the work of a 16th-century Cretan painter’, Benaki Museum 1 (2001), 59–78 (in Greek with English summary); H. C. Evans (ed.), Byzantium: Faith and Power (12611557) (exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art), New York,  2004, no. 78, 154–5 (Annemarie Weyl Carr); B. Pentcheva, Icons and Power: The Mother of God in Byzantium, University Park, Pennsylvania, 2006; D. Kotoula, ‘The British Museum Triumph of Orthodoxy icon’, in A. Louth and A. Cassidy (eds), Byzantine Orthodoxies, Aldershot, 2006, 121–8; C. Barber, Contesting the Logic of Painting. Art and Understanding in Eleventh Century Byzantium, Leiden, 2007, esp. chap. 1, 8–9; R. Cormack, Icons, London, 2007 (revised in repr. 2014), 9–18, 117, no. 18; M. Vassilaki (ed.), The Hand of Angelos: an Icon Painter in Venetian Crete (exh. cat.,  The Benaki Museum), Athens, 2010, no. 4, 76–7 (Robin Cormack); R. Cormack and M. Vassilaki (eds), Byzantium 330-1453 (exh. cat., Royal Academy of Arts), London, 2008, no. 57, 108–9, 394 (Robin Cormack); N. McGregor, A History of the World in 100 Objects, London, 2011, no. 67, 431–6; A. Eastmond, The Glory of Byzantium and Early Christendom, London and New York, 2013, no. 267.

Robin Cormack