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The Work of the Icon-Painters Michael and Eutychios And the Painters of Their Circle

A study of the fresco-painting in the church of the Mother of God Peribleptos in Ohrid, the work of the famous painters Michael and Eutychios, poses among other things the question of the icons. That is, in 1295 did the Romaoian Great Heteriarch Progon Zgur commission the complete decoration and fitting out of this church? In our opinion this would mean in addition to the painting of the frescoes and the great throne icons, the small festal (kissing) icons, the choir, possibly the icons for the choir, the floor mosaic in the nave and the essential ecclesiastical furniture. However, to judge from of icons known to be from this church and those from other Ohrid churches, one has the impression that Michael and Eutychios were not contracted to paint the large throne icons. Although a certain number of Ohrid icons have been attributed to them, the throne icons of the Mother of God Peribleptos and Jesus Christ that might be attributed to these painters on the basis of style and certain other elements are not among them. Since a large number of older icons from this church have been preserved, it would be logical to suppose that these two would be logical to suppose that these two would also have preserved, if they had been painted. The appearance of the church icon of the Mother of God Peribleptos, which has been preserved to this day in a very good state and which correspond to the dimensions of the stone iconostasis of the church and is confidently considered to have been painted towards the end of the 13th or in the first years of the 14th century but which does not possess the style and artistic features of the work of Michael and Eutychios, suggests convincingly that these distinguished medieval painters were not given the task of painting the throne icons. The largest icon attributed to Michael and Eutychios to have been discovered so far is the one dedicated to St. Matthew. The saint is painted in full length with a large open book in his hands. He is turned to the left, with his gaze fixed on the onlookers. However, one has the impression that the icon was planned for an iconostasis of lager dimensions than the existing stone iconastasis in the church of the Mother of God Peribleptos. In considering this icon, we should stress that its preservation is nothing less than incredible. After cleaning away the dust and soot, such freshness of colour was revealed to the conservationistsí eyes that no one could believe that the icon had been painted many centuries ago. Among other things, it was concluded that the icon had been prepared for gilding but, at the last moment prior to the gilding a decision was made to affix revetments, although this was never done. 

Analysis of the icon of St. Matthew shows that this painting has all the fresco-painting of the well-known painters Michael and Eutychios in the church of the Mother of God Peribleptos in Ohrid. The virtuosity of the line of the drawing and the use of colour, together with the abundance of half-tones, reveals in our opinion the hand of these two painters who, working together for many years, came to resemble each other so much in their hand and outlook that it is very hard or even impossible to distinguish between them. If our supposition that Michael and Eutychios did not paint the large throne icons of the iconostasis of the church of the Mother of God Peribleptos is correct, it seems even less likely that they were commissioned to paint the small festal icons. However, in this church and other churches in its vicinity in Ohrid five very significant and quite well-preserved small festal icons have been discovered which undoubtedly belong to cycle, now lost, of twelve.

The first of those preserved is dedicated to the Doubting Thomas. In the centre of the composition Jesus Christ is shown standing on a low pedestal, dressed in red chiton and dark blue himation. His right arm is raised to the height of His head. The arm and part of the body are naked. On either side of Him the apostles are painted in a tight group, dressed in heavily folded garments. The group of apostles on the right of Christ is led by doubting Thomas, who has extended his hand to touch Christís bloody wound, made by the piercing of the lance. The group of the apostles on the left is led by apostle Peter. The place where the scene occurs is indicated by a magnificent building with a semi-circular entrance closed by double doors which are decorated with rectangular forms. Vermilion drapery is spread over this stipulated architectural background.

The second icon shows Christís Descent into hell. The basic conception of the figures is almost identical in this composition. In the centre, in an impressive mandorla, is Christ, dressed in a white chiton and himation, at the moment of descent. The precise moment is emphasized by the rippling end of the himation, set in motion by the current air. Christís figure and the free movement of the body in space have been treated with particular attention. With His right hand, Christ is helping Adam to emerge from his grave. Next to Adam, deeper into the space, is Eve, who wears a vermilion maphorion. Behind her is a group of saints led by a young man carrying a shepherdís staff in his hand. To the left of Christ and the demolished gates of hell there is a grave with the Old Testament kings David and Solomon standing on it, dressed in rich attire and with crowns on their heads. Behind them we can recognize the figure of St. John. Next to him stands an unknown saint without a halo. In the upper part of the icon, just above Christís mandorla, on top of a high rock, group of eight angels of which the first three are holding the objects connected with Christís martyrdom in their hands. The angels are painted in olive-green and white.

The third icon, which has all the features of the previous two, is the Baptism of Christ. In the centre of the composition Jesus Christ is portrayed standing in the waters of the River Jordan with a loincloth round his hips. The banks are steep and rocky. In the foreground, on the bank to the right of Christ, rises a knotty olive trunk with an axe buried in its root. St. John the Baptist is painted by the tree, dressed in camel-hair garment with a mantle rapped round his waist. He holds his right hand above Christís head. On the other bank there are four angels dressed in richly draped chitons and himations. Above Christís head, a light shines from a section up of the sky. At the end of the light there is a circular field with a gray dove Ė the personification of the Holy Spirit. In the dark green water in the foreground, the personification of the River Jordan is painted in the form of a middle-aged man with spread wings and a red loincloth. With his right hand in the water, he holds a large vessel decorated with golden ornaments. On the other side of the river, below the rocky bank, there is a large turtle with a meticulously painted head.

The fourth icon is dedicated to the Nativity of Christ. At a unknown date, the board was broken into two almost equal pieces.

In the central part of the composition of the Mother of God is lying on an ornamented vermilion mattress; her head is gently raised and she is dressed in a red maphorion. On her right, in the stable, the infant Christ is shown with the heads of a donkey and a ox above Him. The three wise men, with gifts in their hands, approach the infant Christ. Below, in the foreground, is a scene showing Joseph talking with a young shepherd who has a very fine hat with a wide brim on his head. In the right corner, in the foreground, is a scene of the bathing of the infant Christ. Above the cave the are three angels, and from a section from the sky a light where in the middle a red star, falls on the stable where Christ lies.

The fifth icon shows the Presentation of the Mother of God at the Temple. Like the previous one, this icon has been broken into two pieces. It is also the most damaged in the series. In the foreground is the figure of the priest Zechariah with the child Mary at the head of a solemn procession which approaches him. She is turning towards the other girls, who are much bigger and older than she is. Jehoiakim and Anna are behind them. In the upper left corner there is another image of Mary sitting on the throne at the top of some stairs. There is an angel below her.

We have already mentioned the supposition that these works belonged to a series of twelve festal icons painted at the same time. However, it is today very hard to maintain that they were commissioned by the Great Heteriarch Progon Zgur, or in other words in 1295. Analysis of the painting of these icon rather supports the opinion that they were done at a later date, certainly commissioned by some other donor, and probably for the same church, the Mother of God Peribleptos. In view of the fact that the painting of these icons appears to be closest to the painting done by Michael and Eutychios in the church of St. George in the village of Staro Nagoricane near Kumanovo (1317-18) and the church of St. Niceta in the village of Banjani near Skopje(1320), we can link the icons with the work of these painters at the time of the creation of their frescoes in these churches.

At this point we should stress that Micheal and Eutychios did paint two throne icons in fresco on the iconostasis of the church of St. George Dyasoritis. The same masters of their assistants painted the fresco-icon dedicated to St. Mina on the north wall of the church dedicated to St. Niceta in Banjani.

In the icon of the Mother of God Pelagonista is of special importance because it shows that the painters Michael and Eutychios nurtured the cults of the saints in the places they worked, as they proved when they painted the Slav educators Ss. Cyril and Methodius, Clement of Ohrid, Constantine Kavasilas, Prohor of Pcinja and Gabriel of Lesnovo in the church at Nagoricane.

All the icons mentioned above have been preserved and are considered to be first-rate works of art from the time of the Paloegues. They, far more than the examples from fresco-painting, make us aware of the great mastery and refined work of the painters Michael and Eutychios who, using small brushes, achieved great precision in drawing. They model the saintsí figures with fine, gentle transitions, giving them plasticity and expressiveness. The characteristics are far more typical of the work of the painters in the first decades of the 14th century. Therefore it is thought that the well-known painters of this period may have been working for some new donor and founder in Ohrid who remains unknown today.

A small number of festal icons discovered in Ohrid churches shows that Michael and Eutychios had a wider circle of painters associated with their studio, who worked together with them on large projects. Among these projects a number deserve special attention: The Ascension of Christ, the Dormition of the Mother of God and Christ on the way to Golgotha.

The work of the unknown painter of the Ascension of Christ seems to be the closest to the painting of Michael and Eutychios. The composition is realized very skillfully and thoughtfully. The Mother of God is painted in the lower part in the vertical axis, turned to a group of the apostles and the angels above them. In the same axis above, Jesus Christ is portrayed encircled by angels. Detailed analysis of this painting reveals the hand of a master who , it seems, had achieved a greater skill in the composition of figures in space than in precision of drawing, and had even less skill in modeling by the soft transition of colours which is a specific quality of the painting of Michael and Eutychios.

There is now doubt that a more capable and refined, a more meticulous painter worked on of the icon of the Dorminiton of the Mother of God. This is an exceptionally well-considered and executed composition, with the figure of Jesus Christ in a mandorla in the centre. Christ, with both arms covered by the edges of His himation, holds the personification of His motherís soul, represented in the form of a baby. In front of Him, on a catafalque decorated with broad golden stripes, lies the body of the Holy Mother of God. The apostles are divided into two groups. Eight of them are painted in the first group and three in the second, while one is placed behind the catafalque where the Mother of God lies. Two archpriests, dressed in polystaurions, are added to the smaller group of apostles. Two angels with folded wings are painted on either side of Christ. A high, richly decorated wall connecting two buildings in the form three-naved basilicas rises in the background.

Compared with the painting of Michael and Eutychios, this painter works with a significantly drier line. The garments have numerous wrinkles which do not always follow the movement of the figures. The use of colour is also significantly poorer. However, this is the painting of a talented master who was acquainted with all the significant features of Paleologue style that became the leading characteristic of easel painting in this period.

The icon of Christ on the way to Golgotha is painted in the spirit of this artistic style but this unknown painter does not possess the skill of those already mentioned, although he is included in the group of skilled masters who worked in this period on the large number of commissions in Ohrid and elsewhere in this parts of the Balkan Peninsula.



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